“I’ll do another project with Shankar if he asks for me” – PC Sreeram
“It was a photograph,” he said. “Studies never thrilled me… I wasn’t a great student as a kid! I was meddling with my grandfather’s camera once and clicking a picture opened me up to bigger dreams. Once an ambitionless kid, after that moment I was introduced to a new passion for the first time in my life. With time that passion succumbed to evolution and gave birth to a cinematographer,” narrates cinematographer extraordinaire PC Sreeram on that moment when he realized his affinity to visuals.
“I wanted to capture my dreams with a gadget. How do you capture dreams with a gadget? How do you capture your dreams at all? But that innocence and juvenility, is what I believe brought the evolution in me as a cinematographer. Attempting to capture dreams and never being able to accomplish a creation of my full satisfaction forced me to push boundaries.”
Everything he has lighted has turned glorious. Today he is a legend, a visual genius and a competition that his peers from the 80s to the current generation visual experts attempt to surpass, but merely end up looking up with magnifiers trying to locate his position.
And here I am, Sudharshan Giridhar sitting alongside the Guru of cinematographers for a nice little chat, yet looking UP at him. Sometimes there are rewards for not competing at all!
How tired are you of being repeatedly asked how you keep yourself in trend?
Very… How hard is it to acknowledge the fact that we belong to this age too? We witness the changing trends like everybody else do and we adapt to it like everyone.
Evolving technology is a blessing and it is beautiful when you evolve with it. I might choose to work with only certain technologies, but I don't restrict myself from learning about other developments.
The phrase ‘pushing the boundaries’ is synonymous to yourself and Shankar. But how hard is it on your team when you pull them along with you to limits that have never been explored?
It is not… My team is more intelligent than me. I call them my co-travellers, not assistants. We work on barter basis (laughs). I learn from them and they do from me. If not for their urge to push themselves, they wouldn’t be working with me.
In fact, I wouldn’t call my ability to push boundaries particularly a strength, but a necessity. My ‘co-travellers’ are very fast when it comes to adapting and if I have to sustain I must run faster. In a way, they help me push my boundaries.
With all the prosthetics you must have had a lot of tight schedules in ‘I’… Are hard deadlines good for cinematographers?
Very good, in fact. Firstly, deadlines are the most economical approach. Secondly, I’ve had my fair share of prosthetics and makeup, playing a major part in fastening the shooting processes.
During Kuruthi Punal, the patch on Kamal’s forehead would remain intact for only 30 minutes. Then during Paa, the prosthetics on Mr Bachchan would hold for two hours. And in ‘I’, we could go on for 8 hours with the make-up, once Vikram gets ready.
Prosthetics are advancing massively. While it takes the same amount of time to get a person ready, the work stands for more time nowadays and for cinematographers, it is definitely turning out to be a boon.
I must also mention the actors who go through the ordeal of sitting through hours of getting ready, carrying those looks for so many hours and enduring the task of removing the prosthetics. Only relentlessly passionate actors like Vikram do it.
As an experience, how close is ‘I’ to you?
Like my eyes! Was that cinematic enough (laughs)? ‘I’, for me is the first of its type, in terms of the magnitude and particularly, the number of fights and the time it took us to shoot each sequence. I’ve never canned a fight sequence for more than four or five days in my career before ‘I’. But in ‘I’, we shot each fight sequence for around 20 days. I started growing tired with every day of the fight schedules. But at the same time, I started enjoying the agony and the challenges involved. That’s what kept me going during the process.
In this film, we gave more importance to the details for the fight sequence than any other film. Take the gym sequence for example. We lighted up every part of Vikram’s body. It highlighted his muscles, magnifying the work he has put in for the project. And the effort wasn’t unnecessary, considering the theme of the movie which was partly about bodybuilders.
All credits to Shankar and his thirst for exploration, ‘I’ turned out to be an experience that I’d always cherish, be it the challenges, song concepts and China locations, which by the way were something of the sorts that I didn’t even believe existed.
I’ll do another project with Shankar if he asks for me, but the first experience is always a treasure.
As a lay man, how do I appreciate the work of a cinematographer? What do I have to notice in order to make an honest observation?
You do not have to know cinematography to appreciate a work. If you like what you are seeing that’s good cinematography.
If you want to appreciate nature, you do not need knowledge on nature. It is as simple as that.
It’s been fifteen years since Alaipayuthey? The transitions in Mani Ratnam must have looked magnified to you while working on OK Kanmani… What are your observations?
I told Mani he has become much more energetic than he was during Mouna Ragam days. It was a conscious move when we decided to break for some time after Geetanjali. We wanted to work on wider projects and with various people. And it worked!
The recent movies that made you feel proud to be a part of Tamil Cinema…
The best thing about our industry is that the intelligence of Tamil directors is very good.
When I watched Jigarthanda, I spent days wondering how a person could think like that. Moodar Koodam is another fantastic film in the black comedy category. Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom and Soodhu Kavvum – I was zapped. On the other hand we have Thanga Meengal. Had more people watched Saivam, they would have celebrated it!
This is the place I have to be. This is where the brain is!
As far as visuals, which recent movies did you personally enjoy?
Gavemic’s work (Jigarthanda) was very good. Also content wise Jigarthanda blew my mind!
I also loved Ravi Roy’s work in Pisasu. Unlike in other paranormal movies, cinematography in this film was very simple. That’s a new approach to the horror genre, I think.
(Thinks hard and a minute later…) Kallapadam Sriram Santosh had done a neat job capturing the folk art, Koothu!
It makes me sad to say this, but as I said the volume of the films has increased drastically that the good ones aren’t given the time to be recognized.
One change you’d like Tamil Cinema to go through…
The volume… We must come up with a solution to handle the massive volume of movies that we make here. Else we are not giving each film the time to earn what it deserves.
Court, a Marathi Film won the National Award this year. I personally feel there are a thousand Courts in Tamil. But they don't get their due mainly because of the volume of movies that shadow one another.
At Vettri theatre, Chrompet, your name on screen was received with a thunderous applause. Is this moment of a cinematographer being celebrated with such warmth, exclusive to Tamil Cinema?
Absolutely... Idhu Nam Mannukke Uriya Mariyadhai... It is indeed a boon to be a technician in the Tamil Industry. Don't ask me how or why, but our audiences seem to know the technicalities involved in filmmaking and they are very generous in appreciating good works. They celebrate cinema with the purest heart.
What is it with Trains and Mani Ratnam… Agni Natchathiram, Thalapathy, Thiruda Thiruda, Alaipayuthey, Aayutha Ezhuthu and now OKK…
A lot of directors have a habit of telling a story from a particular point of view. That thing or place helps them make the story sound more impactful. Mani probably connects himself well with trains when it comes to telling stories.
Mouna Ragam, Gitanjali, Alaipayuthey and OK Kanmani… What makes you Mani Ratnam’s specialist when it comes to Romantic movies?
You should ask Mani that. As far as I know, I had dates to give him when he asked me for OK Kanmani. After Alaipayuthey, either I didn’t have the dates when he asked me, or I wasn’t in a mindset to take up any projects. In OK Kanmani, everything fell in place.
When it comes to building scripts, taking ideas and inspiration, how much does Mani Ratnam value your and his team’s views?
No matter who Mani approaches to be a part of his team, he discusses his script with them and asks them to come on board only if they agree with his story. As far as I’m concerned, I react to his scripts; nothing more nothing less.
How does it feel to see your co-travellers - M. S. Prabhu, Ramji, Chezhiyan, KV Anand, Tirru, Guhan, Preetha Jayaraman, Balasubramaniem and many others shine in the industry?
One thing about all my assistants is that they have their own point of view or individuality. That is something I think they have all learnt from me – to have a personal opinion.
Meera, Kuruthipunal & Vaanam Vasappadum - When is Director PC coming next?
I don't have any ideas of directing anymore. I might change my mind in the future, but right now, I don't see it happening. Cinematography is what I know well and I intend to do it well.
Thank you Guru!!!