As a child, you remember photographs. In my case, it was a very scary photograph — a black-and-white picture in my ancestral home in Kerala. These structures are generally dark, with a shaft of light falling on the centre courtyard. And over the day, this light used to travel around the photos on the walls. And this one photo — it was my great-grandfather — used to seem alive. Every time the light changed, it looked like he would change. Outside home, it was about Nature. I sketched a lot. When you sketch, you see people and landscapes better because you observe them more minutely than you would if you are taking a photograph.
We used to play hockey, and one of my jobs was to stand on the terrace and see if it would rain. I loved watching clouds form. The green of the grass against a dark cloud was more interesting than the green in regular light. And when it rained, the grass would change even more with the moisture. All this helped me when I did a series of films for Kerala Tourism. The theme was Nature in a state of transition.
My favourite cinematographers are everyone who teaches me while I am watching a movie. But if I had to pick one, it would be Subrata Mitra, Ray's cinematographer. Every time I start a film, I dedicate it to someone I love very much — say, my mother. It inspires me to do my best, to look at the film not as work but as something joyful. It motivates me to treat the film as a tribute to that person. I dedicated Iruvar to Subrata Mitra.
Travel a lot. That is how you become unique. I am a big fan of Sven Nykvist, who shot Bergman's films. So I went to Sweden for a few months. Over there, the Sun is rarely overhead, at the top. So the people celebrate top light. That inspired me to shoot the Mehboob mere song in Khalid Mohammed's Fiza. We shot with Sushmita Sen in the Rajasthan desert. There was a lot of top light.
The content comes before you make decisions about the cinematography. Take Roja, which begins with the capture of a terrorist in Kashmir. Normally, such a scene would be an excuse to show the mountains. But in his screenplay, Mani Ratnam had decided that the first time the audience would see snow was when the heroine first sees snow. So that decided the way we shot the sequence where the terrorist was captured.
After my studies in FTII, Pune, I went to Arunachal Pradesh on an assignment. We were in the forest. The tribal boys with me suddenly stopped and began to whisper among themselves. I asked them what it was. They said they'd seen tiger prints. I looked ahead and could only see tall grass. I wondered if there was indeed a tiger there, preparing for a nice South Indian meal. I asked the boys what they would do if a tiger came out. They said they would run very fast and climb a tall tree very quickly. I said I could not run fast nor climb a tree quickly. They said, if you find yourself actually facing the tiger, you will find yourself able to run very fast and climb a tree very quickly. So everything is already inside you. At the right situation, it will come out.
When we did Roja or Dil Se, we did not have much equipment. It's not about the tools. It's about imagination. For Chaiya Chaiya, we wanted to capture that childhood feeling of being on a train, so we had those shots where we go in and out of tunnels, which is hugely exciting to a kid. In Iruvar, there were huge crowd shots with complex camera movements, and you are trying to film before the light goes. It's like making a sandcastle before the waves wash it away. But digital has its advantages, too. Thuppakki was my first digital film. We were able to use hidden cameras on the streets as the hero kept walking like a regular guy. So it's important to retain that sense of childlike wonder. The learning should never stop.
In the West, they tend to shoot in a natural style. In India, whether it's music or painting or a dance form like Kathakali, there is a decorative element. It's a different culture and it's important to honour that. In Roja, we wanted to shoot the Rukkumani song by a waterfall. But we wanted to be different, so we decided to shoot at night. But it was a tough area to shoot in. The cables were not long enough to provide light there, and I used mirrors to reflect light. When I was invited to the American Society of Cinematographers, they said they made me a member because I had different visual sensibilities. I did not imitate the West.
Books motivate you, especially autobiographies. They are very inspiring. They tell you that everyone who's successful has gone through hardship and negativity. They help you deal with things. You should feel that you are special. Even if I am doing big, commercial films, there's a plus side: it helps me fund my experimental films. I can do this with my own money, and not go around begging some producer. Also, earlier, they used to recognise only arty films. But my National Awards have also been for mainstream films like Kalapani, Iruvar and Dil Se. The first instinct you have should be pure. Instead of saying it's just a commercial film, you should see how much artistry you can add to it.
To make my documentary, A Farmer from Kuttanad, I spent a lot of time with the farmer. We learn that one plus one equals two. But he taught me that one plus one is never two. We get married, have a child — and suddenly, it's three people. You sow a mango seed and you get many trees. So what you do should result in a lot more than what you learn. The first thing you should do when you start thinking about a film is: Is this enough?