Lens and sensibility

On a sunny afternoon at Mindscreen Film Institute on Ranga Road, Mylapore, Rajiv Menon is taking his film students to the Renaissance. He points to painter Pietro Perugino’s The Delivery of the Keys and dissects it in bare detail.

“This is during the year 1481,” Rajiv says animatedly, as his students ponder over the artwork on the big screen. “Look at the use of light. Look at the building in the background and how light falls on one side of it. Look at the illusion of depth and how the human beings get smaller as you look further in the painting.”

In the next hour or so, the students of the institute, which completed a decade recently, get an insight into ‘Art and Light’, with several examples from the past.

There are almost no references to films, but Rajiv sets the context for discussion and research on the use of light in a frame.

“This is my first class after a recent bout of dengue,” he says, coughing incessantly, “I love keeping in touch with teaching, and during some sessions, the level of interaction is so much that I need to be at my best. I teach for a selfish reason — to keep the student in me alive and to deconstruct my unconscious creative process.”

The cinematographer-director is proud that his alumni — especially names such as Manikandan, Siddhartha Nuni and Swapnil Suhas Sonawane — are doing well for themselves, for the institute started off in an ‘environment when we wanted to fast-track people into the industry’. “I found this increasing trend of people who were disillusioned with engineering and wanted to do films. We wanted students to be taught in six months and made mentally ready for the industry.”

The Renaissance and observing 12th Century art work is part of that, he believes. “It exposes them to a world they aren’t aware of,” he explains, pulling out a poster that has both a classic painting and a student’s photo of a model in the same setting,

“In the days when you shot in film, you didn’t have the privilege of seeing the photo. So, you needed to be sure about the mathematics. But, that’s not the case now.”

It isn’t as important today, in an age of cellphones and fancy DSLRs, but, for students seriously interested in pursuing the art, it is, says Rajiv.

“All this knowledge comes to use if you need edgy pictures where light is really low, when it’s neither day nor night; cinematography and light is like narasimha avataram now… A lot of films have twilight photography, which makes it all the more important to learn from the past.”

Rajiv doesn’t usually discuss his work in films — both as a cinematographer and a director — but when he does, it is usually about shooting ‘Uyire’ (“a landmark song since we shot entirely in the rain for four days”) and Kadal (“shooting a storm”).

The ace cinematographer considers the works of photographer Raghu Rai as one of his seminal influences. “That fascination of photojournalism is what I used in my work in Bombay. There were no moving images of riots — there was only still photography. That helped me shoot the riots. The challenge, though, was to get a powerful visual from that.”

Another thing Rajiv tells his students is that cinematography is ‘physical work’, and that it comes with practical difficulties.

“You cannot sit on a chair and shoot. You have to crawl on the floor, climb trees… you are trying to create elements, and there’s no way you can be isolated from them. A cinematographer needs to be physically agile to get the best possible angle and you should not wilt after 12 hours of shoot... settling for something lesser than what you want will result in a lot of imprecise lensing.”

That’s why the cinematographer-director still runs every day, to stay fit. He needs to — for he will soon direct, after 17 years, a film with G.V. Prakash Kumar in the lead.

Having made two films (Minsara Kanavu and Kandukondain Kandukondain), when exactly did he know there resided a director in him?

“The day I started hearing the voices of characters, I knew my time as a director had come,” he laughs.

“You can sleep peacefully when you’re a cinematographer. As a director, you wake up at night to note down dialogues. In the morning, you record with your phone, because the dialogues disappear in the time it takes to brush your teeth. You just can’t sleep when you get into direction.”

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 1:12:00 PM |

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