Cinematographer K. Balu goes down memory lane

In 1953, when Madras and Marina were yet to know crowds, a group of confused cameramen from the crew of Manidhanum Mirugamum, the Sivaji starrer, stood beneath streetlights on the shore. “When we were asked to capture on long shot the line of streetlights, we were both apprehensive about the exposure and confused about the choice of location,” says cinematographer K. Balu.

That long shot of equally distanced lights was used to depict a halted train where a murder had just been committed. According to Balu, it was a fine example of the kind of creativity old films depended upon.

Eighty years old now, Balu is from an era of films that were almost entirely shot within the floors of commercial studios, when the heavyweight Mitchell cameras were industry favourites, and when multiple cameramen worked on different bits of the same film to hasten its completion.

Having decided to leave the industry in the late 70s, Balu is now settled in Pudukkottai, after an eventful stint with some of Tamil cinema’s biggest names — M.G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Jaishankar, Savithri, Gemini Ganesan, M.R. Radha and R. Bhanumathi. Though a little perplexed by the way his field has turned unfamiliar under the sheen of technological advancements, he is confident when revisiting his years in the studio.

“My first camera was a Brownie still camera that cost just Rs. 12 back then,” says Balu, who recalls developing his initial attempts at photography in the darkroom at his friend’s place. By the time he was 19, Balu was working at Revathi Productions as a sound apprentice. “A family friend, who was working as a production manager in the film industry, introduced me to the studio,” he says, “and back then you didn’t require any educational qualification to join the industry — you learnt everything on the job.”

Though he joined as a sound apprentice, Balu was among the first to be taught how to handle the camera equipment the studio acquired later on: “Commercial studios then had several floors where different producers would erect the sets for different films. As camera apprentices of the studio, we were employed by these producers to assist their film’s chief cameraman.”

Work experience

Between 1951 and 1975, Balu says he worked with several films as an associate cameraman. According to him, the cinematography of his time was completely different from what it is today. “When you are working on a black and white film within studio sets, natural and believable lighting becomes a cameraman’s primary concern,” he says. As associates, Balu and his colleagues were often involved with the lighting arrangements, which the chief cameraman finally improvised. “The quality of the polishing act marked the skill of a cameraman and as associates we had to learn only through observation. No cameraman would explain the changes he made to our arrangements, leave alone let us touch the camera.”

They used mostly close-ups and mid close-ups because the technology to take steady long shots hadn’t yet arrived. “Outdoor shootings weren’t common either, for camerawork involved a lot of manual work and the producers didn’t want to risk the equipment.”

Around 1955, Balu landed his first assignment as chief cameraman in producer A.T. Krishnaswamy’s Arivali. “With Mr. Krishnaswamy running into difficult times, the project took six years to complete, but there was complete cooperation from everyone in the cast, which included big names like Sivaji Ganesan, Bhanumathi, T.S. Balaiya and K.A. Thangavelu,” says Balu.

In those six years, Balu says he simultaneously worked as associate cameraman for several films in Tamil as well as other languages. “South Indian films and many north Indian films were all filmed at Madras,” says Balu, who recalls the apprehension felt by the associates particularly towards the chief cameramen from Bombay. “We didn’t understand their language and generally chief cameramen were possessive about the camera, so we did what we were told and didn’t ask too many questions.”

Competitive field

In the time of analogue cameras, the rushes were always viewed with bated breath, according to Balu. “Only while viewing the rushes we would discover what actually got filmed well and what shots completely failed,” says Balu, “and the ones responsible for the failed shots were in for big trouble with their bosses.” The sets, he recalls, were never dismantled until the rushes were viewed.

It was only in the 70s that outdoor shooting became common in the film industry, says Balu. “For the MGR starrer Maduraiyai Meeta Sundara Pandiyan, a crew of over 10 independent chief cameramen and their associates went to Jaipur to work simultaneously on different parts of the movie. Balu went with cameraman Shanmugam. “With MGR’s entry into politics just round the corner, the film had to be completed as fast as possible.”

Flipping through pictures of himself and his friends from the industry, Balu felt the competitiveness of his time was more innocent and it was still possible to get several top technicians to work together without ego clashes. He is not sure how it is these days because he has gradually lost touch with that black and white world.