As Nimish Ravi’s camera zooms out, police officers and villagers searching for Luke Antony’s missing wife on a rocky terrain of a river becomes moving specks on the screen and eventually indistinguishable from the abstract shape of the sinister-looking river bed in the middle of the dark green of the jungle. It is, in many ways, ominous of what will happen in Nissam Basheer’s genre-bending psychological thriller Rorschach(2022) in which Mammootty plays Luke, a mysterious stranger arriving in a village in the middle of nowhere.
The new release has garnered praise, especially for Nimish’s stylish yet moody visual aesthetics. “I have been getting positive response from those who have watched the film and I am glad so many people have liked it. However, I must admit that I was extremely sceptical regarding how this would work out when I first heard the narrative. I knew this was something completely different from what we have seen till date. But I wasn’t sure whether it was good or bad,” says Nimish.He also worked in Tovino’s Luca (2019), Anna Ben’s Sara’s (2021) and Dulquer Salmaan’s Kurup (2021).
Although everything looks slick and purposeful in the movie, Nimish says he was parachuted in just two weeks before the shoot began as the previous cinematographer had backed out. “It was part of the reason why I was sceptical. I had just a few days to understand this layered script and then come up with a visual language that can convey the layers effectively onscreen,” he adds. What helped and guided him more than anything else was a gist of the story that Nissam told him. According to the director, it was about a doomed village where people were trying to get away with whatever they can get their hands on. “That has been my guiding light throughout the project, from deciding what shots to use to how scenes should be lit,” recalls Nimish. He brilliantly uses a dull colour palette and overcast skies to portray the ominous mood prevailing in the village.
Light and shadow
“...I was constantly trying to find various shapes in the frames that would catch the eye of the viewers and convey the feel that something is brewing underneath the mundane exterior.”Cinematographer Nimish Ravi
Rorschach’s striking visuals are not just restricted to its understated colour palette and overcast visuals. Keen viewers would spot figurative shapes in various frames of Rorschach — shapes that were either born in the wilderness surrounding the village or crafted using lights. Nimish’s love for the Grunge art style came in handy for this.
“In Grunge, you get these abstract and dark yet quirky designs. That inspired me a lot in lighting and framing this movie. Plus, the connection of the story to the ink-blot test meant that I was constantly trying to find various shapes in the frames that would catch the eye of the viewers and convey the feel that something is brewing underneath the mundane exterior,” says Nimish.
He was also enamoured by the NFT artworks of Kaiwan Shaban who often uses cars as a visual motif. This inspired Nimish to use Luke’s ghostly grey Ford Mustang to convey meanings, feelings, and even the pace of the movie. “I got to play around a lot with that car and it seems to have come out well,” quips Nimish. He admits that he often uses motifs from whatever art he is into while shooting the movie as a reference for his cinematography. While it was Grunge and NFT art for Rorschach, it was street photography in Kurup and paintings in Luca.
Working with ace performers
The technical challenges were one aspect, but informing Mammootty that for much of the movie his face would be in shadows was quite another. “I felt like it was necessary to capture him that way for the sake of the story. It was my first time working with him and I didn’t know how he would react as I had heard that senior actors can often be touchy about light not falling on their faces. However, I was relieved and encouraged when he told me that he liked the preview frames that I had sent him,” Nimish says.
He also took great care in setting up lights to avoid as much intrusion as possible. “I was keen on it as I wanted incredible performers like Bindu Panicker and Jagadish to feel like they are in a real space rather than a set. We also primarily used 50mm and 100mm lenses that are great for close-up shots, to minutely capture their performances,” he adds.
Nimish is currently working on Dulquer’s big-budget action movie King of Kotha. “It is an out-and-out entertainer with fights and songs. We have 80 days of shoot and it is going to be fun.”