Cinematographer and writer, Chezhian’s book on Western music is a step-by-step guide for beginners

Winner of national awards for ‘Thenmerku Paruvakatru’ and ‘Paradesi’, Chezhian, the well-known cinematographer, is multi-talented. Besides cinematography, he dabbles in modern literature and conducts music lessons! ‘The Music School’, his ten-volume, 1800-page learning guide for students pursuing western music, is a treasure trove of information. Prepared with an eye along the lines of class room instruction, it has a simple narrative. The unfolding of the music lessons is methodical, as if a teacher is present, guiding one step by step.

“I owe my music knowledge to my mother Ramalakshmi, who was instrumental in my taking interest in both Carnatic and western music,” says Chezhian. He learnt music for four years from a private teacher and passed the fifth grade in western music from Trinity College London.

“Ananth Vaidyanathan, voice culturist, has highly commended these volumes. Those who want to learn western music in a systematic way, they have to understand the basics first. I am in the process of bringing out these books in English, too!” points out Chezhian.

For a civil engineering graduate from Alagappa College, Karaikudi, hailing from a family where both parents were primary school teachers, it is intriguing how Chezhian took to cinematography, music and literature all in one sweep.

“Interest in literature came to me naturally because I grew up reading children’s magazines and listening to my parents narrating the Ramayana and Mahabharata. My mother used to sing and that has kindled my interest in music. My father Ramalingam’s interest in drawing and oil paintings motivated me to focus on photography.

“I am from Nattarasan Kottai near Sivaganga. There, Annam Pathippakam of Tamil poet Meera served as a rallying point for many writers and poets. His son Kadir was my classmate. I read books by Sundara Ramasamy, Sujatha, Vanna Nilavan, Vannadasan, Abdul Rahman and others there. I was quite young and I could satiate my thirst for reading literary works there!” he says.

“Grand old writer Ki. Rajanarayanan used to visit Annam Pathippakam for his ‘Karisal Kaattu Kaduthasi,’ for which well known painter Adimoolam did the illustrations. I had the rare opportunity of meeting these giants there and my interest in literature and art grew in earnest”, adds Chezhian.

Good advice

He landed in Chennai in the early 1990s, but the atmosphere was suffocating. He could not get a foothold in the film world. Then he met Rudrayya of ‘Aval Appadithan’, who advised young Chezhian to read more and “Learn photography!”

Chezhian returned to his home town and learnt photography from Xavier Thavamani, including black and white film developing and printing. At that time, videography was entering the visual recording field. He shot ‘Sayal’, his first short film attempt and called on cinematographer P.C. Sriram, when he returned to Chennai. He also watched Bergman’s ‘Bicycle Thief’ and Satyajit Ray’s ‘Pather Panchali’.

PC was a task master. He asked Chezhian to take DVD films, to read novels and narrate the synopses, made him learn how to prepare advertising shots and taught him how to handle assistants on the spot.

Meanwhile, he tried his hand in writing short stories and won an award for best short story in Kanaiyazhi, the literary monthly in 2003. The following year, he also won the Katha award for his best short story. The recognition got him a Fellowship from the Department of Culture for two years, to explore the theme of Imagery in Short Stories.

“My maiden film ‘Kalloori’ by Balaji Sakthivel fetched me the best cinematographer award in 2007. I was also the cinematographer for ‘Rettai Chuzhi,’ in which the stalwarts K.B. and Bharatiraja acted. ‘Thenmerku Paruvakatru’ and ‘Paradesi,’ also brought me awards and fame!”

‘Pirantha Naal,’ a short story by the inimitable writer from Kerala, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, got him the best cinematographer award in the best short film category from the Kerala Government. ‘Kallathoni’ got him the Norwegian award in 2011. Right now he is involved in a film by Bala.

Chezhian feels that those involved in cinema do not read literature, and that is why, the films here are exaggerated and flashy. “When I direct a movie, it will certainly be based on a literary piece,” he promises.

A boon

On Western music, Chezhian feels that young city dwellers have the opportunity to learn it. But there is no such opening for those living outside Chennai and hence the ‘The Music School’ volumes will be a boon to such students. There are exercises under each lesson and tests for each chapter. The volumes are the first of its kind on learning the basics of western music.

While Chezhian’s ‘World Cinema’ (three volumes, earlier serialised in Ananda Vikatan) has gone into the eighth print, his other books have also been highly commended by critics and welcomed by readers.

An engaging writer, his book ‘Mukangalin Thiraipadam’ is an example of his fresh narrative style and thought-provoking content. According to Chezhian, Tamil cinema is divided into two genres – one coming from Alwarpet and the other, Kodambakkam. “They are poles apart. In Alwarpet, you either say ‘sir’ or call everyone by name, converse only in English and eat pizza, in Kodambakkam, it is the opposite. Everyone is ‘anna,’ ‘thambi,’ ‘mama’ or ‘maapley’ and you eat Uppukari. While everything is strict and serious in Alwarpet; it is kindness and camaraderie in Kodambakkam,” says Chezhian, stressing on the completely different systems of working. Every article of Chezhian is frank and forthright and his description of events covering his meeting with the Iranian director is moving.

Unlike Malayalam films, many of which are based on the novels of literary giants of that region, Chezhian points out that Tamil movies lack that quality and flavour. “When I see the world class films, I wonder whether we can produce such movies and whether cinema is so simple. Why don’t we make such movies? Will the public come to see them if we do? Technically, we have achieved a high level of competence. If we utilize this talent and produce a down to earth film, it will then be noticed globally,” he feels. Young, ambitious and articulate, Chezhian’s ideas are refreshingly different. Perhaps he will bring laurels to the Tamil film world one day.