Cinematographer Tirru sounds tired as we begin our phone interview at around 10 pm on Saturday night. He's been shooting all day in Hyderabad's Ramoji Rao Film City for Priyadarshan's period Mohanlal-starrer Kunjali Marakkar. "I have to be on the sets tomorrow morning as well," he informs, "we don't have Sundays". Yet there's clear excitement when he gets talking about Rajinikanth, who he describes as "an avatar". The Superstar's 'stored' energy seems infectious, even if it's through a patchy phone line. Excerpts from the interview that followed:
Every Tamil director or writer has that one idea he/she keeps aside for their dream Rajinikanth film. I'm sure that's the same with cinematographers as well…
Of course! For me, several images come to mind. I have always wanted to shoot Rajini as Zorro, like in The Mask of Zorro. Even as an incarnation of Krishna. Or how about him playing a magical superhero? To be honest, I'm a little disappointed I couldn't shoot him like that in Petta. I had to go with the story and Karthik Subbaraj's vision. But he's a director who shares the same motto as I do when it comes to the Superstar.
And what is that motto?
We both wanted the Rajinikanth we've seen and enjoyed. We have one of the biggest brands in the world so we didn't want to re-invent the wheel. We just wanted to bring back the charisma…not that it had ever gone anywhere.
Was there any particular image on how he should be shown in the film?
The thing with Rajinikanth is that you don't have to even show him…the contour is enough. If I showed you the shadows of a hundred people, you would easily be able to identify which is Rajini's…such is the power of the image.
Did it help that you're his fan?
Absolutely! Is there anyone else with his charisma? He can do action and comedy with such ease. There are scenes where he might kick a villain but the 'punch' will come from a joke he delivers afterwards. This is not something we will accept from another actor.
So is it fair to call the idea behind Petta as the film that would bring the 'real' Rajinikanth?
Like I said before, you don't need to bring him back…he is there. We just wanted to show that. Who are we to bring him back anyway? We just wanted to celebrate Rajinikanth. We didn't want to fight his image…if someone wants to contradict that then it's their choice.
I heard that you didn't even need to listen to the whole script…
Yeah that's true. During Karthik's narration, I was looking for that situation where we could present Rajini magically. We both wanted to see Rajini the same way. That was enough. After that was established, I was only thinking of making the film big enough to suit his surreal image.
Your previous collaboration with Karthik, Mercury, had a strong greenish tinge all through signifying the poison in the factory the film is set in. Similarly, was a similar colour palette discussed for Petta?
Mercury was set in a place where many people lost their lives. It's a very dark story. The green also doubled up as the colour of night unlike the shades of blue that are usually used. In fact, we even included a shot of a crawling cockroach because that's the only living thing that can survive inside that poisonous atmosphere.
Petta is different. It has several emotional shifts so we needed a variety of colours to show each emotion. Given that this is a big commercial film, we have the freedom to really push the lighting and colours in a really dramatic way.
What was the mood like when you're shooting all those 'tribute shots'? Like the back shot resembling Rajini from Baba or that low angle gate opening shot from Aboorva Raagangal?
Oh that was all Karthik Subbaraj. He is such a hard core fan. When he describes a scene he has already got five shots he will reference along with it. See it's not really worth it to try very hard when you've got a superhero-like character in Rajini. You have to allow the superhero to just be. You may want to portray him very differently and that may or may not work. But you need to sell Rajini.
Will the film have elements for the Karthik Subbaraj fan too?
Of course Karthik Subbaraj has a unique way of presentation and we all know that he is capable and that he's going to try something fresh. But isn't this film all about Rajini first?
The film was completed ahead of schedule…a rarity for a Rajini film. Some of the credit for that must also go to you.
We managed to complete it with nearly 30 days to spare. But the credit must also go to Karthik's team and the team from Sun Pictures. We shot it in record time, so to say.
Did you get to interact with the superstar?
Not even once. In fact, he had waited to meet me multiple times but I was always running around on the sets doing something or the other. The second the shoot starts, the cameraman gets no break from dawn to dusk. At times, we get no time for anything…no food, no loo breaks, not even time to think. That's the reality of filmmaking.