A brief run
through your career
I passed out from Adyar Film Institute and worked
with Rajeev Menon in Mani sir’s Bombay as an
associate. I started out on my own with Sarathkumar’s
Aravindan but got my break in the second film which
is Bala’s Sethu. From then on there was no looking
back and I worked in films like Nanda, Jeyam, Thirumalai,
Perazhagan, Telugu Arya and many more which were big
hits. I did not sign up films in urgency. I am in
the industry for 13 years and have done around 14
films. I give importance to the script. I am not saying
that I choose the best scripts but the scripts should
convince and challenge me. As I had worked with Rajeev
Menon, I had a good exposure to advertisements as
well. I have also shot around 1000 commercials which
include multinational brands Pepsi, Coke, Butterfly,
Whirlpool etc. Lastly, I worked for Gautham Menon’s
Vaaranam Aayiram and for the past two and half years
I am involved in Endhiran which consisted of 6 months
of pre-production, 2 years of full-fledged shooting
and post-production work.
duration of the project, I may not get any other film
offers and at the same time I realized I may not get
such an opportunity too. I told them I wanted to listen
to the script. Shankar sir gave me a narration for 7
hours, first half 3 hours and second half 4 hours. It
was a fantastic script. Then Shankar asked me if the
project is feasible technically. Any normal film will
have a couple of highlights but Endhiran is tough right
from frame one till the end as it involves the coordination
of many departments like cinematography, art direction,
make up, CG, animatronics etc. Many people would have
backed out just by hearing the tough climax of the film.
Endhiran is a dream project for everybody especially
for Shankar sir as it was gestating inside him for more
than 10 years. He had Kamal in his mind first and then
Shah Rukh Khan and finally it has culminated here. I
feel Endhiran is one of Shankar’s best scripts.
did Endhiran happen?
I was in the final leg of shooting for Vaaranam
Aayiram when Vijaykumar from Ayngaran International
approached me to find out if I would be interested
in working for Endhiran. We had a meeting
and they gave me all the details. Although
it was a very attractive offer especially
with Shankar sir and Rajni sir, I was skeptical
because I understood the magnitude of the
project which would easily run to two plus
years. When the producers spoke to me, they
clearly mentioned that it would take a minimum
of 18 months. I told them I needed 48 hours
to think because considering the
Endhiran is one of Shankar’s
CG and if they don’t have proper previz, there
could be a gap in communication. That way, previz was
a useful bridge between us and the foreigners. As regards
shooting, Shankar sir and I used to take one day at
a time. We gave in all our hard work and effort for
one schedule, heaved a sigh of relief on completing
it and then moved to the next. An elephant task was
broken into small pieces and we were completing it one
by one, in the process patting ourselves on finishing
Shankar sir’s pre-planning was
you at any stage pressured by such a huge project?
I had signed up for Endhiran, I understood that
it would be a tough, tiring and draining project
which required a lot of pre-production work.
However, I did not find it that difficult as
I have rich experience in the film industry
as well as in advertising. Shankar sir’s
pre-planning was fantastic. Every scene had
a clear description by him which helped us,
although the project was tough. At the beginning
itself, we prevized the action sequence and
CG portion in 3D. As we had worked with foreigners,
especially in animatronics and
I am generally very fast and keep the momentum flowing
in the sets. Basically I am spontaneous and Gautham
used to appreciate me for this in Vaaranam Aayiram.
That kind of energy was of great help in this film because
computer graphics professionals take their time, make
up personnel want their time and if cinematographer
also takes time, artistes will not be connected with
the film. When Rajni sir or Aishwarya is performing
and if each shot takes 2-3 hours, then they cannot get
involved with the script. Hence I planned previously
and lighted the sets and kept the energy levels high.
Shankar often used to comment that the pressure came
down largely because of my quality work and speed.
used in Endhiran
We have used many new equipments in Endhiran. As
regards camera, we have shot in the regular conventional
435 Xtreme camera and have used negative. Initially
I was toying with the idea whether to go for digital
(as lot of CG is involved) or movie. Then I did a
couple of tests and decided on movie as we have to
shoot many double action sequences without motion.
We shot many movement shots using normal conventional
trolley, dolly. While using motion control, it takes
a long time and we can only shoot 3 or 4 shots in
a day. The reason for using 35 mm is that we cannot
recompose in digital. While using super 35 technique,
there is more space on top and bottom and CG people
can track and fix any aberration at the post-production
stage. That’s why I decided to go for negative
besides other advantageous factors than the digital.
We have used a lot of high end equipments in Endhiran.
We have used Scorpio telescopic crane, gyro stabilizer
and chopper shot for nose mount instead of the regular
window side mount. We have also had a few specially
designed equipments for this film. Technically, lighting
scheme for Endhiran will be modern and stylish.
you did for Endhiran
The major plus point in Endhiran being a science
fiction is we have not shown a space odyssey or life
in other planet or aliens or anything like that. Shankar
sir has clearly written the script which happens in
Chennai and which revolves around Rajni sir. However,
this film required stylized visuals. Hence we decided
to have an ultra modern look of the scientist’s
lab or his house or the conference hall of the scientists
or the research centre. We performed a few tests for
it and then we went ahead with that.
On shooting the
As I had told earlier, the moment somebody hears
the story, they are bound to be apprehensive about
the climax shoot. It is very tough to shoot and achieve
the required idea. Shankar sir told that it is easy
to dream but it is difficult to make it true. However,
all of us have worked as a team and have made alive
Shankar sir’s dream. Arima Arima is the climax
song which will be the highlight of the film. At this
stage I can’t reveal much about it. But lighting,
techniques and sets in the scene should be modern
because we were shooting for this scene in 2008 but
knew the film would be released only around 2010.
Hence we had the huge responsibility of thinking ahead
in terms of style, lighting scheme, Sabu Cyril’s
sets, and costume design to name a few.
Just like the climax song, the climax action sequence
was also tough as there were many 2D and 3D portions
in the film. Without knowing the size of the 3D image,
I had to imagine and shoot. We shot in peak summer
with Rajni sir in full black costume in a software
park set with bomb blast and tanker blast. It was
so difficult to even stand in that hot sun but Rajni
sir was very cooperative and helped us finish the
sequences. Many CG technicians were involved like
Srinivasan from Indian Artists, Eddy from Hong Kong.
sir is the most disciplined director in the
industry. If he takes a scene, he starts planning
right from the morning. He is a thorough professional
and expects everyone to be on the sets in time
and he also will be there before us. Endhiran
is a dream project for him. He was very clear
about his script and at the same time, gave
a lot of freedom for technicians. As a cinematographer,
if some suggestions are put forth to him, he
would accept them. It was a very friendly atmosphere
and we two struck a good rapport. He liked my
preparation and used to comment that if some
other cinematographer had worked in this project,
it would have taken four years to complete.
I liked his first compliment. After seeing the
first few rushes he told me that my work is
better than his dream visuals and is like apple
iPod. It is a big compliment for me.
Shankar sir is the most
disciplined director in the
Rajni had mentioned that your hard work is majorly
responsible to bring down the duration of shoot. Your
I cannot just say it is only because of my work but
my work also played an important part in wrapping
up this project in time. I did not say this; Rajni
sir and Shankar sir have said this. I like to work
fast and want to maintain the energy levels flowing.
It does not suffice to shoot fast but preplanning
was also essential for this project. I read the scene
once or twice and try to give a feel and create the
mood for it. I will complete my preparation before
and Shankar sir gave me a lot of freedom for it. We
will not come to the location and plan things. We
used to take digital photographs before hand and decide
on the position of key light, fill, back light, artiste’s
movement etc. Once we are at the location and when
the artistes arrive, we quickly can the shots. This
saved us a lot of time.
along with foreign dance artistes were waiting and
the frame was set. Rajni sir looked at me. I am used
to shooting in available lights; you may have seen
in Vaaranam Aayiram and Sethu. Hence I did not get
perturbed. I was not able to use extra lights and
used only thermocoles. I cut the lights that were
going to Aishwarya with a cutter. It was just a manipulation
technique - positive to negative, addition to subtraction.
When I cut the lights for Aishwarya, it became positive
for Rajni sir. It was an instant thinking. Rajni sir
was still in doubt and that evening after pack up
he asked, “Nejamma, light vendaama?” I
assured him that it was ok. Later when he saw the
digitized stills, he was satisfied and he called to
appreciate me after he saw the song. Later, after
he completed his dubbing, he called on the same night
to compliment my work and said although I worked very
fast like a commercial cameraman; the quality was
different and very good. He spoke at length. He could
have called me later but Rajni being Rajni, would
never keep anything to himself and would openly discuss
things. Even while we were shooting, if he found something
good, he would immediately appreciate. It is very
difficult to come across a person like Rajni sir.
Rajini sir is a great human being
did Rajni say about your work?
am a great fan of Rajni sir. In my household,
as a family when we go to a film, it will only
be Rajni sir’s film. Hence I was not able
to believe that I was working in his film. It
was a fantastic experience for me. Rajini sir
is a great human being and I was able to learn
a lot from him. Rajni sir and I had a different
kind of experience on the first day itself.
We finished the make up test on Rajni sir in
Chennai itself. With the movie camera, it was
the first day of shoot at Machu Pichu with Rajni
sir and Aishwarya. We had already got permission
to shoot in a park for the Kilimanjaro number.
The park director came to us and said he cannot
permit us to use heavy duty lights. Rajni sir
was Aishwarya Rai to work with?
Rai is the most beautiful and gorgeous women
in the world. Other artistes, please don’t
get angry with me for this! Ash is not only
beautiful but also intelligent. She is aware
of the shot duration, artiste’s timing,
long shot, mid shot, close up shots and everything.
She knows direction, cinematography, make up
and is versatile. She is very cooperative too.
She was impressed with the stills I took. I
also told her to use minimal make up and assured
her I will take care of her skin tone. Once
she realized she was in able hands, she was
cool and appreciated me whenever there was a
good shot. She was encouraging and had good
spirits. Endhiran enjoyed positive vibes from
everyone. Everything went smoothly without any
Endhiran enjoyed positive vibes
Bala has certain special qualities
you compare Bala and Shankar?
cannot compare Bala and Shankar as they come
from different schools of thought. I like to
be an all rounder doing commercial as well as
art films. I can shoot even a comedy film. Bala
has certain special qualities, the way he extracts
performance or the way he churns out intense
films. On the other hand, Shankar sir has the
capacity to stretch commercial cinema to its
maximum limits. Hence one cannot compare the
two. They are strong in their respective areas
and I gelled well with both of them.
What is the
specialty of your work?
My specialty is to shoot as per the requirement of
the script right from Sethu to Endhiran. Some cinematographers
shoot the song sequences alone well and leave out
the scenes. But I am not like that and I concentrate
more on scenes. I always work towards what can be
done visually for a scene and what kind of lighting
to be given to create the apt mood. I think from a
director’s point of view and this has become
my style now.
What makes you
say yes to a project?
A script should be inspiring to say yes to a project.
It may not be the greatest script in the world but
it should be challenging and inspiring to me. Perhaps
that’s why most of my films are successful like
Sethu, Nanda, Jeyam, Thirumalai, Perazhagan, Telugu
Arya, Vaaranam Aayiram and now Endhiran. Of course,
I have also committed a couple of mistakes. When I
was shooting for Vaaranam Aayiram, there was a gap.
That’s when Kannada director Yograj Bhat who
made Mungaru Male wanted me to do his film Gaalipatta.
He narrated the story and I liked it. It was a very
light story which happens in monsoon rains. He said
that if shot during that period, it would incessantly
pour for at least 2 months in areas around Bangalore.
It was a challenge for me and I accepted the film.
I shot just with available lights wearing a rain coat
but completely drenched in the rain. The film also
did well. Then while I was doing commercial films,
I did a film called Cyanide which was about the last
25 days of Sivarasan and group and I shot for the
film for 25 days. The concept of the last days of
Sivarasan was inspiring and the locations were all
small dark rooms which was challenging to me. Instead
of just bringing out day and night effect, I had brought
out the nuances of mid day, evening, and night effect
(when lights are switched off) in the film.
is important - technology or content?
is definitely more important to a film than
technology. Of course, technology has developed
so much today and we have to travel with it.
However, only when the content is good, it will
reach the audience. Technology without content
is useless. At the same time there should be
acceptance of the latest developments too. Today,
if digital technology has come in, we have to
accept it. Earlier, when artists were painting
and still photography came in, it was difficult
for the artists to accept it. I feel in another
two years, digital technology is going to take
over and we need to accept it. But I personally
feel movie negative is THE best when compared
to digital format.
Technology without content is
There is a
feel that cameramen increase the budget of a film.
Cameraman alone cannot increase the production cost.
It depends on the script and if it warrants, then
we can do it. One cannot make such a sweeping statement
about every one. Some cameramen may increase the cost
but not all. I can work with just two sets of lights
too. I have shot Rajni sir and Aishwarya with just
thermocoles. I will use only things that are required.
In fact in Vaaranam Aayiram, Gautham used to wonder
that I shoot with just minimal things. Endhiran climax
needed a complicated lighting set up and I had to
go for it. Hence it all depends on the script and
not on the cameramen.
Mani sir is responsible for my
interest in cinema
with Mani Ratnam
sir is responsible for my interest in cinema.
I was inspired by his Agni Natchathiram, Mouna
Raagam, Nayagan and joined the film institute.
I worked in Bombay as an associate for Rajeev
Menon who was the DoP for the film. It was a
fantastic experience with Mani sir. He is a
genius. He was well versed in photographic techniques
even then. He has a feel for the shot and will
not complicate things. He has a distinct style
and I am proud to have worked with him.
with Gautham Menon
Gautham Menon and I worked together under Rajeev
Menon; he as an assistant director and I as an assistant
cameraman. We have a good rapport and are good friends.
However, we were not able to work together till Vaaranam
Aayiram. And Suriya was also the main reason for our
teaming in VA. I would say that after Mani Ratnam,
Gautham Menon is the only director who can churn out
films in a stylish, aesthetic, natural and down-to-earth
manner. Gautham Menon respects technicians and would
listen to their suggestions but at the same time is
very careful about his script. His specialty is that
he is a one-take director. Many directors go for multiple
takes and tire the artistes. But Gautham is not like
that. He likes the spontaneity in the artistes. We
have to be on our toes under Gautham who makes the
artiste perform naturally. He feels that the first
take is the best. Of course, there are times when
2–3 takes also happen. He believes that the
natural performance will come out only in the first
take because in subsequent takes, the competitive
spirit will emerge among the performing artistes which
will mask the spontaneity. It was a fantastic experience
to have worked with Gautham in Vaaranam Aayiram. We
did many new things in the film.
keeps changing from time to time. I considered
Nanda to be my best work till a couple of years
ago, which fetched many awards. Then I did a
Telugu film called Jagadam and till date technically
it is considered as the best film although it
did not do well at the box office. It is visually
a fantastic film. One cannot pin down a particular
film as the best because at every stage we want
to surpass it and want to give better work next
time. At one point of time, Cyanide was my best
film and Girish Kasaravalli had commented, “The
cinematography of Rathnavelu is a bridge between
art and commercial cinema.” He appreciated
that I have brought together art and commercial
cinema and have rendered stylish visuals. Then
I did Vaaranam Aayiram which is very close to
my heart. During those days I had lost my dad
and within a week, Gautham too lost his dad.
Hence, for both of us VA is very close to our
heart as it was about father-son relationship.
Both of us were emotionally attached to the
The cinematography of
Rathnavelu is a bridge between
art and commercial cinema
Every cinematographer houses a
director in him
you take up direction?
definitely! Every cinematographer houses a director
in him. Any good cinematographer would surely
have knowledge of direction. I have also been
working for the past 13-14 years with top directors.
If I have to reach the next higher level in
cinematography, it has to be direction. I am
waiting because I want to write my script. I
am yet to scale greater heights in cinematography.
Perhaps, in a year or two, I will start directing.
After Endhiran I have not signed any project. Many
interesting projects have come my way in Hindi, Telugu
and Tamil. After the rigorous two and a half years,
I want to chill out and relax now. As of now, there
is nothing; perhaps if you ask me after a month, I
may have an answer.