Must Read: P C Sreeram On Lighting Films Like Nayakan, Agni Natchatiram & Thevar Magan!

By Arun Fulara. Posted on August 26, 2016

Excerpts from an old (2001) but brilliant interview with P. C. Sreeram, the man who's shot many Tamil classics like Agni Natchatiram, Nayakan, Thevar Magan, Thiruda Thiruda & has over the last 35 years, formed one of the most powerful creative collaborations in Indian cinema with Mani Ratnam.

You can read the full interview here. RAQs Media Collective has a series of such extensive interviews with other leading cinematographers of Indian cinema and you can go through their archives here.

How did you begin working with Mani Ratnam?

Then Mani Ratnam called me for 'Mauna Ragam'. We did four films continuously. We never thought about whether these films were successful or  not. You don't think about success when you are doing it. The success of the film was growing somewhere. Both of us were communicating at a level where we could read each other’s minds.

This was really good for me. There was nothing to stop me. I was moving, moving and moving, one film after another. It was just `let us do it, let us do it’. I was realizing what ever I had in my dreams, in those stills form my teenage years into celluloid. He would say while shooting, "Remember that still that you showed me, make this shot look like that"

Stills of mine were so popular with some of my friends. They will come and see all of them. Even now sometimes he will say, remember that still, that rain, that moon, that bullock. I must have been a child when I took that still. When I later enlarged and increased the contrast and started my own printing it became

- "what a shot!" I was reprocessing a lot of my own old stills. This helped me a lot in working in cinema.

Were you trying to develop a conscious style in your lighting?

I have never repeated myself in my lighting between films. See, for example, the whole country went berserk with 'Agni Natchatram'. I never did any thing like that again. I have never touched that area at all. I went to another extreme in 'Thevar Magan' to a very straight documentary style. Everybody who saw the film said `you were not there, you were not there, as if the camera was not present at all.’ Why should I be there? The film was there. I did not  understand what all the fuss was about. Lot of people did not understand that but at the end of the film when the film was over, then they understood the photography. I go by that. Then again 'Nayakan' was another  extreme.

'Agni Natchatram' became a popular film, fine. If it had failed, I would have gone in some other direction altogether.

Can you explain the difference between these two approaches, the expressive one of 'Agni Natchatram' and the realist one of 'Thevar Magan’? It seems as if there is always a tension between these two approaches in your work.

'Agni  Natchatram’  brought  a  new  kind  of  Pop  Culture  into  India. I remember seeing a trailer of Stanley Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange" as a child, it really made an impression on me. I like the picture very much I don’t know why. For the sake of the trailer I kept on seeing the film. I was trying to apply that kind of visualization in this film. The film worked even in the remote interior of Tamil Nadu. The people there are not critics. They either like or they don’t like a film. Their minds are clear. They saw it in such a way, in such numbers that it became a major hit. Even in places where the projection and the sound was very bad it worked.

In Nayakan I wanted to try a different light pattern. You can say that it was the 'top light' concept that I had tried very long time back in Fazil’s film for one particular sequence. I

Then I used diffused light in  'Meendum Oru Kadal Kadai' in certain areas, I try out different things in different films, and different things in different  scenes.

But do you try and develop a scheme for a given film?

Yes, for instance I knew that in Nayakan I would play with shafts of light throughout the film. It was appreciated even by people like Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani.

The whole lighting pattern of Nayakan is about 'enhancement'. I remember for a night scene I started lighting up, I wanted to do 'low key' lighting. People don’t understand that to do 'low key' lighting you need more  lights...

Now I work a lot with silhouettes. Sometimes I ask for six generators! Sometimes people don’t realize how much light you actually need to do even something quite low key. The amount of light is something which they are not used to.

Then,  I  wanted  to  work  with  brown  tones,  throughout  Nayakan  and Thevar Magan I wanted brown tones.


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