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Updated: June 7, 2012 16:18 IST

Wedded to cinema

Prema Manmadhan
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Madhu Ambat. Photo: K.K. Mustafah
The Hindu
Madhu Ambat. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

Ace cinematographer Madhu Ambat recounts his tryst with cinema and filmmakers.

To say that cinema is a passion for Madhu Ambat would be an understatement. It lies embedded in his soul. He told his bride-to-be many years ago that she would be his second wife, for he was already wedded to cinema! That passion and confidence that came with scholarship in the subject has catapulted him to the top rung of cinematographers in the field. “If I like the subject, I take it up,” says Madhu Ambat, whose latest Malayalam movie, ‘Kalikalam' is scheduled for release this week. He was in Kochi for the preview of the movie.

The last time he was in the news was when he got the National award for Cinematography for ‘Adaminte Makan Abu'. The visuals highlighted the pathos and the plight of a helpless old man whose ardent wish to go to Mecca was thwarted at every turn. Again, the subject interested him, he said. “The colours and light must suit the subject, technology must always blend with the subject, and the camera must bring out the internal landscape of the character,” he says.

Madhu has no qualms about taking up the project though it was the maiden directorial venture of Salim Ahammed, which called for no ‘happy' frames. In fact, the Tamil movie, ‘Sringaram' (starring Manoj K. Jayan) which got him another National award, was also by a debutant, Sharada Ramanathan, known for her cultural activism. It had feminism as the theme. Her next film, ‘Pudhiya Thiruppangal', ready for release, also has Madhu cranking the camera. Madhu's first National award was for veteran G.V. Iyer's Sanskrit film, ‘Adi Sankara'.

All three awards were for movies in three different languages. “I have done films in nine languages so far. A Marathi film is in the offing, a biopic of Baba Amte's son. If that materialises, it will be 10,” he says, laughing. That record will be hard to beat surely. In Hindi, ‘Hisss' was the last one. Manoj Night Shyamalan's maiden movie, ‘Praying With Anger', was shot in India in the early nineties by Madhu. A crossover movie, it was never released but is doing the rounds at many international film festivals, making a statement. He worked with Shyamalan for ‘Wide Awake' too. Other English movies were with Timothy Fodder (‘Binodini,' one of Tagore's short stories) and Jag Mundhra (‘Provoked,' which had Aiswarya Rai in the lead). Madhu's first film that he directed, ‘1:1.6 An Ode to Lost Love', was also in English.

Notable Hindi films such as ‘Khubsoorat', ‘Chupke Se' and ‘Lajja' were done after his memorable innings in Malayalam with Sethumadhavan (‘Oppol' and the Tamil ‘Nammavar'). The association with Bharathan was a long one. After Bharathan's death, he stayed away from Malayalam films for many years. Who can forget the sheer poetic beauty of ‘Vaishali' or the rugged ambience of ‘Churam' and ‘Amaram'? Pavithran's ‘Uppu', which won a National award, was filmed by Madhu.

The movies with Lenin Rajendran like ‘Swati Tirunal', ‘Makaramanju', ‘Deivathinte Vikruthikal', and ‘Edavapathi', under production, see a rather long association. The Kannada tie-up with G.V. Iyer and Prema Karanth resulted in several awards, ‘Phaniamma' included. Girish Kasaravalli's ‘Thabaranakathe' is another of his works which won the National Award for the Best Film. The State awards that have come Madhu's way are many, from all languages. The mystery and magic of Mani Ratnam's ‘Anjali' was communicated through Madhu's visuals.

He speaks fondly of his Pune days in the Film and Television Institute of India, which he joined after he graduated in physics. “They just let you pick up all that you wanted. That was the beauty of it.” Zarina Wahab and Shabana Azmi were batchmates.

Madhu, who belongs to Palakkad, has an ancestry that is hard to keep up with. A great-grandfather (Kundoor Narayana Menon) who was a great poet and father (K. Bhagyanath), an English professor who embraced magic as his vocation and shone in it, plus a sister (Vidhubala) who was an actor to reckon with.

“I knew magic and would perform in my college days. But not as a vocation. It was always cinema.”

Madhu has worked in all genres of cinema, be they tagged ‘art' or commercial, big budget or low. “Regi Nair, whose first movie is ‘Kalikalam,' actually phoned me to ask if I could do his movie. When he told me the subject matter, I agreed. I had not even seen him. And from Shyamalan's set of ‘ Wide Awake', I came straight to P.T. Kunju Mohammed's ‘Magrib,'” says Madhu.

Madhu values relationships, if you go by the pattern of his movies, working with one person again and again. But there is just this one person in the Malayalam film industry who is very dear to him, his childhood friend Vipin Mohan. “Our friendship is 57 years old. I know him from the time I was five. I whisked him off from a job in some company and forced him to learn cinematography. There is no secret that we don't share,” says Madhu, the smile refusing to leave his face.

A surreal story

Madhu Ambat's first movie was ‘1:1.6 An Ode to Lost Love', in English. His second script is ready and it's called ‘The Death of Madhu Ambat'! Before you can recover from the shock, he says, “You are intrigued, right? It's not autobiographical but a surreal story where the characters come to life and question many things. There is a lot of romance in it.” The script is in English, but the film may be made either in English or Hindi, but not Malayalam, he says.

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