For a culture that devours cinema and the discussions that follow, we've been unkind to the visual quality of films. Most of us can, at any time, rattle off a hundred punch dialogues from the films we've watched. The same goes for music and background scores. A single beat would suffice for some of our friends to start air-drumming the entire history of an instrument and how they've been used in our films.
Yet this devotion we find so commonly with reference to the aural arts, have not always been associated with the visual. Though it's impossible to find a film lover who isn't a fan of a music director, we know so many people who can't name a single cinematographer. And for all the songs we've collected in the form of cassettes, CDs and MP3s, it's not like we've taken the trouble to create a folder of JPEGS to save some of the most beautiful frames we've seen.
But if you're willing to start such a catalogue, Santosh Sivan would be a fitting title for the first folder. One of the few stars of his field and the only Indian cinematographer to be inducted into the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), the man has created timeless images that are as powerful as they are pretty, as deep as they are vast. Below is a list with a few such images, classified film-wise, even though these screenshots fail to do justice to their real beauty.
The DOP's first Hindi film has an obvious visual quality that's unlike any other, especially in the portions before the opening credits. Most shots have just one (key) light illuminating the face of a very young Aamir Khan, while everything else is pitch dark. The high-contrast mis-en-scene, the play with shadows and Aamir's voiceovers make Raakh one of the 'purest' of Indian noirs.
For a film about a sculptor, it is incredible to see how Sivan sculpts sunlight to reveal its million forms. A favorite is a shot of the Perumthachan (Thilakan) shown chiseling a stone to find the statue beneath. With every blow, see how light splinters through the thatched wall to fill the room, giving the master a divine glow. Equally impressive is the film's study of profiles through a series of close-ups, not just of the actors but also of the sculptures.
A lot has been already been written about the sun-bathed visuals of Thalapathy. For the story of Karna, the son of Surya, isn't it fitting to see the Sun make timely appearances, like that NRI uncle who makes it just in time for his son's graduation?
But my favorite is an excellent example of frame-within-a-frame photography. See how the walls of the train frame not only the gorgeous mountains and fields in the background but also a desperate mother struggling to retrieve her son after a change of mind.
You may revisit Roja for its music but you stay there for its images. The landscapes, covering the entire length of the country, are devastatingly beautiful. They needed to be…for Roja is a story about people who are willing to die (and kill) for their land.
This is where his images take a poetic form. Meenakshi waits for her young friend to return with glass bangles and bindis from the market. Framed among tall white attu vanchi flowers, wearing a white pattu pavada, the adolescent Meenakshi cannot hold back her excitement to try out her new gifts.
As she settles on the riverside, she finds a broken shard of mirror floating next to her. She picks it up and uses it to put on her bindi when a new kind of pain engulfs her. That's when she drops the red bindi, which stains her pure white skirt. The next shot is that of her puberty ceremony as we see her wearing pink. Can you think of another coming-of-age sequence that's as touching?
Despite being a massive film mounted on a huge canvas, it's the extreme close-ups of inanimate objects that defines the film's jail portions. Now, this can probably be the crew showing off the abilities of the film's art director, Sabu Cyril. It may even be an emphasis on the devices that mark a bureaucracy which treated Indian prisoners as mere numbers. "An Indian's back is not a footboard yo!"
The cutest of Sivan's films, Halo opens with a low-angle shot of a teacher in a convent school "looking down" on her students. We learn right then that we're going to witness a film through the eyes of children. Also, notice the "halo" around the dog created by the horn of the record player? What a tribute to the HMV logo, no?
Lastly, I have never been able to get over the image of the bald kid combing.
Arguably, the most powerful film Sivan has directed. Usually, this form of a close-up has only embarrassed the Telugu and Tamil film industries and its culture of making item numbers. But this is a shot we can be proud of. Commonly referred to as the "navel shot" see how effectively it has been shown in The Terrorist. Observe the shot as Malli looks at the mirror to see herself for that one last time.
We then cut to a close up of her navel as it is getting covered when a bomb gets strapped on. Notice how this symbol of childbirth is being hidden by a device that is meant to cause death?
If you listen closely, you can hear a hundred keyboards clicking and clacking to describe the amazing cinematography of this masterpiece. They write about the iconic balcony scene, or the two levels of the Nayakar Mahal conversation between Prakash Raj and Mohanlal. They may even write about the close-ups, usually reserved for one person, being used to capture two people (Iruvar) throughout the film. But this image of Aishwarya Rai is my favourite. This too is a close-up, during the song 'Hello Mister Ethir Katchi'. And like other close-ups in the film, this one too is of two people (Pushpavalli and Kalpana). One face looks away, while the other, almost hauntingly, stares back at you. That look is for Anandan. Is she real or is it an illusion of his deceased wife?
Again, there's an entire series of books that are just waiting to be written about the visuals of Dil Se. But let's start with this one. The line goes, "Mujhe maut ki god mein sone de, teri rooh mein jism dubone de," in this visual which almost forewarns us of the film's ending. But is the ending a tragedy or the ultimate stage of love? See how it's a mirror image of Michaelangelo's Pieta. If someone's already written the book, do send me a copy.
How can a massive film, starring a superstar like Shah Rukh Khan, ending with him winning a massive battle, be an anti-war film? Have a look at this image. The film opens with Asoka's guru giving him a sword, explaining how it can only see blood.
Later, after seeing the devastation he has caused in the war, see how the sword blinds him? It is when he throws it away that he begins his journey into Bhuddism.
It's not new to show a tear in the blanket as a sign of poverty or a family heading towards ruin. But when a group of people come to book Kunjikuttan for a kathakali performance, we see them through this tear. Indicative of Kunjikuttan's shrinking worldview, he agrees to perform and a bottle of alcohol is inserted into this blanket. His worried daughter is then framed through the same hole as we cut to the visual of a falling coconut tree branch, another sign of where this family is headed.
It is obvious that this song from the Malayalam film is a tribute to Ravi Varma's paintings. Painstakingly recreated, even the casting of the actress was influenced by her similarity to Varma's models. Each of these shots has already been created inside what looks like the wooden frames of paintings. But these shots also zoom into them, as though we too are being transported into their respective worlds.
This article is not to say to that these images are his alone. Of course, the directors, writers, and art directors too have played a part in creating them. Honorable mentions include a dozen other films such as Urumi, Raavanan, Thuppaki and dare I say it, Anjaan. But that's for another JPEG folder after a few more films.