He’s so busy he had to say no to Kamal Haasan five times. Arguably India’s most sought after cinematographer, Ravi K Chandran actually found the dates to talk at length to Behindwoods. Find out why he has a framed letter of Amitabh Bachchan in his house, the difference between Surya and Aamir Khan in Ghajini, why Mani Ratnam and he work so well, which Tamil directors he would like to shoot for, the cinematographer he considers his guru, and his secret tip to becoming a great cameraman.
Cinematographer who said no to Kamal five times.

BW: Did Kamal first ask you to shoot Dasavatharam?

RKC (laughs) I’m proud to say he is a friend. I can hardly believe it myself. I grew up being a fan, and today to even get a call from him – irrespective of whether it is to ask me to shoot for him or not – is an honor. The same with writer Sujatha. I grew up reading him, and now to have worked with him closely is something I still can’t get over. Yes, Kamal did ask me but unfortunately I couldn’t give him the dates he wanted. He asked me to shoot Marmayogi also, but I had to disappoint him there as well. In fact, he had asked me for Virumandi, Thenali – but each time, I had to say no. I don’t know what it is: whenever Kamal has a shoot in mind, my dates are tied up.

What do you think of cinematography in Tamil cinema?

From my college days I remember it as being impressive. Right from Balu Mahendra and Ashok Kumar to the cameramen now have been revolutionaries in the art. Hindi cinema and Malayalam cinema looks to them for artistic and technical excellence. You could say Tamil cinematographers have been the most inspiring in the field.

Tamil movies struggle to be recognized. Hindi movies get all the attention. Why?

Hindi movies simply have a larger Diaspora audience.

More recently, however, Tamil films have begun to aim to be grand and awesome.

Grand is not necessarily in budget or scale alone but in terms of ideas. In this sense, for me Paruthiveeran is awesome.


Kamal asked me to also

shoot Marmayogi


On more than one cinematographer working on the same film

A cameraman commits to different dates for shooting, and for some unexpected reason, the shooting is delayed, but he has to keep his commitment to another film, and so another cameraman moves in and completes the film. This happens in Hollywood, too. Nestor Almendross, a famous cinematographer while working on a movie called Days of Heaven, had to move on because it took too much time to complete. Another cameraman completed the remaining film. But Oscars were awarded to both cinematographers. That has happened here with Anniyan: Ravi Varman worked on it after Manikandan’s dates were over. Both were recognized and awarded. It has happened to me as well: after Venu had finished in Minasara Kanavu, I went on to shoot the rest. Both of us were credited, both got awards.

The relationship between director and cinematographer

Well, as long as there are no ego hassles, it works out smoothly.

The awards you have received?

Quite a few. In Malayalam cinema, Tamil cinema, Filmfare awards. Around 30 or 40 awards.

The project you’re shooting now.

One is directed by Aditya Chopra and stars SRK. Chopra directs quickly and is up to date with filmmaking techniques even though he is making a film after many years. So much so, that we are now ahead of our shooting schedule. That’s one reason I even got this holiday and am able to speak to you! The other, of course, is Ghajini.

On the differences between the Tamil and Hindi version of Ghajini.

Many differences. First of all, in Hindi cinema they now use synch-sound. This means spot dubbing – you record the actor’s voices as they speak and emote using a mike on the spot itself. It isn’t dubbed again in the studio. The sound is more natural this way. Every modulation in the actor’s voice is captured. Asin is speaking Hindi in her own voice. That will be another interesting difference. Rahman has scored the songs here. In Tamil, the cinematography by R.D.Rajasekar was very good- he even got an award for it. What we’ve been trying to do is to see if we can, as crew and cast, do something even better. This is director Murgadoss’s first outing in Hindi and we all thought it might be difficult for him with a new language, but he finds it easy. And in fact, Aamir Khan and the director have even become good friends. That’s the kind of rapport with which they are working! Murgadoss is going to become a very big director after the Hindi Ghajini.

For just one particular

shot, Aamir spent an entire year in training


The difference here between Surya and Aamir Khan

With Surya, I’ve worked on only one movie. That was Aythutha Eluthu. We didn’t have much time to interact there at all. With Aamir I’ve worked on three films. Surya is a younger actor, Aamir more experienced but both are hard working and very committed. Both are powerful actors. At 42, Aamir worked towards a six pack body. For just one bare-bodied scene,he spent a whole year developing his six pack. That's his dedication.

On the close understanding between Mani Ratnam and you

Even before we worked on several projects, I was his assistant for two films. From then on, we understood how each other worked, how each other thought. He would treat me as a brother.

And now you mostly seem to be doing Hindi movies.

See, those days Bollywood used to hire equipment from Madras studios or even come and shoot here, but now they’ve got all the state of the art equipment and work very professionally. The lighting team is very efficient and so it is less stressful to work there. Also, Hindi movies have a worldwide audience. The work that I do is recognized internationally. For instance, the work that I did for Kannathil Muthamitaal was appreciated here but what I did for Black was noticed abroad. Hindi movies have a wider reach. Unfortunately, Tamil cinema doesn’t have that kind of reach yet.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Mani Ratnam-who is more interesting to work with?

It is easy to work with Mani Sir because we communicate so well. He is a tough taskmaster, does everything quickly but without compromising on quality. Bhansali takes a lot of time to set up a shot, and this gives me more time to set up lighting. His main focus is on being lyrical in every shot, and so he ponders a lot, giving the cameraman time to think of setting up the shot. Mani Sir will be more realistic, use available light more than artificial lighting. So, they have two very different filmmaking styles.

From Virasat to Black: what have you learnt about your craft?

I’ve learnt from my mistakes. You could say Black’s quality is the result of the twenty years of learning the art and craft of cinematography the hard way- making mistakes and like net practice in tennis, constantly improving your game, your serve, your art. It doesn’t come overnight.

Why do Hindi movies look more glossy than Tamil?

Surya once asked me: How come your work looks better in Hindi than Tamil cinema? I answered simply: the make-up and costume they use there is of a more sophisticated kind. Several of them are trained internationally and bring a certain amount of glossiness to the look of a scene. But in Tamil cinema, the characters are realistic, more down to earth. Not urban, rich and hip. Take Vijay in Kuruvi – he plays a local guy, an ordinary chap. So the make up here can only be low key. But in Sivaji, Rajini is playing someone glamorous, and so the make up is rich. So in one you get the realistic look of a Ram Gopal Verma movie, in the other the glamorous look of an SRK movie.

The struggle of South Indian artists in Bollywood

Not really. Actually, we are hugely respected there. And anyway, what is this South Indian-North Indian divide? We are all Indians and pay our taxes to the same country. So many South Indians are big there – Hema Malini, Sri Devi, Aishwarya Rai- and here we have Simran, Jyothika, Kusbhoo. We are one big movie family, that’s all.

Should directors know camera movements, etc?

Not necessary at all. The most important thing is the script. They should have a good script and leave the actual shooting to us. If you look at assistant directors in Tamil cinema: they make a debut movie with a good story. That’s what gets them the job of making their own movie. If you see Ghajini, there is no need for Murgadoss to know the camera. R.D. Rajasekar knows enough for both of them! The strength of Ghajini is the story.


The most inspiring

cinematographers in India

have all come from Tamil cinema.

Do actors request you to shoot them from certain angles alone?

Well, you know, they are only human. So, yes, they would like you to shoot them from certain angles, use a certain kind of lighting, to be consistent with the style of their acting. But this comes over time, with trained actors. If you take the early films of Vijay, for instance – is the look he has there the same today? He has realized what looks and angles work for him, what his fans have come to enjoy, and would like the cameraman to tease out that typical Vijay style from every shot. So he request particular shots and angles.

In Bollywood the script and shot break down is ready two months ahead. This is not so in Tamil movies.

I think this is why the budgets overshoot in Tamil movies and there are delays.

What are the Tamil movies that have amazed you without using big technology?

16 Vaidyanale. It’s stunning. And many classic Tamil movies.

How impressed are you with Dasavatharam?

I haven’t seen it yet.

Your experience with Amitabh Bachchan?

When he was given the best actor Filmfare award for Black, he thanked all the technical crew by name but forgot to mention me. Apart from him and the director, I was the only other one who had got an award for Black, so I was puzzled but forgot about the incident. One month later, he calls my office and finds out my address. And sends a handwritten note of apology for forgetting to mention me that night, called my work great, and included a bouquet and a box of chocolates. Such an iconic actor needn’t have made such a gesture. I have the letter framed in my house.

Though you don’t have the dates, if you could work with Tamil directors, who would they be?

Selvaraghavan, Ameer, Bala.

Your other projects?

Nandita Das’s In Such Times, two movies with SRK, one directed by Aditya Chopra, the other by Karan Johar, which also stars Kajol.

Cinematographers you admire

Vincent master, Loknath, and Karnan from the old days. I like the way Karnan made films. Balu Mahendra, Ashok Kumar, Santosh Sivan, PC Sriram, Ramjee, Rajiv Menon, Balasubramaniam, Mahi, K.V. Anand.

Your guru?

My brother Ramchander. Rajiv Menon, who introduced me to Ad films.

Anything to say to young cinematographers?

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Don’t play it safe. Take risks. Balu, P.C., Sivan –they have all experimented, created benchmarks and set trends. It’s a privilege to make films, don’t squander the chance.

Director - K.v. Anand Actress Tamanna Cinematographer - Ravi varman Actress Divya Director Perarusu