Cinematographer Rathnavelu has a distinct style that has earned him an immense fan following in Telugu and Tamil cinema in films such as Shankar's Endhiran and Sukumar's Rangasthalam. For the first time in his career, he has worked on a full-fledged period drama, and admits Chiranjeevi-starrer Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy was very challenging. Ahead of the film's release, he speaks about his experience of working with Chiranjeevi after Khaidi No 150, and experimenting with lighting techniques. Excerpts.
You were working on Rangasthalam when Ram Charan approached you to come onboard Sye Raa. What was your first reaction when you heard the story?
I loved the story when Surender Reddy narrated the script. I prefer working on one film at a time, and wanted nearly three months for prep work, because Sye Raa is an ambitious film. Although I dabbled a bit with the pre-Independence era in Lingaa, this is my first full-fledged period feature. There were not many Indian film references for 1800-1850 AD, and even the pictorial references of Narasimha Reddy were minimal. So, I had to figure out how the light was going to hit the actors — ground first or face first? Because, when light hits the face directly, all blemishes will be seen on camera. I started writing cues about how I was going to present each character; there were also other discussions about making some of the set designs vertical instead of horizontal, because when you have a 14-ft pillar, the room looks bigger. Narasimha Reddy is from the Rayalaseema region in Andhra Pradesh, and it was essential that we retain the dusty imagery and also show the local culture; we lent the film an earthy feel.
You have said you prefer setting the colour palette before filming. Was it the same case with this film as well?
Yes. So, I have to understand the characters and the place and era they come from. For instance, one of the options was to shoot Rangasthalam in Araku, surrounded by lush green forests and mountains, but I felt the story had to unfold next to a river to do justice to the script. The story shifted to a village on the banks of the Godavari. For Sye Raa, I insisted on warm tones. Even while showcasing the British, I chose muted colours, because psychologically, that makes them seem cold-blooded. We used a lot of maroons, browns, and off-whites for the costumes. The colour palette changed when we went deep into the forest; we avoided strong primary colours that would distract viewers.
What part of Sye Raa was the toughest to shoot?
You have to handle 2,000 artistes and several key actors in a single frame, and I banked on my 20 years of experience to help me execute that. I really like shooting in the morning light, but by the time all the junior artistes got ready and took their positions, I would lose light. And then, to cut top light and make it seem like morning for the whole day is a big task. We did all this in Sye Raa, but it's not easy when you are at the mercy of the weather. Moreover, time is money and we can't stop shoot. Each scene was complex in its own way. We would visualise something, but execution was a challenge. One of my favourite sequences is a battle episode shot with a night effect…
What about it was special?
The scene is about the siege of a fort in the middle of the night. For the exterior portions of the fort, we needed moonlight as a single light source, while the interiors needed light from the kagadas (fire torches). It's an arduous task to light up five to six acres of land. I had done something similar in Rangasthalam during the pre-climax sequence; I rigged my own light set-up and placed it atop a 200 ft industrial crane to give the fields a moonlight effect. In Sye Raa, the area was 10 times what we worked on in Rangasthalam. I rigged another set of lights and used three 200 ft industrial cranes to light up the area. When it came to the interiors, using only torches and oil lamps as a light source was risky, because the artistes were exposed. Yet, there were shots where I used only a khagada as a light source for Chiranjeevi sir. If not careful, you might end up with an image that is either burnt out or under-exposed. We had to ensure we did not create too many shadows, and also retain a certain glossiness.
Talking about the action sequences, could you elaborate about the war episode in Georgia?
The weather conditions were extremely challenging; at times, the wind was so strong we couldn't stand straight. Even the horses were being pushed around. The sequence was shot with four to five cameras, along with a spider camera to cover a huge area. Prior to the shoot, I did my research about how cinematographers in Hollywood shot such intense action sequences, and chose the MoVI Pro/XL heavy duty gimbal and a black arm, and attached them to an ATV (all-terrain vehicle). We had three ATVs on the set to shoot the sequence, because we really wanted to give an intense feel of what happens. At the same time, we didn't get too realistic like, for instance, Saving Private Ryan. To showcase Sye Raa's grandeur, I wanted to show the audience how big the action sequence is from a distance. When you see a 100 galloping horses approaching you, it'll give you goosebumps.
As a cinematographer, does your method of working change while working with a star such as Chiranjeevi?
Chiranjeevi sir is an extremely intelligent actor and understands how lighting works. But, if you do something out of the blue (lighting with a kagada, for instance), he understand when you tell him what you're aiming for. I've done enough Telugu films to know the thin line that separates how to and how not to project Sir. I told Lee Whittaker (action choreographer) that the hero (Chiranjeevi) can't fly in the air, no matter how jaw-dropping the action choreography is. He can skid or jump to make a stunt move look cool. For a film like this, we also needed, what we call in cinematic parlance, money shots — highly-stylised moments in the middle of a scene. One such high-speed 'money shot' has Chiranjeevi sir leaping out from an area covered with trees, around sunset; dust and leaves fall everywhere. I wanted to give a great visual for every epic moment in the story.
The film also has stars including Amitabh Bachchan, Sudeep, Nayanthara, Vijay Sethupathi and Tamannaah. How do you strike a balance when all of them are in the frame?
Each one of them is a top star, and it's my job to give each them importance in a scene. It boils down to getting them under the right lighting set-up, and a close-up or a suggestion shot to make the audience feel their presence in the scene even when not in front of the camera. No matter what, one shouldn't lose sight of the film's vision. As a cinematographer, my job was to also strike a balance between the film's grandeur and realism.