Baahubali 2 cinematographer Senthil Kumar: Rajamouli pushes the envelope with each film
It’s been 16 years since KK Senthil Kumar turned cinematographer and having worked on seven of SS Rajamouli’s previous eight films since 2004, the duo is a force to reckon with in Telugu cinema. With films like Magadheera, Arundhati, Eega and Baahubali, KK Senthil Kumar has earned the reputation of being one of the very few cinematographers who can handle any film, no matter what its scale is. Thanks to films like Eega and Baahubali, Senthil’s work has transcended all geographical and cultural barriers, and the fact that he, along with Rajamouli, is constantly pushing the boundaries makes you sit upright and take notice of his work every single time. Excerpts from an interview :
You have collaborated with Rajamouli for seven films in the past 13 years. How has your relationship evolved with him? Do you find it tough to say ‘no’ to him when he approaches you?
[Laughs] No one has given me challenging projects as much as Rajamouli has in these past 13 years. It’s not a question of saying yes or no. When you work with Rajamouli, you know that it’s not going to be easy because he doesn’t like to compromise on anything. He keeps pushing the envelope so much that with each film, I grow as a technician and learn new things. The best part is that we understand each other so well that we don’t have to start from basics whenever we sit down for a discussion. More importantly, he has complete faith in his team. So, that’s reassuring for a technician and makes you want to do better.
In a recent interview, you stated that Eega (Makkhi) was more challenging than Baahubali. Were you referring to how a CGI character, like the housefly, had to be integrated into a real world scenario?
For a period film like Baahubali, there are other references from world cinema. But for Eega, there was no reference. One of the biggest challenges was trying to conceive a world from Eega’s (the housefly) perspective and then shooting it was another challenge. It’ll always be a special film for me. Baahubali has scale, but I wasn’t intimidated by it. When I shot Yamadonga, I was really scared about how I’m going to light up such a big set, but I’ve gotten used to it now.
You’ve worked on some really big films in recent years starting from Magadheera to Eega and then there was Baahubali: The Beginning. Does every film become a training ground for you to work on the next one? How did Baahubali: The Beginning prepare you to tackle Baahubali: The Conclusion?
Yes, of course. It’s because of the films I’ve done so far that have I’m able to handle a film like Baahubali given the scale of the project and having to deal with all the pressure that comes with having to co-ordinate with so many artistes and technicians. When we were shooting Baahubali 1, we were trying to equip ourselves with whatever we could to achieve Rajamouli’s vision. You’ll have to ask him if we’ve come close to what he had in mind [laughs]. Compared to the first part, Baahubali 2 is going to be a much better film in terms of presentation. Not only in terms of cinematography, but I say this for every other aspect of the film. We have learnt from our shortcomings and tried to refine everything. The film has a lot of intense drama, strong emotions and some really amazing performances by Sivagami, Devasena, Baahubali, Bhallaladeva, Kattappa and Bijjaladeva, for that matter every actor. From what I’ve seen, each one of the actors have outdone themselves because Rajamouli pushed them to the extreme.
One of the things that I learnt about your work in Baahubali: The Beginning was how the weather conditions would change a lot of things when you go to shoot. Were there any surprises while shooting this part?
While shooting Baahubali 1 in Mahabaleshwar for Avanthika’s (Tamannaah) introduction scene in the forest, we didn’t anticipate that there would be so much rain and fog when we planned the shoot. But it looked really cool on screen. We felt that the ambience would enhance the mood of the scene. Something similar happened when we shot in Bulgaria where there was plenty of ice and fog. Weather always surprises us and it all depends on how instantly you take decisions on the set to carry on with the shoot. On the contrary, except for the war sequences, most of the footage in Baahubali 2 was shot inside a studio. We had a better control over everything, right from the lighting to ambience.
Baahubali was shot over a span of four years. But time is always a big constraint, especially for you. Isn’t it?
The two parts put together took 613 days to complete and many people keep wondering why did we take so much time to complete the film. Not every film can be completed in 50-60 days. Those films are visualised and shot in a certain way. We did it differently. We had to be very particular about every shot be it lighting, setting up the frame and getting the costumes and makeup right etc. It’s a very time-consuming process. It’s not like we were lazing around (laughs). Even though we shot for such a long period of time, there was always a time-constraint and as a cinematographer, it was my duty to be as quick as possible without compromising on the quality of the film.
The entire film has massive sets and larger-than-life imagery. What was your approach to capturing all that grandeur?
We had a lot of references, based on concept art, pre-visualisation from VFX team, books, Indian architecture and other stuff, to create this world of Baahubali. But we didn’t want to replicate anything. Your job becomes easier when you have references because everyone is talking about the same thing. The challenge was to match up to Rajamouli’s visualisation because there’s no cut-off point for that. Take the waterfall sequence in the first part — a more than 3000 ft waterfall like that doesn’t exist anywhere on our planet. Be it the palaces or war-machines, my objective was to capture everything in the best possible light. Every sequence and shot has different requirements. Purely in terms of how we shot it, if we want the audience to be intimidated by a setting then we focus on the grandeur of it. For instance, the ship, that you see in the trailer, looks tiny compared to the elephant’s statue because it’s suppose to intimidate the characters in the scene. But when it’s about exploring the emotional upheaval of the characters in the story, then we focus is on the actors and their performances.
For a film like this, where you’ve to do colour grading for every frame, do you see your work at all, especially considering how much of visual effects come into play?
I doubt if there is any film, these days, which doesn’t have visual effects. When people began making films in colour, people felt that it was disturbing the way a black & white film would tell the story. But technology has been rapidly evolving over the years and as cinematographers, we have to keep ourselves updated to ensure that we make everything look seamless on screen. For the first part, I worked along with VFX supervisor Srinivas Mohan and for the second part, Kamal Kannan is the VFX supervisor. Both of them have helped me a lot to understand visual effects better.
My only objective is to present the story in the best possible way visually. In some cases, visual effects take the centrestage, sometimes it’s the cinematography. It’s about how well their marriage works. Or else, they’ll end up screaming at each other (laughs). But then, both of them have to be in the background and never overpower the story in first place. Colour correction for a VFX heavy film is a very tedious job. We’re working with Annapurna Studios. My colourist Shiva has been working with me for most of my films, his understanding of CG helped me in the DI process. Because of our experience on previous two films Eega and Baahubali 1, technical head CV Rao at Annapurna DI Studios has streamlined their internal processes for Baahubali: The Conclusion. From the time an image is captured till it reaches the screen it goes through a lot of stages, where there is a chance of losing quality. We are doing a lot of research to minimise those loses. Even if we achieve by 5-10 percent of visual enhancement in terms of technicality, it’s a big advantage. Baahubali 2 will be a much better version, visually, compared to the first part.
You also shot part of the Baahubali VR — ‘The Sword of Baahubali’. How different was that experience as a cinematographer?
I shot portions of the Baahubali VR where real-life actors like Prabhas, Rana, Anushka and Tamannaah appear. It was a totally new experience for me. The thing is, when it comes to VR, it is quite challenging to shoot everything, even a close-up shot is shot, using an extreme wide angle lenses. I wouldn’t shoot like that when I shoot with a normally. You feel that the image is distorted on camera, but when you put on the VR gear it looks amazing. If you are shooting on VR, then you need to unlearn what you know about cinematography and re-learn stuff to do this. I’m happy to be part of this evolution of VR in its initial stages.
Coming back to the film, you were shooting on a daily basis till late in the night and then, you are back for the shoot by 6 am the next day. How do you stay focused and not get tired?
We are mad people [laughs]. My wife Ruhee calls me glorified labourer! We shoot in sun, dust and difficult weather conditions. It’s because of the passion we have for the process of filmmaking. I like the process, not just the end result. We know the sacrifices we have to make. I couldn’t have done with without the support of my wife and my team. We’re all tired yes, but the film inspires us to keep pushing ourselves. It’s too early to feel empty that the film’s shoot is done because there’s a lot of work to be completed before the film releases. After April 28, maybe I can think of the withdrawal symptoms.
Now that you have worked on such big projects, would you say you are more confident now about your craft?
I’m confident in the sense that I understand my craft in a better way and also, I know how the film industry works, but each film is a challenge in itself. I’ll still have to think about what to do. It doesn’t make my job easier. When I started my career, I did based on what I knew and I was very confident. Now, everyone has certain expectations from me. Living up to the expectations and surpassing it is a challenge. When I see works of cinematographers like Emmanuel Lubezki and Roger Deakins, I feel there’s more to learn. But the more you learn, the more you get scared. I have certain expectations on myself. That scares me every time even now. And the fear keeps increasing each time [laughs].