I Can't Even Drive A Car, But I Know How To Shoot Films: Ravi K Chandran

Before heading to London to recce locations for Thug Life, the DOP talks to us about when he first fell in love with cameras, the magic of shooting outdoors and more
Ravi K Chandran
Ravi K Chandran

When Mani Ratnam and Ravi K Chandran shot the revelatory beach scene in Kannathil Muthamittal – where a spinning Amudha is informed by her dad that she was adopted – they were trying to wrap up shooting before the morning light was lost. Years later, they were waging yet another battle against the sun while shooting the promo video of Thug Life. The duo were trying to get Kamal Haasan’s much-talked-about reverse sequence right before the sun bid adieu for the day. But the light was not perfect in the final shot, Ravi tells us. “It was difficult to control the flying clothes, time it properly and capture the shot before the sunset. But isn’t this the most exciting part? If everything is right and the sun is not about to set, then where is the fun.”

Kamal Haasan in Mani Ratnam's Thug Life
Kamal Haasan in Mani Ratnam's Thug Life

It’s this nature of job that he is more intrigued by, one that also drives him towards shooting outdoors than indoors. “There are a lot of challenges when you shoot outdoors. It keeps you on your toes. The changing light during the day is uncontrollable and that quality gives an edge to filmmaking.” Mani Ratnam and Ravi’s shared love for natural lights has paved the way for striking imagery in their previous collaborations like Kannathil Muthamittal, Aayutha Ezhuthu, Yuva etc. “The early morning lights and twilight are magical, and a part of his storytelling. So, we always shoot during those hours. It’s also why when Shah Rukh Khan used to come for shoot at noon, I would tell him that even if the world’s best DOP were to come, it’d be very difficult to get a pretty image. It’s different when you shoot in the studios or abroad. But when you’re shooting in India, you need to shoot in the morning. And he used to come very early for Dil Se and you can see the difference.”

A still from Dil Se
A still from Dil Se

The DOP is almost always up at 4am with his camera ready for his day to begin. “I never think cinematography is my profession. I was once shooting in Serbia at minus 10° early in the morning, waiting to capture that one particular light. We would come to Rajasthan to shoot at 45° and then to Chennai in the peak summer. Sometimes, there is a thunderstorm and sometimes, it’s hard to go up the terrain. But these things keep you alive, excited and sharper. If I think this is my job, I’ll get bored. So, it’s like somebody is paying me money to play with all these tools and I’m just using my eyes to see through the lens.”

Even when he was young, Ravi remembers looking at the camera as a toy to play with. His brother, the famous cinematographer K Ramachandra Babu was already in college when Ravi was born. So he would often accompany his brother as a model, roaming around the village, clicking pictures. “When I used to click pictures of friends and families, they would say it looked different. It led me to realise that I had some good composition or lighting sense.”

While cameras have always been his dear friend, he remembers realising the power of cinema while watching Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) for the first time in Chennai's Devi theatre. “Watching the film on a 70mm screen blew my mind. For me, cinema is not about a single part like cinematography or editing, it is a whole. This film took me to a different world.” Having started his career in 1991 with the Malayalam film Kilukkampetti, Ravi is quick to point out that Malayalam cinema has always been ready to take a gamble on young cinematographers. "Be it Santhosh Sivan, Balu Mahendra, Ravi Varman and others back in the day or the recent DOPs like Shaji Khalid in Manjummel Boys and Jomon T.John, the South has seen many talented cinematographers.”

Then and Now - Ravi K Chandran and Mani Ratnam
Then and Now - Ravi K Chandran and Mani Ratnam

The cinematographer has now been onboarded as the Canon Cinema EOS Ambassador. Ravi, who loves experimenting with new equipment, says Canon 5D cameras are the benchmark. “They were the first brand to bring in digital video recording on a smaller camera with higher quality. It made the impossible possible even during the film days.” Speaking of smaller cameras, Ravi tells us that he spends most of his money buying new cameras and lenses. He also sees to it that the production houses rent a few new equipment to try. “In films like Black, we wanted to use space lights. Likewise, in Dil Chahta Hai, we used Kino Flo lights extensively, which offers quality lighting.” He filmed Marudhanayagam using the Akela Crane, which has a 70ft arm length. “Then, we used the same crane to shoot the ‘Nenjil Jil Jil’ song in Kannathil Muthamittal. It traces the water and goes over like a helicopter shot. It created a lot of impact 22 years back,” he recalls.

A still from 'Nenjil Jil Jil' song
A still from 'Nenjil Jil Jil' song

With his endless thirst for experiments, the cinematographer is now using a light bridge, which has a reflector in Thug Life. “Even Mani Ratnam sir and Kamal Haasan sir were curious about the equipment. This new style of lighting helps us create a different look.” Mani Ratnam ensures the team is on the same page right from the get-go, he adds. “Even for Thug Life, there was almost a year's worth of discussion that took place. So, you know what the beat of the film is, at every stage and scene.” The promo shot was captured using a Mocobot and it was Mani Ratnam who suggested that they shoot the final sequence in reverse. “From Shah Rukh Khan to Aamir Khan, many asked how we shot it and which lens we used. When Oscar-winning Alfonso Cuarón came to meet Kamal Haasan, he was also curious after watching the video. So, it’s always quite interesting to use new equipment in new places.” 

A still from Thug Life
A still from Thug Life

Having been in the industry for several years, the DOP's perspective on a film's success has never changed. “Dil Chahta Hai or Kannathil Muthamittal were not blockbusters. But 20 years down the line, people still talk about these films. So, it’s important to make those images live longer. Because at the end of the day, we are spending almost a year of our life in one big film. If I have done 60 films, 60 years of my life has gone like that. So, the one year you spend on a film better be good.”

Being a cinematographer also means one has to travel a lot. “I actually don’t have even one unpacked thing at home. There are not many cupboards here either. I always live out of a suitcase,” he says, showing us his packed travel bag. Having been around cameras all his life, Ravi also asserts that cinematography is the only thing he believes he can do. “I was telling one of my friends that I can’t even drive a car. I know only one thing, that too partially, and it is shooting films. I’m blessed that I’m getting paid to do the only job I know. There’s never been a plan B. So, if not this, then it’s done,” he signs off. He and his packed suitcase are off to a new adventure.

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