Since making his debut in 1999 with the Malayalam film Jalamarmaram, cinematographer Ravi Varman has gone on to shoot more than 25 films across languages. These include collaborations with directors like Anurag Basu on Barfi! and Jagga Jasoos, Sanjay Leela Bhansali on Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela and Rajkumar Hirani on Sanju. Here he tells us about how he landed his first film with director T.K. Rajeev Kumar and what that experience taught him:
I had already decided that I didn’t want to work as an assistant anymore; I only wanted to work as a cameraman. I approached all my friends with regards to this. As I met with everybody, they asked me to present a show reel of the work I had already done, but I didn’t have any of that with me.
I spent about 15-20 days like this. I had only Rs. 5000 in my bank at that time. I told my wife to save Rs. 2000 and decided to spend the remaining Rs.3000. I told her that if ever there was a need to spend the Rs. 2000 that we had saved, we would go ahead and commit suicide because I was not willing to struggle anymore, or work any longer as an assistant. It was during that time that Mr. T.K.Rajeev Kumar asked me to do a film with him, I didn’t need anything more than that.
He (Rajeev Kumar) told us that we were going to shoot in 16 mm blowup and that the shoot would only last for about 11 days. I was wondering how, in a world with so much competition, I could shoot a good quality film with 16 mm blowup. I didn’t know what to do.
That was when my wife asked me whether it was my camera. Obviously not. She asked if I was making any investment in the movie. Again, no. She explained to me that since I was not making any investment in the movie, I could use this opportunity to make my own movie, my own showreel.
So I thought a lot about others who had made good movies using a 16mm blowup. That’s when I thought of Govind Nihalani and I got a little confidence. I studied the manual books about American cinematography and decided that I could use those procedures. So we went ahead with the shoot.
Make Do With The Resources At Hand
In that shoot even if I messed up a little, I used to get scolded by the director that I wasted some film. So we rotated the film with our finger and exposed the clap. That’s it. 13 rolls, 16 mm blowup, but we will get the movie with just 11 rolls. We didn’t waste a single shot.
There is one shot where there is a dead body for which we should have ideally used a crane. But we did not have the budget to use a crane. So what we did was, I stood at the front of a bullock cart and the assistant directors pulled the cart from behind which caused the front to lift up. We used that instead of using a crane. So they basically hung from behind and I held the camera in my hands and took the shot.
Make Sure You Learn Something From Every Shoot
During the last day of shoot, we shot in Tirunelveli. The shot was that there is a train track and the camera was set up on top of a bridge overlooking the train track and as the train was moving, two kids would be running parallel to the moving train. This was the shot. I was on top of the bridge and the director was downstairs and from below he instructed me to switch on the camera as the train enters. There was only forty feet of footage left. The director asked me to save twenty feet for the rolling titles.
I agreed and we started the train shot, the first time, the train went away quickly. So the next time I expected the train to come at the same speed. When the director called action the second time I started rolling. After we completed the shot the director came up to me and asked me if the shot went well. I said yes. He asked me if I was able to get the footage of the entire train leaving. I said, “I didn’t get the entire train because I cut the shot when I had used up twenty feet of the film.” He was extremely angry with me. He scolded me and asked me to use my common sense.
He said that I couldn’t blindly do everything that was asked of me and sometimes I have to think for myself and make my own decisions. I still have that image in my head, of me standing silently with tears in my eyes at having been scolded. Immediately I understood that if I didn’t like something, I should not do it no matter who asked me to do it. Do only what you like. I understood that in the last shot of my first film. To this day, I keep saying yes when someone asks me to take a shot in a particular way, but I end up bringing in what I want into every shot.