Jailer Cinematographer Vijay Kartik on Weird Angles, Silhouettes and Visual Comedy in the Rajinikanth-starrer

The cinematographer talks about taking inspiration from Baasha and Annamalai, the essentials in a Nelson film, Jailer's warm colour palette and more
Jailer Cinematographer Vijay Kartik on Weird Angles, Silhouettes and Visual Comedy in the Rajinikanth-starrer

In Jailer, Rajinikanth gets one of the simplest introductions. His grandson is impatiently waiting for him while he is praying and the camera cuts to show you his face in a room filled with the yellow rays emerging from the lit lamps. Even if this underplayed sequence is focussed on his character Muthuvel Pandian, the visuals of three shots — of his spectacle, a silhouette of his back and then his profile— that precede his entry, peppered with golden hues, ensure he arrives in style. 

All of us might have varied opinions about Nelson’s Jailer yet we will definitely agree that the film was a visual treat filled with whistle-worthy superstar moments. Each shot of Jailer is worth framing and the film’s cinematographer Vijay Kartik Kannan tells us, “The idea was to capture everything like a photograph.”

Spoilers Ahead...

Vijay Kartik Kannan with Rajinikanth
Vijay Kartik Kannan with Rajinikanth

Edited excerpts:

When you knew you were going to work with Rajinikanth, what were some of your initial ideas?

I am a very big fan of Rajinikanth. So the first thing I wanted to do was to show a cool and stylish Rajini. Even without discussing it, both Nelson and I wanted to show the 90s Rajini. For me, the peak Rajini era is in films like Annamalai (1992), Baasha (1995) and Muthu (1995). The tight close-up shots you see in the film were influenced by how sir was framed in the emotional scenes in Baasha. One such scene is where Muthuvel learns about the death of his son Arjun (Vasanth Ravi) and the camera keeps zooming in until you see a single tear drop from his eye. Whereas the lighting in the cigar scene in the climax is a homage to Annamalai. The images of Rajini sir’s silhouette and smoke that I grew up watching remain etched in my mind and we wanted to capture that feel.  

A silhouette of Rajinikanth from Jailer
A silhouette of Rajinikanth from Jailer

Was there any difficulty in portraying a star like Rajinikanth as a feeble and simple grandfather?

Even if Rajini played the role of an elderly man in Pa Ranjith’s Kaala and Kabali, he was an alpha male. But he is a more simple grandfather who enjoys playing to the whims of his grandson in Jailer. So it was challenging to make him seem grounded as per Nelson’s vision. We have never seen Rajini sir go to a vegetable shop or polish his grandson’s shoes. The character is established very well because of the styling aspect, thanks to Pallavi Singh (costume designer). Nelson was very clear that Rajini sir should wear plain, light colour shirts and Khaki pants and this styling makes him look relatable. When we plan on what shirt to choose for a scene, Rajini sir jokingly commented that we don’t have to spend time selecting one because all shirts look the same.

Rajini sir effortlessly brought in that everyday ungainly body language. Take the scene with Yogi Babu in the market, for instance. You can see him falling down clumsily as if he is fragile. We all talk a lot about his stardom and mass moments that we don’t give much credit to the exceptional range he brings to the table as a performer.

 You worked with Nelson previously for Doctor, which has a blueish colour scale but Jailer is warm and has hues of golden-yellow. Why is that? 

In Doctor, we tried to bring the teal and orange look in a subtle manner. But Jailer has mostly night scenes and we thought we could make use of the street lights. That’s why it has a yellow colour scheme. Besides, I like the sodium lamps because it gives you a dark, scary vibe. Since the film is a mix of deadpan comedy and action entertainment, the yellow palette also fits the story. We worked meticulously with the colours and locations. In the climax scene, for instance, we set up a fireplace early on so that when Rajini sir enters in all black, the first light that hits his face is the orangish-yellow from the fire and it immediately elevates the moment.

While this yellow colour helped us elevate the mass moments, I wanted these high-voltage scenes to be different from how it is shown in films off-late. For example, if you take KGF, it has lots of cuts continuously which makes it unique. Likewise, in Jailer, the frames are held for a longer period. In the scene where all henchmen turn against the villain when Rajini meets him, the camera holds the frame for 4-5 seconds. This treatment has worked well. It breathes and slows down the pace of the sequences, which gives you the high as well as lets you experience the moment.

Even during violent sequences, the camera seems to linger like the scene where Rajinikanth beheads a man. The focus is on the severed head and the body before panning back to Rajinikanth. How do you make such scenes less gruesome?

It’s hard to make it less gruesome. Yet the intensity of the scene should match with what the audiences want. In this scene, viewers feel that both guys are talking too much and are waiting for Rajini sir to give it back. And he does it with a single action. If you see, the man has taken a puff of smoke before he is beheaded and the camera captures how the smoke comes out of a now severed face. Likewise, you can see how the other man’s head overlaps with the headless body, suggesting what’s about to happen. So Nelson integrates a bit of dark comedy that doesn’t create a laugh-out-loud moment but lightens the atmosphere. While the camera’s hold intensifies the scene, such creative ideas make the blow seem less hard.

When Arjun’s death is about to be revealed, the camera captures the scene through a garland hung on the wall, hinting at what’s about to happen. 

The garland idea was totally Nelson’s. We were trying to shoot the scene from different angles and Nelson suggested that it conveys the news metaphorically. Likewise, in the sweet shop scene where Arjun talks with a gangster, the camera is inside the oil pan, and you can see the jalebi being poured in the foreground as the main action unfolds at a distance. We shot many such scenes from weird angles but we were not able to include everything. 

The interval scene is where you strike a balance between deadpan comedy and a riveting mass sequence. Besides the writing, how did you visually plan for this stretch?

We’d discussed ideas for the dramatic portions much before. The interval scene is where we usually have rain to enhance the effect. But we didn’t want to do a regular one. So, we picked the “just before the storm” theme. With the light from the street lamps penetrating into the house and the lightning striking when Rajini is in action, you see him in all glory, with a warm-yellow light on his face and a thunder-white effect from the back. As for the comedy, the brief for Jailer was to find unique angles to capture the scenes. For instance, in the shot where the dead henchman falls on Ramya Krishnan’s lap, we see both the dead man and her shocked face in one frame with an under-the-table shot. We had it in writing that we should use the best angle where we can capture both their faces. 

What do you think are the trademarks of Nelson’s visual style?

Nelson’s world is symmetrical. It is a real-world with unreal characters and weird situations. That’s his trademark. For instance, Dhanraj, who plays the villain’s best friend in Jailer, was Nelson’s gym trainer around 10 years ago. Redin Kingsley was Nelson’s dance master during his college days. So, it’s his vision and he is always on the hunt to find the next weird character. Nelson also has a good eye for colours and frames. I think he is a very visual director but he is not given much recognition. From Kolamavu Kokila to Jailer, he has always had a visual sensibility and knows exactly how things should look within his frame. 

The placement of the silhouette shots after the news of Arjun’s death was quite brilliant. Did this montage idea come up much later in the editing table?

No, it was always there in the script. We knew these sequences would play out in a musical montage. We see the silhouette of Muthuvel’s daughter-in-law and grandson sitting worriedly in the corner of the house, as his shadow appears in the foreground. It shows that Muthuvel can’t bear to see them sad anymore. Since the emotion is already conveyed through the expressions in the previous scene, you don’t need the faces or the characters’ crying. The less said, the more powerful. The best of Nelson’s ideas work out when nothing much is said. 

This is evident in the way he stages his comedy scenes as well. If you see the bridge scene featuring Rajinikanth and Yogi Babu in the car, he says a simple dialogue, “Nee Bharathiyaar sonnaaru nu sonna paaru” and there is no drama that follows. We just see a silent Yogi Babu who takes a deep breath, and that cracks you. I would say Nelson makes things work better with silence, darkness and silhouettes.

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