In this interview with Baradwaj Rangan, National Award winning cinematographer PC Sreeram remembers discovering cinema together with Mani Ratnam, long chats at Chennai’s Samco Restaurant and why he feels Mouna Ragam is one of his best works. Edited excerpts from the interview:
There have been director-cinematographer combinations before, like Sreedhar and Vincent and then Ashok Kumar and Mahendran. But somehow, when people talk of director-cinematographer collaborations, the first names that pops up are Mani Ratnam and PC Sreeram. Why do you think this particular combination has become such rock stars in people’s minds?
Actually I think Ashok Kumar and Mahendran were rock stars…their films Nenjathai Killadhe and Udhurippookkal were very good, but the world had started changing. Videos were out in the VHS format and people’s exposure was more. Maybe we came at that time. I wanted to keep breaking conventions and I would show all my anger at work on Mani and he also knew what I was doing. Somehow it worked…I don’t know how but that’s why we don’t do films continuously.
Your immediate predecessors, you spoke of Ashok Kumar and also Balu Mahendra, worked in a more naturalistic kind of lighting, whereas when you made a name for yourself, you kind of broke away from that style. One shot that I distinctly remember in Mouna Raagam is after ‘Oh MegamVandhadho’, when Revathy comes back home and her mother drags her inside to change her out of her clothes. Her mother forces her over the wash basin. Now usually in a bathroom, the light is over the basin, so if you expect anything, it is the light to be on her head. But the light here seems to be coming from underneath. So, I was like “wow, that’s quite amazing”. But that’s not my question. My question is at what point did you start realising that you were finding a style of your own or that you were evolving?
All these things come from personal experiences because whatever you are speaking about, I have experienced it. Because in my house there will be a light on top, so it is only that experience that I translated into film. Also at that time, the film’s sensitivity had increased. I was recreating only what was there, but sometimes it got slightly exaggerated.
For example in Nayakan, in the song ‘Nee Oru Kadhal Sangeetham’, only the screen was fascinating. I was always fascinated by the big screen. If you take Mouna Raagam or Nayakan, we did only what was required for the story.
But in Agni Natchathiram we consciously took a decision and we did a lot of test for that because I had to be very sure of certain things. I remember, for the mirage, I did a test and when it was projected, the operator got scared because he thought something was wrong with the projector. I was trying to do something to create a mirage, because it is called Agni Natchathiram and naturally, you’ll see a mirage.
You said that the cinematographer is the co-author of the film. Would you then say you helped Mani Ratnam find his visual style?
Yes, why not? Mani Ratnam has got his own visual sense. It is not that I gave him this…he has got it. That’s why I was able to push it. Both of us have discussed all these things as film students…not as director and cameraman. It’s like trying for the impossible, I don’t know how else to put it. Mani knew all these things, he’ll be aware but be quite about it. I’ll be very loud and say it out strongly. He’ll quietly say yes. I can go only with people who can understand how it is done.
Another friend with whom you discussed films is Kamal Hassan and there is this famous, what came to be known as the group that used to gather at Samco Hotel. What were some of those conversations like?
See, Samco was the place where a lot of filmmakers joined together. Rudraiyya from Aval Apadithan was also there. I was a film institute student at that time and Aval Apadithan was a cult film. The parallel cinema of Tamil cinema was there. After watching a movie, we would come back to Samco, have a tea and we talked only about cinema. I don’t even remember what, but it was only about cinema. Because at that time, very few people came into the sphere. It was not apt for everybody. Everybody chose to be a doctor, engineer or something else. I chose the film line…we were the rebels of those days and the only place to assemble was Samco.
Your three biggest collaborators are Mani Ratnam, Kamal Hassan and Balki. I’d like you to name one film one film and one shot from each of their films.
I could say one from each. With Mani I can say Mouna Raagam, not only as cinematographer, but as a cinema lover. It had a lot of things. But as a technician I would say Alaipayuthe. With Balki, Paa was challenging to reverse the proportion, to show somebody who is really tall as being short, not by special effects, but by altering perspectives. And with Kamal Hassan, I’ll say Kuruthi Punal.
Watch the complete interview here: