In Conversation With Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti: The Man Who Shot 'Sairat'!

By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on June 07, 2016

Nagraj Manjule's second feature film Sairat has become an overnight sensation. Besides breaking several records of the Marathi film industry, the film has also struck a chord with film aficionados across the country. Addressing the issue of casteism that still exists in India, Sairat has managed to show the hard-hitting ground reality through an almost dreamy love story. The film has initiated a debate and seen a lot of controversy since its release.

While there may be several different opinions that have emerged pertaining to the film, the one thing that has won unanimous acclaim and praise is the film's cinematography by Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti. The film speaks a lot through the camera and the unspoken words are perfectly captured by the cinematographer.

Reddy has shot Telugu films like Madhumasam, Pourudu and Dalam, along with Marathi films Deool, Highway Ek Selfie Aarpaar and the recent Sairat. Born in Guntur, AP, Reddy got his post graduate diploma from FTII, Pune. Ek Akash, the short film directed by him won the Special Jury Prize at the National Awards 2015. He later returned the award, joining in the protest started by the film fraternity on the backdrop of the unrest in FTII.

We caught up with Reddy recently and talked to him about his work, artistic influences, collaboration with different directors, the style of cinematography and much more. Republished below are excerpts from the same.

We would love to know about your early days and what inspired you to become a cinematographer? We would love to know about your artistic influences.

I was passionate about cinema right from childhood. I had decided to get into films while I was in school. At that time, I used to keep track of directors and their films. I realised that I was more attracted by the visuals, so I thought it would be helpful if I can do that myself. I wanted to be a cinematographer before anything. I thought that will give me control over the craft.

Living in a small town of Guntur, I didn’t have any access to any other films than Telugu films and the dubbed versions of Tamil and Malayalam films. I used to watch films shot by P C Sreeram and Santosh Sivan and that would get me excited about becoming a cinematographer. Later when I came to Hyderabad and started watching Indian regional as well as international films at a film club, I was awestruck by the works of Subrata Mitra, Vittorio Storaro, Sven Vilhem Nykvist and Vadim Ivanovich Yusov.

Which is the first set you remember being on and what can you recall about that experience?

The first set I worked on was that of a Telugu film Yamajathakudu. The DoPs of the film were A. Vincent and his younger son Ajayan Vincent. Vincent was a legendary cinematographer, well-known in all the southern Indian film industries. The film had a mythological backdrop and so it had a lot of special effects. Vincent garu was there to make sure every thing was going right. I was amazed by his discipline and punctuality. His sharp observation even at the age of 80 was outstanding. He would pre-empt where the actors would come and keep one or two lights ready for those positions. I am very thankful to Ajayan garu for taking me as an assistant, without which I wouldn't have the opportunity to observe the master cinematographer at work.

You’ve shot some really lovely Marathi films like Deool, Highway & now Sairat. How did you end up working in Marathi films? Am assuming you understand the language well enough now, but did it ever hinder your ability to shoot the film when you were starting out?

I was in FTII with Umesh Kulkarni. We were part of each other's projects. Though I was not shooting with him at the institute, we started working together after that. During his first two films (Valu & Vihir), the dates didn’t work out. Though I did shoot some portions of Vihir, when Sudheer Palsani was engaged with other commitments. Deool was my first film in Marathi. The moment I heard the story, I was very sure that this film had something for me to explore. From then on, I am trying to pick the projects that interest me. Being in Pune for more than 5 - 6yrs, I had grabbed some bits and pieces of Marathi.

In FTII, there are people from all regions. Here we tend to pick up all these languages in bits and pieces. After working for a couple of Marathi films, now I understand Marathi fairly well. As a cinematographer, I tell the story visually, but we certainly need to understand what is going on in the scene in terms of the dialogue. That helps with my lensing. Though I understand the conversation in Marathi, I get the script translated to English so that I don’t miss out on any nuances.

Your last two films are completely opposite to each other. While in Highway, you shot a lot inside small cramped spaces, Sairat was mostly shot outdoors, in the open spaces of rural Maharashtra. Both films entailed different challenges. How do you adapt from one film to another?

Like you said, each film has its own challenges. Story, the milieu and the emotions are very different in Highway and Sairat. While in Highway, it's the spirit of the road travel on the Mumbai-Pune highway, in Sairat, there's a spirit of two adolescent lovers, who fight with odds of society. Once I understand the spirit of the film, it becomes my guide for the camera movements, lighting and lensing.

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Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti (left) On The Sets Of Sairat

How did you prepare for Highway? What kind of discussions did you have with Umesh while preparing for the shoot?

During Highway, right from the scripting stage, we (Girish, Umesh & I) knew that shooting on Mumbai-Pune express highway is risky. Also, we knew it was impossible to get permission for an extensive shoot. However, we wanted shoot there to make it feel real. So, it was imperative that we keep the camera inside the car. We thought that it would help us to be close to the actors and be more communicative rather than a rigged camera.

Also I wanted to move the camera from one character to other during conversations. I thought it would enhance the restlessness that we naturally encounter in a city like Mumbai, the idea which the director wanted to communicate. It's a dialogue driven screenplay, so I had to capture the dialogues, reactions and body gesture of various actors at the same time.

We wanted to keep the camera invisible. The only way I could do it was with a small handheld camera inside the car. Finding a place without hampering the actors' concentration in cramped cars was a big challenge. Also, Umesh wanted to be in the car to be able to talk to actors. This made it almost impossible for us to have a focus puller along with the camera.

My gaffer and me designed a way to put small lights without hampering the camera movements. I had one or two lights in handy on suction mount which I could slap on to window glass quickly to compensate for the changing light while traveling. We wanted the audiences to feel the time transition of the day to night since it’s a one day story. The second part of the film is more settled and is treated in contrast to the first part.

What was the brief for Sairat? The film makes rural Maharashtra look luscious. How did you manage that?

Archie and Parshya are in love, their world is so beautiful and nothing else matters for them. Nagraj’s characterization is very strong. I could visualise every moment of their romance in his first narration to me. Nagraj is a very good storyteller in real life as well. He was telling me all these stories from his childhood during the pre-production and recce. Those helped me understand where he comes from and how this story and characters came to him. He has lived in those places and associates with those spaces like the characters in the film.

By the end of the pre-production, I was aware of how to portray all that nostalgia Nagraj had in his mind. Unlike Western Maharastra, this part of  Maharashtra is not conventionally beautiful. But if we put it in a context, it looks great. It works perfectly if it is combined with the emotions of the characters. That way Ajay -Atul's music helped in great way to bridge that connection. Sounds connect to the nostalgia in a more immediate and stronger way than the visual.

The first half of Sairat is romantic & dreamy while the second half is realistic. How did you ensure that the look of the film evolved over the film to remain consistent with its emotional content?

Life seems very beautiful and dreamy when you are in love. I wanted to see the film through the eyes of Parshya and Archie. In the first part, their minds are possessed with love. They are in a dreamy world which is also real for the time being. I wanted to keep that balance. By keeping the milieu and spaces more real, we could achieve that real feel. But that might be more real in Fandry. To keep that dreamy look and feel, I was relying more on lensing and camera movements. We picked up the locations that'd support that dreamy feel. Priyanka’s costumes helped in adding to that effect. I wanted to capture different times of the day- like morning, afternoon, evening and night. This gives a real passage of time, which we associate with reality.

Consistency was not a problem once we were clear on how it should look. Though the shooting schedule was not linear, I knew that this was how it should look till Archie and Parshya were caught. Then the film changes and slowly draws into reality. So, the transition was a big concern. We cannot shift styles in the film suddenly. It has to flow from one to another. That way the song Jhingat helped in making that transition. We decided to do that song very naturally in terms of shooting style and choreography. That really paved the way into the rest of the film's style. In the second part of the film, Parshya and Archie come to the reality of life. Their day to day life is more real. I wanted to keep that very minimalistic and functional. Their spaces are restricted and binding. It's about what happens between them in that vast unfamiliar city. Working with non actors helped a lot to shoot on real streets. This made their world much more real.

With regards to the shoot, could you throw some light on how it worked on the sets with Nagraj & the actors? The kind of communication he & you would have before shooting a scene?

Nagraj and I got pretty much in tune before the shoot started. We used to work on the choreography of the actors once we landed in the location. Nagraj had already rehearsed with the actors and they were very clear about the emotion of each scene. He would accommodate any changes according to my suggestions and we would rework if needed.

The actors were new and had never faced camera before. They are young and have a zeal to learn. Initially we worked to make them understand the body posture with respect to camera. Within a week's shooting we didn’t have to worry about it anymore.

How do you attune yourself to the working styles and temperament of filmmakers? The director-cinematographer relationship is an essential one. How do you ensure that you don’t step on the directors toes?

I think if the DoP is in coherence with the script, working with directors of different temperaments is not difficult. I believe that if you understand the spirit of the script and go with it, it should be fine. I go with that spirit and my own temperament rather than the other way round.

As far as stepping on the director’s toes, I think no one can do that. Everyone on the set is there to help the director make his film. Everyone is responsible for everything. We have to engage with actors and crew at a personal level to build that trust. At the same time we have to acknowledge that the director is here to make his own film, how he sees it.

What challenges do you face while creating the feel and look for a film? How do you go about a film in the pre-production phase?

I go with the emotional graph of characters. How can I make this story as close to how the director feels about taking it to audience? Milieu, locations, lensing, viewpoint, color, composition and lighting are the ‘tools’ that we use to create the mood. Camera movement gives the pace and editing style to the film. I simply work it out as how I can combine all these elements to give the desired effect to viewers. I think DoP is the bridge between the director’s mind and the audience. To become this bridge, I have to empathize and engage with the characters. The pre-production is mostly about the larger idea of the form, look and logistics of the shoot. But most of the nuances and details evolve while shooting. I like it that way.

As far as the lighting of a film is concerned, do you approach it at the thematic/ film level (to create a look) or is it done on a scene/ shot level?

Sure, everything comes from the thematic level. I gauge the theme of the film by its ‘texture’. How much texture do I want to show in this film? That gives me the basic platform for lighting and image quality. The lighting mood for each scene comes from the emotions of the characters and spaces. Sometimes spaces give me lots of new ideas to explore. Then I try to incorporate them without affecting the overall design.

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Sudhakar Reddy Yakkanti (left) On The Sets Of Sairat

What is the key motivation for a cinematographer? Some claim it is the pursuit of beauty while others say it is to the serve the character? What do you think?

I think it’s a very personal choice. For me, both are important. If we use our tools to serve the character, it will look beautiful. For me beauty has to be combined with certain emotion to create meaning. Just beauty has no emotion. Cinema speaks through the language of emotions.

Certain DoPs tend to have a shooting style while others don’t. What is the merit in either? Does it help or hinder to have your shooting style.

For me each film's style evolves in collaboration with the director. I first try to know what the director wants to portray in the film. There is no particular merit or demerit if you have one style or not. It's like a cuisine. If you like one particular cuisine, you go and eat it often. If one wishes to have style, one or two tools are good enough to serve the purpose. The rest is there at the disposal of the script/director.

What are your views on the transition on cinema form film to digital? Have you shot for any of your projects on digital equipment? And how has your experience of the same been? How important is shooting on film vs. digital for you?

Since the evolution of cinema, it has always been in a transitional form. It will remain that way forever, I guess. Cinematic technique is heavily dependent on the technological development. I am very lucky to shoot few films on negative (celluloid). Now I shoot all my films on digital formats. For cinematographers, it's just a matter of adaptation. With digital it seems like we have more control at DI platforms, but the same is lost at the theatrical presentation. The major difference is in what the audience get. When I was a kid, I used to pay Rs. 25 and see very high quality image on big screens. Now I pay Rs. 300 for a much lesser quality of image. Digital technology is no way close to negative till far feature. The rendition of the image is more organic in negative, whereas in digital, it's more mathematical. It's like smelling a flower versus smelling a perfume. However you perfect it, it can never be the same. Digital is more convenient like the perfume is. Distribution is the key to any product. Digital definitely helped to improve the sound perception of the audience.

Deool (Marathi) and Dalam (Telugu) are the last films that I shot on negative.  Even if I want to shoot on negative, the supporting systems are not there anymore. I have been shooting on digital since 3-4 years now. It's not difficult to adapt even though it is in constant flux. The mobility of digital cameras has to be creatively used or else it makes no sense why we should shoot in digital. Digital definitely gives more leeway for the directors with his/her actors.

Which are the cinematographers that have inspired you? Which film(s) or cinematographer(s) in recent times has caught your attention due to its cinematography? In Hollwyood or Europe? Or regional cinema? Which of these do you admire?

Roger Deakins, Emanuel Lubezki, Vittorio Storaro, Janusz Kaminski, Christopher Doyle, Raoul Coutard, Greg Toland, Vadim Yusav, Robert Richardson, Santosh Sivan, Madhu Ambat, P C Sreeram, Binod Pradhan, V K Murthy …and many more. I think the list is looong. I love to see people trying to do something new in each project.

Cinema is across boundaries. It doesn’t matter if its Hollywood or European or regional.

How do you keep abreast with the latest technological advancements in your field?

With the advent of the digital technology, the pace of advancement in cameras and grips has grown exponentially. Cinematographers have to keep updating themselves by either reading about them on internet or through hands-on experience before we use them for our projects. I try to attend events like exhibitions or equipment launch or visit camera rental stores to check the new products. If I don’t know about something, a colleague or a friend is a phone call away to update me.

Do you have any favorite movie genres, or genres you have not worked upon? Is there any filmmaker you wish or wished to collaborate with?

I like to shift genres. That gives me the opportunity to explore more. I would love to work on thriller and fantasy genres, which I haven’t worked on yet. I like to explore mixed genres. This is a good time for Indian cinema to push its boundaries. Apart from the young directors who are interested in pushing the grammar, I would also love to work with directors, who are visually oriented. At the same time, humane stories, like those told by Vishal Bhardwaj, Mani Ratnam, Bala, Cheran, Raju Hirani, Imtiaz Ali, Anurag Kashyap and Rajamouli would also interest me a lot. And I would definitely love to be able to work with Wong Kar Wai if I get the opportunity :)

What advice would you like to give to aspiring & upcoming cinematographers? In today’s digital age, do you think it is essential for aspiring cinematographers to undergo formal training for the same?

For today's cinematographers there’s is a Pandora of opportunities. With the digital age we have so many avenues through which we can access content. Each format has a different aesthetic. You can be a part of this evolving new grammar. Digital age or non-digital age, film schools and media schools have the most informal ways of learning things without fear of failure. They make filmmaking a part of you life.

What’s next for you? Do you plan to direct a film? If yes, we would love to know more about it?

I am looking for good scripts that excite me to shoot. I have finished a couple of my scripts and am looking for the right opportunity to take them to the big screen, which have fascinated me since childhood.


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