Few cinematographers have played around with genres and styles the way Nirav Shah has in the last few years. A chat with the thinking lensman

An action film that turned out to be a slick and stylish exposition of black and white, a spoof that captured every quirk of Tamil cinema, a caper shot mostly outdoors in the dead of the night in Chennai with a red and green palette, a period film that painstakingly recreated Madras of 1947, a modern candy floss romance set abroad, and then a sentimental drama that served as a contrast between the purity of small town life and the big bad city.

Very few cinematographers have played around with genres and styles the way Nirav Shah has in the last few years. Think about these films again. “Billa”, “Tamizh Padam”, “Quarter Cutting”, “Madrasapattinam”, “Engaiyum Kaadhal” and “Deivathirumagal”. Each distinctly different from each other in feel, colours and treatment.

Nirav is one of the few thinking lensmen around who prefers to pick a project that challenges him rather than just a big banner. He had to turn down “Enthiran”. “I had already committed to ‘Sarvam'. On hindsight, given the amount of time it would have taken me, I was able to shoot five different kinds of films.”

Filmmakers who work with him swear by him and have rarely moved on to work with anyone else. Vishnuvardhan, Vijay, Prabhudeva, Gayathri-Pushkar and now Lingusamy, for whom he is now shooting “Vettai” in Kumbakonam.

“I have just been lucky that they want to work with me again. Once you hit it off with somebody, it's much easier. They are open to ideas. The script is very important. People are very, very important. If you are going to spend five to six months of your life, make it a happy experience.”

Soon after “Vettai”, Nirav will start working on a new film starring Siddharth and Amala Paul, besides Vijay's next with Vikram.

Has he hiked his price with all that success? “I am very affordable. My salary is inversely proportional to the quality of the script,” he says, as a matter of fact.

Nirav started his journey in the film business in 1994 assisting P.C. Sreeram. He worked on “May Maatham”, “Kuruthi Punal”, “Subha Sankalpam”, and “Kathalar Dinam”.

Learning ethic

“Everything that I know I have learnt from PC. The most important thing I have learnt from him is how to learn. The learning ethic, the way to be open... that I learned from him.”

Though Nirav's first Hindi film was “Paisa Vasool”, it was the “Dhoom” series that catapulted him into the big league. “With all the work here, I haven't got the time to go back and do a Hindi film.”

In 1999, before the cafe culture spread in the city, Nirav started what was one of the city's first modern cafes — Coffee? His brothers Bhavesh and Pratik built a community around the cafe in Greenways Road and it is that cold coffee that is still sold in Sathyam Cinemas.

And soon, he diversified into the restaurant business (with two speciality restaurants) and a company that provided specialised equipment for film shoots.

He has now partnered with Arya to run Light House, a company that provides lights and camera. “We have a lightning generator called Lightning Strikes. It's the only way to create believable lightning in films.”

At some point, Nirav also wants to start making films. “Not sure I want to direct but I am looking at producing films. I watch all kinds of cinema. I love going and watching star-based films. Who am I to decide what good cinema is? I can have my personal choice and opinion about a film but that's about it.”

Over the last year, he loved “Aaranya Kaandam”, “Aadukalam”, and “Shaitaan”. If he had to pick favourites from his own work, he would pick “Banaras” (he loves the way that film looks), “Quarter Cutting” (because the all-night outdoors were a break from what he usually gets to do) and “Madrasapattinam” (because of the sheer scale and ambition of the period film and the way it subtly employed visual effects).

“Yes, there is a definite shift towards the digital. We shot ‘Tamizh Padam' using Red cameras but I find that film is much simpler to shoot. It is the script that determines the budget and the technology you want to shoot with,” says Nirav.

Personally, he's not too fond of 3D. “It gives me a headache.”

Last year, he got obsessed with sunrise and would wake up just to click pictures of the patterns on the skies. “I enjoy my work. I find it very meditative, very calming,” says the 36-year-old who lives with his wife Renuka and ten-year-old son Nanda.

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