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Lighting up ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ characters the Ravi Varman way

Cinematographer Ravi Varman discusses the visual landscape of Mani Ratnam’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ and how he attempted to give a contemporary treatment to a historical period drama

October 03, 2022 02:23 pm | Updated 05:00 pm IST

For Aishwaya Rai’s Nandini character, cinematographer Ravi Varman used direct lighting

For Aishwaya Rai’s Nandini character, cinematographer Ravi Varman used direct lighting | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Cinematographer Ravi Varman’s first brush with a period set-up was a brief 12th century portion in Kamal Haasan’s Dasavathaaram (2008). Since then, he was eager to work on a full-fledged period drama. After filming director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon ki Raasleela-Ram Leela, he was all set to team up with the director again for Bajirao Mastani. However, that did not materialise for him. Years later, he got the opportunity to film Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan and dove right in. Currently basking in the appreciation he has been receiving for the film’s visual canvas, Ravi Varman sounds relieved when he begins this interview: “For all of us, completing the film itself was a huge success. It was not easy to pull off a film of this magnitude during the pandemic.”

Part 1 and 2 of Ponniyin Selvan were filmed at a stretch, he says, in about 137 days. “We set it up like a historical project and filmed it in a contemporary manner to make it stand out from other history-based Indian films.” 

Cinematographer Ravi Varman

Cinematographer Ravi Varman | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Thanjavur beginnings

Born in a village near Thanjavur and being aware of the Chola dynasty, Ravi says Varman was not a surname given by his parents, whom he lost at a young age. “I chose the name Varman, inspired by Chola kings such as Arunmozhi Varman (Raja Raja Cholan) and Kulothunga Varman; the name Varman was bestowed on them for their valour. When I began working, people made fun of me asking if I fancied myself to be Ravi Varma, the painter.”

Ravi Varman, whose impressive filmography includes Anniyan, Tamasha, Jagga Jasoos and Barfi!, began analysing the work of renowned painters as his interest in photography and cinematography grew in his formative years. “I like the colour tones of Rembrandt and the composition of (Pablo) Picasso.”

He had worked with Mani Ratnam for Kaatru Veliyidai and when the director called him for Ponniyin Selvan, he was ready for the task. “I had already read Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan and was familiar with the characters.” 

One of the war sequences in the film

One of the war sequences in the film | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

During the initial discussions, the director and Ravi had decided to give the historical setting a contemporary visual treatment and Ravi pointed towards Mel Gibson’s Braveheart as an example. “We wanted the colour tones to look realistic, while the costumes, jewellery and the sets complete the period look.”

Ravi credits Mani Ratnam for giving him ample freedom and says, “He wants his DoPs (director of photography) to contribute in a big way. Many times we would have visited locations twice to thrice before finalising how to film and when to film. A simple palm tree in Pollachi looks magnificent, with a hint of rainbow colours in the sky, in the Ponni Nadhi song. We got lucky in such cases; the sunrise and light intensity is different on different days.”

Chasing the light

More than the camera and lenses, Ravi says his thrust was on lighting. “I speak with light and light speaks to me.” Each of the main characters — Nandini (Aishwarya Rai), Kundavai (Trisha), Arunmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi), Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) and Aditya Karikalan (Vikram) — were lit differently, with changes in colour tones. “It was easier to stick to a theme in their individual scenes; it got tricky when they had combination scenes. We stuck to a light and colour scheme while taking care that the attention of the audience does not deviate from the drama in the story.”

A scene from the ‘Ponni Nadhi’ song

A scene from the ‘Ponni Nadhi’ song | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Ravi did test shoots in black and white at Aishwarya Rai’s residence, requesting the actor not to wear makeup. “Her character, Nandini, had to stand out. I chose direct lighting and she looked beautiful. I’ve noticed that this kind of lighting works well for women over 35 years of age. If you look at Ernesto Caparrós’s visuals for Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker or Russell Metty’s cinematography for Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, you will notice how they have used direct lighting.”

There were times when Ravi requested art director Thota Tharani to change the colour of the sets. Nandini’s Latha Mandapam was initially planned in brown colour tones but Ravi requested whites, which Mani Ratnam and Tharani agreed to. Similarly, he wanted deep darker tones for the set in which Nandini looks longingly at the throne. Ravi also insisted on the presence of open doors or long windows to allow natural light to come in. “That helps a beautiful light and dark visual presentation, rather than a uniform, even tone.”

Aditya, the restless

For the brooding and bitter Aditya Karikalan, Ravi used cross lighting to allow shallows, contrasts and silhouettes and used handheld camera movements to match his demeanour. “He is like a wild animal; you cannot present him to be picture perfect. We used handheld cameras for some of his war portions.”

Vikram as Aditya Karikalan

Vikram as Aditya Karikalan | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Ravi chose subdued tones for Arunmozhi Varman’s Sri Lanka portions and the colours and frames of Vanthiyathevan were to befit his “pleasant and happy” persona.

On some shoot days, the magnum opus film seemed daunting, but Ravi says he took it one step at a time. “Focus on one day, one scene, one frame and move to the next.” Each day, he took stock of the portions that were filmed, analysed what could have been better, and planned for the following day.

Soon after finishing filming Ponniyin Selvan, he worked on actor Revathy’s directorial project Salaam Venky and then took up the post-production of PS. “I needed a breather after the prolonged shoot and it was refreshing to work on Revathy’s film.”

Salaam Venky is scheduled to release in December. Meanwhile, Ravi is working on director Shankar’s Indian 2 starring Kamal Haasan. Looking back at his 23 years in cinema, he picks Tamasha, directed by Imtiaz Ali, as his favourite so far. “I would rate that as my best work. Imtiaz Ali wants things to be realistic. It is like trying to make street photography appear cinematic. Every scene, every frame, threw up surprises and it was a satisfying project.”

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