Vadivelu, the comedy king of Tamil cinema, has been making us laugh for the past 25 years. Even when his films were far and few between in the recent past, the flood of memes featuring him more than made up for his absence. Yet when he appeared as the doting father and a subservient Dalit politician in Mari Selvaraj’s Maamannan, he was masterful. When he cried all alone on a hilltop — swallowing the lump in his throat as he suppressed his rage and sadness, with a visible confusion of his heart and mind yearning to pursue different paths — years of his humour and comic delivery took a back seat. This brilliant performance is only gracefully enhanced by Theni Eswar’s cinematography.
After he cries, the camera cuts to a wide shot from behind, capturing the huge mountains, and the drone slowly moves to show the vast lands below. As the camera lingers, you feel how lonely and helpless Maamannan (Vadivelu) feels. During the film’s pre-production stage, Eswar primarily focussed on deciding the specific angles, lenses and lighting to capture Vadivelu’s scenes. The cinematographer says, “It was very important to have a certain camera angle and lighting that will make Vadivelu sir look different, unlike the several shots of his we’ve seen before. For instance, we don’t have any makeup for Vadivelu sir. He did tell me that when he wears makeup, he can perform even better. But we wanted to tone it down for the character. If you take that flashback sequence where he cries, for instance, the focus is always on him, with the cars and fellow politicians blurred in the backdrop. I have also cut some natural light that fell on his face to give the sad effect. The scene’s success is definitely because of the director’s vision and Vadivelu’s acting; the cinematography techniques add more value to it. It is always about the hidden layers.”
Like in the flashback sequence, the hill is as much an important character in the film as the four main leads are (Vadivelu, Fahadh Faasil, Keerthy Suresh, Udhayanidhi Stalin). Eswar says, “Besides the fact that it is the landscape in which the story takes place, the mountains have a lot in common with Vadivelu’s name “Maamannan”. Andha peruku nu oru brammaandam iruku. The name has certain vibrancy and power to it, and the towering mountains are a symbol of that.”
While the hilltop shot shows loneliness in the flashback, it portrays the determination and power of Maamannan and his son Athiveeran (Udhayanidhi Stalin) later in the film, when they gear up for the elections. Similarly, the hilltop shots in the interval cut and of Rathanavel in another scene (Fahadh Faasil) radiate different emotions. If silhouettes were the signature style of the director-cinematographer duo in their previous collaboration Karnan, the hilltops add multiple layers of meaning in Maamannan. Eswar asserts that the usage of silhouettes in the latter serves a different purpose. He says, “Karnan silhouettes are because he is Sun’s son. The framing was mostly to establish their relationship in an indirect manner. In Maamannan, it is slightly different. Take for instance the silhouette scene before the interval, where Maamannan kisses his son’s forehead, while they are sitting on the hilltop. The focus is on the hilltop, and the silhouette is more of a powerful tool to say it. It is on this hilltop that things started. So when they rebelled, it was only fitting to show their relationship here. It adds a metaphorical touch to how we look at things from such a height. It gives a sense of the character’s perspective and how it changes.”
While the silhouettes, hills, and a few other framings remind us of Karnan, a stark difference between these films is the colours and lighting. While the Dhanush-starrer consists of warm colours, the hues of Maamannan are mild and plain. It was a deliberate decision, remarks Eswar. He adds, “We didn’t want to repeat the same palette in Maamannan. The mood of the film also changes based on the script. I want to keep experimenting and do something different in each of my films. The mood of the world in Maamannan was greyscale. It is because the people of that community don’t have their space, vannam ilandhavanglodaiya kadhai idhu (The film is about people who have lost colour). That is why the film is in mostly black, white and grey tones. Karnan is about similar people. But it is more about their rage to achieve something — the problems they face and how they try to overcome it.”
For Eswar, what followed the cinematographically rich Karnan (2021) was a slew of different films, each belonging to a different genre. While Bachelor (2021) was a complete urban drama, Puzhu (2022) explored the psychological layers of parenting styles and caste dynamics. His next film, which he also considers a milestone in his career, was Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam starring Mammootty. This drama that plays out like a magical fantasy sees Mammootty’s James suddenly behave like a different person when he visits a local village in Tamil Nadu. Unlike many of Eswar’s films, the camera stands in for the audience’s eyes, as it always captures the events from a distance, much like a stage play. “It is about an incident that happens to a drama troupe who are returning after a short trip. In a stage drama, everything is static and what is perceived is based on the viewer’s perspective. That is one of the reasons why we stuck to static framing.”
The camera moves with the character only a couple of times, and zooms in only in one scene. “The shots give you the feel of how you might see things unfold in actual life. That’s why we do not have any extreme closeups. The only scene where we have a closeup is when Mammootty's character sees the mirror and realises the reflection is not him. Similarly, based on each script, the choice of a cinematographer varies,” notes Eswar.
Unlike Nanpakal, the camera is constantly moving in Maamannan. In the same flashback sequence on the hilltop, the camera is the only companion to the lonely Maamannan as he walks towards the edge. So what if the static framing of Nanpakal was used in this shot of Maamannan? The cinematographer says, “The character is clueless in this scene. He wants to stand up for his son, the kids, and his community but he is unable to. What this camera movement does is make the audience travel along with the character, and feel his confusion and indecisiveness. But a static shot might not convey that battle of emotions. Similarly, in Nanpakal, it is the static shots that help you connect with what the character is going through.” In the scene where Mammootty walks into the village, the camera stays at a single spot, covering a large distance, and we see Mammootty walk through different lanes, as we also observe the details about the village around — the hens, the lonely trees, people sleeping, kids playing and the silent atmosphere. “The character is walking into an unknown land, that is new to him and the viewers. Had the camera moved along with him, you wouldn’t have believed the situation. You wouldn’t have felt the strangeness of the unknown.”