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Stuff dreams are made of

With grit and determination this cinematographer surmounted challenges to emerge as one of the best in the business today. Ravi Varman narrates his success tale to CHITRA MAHESH.

Ravi Varman... bubbling with enthusiasm.

A LITTLE boy found his life empty. He had lost his father and then his mother. A longing to recreate her through a photograph possessed him and that in a way set him on a path that became his profession and took him places. He had no formal education in photography. In fact, he hardly knew anything about it.

Born in a village, Poyyoundarkudikkadu near Thanjavur, he found that life was very lonely and cold without parents. Four years after his mother died he wanted something in her memory and to reassure him that he was not alone, that he had someone to look up to. He tried doing that through a photograph his neighbour (a small time photographer armed with an auto flash camera) had of her. The two tried to get a clearer image so that they could enlarge it and frame it. That perhaps was the beginning, when the seeds for an abiding passion were sown. He lived in a place where people went to bed by eight or nine in the evening, whereas he was awake till the wee hours. This taught him to observe the changing colours and hues of nature.

But loneliness and depression once led him to even attempt suicide! Lying on a railway track waiting for a train to run over him and put an end to his miserable existence, he was arrested by the police. That incident actually brought everything to focus. Why should I die, he wondered. Shouldn't I fight? With a new resolve he moved to Madras determined to work hard and make something out of his life instead of giving up like a coward. Never mind if it was a struggle and never mind if the obstacles seemed insurmountable. He worked, his passion for imaging and capturing people and things with his camera taking him to a point where he is now being sought after by many, especially after he has been given a special mention by the jury at the 23rd International Film Festival (France) for best cinematography for the Malayalam film, ``Saantham" (directed by Jayaraj) recently.

Meet Ravi Varman, the young cinematographer from Tamil Nadu. ``I owe a lot to a cameraman called Ranga who did Rajashekar's films where I joined him as an assistant," Ravi Varman begins. Thanks to him I began on this wonderful journey of camera work, he recollects. ``After that I joined K. V. Mani, a still photographer, who treated me like his own son. He knew my background and even used to feed me. He encouraged me a lot." Coming to Madras also meant that his education in film grammar began just by watching one film after another. ``I would watch a film at Alankar and then walk up to Vadapalani." He would keep thinking about the films he saw till he could recall every little detail and stored them all in his head. He did not know a word of English though he saw many films in that language. But he learnt it! — ``I learnt to speak and read English." It was a matter of time before he started reading papers and magazines and ``each day I improved and learnt something through these films."

Mind glued to the past, Ravi Varman continued: ``After Rajashekar died, Ranga Sir did not have many films so I had to be content with assisting the cameramen with their work. But then many of them were well known and all of them said it would take two or three years before I could be with them. Then I met Ravi K. Chandran through Selvam who was the Production Manager for Kalaipuli Thanu. Ravi is a very dedicated man always learning through watching films or reading. He encouraged me a lot."

Many people, Ravi Varman says, think art direction just means moving things around. ``I got a feel for cinematography also because of Sabu Cyril. When he designs a set he would do it keeping the lighting source in mind. It always turns out very realistic. And realism is important." In most of the films that he assisted Ravi Chandran, Priyadarshan was the director with Sabu as the art director. We did four Hindi films continuously and the combination of Sabu Cyril, Ravi Chandran and Priyadarshan was dynamic. He recalls an incident where he travelled by air for the first time as Ravi Chandran's assistant. ``That is something I can never forget. He asked me if I was flying for the first time and I said yes. Then he asked me to sit near the window so that I could see Madras in the evening light. It was really magical." Rajiv Kumar with whom he worked (an award winning film ``Jalamarmaram" and ``Vakkalathu Narayanakutty") treated him not as a camera man but as a brother. Actually he was staying in his house until he moved out last year. ``Rajiv Kumar is a great director. He introduced me as a cameraman for his own 16-mm blow-up film. I shot the film on a small budget without light and got a lot of recognition. It was only after seeing that film that Jayaraj asked me to do `Saantham.'"

``It is about an incident, which happens after the rains," elaborates Ravi Varman. ``A man murders his friend, and Jayaraj told me that he wanted us to do something different. `The film has pathos but it must not be obvious,' he said. We did not have too much money and could not wait for the rains. So I suggested that we dampen each shot and use a certain exposure level to create the after rain effect. Throughout the film I did not use any artificial lighting." ``Saantham" was shot in 12 days on a shoestring budget.

What are the other projects he is working on now? ``I am doing a film for Honey Irani, Javed Akhtar's wife. They had asked for a good cameraman. Ravi Chandran recommended me. I sent `Saantham' with which they were very impressed." He has also worked on another Hindi film ``Bebazta" shot entirely through a hand held camera and in which there is not a single shot on tripod. It is going to be released next month and has been sent to the Cannes and the Russian Film Festival. ``I have just finished a Tushar Kapoor film, (`Ek Mai Ek Tu'), a Telugu film and soon I will be working on a Mani Ratnam production to be directed by Susi Ganesh. Each director I have worked with has been special letting me experiment and give my best."

Other than what the director gives him in the form of a story and script what is that extra thing that he adds to the film? He tries to give it a better vision than what they have, Ravi Varman says. According to him though the West has an edge in terms of advanced technology, there are better technicians in India. A Hungarian director once came to his workshop and saw his film — a 16-mm blow up. ``He really appreciated my work and the way I had done the exposures." The only problem, Ravi Varman says, is that if a cameraman wants to do a film differently he will be encouraged initially. But halfway through, budgets invariably go up or an artiste stops being cooperative. What was initially planned may never happen.

A scene from ``Saantham'' that won him international recognition.

There is another aspect, as Ravi Varman elaborates. ``Most directors narrate stories in an interesting manner. But they are unable to present them well. They may begin the project visualising Rajinikanth as the hero but later when they realise it is not quite possible they get another artiste. Thus fifty per cent of the concept has already failed. When it finally comes out there is only a 25 per cent chance of success. The other thing is that when one film succeeds everybody tries the same formulaSee Maniratnam and Shankar? They are different from the rest because they always like to try something new. The same applies to camera work too. I do my work with great involvement, lack of formal training notwithstanding. This is important."

The cameraman is very important because he is the first to see, the first technician to observe the concept through the lens (eye), Ravi Varman avers. But the cameraman never gets his due, he says with sadness. Well, people do respect Santhosh and P. C. Sriram. Don't they? Yes, but only in the past few years, points out Ravi Varman. Which of the Hollywood films has he liked in the recent past, from the cinematography point of view? ``A Beautiful Mind," he says spontaneously. ``The texture itself is so different. The cinematography does not disturb the story at all." And in the Indian context? ``Kannathil Muthamittaal"! Not because it has been done by his guru, but because of its realistic quality. It has no artificiality at all, he says.

What quality does he think a film should have? It is important to be realistic. More than imagination it is experience that should get reflected. It should be projected positively. Ravi feels that if one is directing a film for the first time, one should consider using a fresh cameraman because both will have that young spirit. He says, ``Before I became a cinematographer I approached many people for work and was turned down. But after I did my first film, I have not gone to anybody seeking job. I have worked with all big directors — Rajiv Kumar, Shaji Kailash (`Vallyaatten') Rafi Megartin (`Sathyam Shivam Sundaram') Jayraj, Honey Irani and many young ad film makers such as Adhimoolam's son, Latha Menon. I worked as the cameraman's assistant with Kamal Sir in `Marudhanayakam.' I consider work very important and will fight for things if they are not correct. The first person to congratulate me when I got an award was Kamal Sir."

Who does Ravi Varman rate as India's best cameramen? Ashok Mehta, Santosh Sivan, and Ravi Chandran. The works of all these persons merge with Nature, he says.

Is he content with what he has been doing? ``It is too early to say," he replies. ``I must do what I set out to do as a cameraman. So I have worked towards that. Ambition never gets fulfilled. If we feel that we have achieved our goal and stop working, we will never grow. But when I feel that I have had enough of this I will consider trying something else in this field. The main thing is dreams. Dreams are our life. What I dreamt about 10 years ago is my life now. The other thing is our intentions. Good intentions are important. It is difficult at first but then you get used to it. If we keep having good thoughts we get something good. But that alone is not enough. We also have to try something different. I think each person is blessed with brain. Only opportunities and circumstances vary. In my family, I try to do my best. My brother is mentally challenged. It depends on the way we look at circumstances."

How does he expect his life to be? He has no expectations, except that everyday ``I should learn something new."

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