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‘Fiction no match for real-life drama’

Driving force:Rajeev Ravi says what inspires him is literature, not films.— Photo: K.K. Najeeb  

Rajeev Ravi is living a double life. And happily at that. In the north, in Bollywood, he is a hotshot cinematographer, Anurag Kashyap’s chosen one, who has since his debut in Chandni Bar (2001) to the more recent Udta Punjab brought in a fresh vigour and set new benchmarks for the art of cinematography. In the south, in the Malayalam film industry, he is the director who has, in a career spanning three films, stayed away from the hype surrounding the so-called ‘new-generation cinema’, telling rooted and realistic stories on screen.

His latest film Kammatipaadam (2016), which received rave reviews across India, is the story of the growth of his own hometown, Kochi. Rather, it is about those who have been left behind in that growth story. This way of seeing, of bringing the marginalised to the centre, has also marked his other two films: Annayum Rasoolum (2013) and Njan Steve Lopez (2014).

Beyond the margins

Ravi says, “It is a conscious decision. What we have to realise is that the underprivileged and the marginalised, who are reduced to just numbers, constitute more than 80 per cent of our society. The current development agenda is only for the few at the top. The gap has only widened post-liberalisation. This is happening in front of our eyes, and there is no point turning away from it, which is what a majority of our films are doing.” But, in telling these stories, Ravi has managed to stay clear of the trap of the outsider’s perspective. Be it the working class milieu of Fort Kochi in his debut, Annayum Rasoolum, or the coastal and interior Thiruvananthapuram settings of Njan Steve Lopez , the gaze is that of the insider.

“It’s only through [the practise of] filmmaking that we can polish these things. If we do it consciously, it becomes forced. It has to happen unknowingly. Handling Dalit issues can be risky in that sense, as the privileged class can never really understand the real Dalit experience or represent it on the screen.”

Penchant for realism

He traces his penchant for realism to the early days at the Film and Television Institute (FTII) Pune. “[During] the first year at FTII, every afternoon, we were taken to a market or bus station or village and forced to spend time there till evening. We weren’t required to shoot anything, but just observe and note it down for later. Though at first we used to cheat and make up stories, the ability to observe became an inherent skill in us. The drama that you get from real life cannot be matched by fictional stories.”

Last year, he was in the middle of a controversy after he commented on the ‘need to burn scripts before shooting a film’. “I said that from an aesthetic point of view. What I meant was to burn the text, which becomes like a ghost on your shoulder beyond a point. You leave it behind, and speak visually,” Ravi explains. “By the third film, I realised the need to be a little more verbal. Film movements like what I am aiming at have been happening for decades. But most often, it’s the same gang, a minority, who’s watching it. They discuss within themselves and the film is over. If the public doesn’t watch it, there’s no point, however relevant your film’s politics is. I want to communicate to the people.”

Ravi is critical about the ‘new generation films’ in Malayalam, many of which have found a pan-India audience: “What I find in many of those films is technical gimmickry. I doubt whether there’s anything ‘new’ content-wise. There are also the issues of film buffs becoming filmmakers and trying to recreate whatever has influenced them from years of watching films.” Ravi adds, “The real new generation in Malayalam cinema was way back in the 1970s and 80s, with the films of masters like K.G. George, Aravindan, Adoor, John Abraham and Bharathan.”

Two parallel careers

As a filmmaker, Ravi stays away from wielding the camera for his own films, allowing his FTII mate Madhu Neelakandan and his assistant Pappu to do the job. But his other life, as a cinematographer, has been just as chequered. It was cinematographer Venu who paved the way for Ravi’s debut behind the lens in Chandni Bar . The work impressed filmmaker Anurag Kashyap so much that No Smoking (2007) was assigned to Ravi six years later.

He recounts the journey, “I got a break from the mechanical process of cinematography in commercial mainstream films when I started working for Anurag. He gave me the freedom to experiment and opened up my work further. He gives us a brief and just lets go. The subjects that he chose and the places we travelled to helped me evolve. No Smoking was stylised work, with a cult following, which landed me several advertisement assignments. Dev D (2009) was the big break though, followed by Gangs of Wasseypur (2012).”

Like in his filmmaking, Ravi has not used the camera to please or impress the audience. “The camera has to be used as a tool to narrate the story and not to beautify the image. This is not still photography. The story has to be told through the images. There has been a trend in recent years for cinematographers to self-market through gimmicks within the film, as if to impress someone to call up for their next film.”

Politics in the blood

Ravi attributes much of what he is today to his brother. It was his sibling who suggested that he do a degree in physics to learn the basics of optics; and to the days at Maharaja’s College in Kochi. “You have to blame my brother and the seniors in college for me choosing FTII. The world that opened up before us through literature and films was so wide. The campus politicians of those days worked a lot in nurturing such tastes in the newcomers. Thanks to my father, a member of the Communist party, I ended up reading everything from Russian to Latin American literature to Malayalam translations of Hindi and Kannada authors. Even now, what inspires me is literature, not films.”

The campus politician of yesteryear comes forth when Ravi talks about the student protests of JNU, Hyderabad University and FTII. Before the recent campus churnings, he had screened his second film, Njan Steve Lopez , on the coming-of-age and silent revolt of a modern aimless youth, in all these campuses. “The responses and questions that I got from them filled me with so much hope. They have it in them to take the struggle forward,” says Ravi.

Right now, he is fresh from another ‘struggle’, with the censors, for Udta Punjab , “It’s an emergency-like situation that exists now. There have always been political appointees in the censor board, but this is for the first time we have an agenda-driven set of people. The situation will only worsen. The only way ahead is to fight and resist,” he emphasises.

Meanwhile, in a bid to break the monopoly of the producers and exhibitors, Ravi has been experimenting with his filmmaking collective called, ‘Collective Phase One’. “A collective can happen anywhere, within a set of equal partners who has collective responsibility of the film. There are no banners, bank accounts or registration,” he says, adding, “Kamal K.M’s ID was shot like that inside a house, where we, the entire crew, lived like a commune. It has now been picked up by Netflix and now we are clear of all debts. This is one way forward in making the films that we want to make.” Amen to that.

The camera has to be used as a tool to narrate the story and not to beautify the image

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Printable version | Mar 8, 2021 12:08:27 AM |

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