Malayalam cinema is going through a revolutionary phase, says cinematographer Sanu John Varghese

Neelima Menon

Nov 13, 2019 13:10:51 IST

Cinematographer Sanu John Varghese (Badhaai Ho, Take Off, Jersey) has this habit of peppering his conversation with loud infectious chuckles.

It begins with my query about why he has done only two Malayalam films (out of 14) despite hailing from the state— “It’s not practical in terms of what you get out of it if you want to make a life in Mumbai.” A loud brief chuckle follows. “Advertising  has been my bread, butter and jam,” he tells me. He has done over 1000 ads and most of the films have emerged out of the people he met during these ads. Even the latest Malayalam release, Android Kunjappan, directed by Ratheesh Balakrishna Poduval is one such association; Ratheesh was the production designer of Badhaai Ho in which Varghese did the cinematography. In the last two years, he has consciously stuck to cinema and Badhaai Ho (2018), Jersey, a Telugu film that was released earlier this year, were all welcomed rather warmly at the box office. It was after Vishwaroopam that Varghese’s work got mileage, where he exquisitely captured Jordan, the strife-ridden terrain and the impactful storytelling.  More from the cinematographer as his third Malayalam film gets ready for release.

 Malayalam cinema is going through a revolutionary phase, says cinematographer Sanu John Varghese

Cinematographer Sanu Varghese. Image from Twitter.

Android Kunjappan is only your third Malayalam film in a career that began in 2003...

Ratheesh is a friend and the script was interesting, also the producer is my school mate. It’s something like Kallan Pavithran or Oridathoru Phayalvan, where the humour is mostly in the irony that is going on. It’s an emotional film wrapped in humour. They have cracked this very beautifully in Kumbalangi Nights. I haven’t laughed this much on a set before.

What excites you about Malayalam cinema today?

I think Malayalam cinema is going through a revolutionary phase now. A film like Kumbalangi Nights can’t happen in any other industry. That’s why I want to have a foot here as well. Among the cinematographers, Shyju Khalid is outstanding, so is Sameer Tahir and Rajeev Ravi.  Jomon T John is more dramatic, but I love his work.  The core cinematography talent of Indian cinema is in Kerala. My work looks like nothing here. Our cinematographers understand the script and work towards it rather than focus solely on how to make the visuals look good. Generally, in Indian cinema if your work is visually dramatic enough to be noticed, people think it’s great cinematography. But I think great cinematography is like music for cinema—setting the mood for the story, the way you light up and move and compose. It doesn’t have to be pretty all the time. You give a lot of ugly and then you come up on that one stunning dramatic frame. I do pretty frames in ads all the time anyway.

Working under a budget is a thing in Malayalam cinema. Does that add a lot of pressure on you?

I think it requires two different skills altogether—to be able to work with a lower budget and to work on a huge scale. You don’t get the kind of scale that you get in Telugu or Hindi, in Malayalam. I come from a lot of documentary background, so it’s about going back into that setup where you have almost nothing. Android Kunjappan was done with some five lightings, two tubes. I like going back into that situation where I can test myself.  In Jersey, I had all the lights I could ask for, sets the way you wanted, streets were controlled and locked. After that its crucial to go into a film where you have nothing. How do you route a film around with what you have? You use it so well that you still tell the story well. It’s not a great career move in terms of economy as ideally you go from a smaller scale to a bigger scale. But this is important for me.

A still from Malayalam film Take Off.

Can cinematography be taught? Or does there have to be something beyond that?

After shooting for some 20+ years I think it’s all there around you. An actor has his inputs all around him, the cues, the reactions, the inspirations. Cinematography is exactly like that—it’s all around you, you need to learn from your environment. But at some point you realise that it’s not about looking at references but about looking inward. If you are trying to communicate with somebody emotionally, you have to get that emotion and re-engineer it for the audience. I watch a lot of stuff to keep it in the back of my head. It has to come back as direct influence or as inputs.

That bit of inspiration can be any other form of art than cinema I guess...

It can be life, a painting—everything. For the past two years, I have given up driving a car, got into public transport and tried to connect more with life. I also sketch and it’s not to create art but to see more.

A collage of Kumbalangi Nights. Image from Youtube.

Most cinematographers begin with still photography. What about you?

I have been shooting stills. I started shooting films only because I was doing a lot of stills. A painting is something which you can gaze at longer because of the amount of work that goes into it.  Photographs are also the same thing. Movie has an advantage as they are moving images. What has to come through is all that stuff that was stuck in your mind in the middle of that transit. You just need to understand this fundamental theory that the three are communicating with the visuals, but the way it reaches the audience is very different.

You have been part of the Vishwaroopam franchise. What’s the secret of the association?

I am going back to Kamal Haasan after this for Thevarmakan 2. We share a meticulous approach to doing things. With Kamal, it’s like upgrading the operating system on your computer. Since I didn’t train in a film school, it was immensely gratifying to learn a lot of things from Kamal Haasan. Even with Ratheesh, it’s a collaboration of two mad people, but there is a method to that madness. Collaborations can only work that way. Even Take Off director Mahesh Narayanan is the most meticulous filmmaker I have ever seen.  I have heard great scripts and in the movie making process you realise the depth is only that much. So it’s easier to work with people you are familiar with, the ones you are confident can pull off great stories on screen.

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Updated Date: Nov 13, 2019 13:10:51 IST