Cinematographer-turned-director Shyju Khalid talks about the philosophy behind his frames

It’s rare that a debutant crafts a film with such sensitivity as cinematographer-turned-director Shyju Khalid did with the short Sethulakshmi in the recently released anthology 5 Sundarikal, which brought together some of the Young Turks of Malayalam cinema. But then again, even though he is barely five films old, Shyju is well-known for crafting exceptionally fine frames. Be it for Traffic, his debut as an independent cinematographer, a film that was directed by Rajesh Pillai and now widely regarded as one of the movies that gave ‘new generation’ cinema the green signal, or for Aashiq Abu’s Salt N’ Pepper, 22 Female Kottayam, and Da Thadiya, Shyju’s cinematography has always clicked. His frames are known to be, variously, stark, slick, sweet, dramatic, poignant, playful, colourful, or powerful... depending on the intensity of emotions in focus.

“Do you know why?” he asks: “It’s the emotions that excite me and engage me as a film craftsman.” Shyju says his philosophy is simple. “I enjoy films that touch the emotions and those are the films that I enjoy making. That’s not to say later in my career I would not enjoy making an all out action flick like Avengers. I make films that I like to watch, the way I would like to watch them,” explains the bespectacled 35-year-old. After a moment of quiet contemplation, he says: “When I first heard the story of Sethu..., adapted from Photo, a short story by litterateur M. Mukundan [screenplay by Shyam Pushkar and Muneer Ali], I was shocked out of my wits – I still am, for that matter. 5 Sundarikal is about the different facets of love and I just knew this story on the innocence of childhood romance juxtaposed against the dark side of lust just had to be made.”

It’s a philosophy that he says was honed by his lifelong engagement with cinema and theatre in his native Fort Kochi. “Right from my childhood onwards, I’ve always had an affinity for art,” he says. Shyju’s Fort Kochi-Mattancherry brogue that seems to be all the rage in Mollywood, thickens when he recalls: “My father, V.P. Khalid, was once a theatre actor and had even acted in a few small roles in films. I used to accompany him to rehearsals and grew up listening to wonderful discussions on cinema and theatre. I even made a short film while in class 10 at Santa Cruz High School, Fort Kochi,” recalls Shyju.

Meanwhile, much like some of some of his fellow travellers in tinsel town, particularly cinematographer-director Sameer Thahir, Shyju turned to wedding photography “as both a means to understand the camera and to earn money”.

Shyju says that he fine-tuned his philosophy on cinema once he enrolled at St. Albert’s College (for pre-degree, he quit college shortly afterwards) and met Aashiq, and through him Sameer and the rest of Maharaja’s clique of film enthusiasts, all of who are cresting the new wave of Malayalam cinema. “We friends, comprising directors, actors, cameramen, writers, producers, photographers… all think alike and have more or less the same idea of and vision for Malayalam cinema. We share a great camaraderie, sans any rivalry or ego. We are all together in the game to make good movies. Such friendships have always been there in Malayalam cinema and I think it’s one of its greatest strengths,” says Shyju, who began his career assisting Sameer in Big B and Daddy Cool. Again it was Aashiq who put his name across to Rajesh for Traffic. “It was a challenging shoot, not least because I was a debutant. The majority of the movie was shot on the road, I had to manage hundreds of people at the same time, shoot accidents… I was scared! In fact, even now before any shoot, I have a bit of starting trouble. But then my confidence in my craft shifts into gear and I, well, cruise!” he says with a laugh.

Shyju is currently shooting for Aashiq’s Idukki Gold, following which he has projects lined up with directors Madhu Narayanan, Dileesh Pothen and Shiju S. Bawa. But, Shyju says his attempt at directing won’t stop at Sethu… “I’m more than happy to direct. I don’t think I’ll survive in the industry if I am too picky. To put it crudely (laughs), I want fame and fortune! My wish is to find the right balance between indulging my own taste in cinema and acing the box office.”

What an irony!

Shyju considers Sameer Thahir his friend, philosopher and mentor. But the irony is that until Esha, Sameer’s short in 5 Sundarikal, Shyju has not been able to crank the camera for him. “Right from the time we were filming Big B, I had been sharing Sameer’s vision for Chappa Kurishu, his debut as a director. But when it came to the crunch, I was busy filming Traffic. And because of Idukki Gold, I couldn’t film his upcoming Neelakasham, Pachakadal, Chuvanna Bhoomi. That’s why I was determined to shoot Esha for him. There will be other projects,” he says, confidently.