Ravi K Varman on how he become a cinematographer, and why Mani Ratnam is his favourite director

Sreedhar Pillai

Sep 03, 2019 14:40:15 IST

Ace cinematographer Ravi K Varman is riding a wave. He is the most wanted cameraman among directors at the moment in Indian cinema. Bollywood actors are willing to adjust their call sheets so as to accommodate Ravi’s dates. Shah Rukh Khan, who has worked in a few ads with the cinematographer, advised his son Aryan, who wants to be a filmmaker to go and start assisting Ravi Varman, and learn how to handle a camera from him.

 Ravi K Varman on how he become a cinematographer, and why Mani Ratnam is his favourite director

Ravi K Varman

The star cinematographer has worked with big names and brands in Indian cinema like Mani Ratnam (Kaatru Veliyidai), Anurag Basu (Barfi, Jagga Jasoos), Sanjay Leela Bhansali ( Ramleela), Rajkumar Hirani (Sanju ), Imtiaz Ali (Tamasha), Shankar (Anniyan), Gautham  Menon (Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu), Priyadarshan (Kilichundan Mambazham) and a few others. Ravi was flooded with accolades for his work in Akshay Kumar’s super hit Mission Mangal which he shot in 38 days with a debutant director Jagan Shakthi.

Recently, Ravi was in the news when he opted out of Shankar’s ambitious Kamal Haasan biggie Indian 2 after doing pre-shoot location rekies with him as he had prior commitment with Mani Ratnam for his period multi-starrer Ponniyin Selvan. And before he joins Mani Ratnam, he will be doing a Hollywood film with Deepa Mehta. What makes this mercurial cameraman tick?

In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, Ravi Varman opens up on his life and times which reads like a masala movie script.

Ravi K Varman on set of Mission Mangal

Ravi K Varman on set of Mission Mangal

Your rise as a cinematographer in the highly competitive world of commercial cinema has been phenomenal. To what do you attribute your success?

I’m a school dropout (7th standard) from a government school (Tamil medium) from a village near Thanjavur. I came up the hard way as I lost my parents when I was hardly 12. I have never seen my mother smile, so whenever I look at the camera before composing a shot, I see her and lighten up the shot and bring more colours and happiness into the frame. I always prepare myself to understand the script that the director gives me and look at the soul of the film because cinematography is another form of story-telling and I try to bring it alive.

You had a very difficult childhood, and from a village in Tamil Nadu you made it big as a leading cinematographer. How did the journey shape your career?

Yes. I had a bitter childhood which also helped me to understand life better. My father was a farmer who lost everything as he dabbled in politics and died and soon, my mother also passed away leaving me an orphan. My relatives ignored me as they thought I was a burden on them, so I dropped out from school. From those days, I was hooked to cinema and watched numerous Tamil films of MGR and Sivaji Ganesan at the local touring talkies. I worked as a server in the local arrack shop and one day, I decided to go to Madras and get a proper job. When I reached Thanjavur, I was depressed and tried to commit suicide on the railway line. The railway police mistook me as a thief and put a false case against me and sent me to a juvenile home where I was mercilessly beaten up. Finally after weeks, a relative bailed me out and took me back to the village where I was branded a thief. Once again, I ran away from home and travelled ticketless to Madras with a promise I will return to my village in a Mercedes car. In Madras, initially I stayed at my father’s friend, a lawyer’s, place but soon he asked me to clean the toilets as my qualification could get me only that job.

Ravi K Varman with Mani Ratnam

Ravi K Varman with Mani Ratnam

How did your romance with the camera start?

One day I left my cleaning job, slept under the Gemini flyover and finally managed to get a job at the Amaravathy Hotel as a waiter on a salary of Rs 150. From that salary and tips I got, I managed to buy an Old Russian camera Zenit for around Rs 120 after hard bargaining from a shop near Moore market. Those days I used to watch every English and Malayalam film regularly at Safire and Blue Diamond theatre complex in Mount Road, sitting in the first row with seat costing Re 1. Soon I got an opportunity to meet legendary Balu Mahendra, who advised me to work regularly as cameraman assistant. Initially, I worked for cameraman Ranga before assisting Ravi K Chandran, who was doing Priyadarshan Hindi films. One thing led to another and soon I became cameraman of TK Rajeev Kumar’s Malayalam film Jalamarmaram (1999) and became busy in south. And with Honey Irani’s Armaan (2003), I entered Bollywood.

So life has been a great learning experience for you as a cinematographer?

Absolutely.  I never went to a film school and learned the basics from practical experiences. I never knew English or anything about camera. I learned English from Rapidex: English to Tamil book, watching English films and reading books on photography. Even today I cannot speak in Hindi after doing so many Bollywood films. In early days, my producers and directors could not afford cranes or Steadicams and we experimented with our limited budget and the results were fantastic. I believe in being driven by passion and one should take risks and work with basic resources at your disposal. In cinematography, the real excellence lies in being able to communicate through your visuals without any technical aid.

Ravi Varman with Mani Ratnam

Ravi Varman considers Mani Ratnam his favourite director

Today, you are one of the highest paid cameramen in the industry, still you are willing to do an off -beat film like Kolambi with Rajeev Kumar in Malayalam. Why?

My passion for camera and films is supreme; beyond a point, money does not excite me. For me, I take life as it happens and do not have much ambitions. Kolambi is one of the most exciting films I have done.

Who is your favourite director?

My favourite is Mani Ratnam who I believe made the cameraman in film parlance not only respectable but also showed what rich visual imagery could do to storytelling. And Anurag Basu is a director whom I respect a lot along with Sanjay Leela Bhansali. These people make me innovative and give freedom to experiment.

A BTS still from Mission Mangal

A BTS still from Mission Mangal

Now you are back with Mani sir for Ponniyin Selvan?

Let them make it official.

However, the entire scenario has changed today as film rolls and conventional film cameras have disappeared and everything is shot in digital.

True. Conventional filmmaking itself has changed as today people are using mobile phones to shoot short films on an experimental basis. Now, everything is digital and today all you need is a passion for camera and the ability to visually communicate.

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Updated Date: Sep 03, 2019 14:40:15 IST