P C Sreeram On Cinematography, Working With Kamal Haasan & Mani Ratnam!

By Aditya Savnal. Posted on December 08, 2015

In a career spanning over 3 decades, veteran cinematographer P C Sreeram hailed as one India's best, has shot some of the most acclaimed Indian films, especially from the South. His illustrious filmography includes  Apoorva Sagodharargal (dubbed in Hindi as Appu Raja), Thevar MaganMeendum Oru Kaathal Kathai, Subha Sankalpam, Cheeni Kum and Paa

He is also well known for his collaboration with Mani Ratnam and has shot several of his films including Agni Natchathiram, Geethanjali, Mouna Raagam, Nayagan, Alaipayuthey and Ok KanmaniSreeram also won a National award for his work in Nayaganwhich also was featured in Time magazine's list of '100 greatest Indian films of all time'.

The Raqs Media Collective has a collection of some great interviews with K K Mahajan, Anil Mehta, Ajayan Vincent, Ashok Mehta, V K Murthy and other great cinematographers. We had earlier republished K K Mahajan's interview.

Republished below is an amazing interview (done by C K Muraleedharan and Raqs Media Collective) in which P C Sreeram speaks about his journey, working process and much more.

Was  there  any  thing  that  influenced  you  in  a  cinematographic  way,  a particular style of lighting, visual patterns, framing and so on?

I never see a film from the photography angle at all. Not even today. It was only when I started going to the Film Festival that I noticed that all the Pune Institute guys knew the names of the cinematographers. I think the only name I know is that of Vilmos Zsigmond. And that is because one of my assistants had the chance to work with him on some commercial that was shot in Turkey. And then he called me at three in the morning, imagine!

What was the experience of shooting your first film like?

It was a 16mm film shot and released in Bangalore with some youngsters. We shot the entire film without any money. There was no money for shooting. It was a fiction film, but shot in a very documentary style, like candid camera, with a para-bolex camera. It was made by a collective, we assembled raw stock from here and there, the guy who was behind the whole thing has emigrated to the US. He plays the small role of a cop in one of the Kamal Haasan's initial fight scenes in Nayagan. He had been to Sweden and seen a lot of cinema there; apparently he had even tried making a small film in New York. But anyway, what’s the point of saying all this, you cant even see this film.

Anyway, we shot the whole film on MG Road in Bangalore. The whole thing was improvised. Looking back I can see that it was very amateurish, but I was zapped by it at that time, creating frames, improvising and shooting handheld and candid. It was quite a mind-blowing experience. We did not even have enough money for food. It was given only once a day. That too a little bit of rice. That is why we used to go to a village and beg for everything. We stayed outside Bangalore, and used to come to the city to shoot in a tempo. We worked like this for sixteen or seventeen days. It was a fantastic experience, but the lack of nutrition made us all weak.

But that film never took off. So this is how I shot my first film. I was doing only the basics of cinematography. When two characters are talking I told the director that I wanted the talking to be like this. I shot it straight because I wanted to play safe. I don't like the way I did the lighting. But it helped me get over a certain phase. Then I said to myself that this is not the direction in which I want to go, I don't want to do this kind of film. My life came to a grinding halt. I gave back the advance for the next film that I had got. And for two years you could say that I did nothing. I was in a desert.

Then, by the time that Pratap Pothen asked me to do a film Meendum Oru Kadal Kadai (which won the Indira Gandhi award, for the best first film) I really wanted to work again. We had very little money but we created a lot with limited means. We started shooting in a mental hospital, so somewhere there must have been Cuckoo’s Nest working in my mind. The whole film took nearly two years. Because when ever we got hold of any money, only then would we shoot the film. Only two prints were taken. It was odd but I could express myself, the story was what I wanted to express. I was expressing, expressing and expressing.

The film was released. Very few people had seen it at first. It won an award. People don’t even know about it. Afterwards it became very popular. Later after seeing that film Fazil called me. Fazil who is well known as a director in Malayam. He is one guy who did a different kind of filmmaking kind of cinema in Malayalam. Even today he has got his own character. He has not diluted it in these ten years. Lots of people got diluted in this ten years, but not Fazil. I shot for Fazil's first film Poove Poochoodava and then Mani Ratnam called me.

How did you begin working with Mani Ratnam?

Then Mani Ratnam called me for Mouna Raagam. 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 Natchathiram. 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 Nayagan was another extreme.  Agni Natchathiram 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 Natchathiram and the realist one of Thevar Magan? It seems as if there is always a tension between these two approaches in your work.

Agni Natchathiram brought a new  kind of pop culture into India. I remember seeing a trailer of Stanley Kubrick's A 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 Nayagan I wanted to try a different light pattern. You can say that it was the 'top light' concept that I had used very long time back in Fazil’s film for one particular sequence. 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 Nayagan 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 Nayagan 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 Nayagan and Thevar Magan I wanted brown tones.

What are the challenges that you are placing before yourself?

As I said I never want to repeat myself. I have done a lot of bright work, in films and in ads, now I want to try something different. I was telling you about brown tones, now I am fascinated with the idea of murkiness. I want to make a whole film to visually explore the idea of murkiness.

In our Indian conditions, everything is not soft and beautiful. You find this murkiness in the polluted air - in Bombay, in Bangalore, in Delhi. It is a haze, sometimes, like in the winter in Delhi it can be aromatic haze, sometimes it is a dark haze. It is a state of mind, and I want to be able to reproduce that state visually. Nobody has captured that Indian murkiness which I am telling you about.

How would you try to achieve it?

You are asking me about the technical application, I don't have an answer. Perhaps I have to work with tele-lenses. I have never before touched the camera for that look, but now, whenever I try to shoot, I search for that look. Then if I want to work with a romantic murkiness, then maybe I should work with the 150 HR, or the 250 zoom lens, I don't know. I want to see that light of today's Indian cities.

What excites you most of all as a cinematographer?

When an actor is able to understand and play with and to my lighting. I have been very fortunate to have worked with Kamal Haasan on more than one occasion. He has an exceptional ability to observe and incorporate light in his performance. It is not enough that you shine a light on an actor's face.

The actor should be able to show that the light is coming on his face. I shot at sun set in Nayagan, the sun is a very important element in the film. And Kamal Haasan has the ability to interpret the rays of the setting sun on his face. His acting enhances my lighting. I find it stunning. That is real talent.


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