Celebrated cinematographer Ravi Varman completed twenty two years as an independent cameraman this year. Having started his career with Jalamarmaram in 1999, he has worked on several unforgettable films across languages such as Anniyan, Barfi, Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyadu, Santham and many more. He is presently working on Mani Ratnam's magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan apart from a Hindi film starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
In this interview with Baradwaj Rangan, he recounts some of the most memorable shots from his career, the thought behind their creation and how framing is dictated by the emotion of the scene.
There's a sequence with a mermaid in a tank in this TK Rajeev Kumar film. I clearly remember the first day of shooting this. We placed a black cloth at the bottom and asked the actor to be inside the tank and placed another tank over it that was filled with water. This gave the illusion that the mermaid was inside water. But that wasn't the problem. Once I lit up the shot, we noticed reflections in the water and water droplets were forming on the sides of the tank because of the heat from the light. The art director finally came to our rescue when he brought some substance like karpuram (camphor), which made sure the condensation didn't happen and we used a thin rod to make ripples so that the glare could be cut.
What we didn't think about back then was that this shot was indeed dangerous. The glass tank could have broken at any time because of the heat from the lights.
I have to talk about the climax sequence of this film even before. In the story, there are two characters; one who has murdered someone and another person who is searching for him. They're both on different sides of a river and in the last scene, they meet at the river. When I went to the location, I saw a lot of dragonflies flying around. There is a belief that after we die, our soul turns into a dragonfly. Even when we catch a dragonfly, elders ask us not to because they're our ancestral souls. I was sure that when we began shooting, a dragonfly would come into the frame and sit somewhere. It might not sit on one's hand but it could easily have sat on a prop.
In the end, I simply waited and kept the camera rolling with a focus on some swords in the shot. Eventually, a dragonfly did fly into the shot and it sat on the sword making that the final shot of the film.
There's a scene in Anniyan where Vikram keep's switching between the three personalities of his character: Anniyan, Ambi and Remo. Shankar sir told me that this needs to be a one-shot take. What we did was I tied the camera to myself. We took a smaller handi-cam and composed the shot. The camera had to move a lot and couldn't be stationary. Once the camera was tied to me, I moved along with Vikram's actions, went around him and that's when we got it right. Here, I focused more on the emotion and drama rather than technique and quality.
Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu (2006)
This film has a shot that I can never forget. I think the location was close to Wall Street in New York. At this particular spot, you get a bright light for about five minutes. Just when the sun is setting, the sunlight hits the glass buildings around it and reflects on to the cars and other surfaces creating a burn out effect. We were shooting the 'Manjal Veyil' song there and the minute I saw this happening with the light, it was magical. I immediately placed the camera there and asked for the shot. Kamal (Haasan) sir quickly got ready and we took this shot. Just as we finished rolling, the light went away too.
Barfi! was a film I could experiment with visually. Since I was an assistant, I had a fascination with the glare and flare effect. Many of us avoid it because the frame looks burnt out or overexposed but I was curious. The director, Anurag Basu, gave me full freedom to explore this. My most memorable shot in this film happens at the train station in Darjeeling between Illeana D'Cruz and Ranbir Kapoor. When we first took this shot, there was no sunlight and the shot was good too with a soft light. The minute we finished shooting, I turned to see that on the other side of the train, there was hard sunlight. Immediately, I asked to redo the shot and I then placed huge mirrors on the other side of the train. The sunlight reflected on Illeana's face through the windows of the moving train and the camera then moved behind Illeana to directly face the sunlight. I cannot forget this shot.
Ram Leela (2013)
This was an opportunity I could not miss. The film was an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. I could treat this film like a painting and make it colourful. The first shot I took was the scene where Dhankor baa (played by Supriya Pathak) is having a beedi and the policeman comes to speak to him. I lit up the set and included some flare and clutter. The director, Sanjay (Leela Bhansali) sir didn't really like it. He observes detail such as writing on the curtains and here I was, asking for flare lighting and diffusers. We went ahead with that shot anyway. Right after that day's shoot I went to the lab, took a Rembrandt painting as a reference and colour corrected our images. When Sanjay sir saw that, he was overjoyed. He instantly recognised the value of the painting I brought to our frames.
Jagga Jasoos (2017)
This is a film that had elements of a thriller, romance, musical and adventure. We had decided to treat it like a comic book. Wes Anderson is a big inspiration in this regard. The challenge here was that I had to shoot the entire film with wide lens and centre composition. My most favourite shots in this film are of the green landscapes. If you notice, there are wide shots with clouds in the back and some lavender-coloured lotuses in the front. It's very rare that the colour of lavender is used in a happy and romantic moment. This shot made me realise that it needn't be used only in sad situations.
For this film, we had seen a number of locations in Europe. What I realised then was that in Indian films shot abroad, there is usually a grey or blue tone. Whereas, in those countries, even at night, there is an unmissable golden hue. I am also a fan of street photography. When you take a picture on the street, there is always something happening in the background without your knowledge. Tamasha was composed keeping that in mind. A memorable shot in this film was when Ranbir (Kapoor) narrates a story sitting on a table. That entire shot is lit by candles. I was inspired by Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon for this shot.
Kaatru Veliyidai (2017)
I had a very interesting experience shooting one particular shot in this film. There is a shot where Aditi (Rao Hydari) is inside the house but comes out to see an aeroplane in the sky and goes back inside. This is a single shot where I had to change the exposure of the camera about sixteen times in total while shooting. This shot was a technical shot. We had to mathematically calculate at what time the light would shift and when we needed to change our exposure here. The light changes from when she is inside, reaches the staircase, reaches just outside the house, walks in the courtyard, goes through a passage and finally looks up at the sky and then the whole sequence goes backwards as she walks back into the house. I went from 2.8 exposure to 22 using the full range the camera offers. When you're watching the movie now, you can't tell any of this.
Sanju is a real story. So we had to find a balance between documentary and fiction with regard to how it looked. Director Rajkumar Hirani was very particular and this and because he is an editor, he has a clear vision of the points where a shot will begin and end. I struggled with it in the beginning but I found ease in it eventually. One of the shots I remember vividly is when Sanju gets arrested at the airport. There is a shot where you can only see him in shadows depicting a turning point in life. We shot this at a real airport and once we were at the location, the streetlights of the airport was enough. We composed the shot in such a way that. he walked from light into the dark.