Their camerawork speaks for them

| Updated on: May 12, 2011
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Despite all their clout on the sets, most cinematographers keep a low profile.

Ravi K Chandran is a name much respected by moviegoers in south India. The audience often breaks into applause when the cinematographer's name appears in the credits, he gets recognised on the street, fans ask for his autograph.

Film buffs in Bollywood are equally appreciative of his outstanding camerawork, but the average moviegoer, alas, might be hard put to identify Chandran's work, or him.

That situation might have changed last week when the DoP (Director of Photography) hit Mumbai's film gossip columns — for entirely professional reasons, let me add hastily. According to the rumour mills, Chandran had walked out mid-way through Agneepath , producer Karan Johar's ambitious and highly publicised remake of the 1990 Amitabh Bachchan film.

Chandran denied a walkout, or differences between Johar and the film's director. He had committed to work for two months on Agneepath , he said, and having done that, was now returning to Chennai for Murugadoss' Tamil film 7 Aum Arivu .

But the whispers haven't stopped. For Agneepath is, to use a recently notorious phrase, ‘a high-value target' for the filmi rumour machine. This is a film that gave Bachchan one of his most celebrated roles and more than 20 years after the film's release, the actor is still asked to revisit those lines that begin “ Pura naam Vijay Dinanath Chauhan…” Agneepath is also the title of a poem by the actor's father, Harivanshrai Bachchan, and one that the son often recites on stage. In short, this is a film with pedigree.

Fuelled by fame and controversy (Johar handed the lead role to Hrithik Roshan and not Abhishek Bachchan), the publicity surrounding the remake started long before the film's shooting did. It comes, after all, from one of the industry's biggest production houses, headed by one of its most-high-profile members.

And Chandran chose to walk out of this ? Defy the powerful Karan Johar? When the story hit the gossip columns, many Mumbai readers must have first asked themselves, hey, who's this guy? Then they must have smiled knowingly when his credits rolled: Viraasat , Dil Chahta Hai , Black , Saawariya , Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi , My Name is Khan . Ah yes; the connection's made. Cinema is a visual medium; viewers instinctively remember scenes from a film they've seen even if they don't recall much else about it.

The unfortunate fact that he is not as well known in Mumbai as, say, a minor actor or semi-clad starlet, is due to the nature of the cinematic beast that celebrates actors above all. In Bollywood, make that stars above all.

The original Agneepath , for instance, is known as an Amitabh Bachchan film; the new one will, no doubt, be talked about as the Hrithik Roshan one. As for the films' directors, could you name either? I rest my case. (In case you wanted to know, they're Mukul Anand and Karan Malhotra.)

There are just a handful of Bollywood directors who take precedence over their stars. A Yash Chopra film is known — and sold — as just that; the stars are secondary. Ditto for Rajkumar Hirani and Karan Johar — the Munnabhai films and the latter's K-series are always referred to by their directors' names. So, too, are the reclusive Sanjay Leela Bhansali's films — even when they flop resoundingly, as Saawariya and Guzaarish did.

The rest, unfortunately, are often overshadowed by their stars when it comes to recognition off the sets. What, then, of cinematographers? Or writers, editors, set designers and all the other technicians without whose contribution no film of any quality is possible? All relegated to the backroom — certainly not by their directors or stars, but by most moviegoers.

It is one of the travesties of film-making, that most collaborative of creative arts.

Especially when so much of a film's fate rests in the DoP's and editor's hands (the DoP is usually the second highest-paid technician, next only to the director). I remember Ram Gopal Varma telling me some years ago that really, direction was not rocket science. “All you need is a very clear vision of what you want. Your cinematographer will do the rest by translating it for you onscreen,” he had said.

As for stars, they make sure to keep their DoPs happy: they don't want to take any chances with the men who can make them look good (or not) onscreen. (“Remember how beautiful Preity Zinta looked in Dil Chahta Hai ? Then think of how she looked in Lakshya ,” remarks Chandran caustically.) Despite all their clout on the sets, however, most DoPs keep a low profile; it's part of their professional makeup. Allow me to recount a telling remark from an interview I did with Chandran some years ago. How should viewers measure a DoP's success, I had asked: do we applaud great visuals or unobtrusive camerawork? His reply: “If a film tells a story well, the cinematography has worked. It's as simple as that. Cinema is a visual medium and if the story is told well, it means the audience has understood the film visually.” Now, Chandran is a man not given to false modesty or humility; his statement underlines his belief that the film always comes first.

All good cinematographers surrender to their director's vision — just consider the dramatic differences in the mood and attitude of Chandran's Saawariya , Ghajini , Black and Dil Chahta Hai . Or between Devdas and Rang De Basanti , two of cinematographer Binod Pradhan's acclaimed movies. Or Tassaduq Hussain's Omkara and Kaminey .

A lensman's work flies or sinks along with his director's fortunes. You may not have particularly liked the overblown romanticism of Devdas or the infamous blue lighting of Saawariya . Don't blame the lensman, point your finger at the director instead. It's his vision that the former is paid to bring to life. The question is: how well does he do it within those parameters? Let Chandran have the last word on this one: “I didn't get a single nomination for Saawariya . Even though Mani Ratnam called me up to say it was some of the most outstanding camerawork he had seen in recent times. If the film sells, the cinematography gets praised. If not, no one talks about it.”

Published on May 12, 2011

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