Cinema

Lingaa through Randy’s lens

Cinematographer Rathnavelu with Rajinikanth  

It’s rush hour and mayhem reigns in Kodambakkam and Vadapalani with traffic bottlenecks and one-ways, making me 25 minutes late for the interview. When I reach R. Rathnavelu aka Randy’s residence in Kumaran Colony, I expect to see a man in a hurry. But the cinematographer has taken a one-hour break from post-production work on Lingaa and is relaxed. “I used the time to surf online,” he smiles, “in the world of photography, change is the only constant and even between ‘take’ and ‘cut’, you can lose out on a significant development.”

Lingaa (releasing December 12) is probably the shortest schedule in Rathnavelu’s career. As someone who has worked with directors (in)famous for protracted shoots such as Bala ( Sethu and Nandha), Gautham Vasudev Menon ( Vaaranam Aayiram) and Shankar ( Enthiran), he says Lingaa was a short but stressful affair. The filming was wrapped up in less than five months, but there were many tense moments. “A chunk of the shoot happened in Karnataka where we had to grapple with fickle weather and natural light. There were far too many intangibles — heavy rain, dark clouds, sometimes blazing sunlight, all on a single day. Shooting near a dam in bad weather wasn’t easy. In one of the schedules that lasted 31 days, it rained non-stop for 17 days. The dam was about to breach and the electrical connections would give us shocks, but we went ahead. It was a nightmare — bad weather, crowded location, over a thousand junior artists and crew. But the silver lining was director K. S. Ravikumar, who had a clear vision of what he wanted.”

The effort shows in the trailer launched recently. The story, which spans two eras, has a distinct visual language. “I wanted to steer clear of clichés. So you will not see typical black-and-white, sepia or de-saturated looks for the pre-Independence scenes. In Lingaa, there’s so much positivity about this time in history. So I’ve kept it visually vibrant. When the film swings to the present, the sets turn slick, Rajini is robust, and his look reminiscent of his 1990s hits. The introductory song is visually stunning; we shot in Macau and at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi.”

Like most cinematographers, Rathnavelu too has turned director and had started work on his film when he got a call from the superstar. “I couldn’t say ‘no’ to Rajini, so I set aside my film for Lingaa. The man’s humility moves me. He will not step out of the frame till he gets a proper okay. He will behave as if it’s his first film. He is willing to learn and trusts the director and technicians totally. Sadly, this quality is missing in some established actors and even in the newbies.”

Rathnavelu, who started his career with the Sarath Kumar-starrer Aravindhan in 1997, has worked with many big names in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi but believes in taking up semi-experimental projects like Haridas once in a while. “Just like I love both Test matches and T20 cricket, I like blockbusters with big names and the luxury of time as well as offbeat, small-budget ventures with promising names and shorter schedules. I take up one project at a time. The script and my equation with the director are important. After Sethu, I turned down 13 offers to wait for Bala to launch Nandha. I’ve taken long breaks to work on ad films,” says the cinematographer, who started out as assistant to adman-cinematographer-filmmaker Rajeev Menon. Having done over 2,500 ads, he says, “Ads teach you to achieve more in less time, because you have to tell a story in 30 seconds or less.”

Rathnavelu says it’s a tightrope walk between style and substance. “Whether it’s the stark realism of Bala or the stylised treatment of Shankar, cinematography has to be unobtrusive. With experience you learn that camerawork is not just about how the scenes look, but also about delving deep into the filmmaker’s vision, creating moods and bringing out emotions. In Haridas, the changing confidence levels of the autistic child were articulated through varied tones of lighting. In Sethu, I deliberately gave the asylum scenes a predominantly green tone for that intense psychological impact. Many people had doubts, but I believed it would work. During re-recording, Ilaiyaraaja was so astonished he stopped to discuss the cinematography. In Vaaranam Aayiram, we shot the Taj Mahal from behind to make it visually interesting. A cinematographer’s job is to make the visual narrative refreshing.”

Rathnavelu talks of how cinematographers must keep abreast with the latest in technology. “Before working on Enthiran, I read a lot about animatronics and the making of Jurassic Park because we had to create a 100 Rajini clones. In Enthiran, we made a 1,600-page booklet enumerating all the angles from which to shoot the two Rajinis. In Lingaa, we have used technology to visually extend a dam and multiply the crowd.”

But this tech buff still misses the good old reels. “I can smell the negatives; they continue to charm me. It took a long time for me to accept digital photography. But today, even interns bring CDs or ask us to check out their short films online,” he smiles.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 2:31:47 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/cinema/interview-with-cinematographer-rathnavelu/article6646451.ece

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