Sundaylite | Movies

‘Sholay’ to ‘Darbar’: This man is responsible for shining a light on four generations of actors

‘Oli Vilakku’ Rajendran

‘Oli Vilakku’ Rajendran   | Photo Credit: Srivatsan S

A fortnightly feature in Sundaylite where unsung heroes of cinema are profiled

Whether it is a sultry afternoon or a breezy evening, all that is expected of Rajendran (72) is to clutch the lighting equipment till the director says “cut”.

A typical day in his life involves waking up at 5 am, and reaching the shooting spot by 8 am along with his equipment.

Shedding some light on his work, Rajendran takes us back to the 1970s, when he was shooting for a Hindi film in Bengaluru. It was around 11 am, and the stars hadn’t arrived. Though he doesn’t remember the scene that was to be filmed that day, he knows that the shot involved Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra.

The film was Sholay. “I was working with Gemini Studios, which was hired for the Bengaluru portions of Sholay. It was one of the longest shoots ever, and it took nearly three months to complete,” says Rajendran, who has been operating lights on film sets for the past 50 years.

A poster for MGR’s ‘Oli Vilakku’

A poster for MGR’s ‘Oli Vilakku’  

The one and only MGR

Sholay might have been his first non-Tamil film, but it was the MGR-starrer Oli Vilakku that gave him his breakthrough. It was a special film for Rajendran as it was his first as a light operator. This was also MGR’s 100th film.

The film went on to became a sobriquet of sorts for Rajendran. So much so that whenever he signed a contract or a cheque leaf, he would add a prefix Oli Vilakku, followed by his name — a custom he still follows.

Rajendran confesses his love for MGR. “I’ve never met an actor like him. He treated us like family. He is the only actor I’ve taken photos with,” he says. He recalls an incident involving former Chief Minister, while shooting in Kodaikanal, when he saw the film crew shivering due to the chilly weather. MGR, apparently, cancelled the day’s shoot, and ensured that all crew members received a blanket.

“He genuinely cared about us. He made sure that everything was arranged for us. This was much before he ventured into politics,” explains Rajendran, adding, “MGR was against two things though — bad food and drunk workers.”

Despite illuminating stars like MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan and Muthuraman, Rajendran says he was never really star-struck in their presence.

“Sivaji is one of the greatest actors ever. Those days, he was just two seats away from me and I couldn’t care less. All that mattered was saapadu (food) and kaasu (money),” he smiles wryly.

Now, he finds it hard to recall the names of films he has worked on. “There were long intervals between shoots that would go on for months,” he rues, “Sometimes, I didn’t bother asking details about the film or director.”

The Rajini-Kamal era

In the late 70s, Tamil cinema was warming up to the rise of a phenomenon called K Balachander, and so was Rajendran.

Remember the iconic boat rowing scene from Moondru Mudichu? Rajendran was a first-hand witness to the events that lead to filming that scene. Balachander was a “drill master” and there was absolute silence on his sets.

What it takes
  • Most lightmen are daily wagers. When Rajendran started out, he was paid ₹4 for outdoor shoots and ₹2 for indoors. For Sholay, he received a sum of ₹12 as “it was a Hindi film”.
  • The production house takes care of their accommodation and food. Typically, 10-12 lightmen are hired in today’s scenario, while it was around four to five earlier.
  • Sometimes, the job of a lightman involves climbing the rope and setting up the lighting inside studios.
  • Lightmen operate under different units — Anand Cine Service, AVM Rajeswari, Thamarai unit and so on.
  • Lightman (2017), directed by Kumar G Venkatesh documented the lives and challenges faced by lightmen in the industry.

“There was no unnecessary talk. He was precise about his shots. Even the cameraman (Lokanath) was afraid of him,” he says, adding that KB, unlike other filmmakers of the time, operated in a unique way. “He won’t roll the camera until the actors get it right during rehearsals. Only if he’s satisfied, he would say ‘take’. And we would heave a sigh of relief.”

Both Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, says Rajendran, used to meet-and-greet workers until the halo around them appeared. He feels that the two are mirror images of MGR and Sivaji from the previous generation.

“Rajini was like MGR; he comes to shoot, gets the work done and leaves. Kamal was more of a Sivaji. Rajini never interfered in another person’s work. Kamal, too, was like that when he was under Balachander. But he started making films like Rajapaarvai and involved himself in every department. No wonder he’s a perfectionist!”

A poster celebrating the 40th anniversary of ‘Sholay’

A poster celebrating the 40th anniversary of ‘Sholay’  

The risk factor

Rajendran admits the job to being physically-demanding, and there were days when he had to slog for 12 hours straight. There was also a near-death episode. Rajendran was hired for a Malayalam film, whose makers were shooting late at night, when he was asked to move the light equipment. It was heavy; he lost his balance and crashed on a piece of plywood. He believes he was fortunate to have cheated death.

“My face was dislocated and my teeth fell off. I lost memory, and was in a hospital for 15 days. The producer was kind enough to cover my medical bill,” he remembers. When Rajendran was back on his feet, he was denied work for as long as six months due to the accident. “I tried different units, but nobody was willing to hire me again.”

It’s funny that Rajendran never made an effort to watch the films that he was part of. “Barring Engal Veetu Pillai, Rickshawkaran and Moondru Mudichu, I can’t think of films I watched in theatres,” he adds.

Observing a young Rajini in Moondru Mudichu to working with the superstar again in Darbar, Rajendran has come a long way. “It has been quite a journey.”

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 3:27:18 PM |

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