Interviewer: Daya | Camera: Hemananth.B & P.Ganesh Babu | Text: Daya
R.D. Rajasekar is one of the best cinematographers in Kollywood and his youthful and peppy camerawork has helped enhance the visual beauty of many films. A gold medalist in D.F.T., he has worked for over 14 films including block busters like Kaakka Kaakka, Ghajini and Manmadan that were landmarks in Tamil cinema.

He made his debut with Minnale, the youthful romance that proved a hit but it was Kaaka Kaakka that firmly established his style. It also won him the Film Fare Award for the Best Cinematographer (South India) and the Best Cinematographer at the Asian First Film Festival. He has scooped up many awards and accolades since then. However, what keeps him going is his unquenchable passion for films and desire to keep experimenting. Join us as we catch up with him.


BW:
What inspired you to enter the film industry? Why did you choose cinematography?

R.D. Rajasekar: I studied B Sc Zoology in Government College, Kumbakonam and lived at Mayavaram, about 12 kms away. I traveled by train everyday from home and back. There was a theatre close to the college and this is where my friends and I would hangout after college till 4.30, 5 but we can never watch a film till the end as our train bound for home would start around the same time. Hence were forced to leave at the end of the film just before the climax. So, I have never seen the endings of many films and would write my own climax and later check with my friends if that was correct. On many occasions, I was thrilled that what I had written the exactly the way the film ended. So I thought to myself, why not try making a film.


I asked one of my friends how to get into cinema and he told me that there were two film institutes, one in Pune and one in Chennai. I applied for both but that year I did not get any response. Then I joined Marine Biology in Anna University and again applied for both direction and cinematography at the film institute in Chennai. I received an interview call for both and at the same time 2.30 p.m. I was in a dilemma and approached a professor for advice and he gave me a beautiful reply that was a turning point for me. He said if you learn direction, you can never learn cinematography. Direction is a total aesthetic sense. Cinematography is a total technical sense. If you learn cinematography, later you can easily learn direction because that is aesthetic. You write, tune and express what you feel.

" I have

never seen the

endings of

many films "

" I did not have

any kind of

recommendation "


What is your experience working under Rajeev Menon?

Meeting Rajeev Menon the first time was a memorable experience. After I completed college, I realized that I needed to work under a good cinematographer to learn more. I made a list of the best cinematographers and Rajeev topped the list. I did not have any kind of recommendation; I just went straight to his house in the morning around 5.30. He had just returned from jogging and opened the door himself. He was eating sandwiches and offered me some without even knowing me. I learnt hospitality from him.


He asked me if I had studied at the film institute and hearing me he said, “I have two departments- feature films and commercials, which one would you choose?” I told him I want to learn commercials and later do feature films. He seemed pleased with my answer and asked me to come the next day. I went on to work with him for 8 years. It was a like a Gurukulam.

The best part of the training was that when it came to making ad films right from the synopsis, discussion, music, location hunting, scripting to post-production, every member of the team had to be capable of doing everything. So from cinematography to direction, you learn every area. If I can shoot in any area confidently, it’s something I learnt form Rajeev Sir.

How did you get your first break?

My first film was Minnale. Gautham and I were working for Rajeev and at that point he was much junior. He had just completed his engineering and had joined as an assistant director in Minsara Kanavu and was very brilliant. One day we were working and had a casual conversation about work. He shared the story of Minnale with me and asked for my opinion. I asked him to write it as a screenplay and he did this in a few days and I felt it was good. He wanted to cast a new face but I asked him to try Madhavan who had just finished Alaipayudey. I told him not to go through any PRO but approach him directly. He called Madhavan and narrated the script and they became friends. A beautiful thing in the film was Harris Jayaraj who used to do music for many commercials for me. I told Gautham about him and said we can form a new team and asked him to meet him. They met and the rest is history. Harris’s beautiful music made the film bloom. The film inspired youth and was much appreciated.

Besides feature films, you have completed many ad films. What is the difference you find working with both mediums?

In a feature film, whatever you do, once it’s done, you get recognition. You also have a love for the film which will be with you throughout the film, from the first frame to the final. You have the sense of ownership that this is our film and we must do things well and incorporate elements that will get audience appreciation. For an ad film, you emphasize product features and after you shoot, the film when released gets over in 30 seconds, Besides its life is short. However, a feature film is shot on film and has a long life. I love feature films more.

You have worked on three films with director Gautham Menon. What has been your experience with him?


He believes that film making should be simple. He does not want anything to look hard; he wants it to look realistic and youthful. I have worked in Minnale, Kaakka Kaakka and Gharshana and all three were big hits that inspired everyone. Gautham Menon’s specialty is he does not plan everything in advance. When he reaches the sets, he looks at the situation and then plans. This makes everything feel natural. He adapts to the location and sometimes writes in beautiful things on the spot which I find is very positive for his films. He is a writer, he writes the script completely and then stops thinking about it. The process of making the film is team work. It’s done after discussion with the cameraman, editor in a friendly approach. He is not set in his ideas but allows scope for the work to

" Gautham Menon’s

specialty is

he does not plan

everything

in advance "

develop. This is very sportive of him and I really like it. That’s why his films are natural and realistic, it’s the team work. His films with Harris Jayaraj have been hits because he devotes attention to music. He is not adamant that the music should turn out only in a particular way but allows freedom.

Tell us about Harris Jayaraj? Has his work inspired you?

Definitely! After listening to all his songs in Kaakka Kaakka I was immensely inspired. There is a travel song (Ennai Konjam) which is a beautiful piece which I was inspired to picturise in the jeep after listening to it. Suriya and Jo in their youthful exuberance was a plus for the film.

You have worked with Suriya in many films. Tell us something about him.

" When Suriya

listens to the script,

he stays silent "


I have worked with Suriya in Kaakka Kaakka, Ghajini and Sillunu Oru Kaadal. Kaakka Kaakka and Ghajini brought me a lot of recognition and Sillunu Oru Kaadal is a film I really liked. When Suriya listens to the script, he stays silent. However, once he gets into the script he gets completely involved. He continually keeps thinking of how he can perform the character from the first frame to the last. He would ask for takes until he was satisfied and would get into the skin of the character. He is a great artiste.


What is your experience with other stars like Ajith and Vikram? Do you do anything in particular to suit their image?


My first break after Minnale was a song called Pookkaraa with Ajith. Ravi K Chandran was the cameraman. We shot the song and after completion, Ajith called me to find out what I was doing. I told him I was searching for a job. He said he will call me in four days and will do a film with me. As promised he called and told he was starting work on a film called Red and that I was the cameraman. Though the film did not do well commercially, Ajith’s character was full of heroism and I created a special backlight for him. Like a don, I maintained this for him right from the first to the last frame. He liked this very much and I liked the film.

" Ajith’s character

was full of heroism "


I worked with Vikram in Bheema. The film was very stylized and, subtle. Vikram had to have a specific look and I worked a lot on his look enhancing the impact of his performance. Bheema experience was superb and I may do his next film too.

All your films are commercials. Is this a conscious decision?

Film is a commercial media. For a cameraman to get a good break, the subject must be hero-based so that the budget will be big. The films that came to me were like that and it is only natural they had to be commercial to reach everyone. It’s also important that the film is good. There is nothing like I don’t want to do an offbeat film. The circumstances have not worked out.

How would you define your style?

Once a graphic designer told me that all my shots move like a plus mark. I keep the monitor in mind and plan the shot well. My strong area is operation. When I pan from the first to last frame I want the composition to be correct, even in the intermittent frames.

One school of thought says that a cinematographer should not have a distinct recognizable style but rather his work should go along with the script. What do you think?

Each film has a particular kind of script and you do need cinematography that will suit the script. However, I feel it needs to bring my work recognition; otherwise it is of no use. I have to do something that shows my style. When the audience is exposed to a particular person’s work, they must be able to recognize it, for instance, this is RD’s cinematography or this sounds like Rahman’s music. There is nothing wrong in it.

You have worked with Nayanthara, Trisha and Shriya. Do share your experience.

I have just finished Jaggubhai with Shriya. She has a young, glamorous and bubbly character and plays Sarath Kumar’s daughter in the film. I feel she has given her best performance in Jaggubhai. She was involved in her character in every scene and her performance was very beautiful.

" Nayanthara

is extremely

hard-working "


Nayanthara is extremely hard-working. She would ask for her scenes beforehand and plan her performance. I have worked with her right from the start of her career in Ghajini and she has grown a lot since then. I saw a lot of difference in her dance and performance in Sathyam. She is very sincere and I like her performance very much.

Trisha is a very natural actress and gets involved with her character and dance sequences. When she comes on the set, she is cool and you wonder if she has heard the story or read the script, but she creates magic when she gets into the scene.


What was it like working with director K.S.Ravikumar?

He is a workaholic. Before a film’s post production is completed, he has finished half of his next film. He told me the story of Jaggubhai and said that he was going to write the dialogues. He also stated he would finish writing the screen play in fifteen days and to my surprise he finished it in just ten days. Usually translating a script to a screen play is something that people take a long time to do. Once he gets into a script he’s a workaholic. He does not think of anything else other than the shooting from morning to evening. If one has to finish shooting within a deadline of twenty four days he will plan to finish four days earlier. You can split his career as before and after Dasavatharam. After this film, his hard work has increased. Earlier he spent a long time in planning; now he works even more to make his films not just well-planned but also more beautiful and young as well. His involvement inspires me.

Has there been any risky situation that you have faced during the course of your career?

In Gharshana, the Telugu version of Kaakka Kaakka, there was a set built on water. One morning at 4.30, we set off in a small parisal (boat). We kept the camera above the water and used it in full rotational movement. At one point, the boat slipped and the camera and everything fell in to water. I kept the camera on my head but did not know how to come out of the water. I walked for almost one whole hour till my friends swam and rescued me. Risk is there everywhere but I feel very protective about the camera because it is my life

Gautham-Harris split shocked us all. Having worked with that team in three films, what do you feel?

" I kept the camera

on my head

but did not know

how to come out

of the water "


We are all good friends. I came to know the news only after I saw it in the press and was shocked. I have never asked either of them about it and neither have they told me anything. Their combination is very realistic and beautiful and the songs they bring out are very inspiring. In cinema nothing is permanent, everything can change and I hope they come together.

Which do you consider your best film?

All films that got me recognition are best films. I did a film called ‘Four the People’. We shot it in just 21 days and the film had six songs. It was a super duper hit and the song Lajjavathiye became very popular. Director Jayaraj had completed thirty nine art films and this was his fortieth. He had won the National Award four times and I thought I could do an art film and try to get a National Award. He told me, “I saw Kaakka Kaakka and the entire film was based on your style of cinematography. This film needs motion, your kind of searching camera work and you do it”. It was completed in twenty days that simply flew by.


What do you think about the trend of cinematographers turning directors? Do you think they have an advantage?

If you go to a tea shop the guy who makes the tea will dream of becoming the tea master and the tea master will want to become the owner of the shop. Each step is a growth in itself. Similarly, first a villain turns hero and then a director. A cameraman becoming a director is not a big thing because a cinematographer takes fifty percent of the burden of the director. The question is whether he can write a story, screenplay and this is an aesthetic sense. You can learn cinematography and be a director. KV Anand has recently proved it successfully.


What are your current projects?

I am doing a Telugu project with Allu Arjun as hero. I had done Happy Days and Garshana in Telugu earlier and this is my third Telugu film. The director is Gunashekar who did Okkadu. Arya is the main anti-hero and has a good role in this film. After that, I team up again with K.S.Ravikumar and Vikram for a Mohan Natarajan film.

What is your ambition?

I want to be immersed in films totally. I want to do a film in Hollywood and it is my dream. I want to go there and work as a camera operator under a big DoP. There they become DoPs only around the age of sixty and not immediately when they come out of the Film Institute. After that I want to be a DoP for a Hollywood film.

Do you think we have it in us to handle Hollywood?

I would like to share these lines, “As much strength that one believes one has in his wings, he will reach that much further in the sky”. Whatever we can do, we must do and keep on trying and winning. I believe that if you try you will get it and I am trying always.

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