Before Ravi K Chandran became one of India’s busiest and best cinematographers, he was a Malayalam cinema regular whose name we would associate with blockbusters like Mammootty’s The King and Suresh Gopi’s Ekalavyan. It has taken him more than two decades to finally return to the industry where he began his journey. He’s back with Bhramam but not just as cinematographer but also as its director, his second after Yaan. Days before its release on Amazon Prime Video, the man who shot classics like Dil Chahta Hai and Black explains why he needs to hide behind the camera, even when he’s directing. Excerpts from the interview:
We’re speaking today a week before the release of Bhramam, your second film as director. What’s the nervousness like? Is it more when you’re directing or is it the same as when you’re cinematographer?
As a director, when you finish a film, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s now for the audience to decide. When you shoot, once it’s been edited, you are done. I’m used to that process now and I become slightly detached after my job is done. I try not to be worried anymore. I think it’s my defence mechanism.
How does the credit part of a film work? Say, you shoot a movie beautifully. You’ll still get credit despite the final outcome. But when you’re the director, doesn’t the responsibility make it more complicated?
Once you’re a director all the pluses and minuses are directed towards you. If the film is bad, they’ll say you wasted an opportunity. If it’s good, they’ll say you scored big. As a director, there’s a lot more responsibility. You’re not just looking at one department. Colour, costumes, makeup, performances…everything becomes one man’s mistake. As a cameraman, if the story is not good, I cannot do anything. But here, the producer has trusted me with money. When you walk into the set as a cameraman, no one is waiting for me with questions.
But when you’re the director, 200 people are looking at you. Luckily, I shot Bhramam too, so I had the option of hiding behind my camera. I’ll first figure out the lighting and only then start talking to the crew. I was reading an interview of Francis Ford Coppola’s. He was doing a small black-and-white film around 10 or 15 years ago. When he walks onto the set, everyone is thinking this is ‘Francis Ford Coppola!’ and expects to be blown away with every shot. Coppola simply set up a normal close-up and everyone looked at him with disappointment. He’s the director of Godfather! But he might have just needed a simple close-up. It’s that kind of a feeling. To avoid all these expectations, I have my camera to hold on to. I fix the frame and then think of answers because I’m not trained to speak to actors. I got used to it after a couple of days of feeling unnerved.
Is direction a challenge you enjoy?
Direction gives you a lot to do. Unfortunately, the pandemic came in the middle of Bhramam and a lot needed to be done on Zoom. I couldn’t travel for post production and it was completed virtually. I would love to do a film where I can sit and do everything. Direction is a lot more challenging and energy-consuming. After the trailer, I’ve been getting a lot of offers to direct from producers and actors in Tamil, Hindi and Telugu. But I’ve asked them to see the film and then decide.
It’s an interestingly-cut trailer. I have seen Andhadhun but there seems to be a conscious effort to make Bhramam feel like a brighter, more colorful remake…
Andhadhun is a black comedy too. Only thing is they chose to shoot it with less colour to make it moody. With Bhramam, I wanted to make it look like a Pedro Almodovar film…like a Spanish film. I wanted brighter colours with more blues and yellows in the scheme. I wanted even the lighting to be more mixed. For the score, I wanted a Tarantino-ish feel so I pushed Jakes Bejoy to give me a Jazzy score. I didn’t want much piano because it’s already there as a part of the script. I had some definite ideas for the casting part too.
The decision to cast Shankar in the role of the yesteryear star was a great touch.
When I saw Andhadhun on the first day, I spoke to a producer to get him to buy the rights for the remake. He asked me who should be cast for that role; I said Shankar. If Shankar had said no, I wouldn’t have made the movie. He was my only choice. His contemporaries are people like Mohanlal and Mammukka. He agreed to do it and he spent 30 days stuck in quarantine only to do this role. His films had great songs too and we have used those in Bhramam.
It was the same with other actors like Mamta, Unni Mukundan and Ananya. Their performances have all made it a proper Malayalam film. Of course, we reused a lot of the lines from the original. It’s a film that won the writing National Award and we did pay a lot of money to buy the rights. When we did Ghajini too we had reused a lot of the original content. I think it’s harder for a director to remake his own film a second time. Somehow, I feel that magic only happens once. That’s why we feel Moondram Pirai is better than Sadma even though most of it is the same.
This is your fifth proper remake. Two of them went on to become great examples of hit remakes (Virasat and Ghajini). But the other two, OK Janu and Coolie No.1, didn’t work. What is your understanding of what clicks with a remake?
When you work on remakes, you should understand what the characters are doing. It’s not just about the shots or the scenes. What will a character do next? After that question is answered properly, we should follow that. We have made small corrections in the original to answer a few questions that were raised.
This is your return to Malayalam cinema after 21 years. Did you feel any changes in the non-technical side that made it hard for you to adjust, or was it similar to how it was back then?
When I was working as a cameraman in the 90’s, I was only doing comedy films with Jagadish or those big Shaji Kailas films like The King or Thalasthanam. I was never considered a serious cameraman. So when I did Virasat and got all those awards, they thought someone else shot it. In fact, a reviewer wrote, “Santosh Sivan shot Virasat nicely”. They couldn’t believe I shot Virasat.
In terms of acting, I feel Malayali actors are very realistic. The situations are written like that and the scenes are less dramatic than Hindi. Even a small actor’s performance is naturalistic. But Bhramam is a genre film. We are setting this up in a more dramatic space because it is a black comedy. For that, the performances needed to be in a different mode. It took a little more time to get the performances right.
Did you miss something about working in Malayalam? You mentioned the blockbusters, but you also shot Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu, a very beautiful film. What memories do you have of it?
It was TK Rajeev Kumar’s film. We had decided to shoot the whole film with a wide-angle lens. We were excited about the script and it was supposed to be Manju Warrier’s last film. I told Rajeev that the Akela Crane had just come and they told me that they let me use it for free for two days. So we tied two boats together and put the crane on it. We used it only for two days, but for every scene in the water, we had already left space for a shot. So in those two days, we shot one shot each for all the scenes we had otherwise completed.
What would these shots be? Establishing shots?
For example, the film starts with a flashback and when it ends, it’s Manju’s closeup. The camera then pulls out and you see that she’s on a boat with other women on it and the boat is moving. The camera starts moving and when it stops, you see the full boat, the lake and the early morning. Back then, no one had seen this. Now you have the drone to shoot it, so the magic is gone.
Later, I was shooting a commercial with Rohan Sippy and his father walked in. Ramesh Sippy was the Jury head of the National Awards that year and he said, “I saw one Malayalam film and I want to know what equipment they have used.” He didn’t give it a National Award because someone told him that it was a very expensive film and that they had used a helicopter to shoot it. He then gave the award to some small Bengali film. I told him that I had only shot that film and then explained how Kannezhuti Pottum Thottu was completed.
Finally, I wanted to ask you about your brother Ramachandra Babu. He was one of our greatest cinematographers. As someone who grew up watching his work, what are some of your favourites? Was there a defining moment?
I was in college and I came home one day and he took me to watch a preview of Bharathan’s Chamaram. It was outstanding. On Youtube you don’t see its full beauty, but back then it blew my mind. There’s a song in it…‘Nadha Nee Varum’ with Zarina Wahab getting ready after a bath.
In that song, she is wearing a green saree and walking among all that greenery. Then there’s all those green weeds in the water and she’ll be walking through that. Back then it was fashionable to shoot in contrast, especially the songs. But here, everything is in monochrome. That shot has never left my mind. His films with Bharathan were always extremely beautiful. Another favourite is ‘Indulekha’ in Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha. Hariharan sir recently called me to shoot a film for him and I’m extremely honoured that I was even considered because I was the last camera assistant on it.
My brother was a very quiet guy and he never sold himself. He never pushed himself to do many things and he quietly lived his life. He was super talented and his works always spoke up for him.