By Aditya Savnal. Posted on December 10, 2014
Mani Ratnam is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers of Indian cinema. With most of his films, Mani Ratnam has pushed the envelope of filmmaking with regards to the storyline and subjects his films have dealt with.
By employing new editing, cinematography, scene composition, background music and shot taking techniques, his films have redefined and set new standards in the grammar of filmmaking while still being in the realms of commercial cinema.
One such iconic film directed by Mani Ratnam is the Tamil film 'Thalapathi' (Commander). The film is loosely based on the tale of Karna and Duryodhana from the Hindu epic Mahabharata and stars Rajinikanth and Mammooty.
Thalapathi also remains the only film in which Mani Ratnam and Rajinikanth have worked together. One of the highlights of the film is the cinematography by ace cinematographer Santosh Sivan which is nothing less than spectacular. Rajinikanth's popularity is unprecedented and as can be seen in this brilliant short film, there are no fans anywhere like Rajini fans.
On the eve of his birthday we are publishing this superb analysis of Thalapathi by Chhatrapal Ninawe where he passionately dissects Santosh Sivan's cinematography in the film. Chhatrapal is an independent filmmaker who's directed the a short film called 'Cheque of Death' and a feature film 'Dvandva' (Duality).
Surya played by Rajni is based on Karna, which was depicted in Mahabharata as child of the Sun God. Throughout the whole film, Mani Ratnam and Cinematographer Santosh Sivan reminds us of this fact with masterly visual treatment.
At the very start of the film we see Kalyani dumping her newborn baby. And When Surya is found in the river, by his foster mother and while she picks him up; he is shown in the silhouette against the sun. Crying. Surya, Child of The Sun God.
Why My Mother Dumped Me
And in the next scene Surya and his foster mother stands against reflection of the evening sun, again in silhouette and Surya asks her “Why my mother dumped me ?”
Santosh Sivan uses this kind of silhouette’s throughout the film, giving it an unique look and feel, which i doubt if i have seen in any other Indian film before Thalapathi. He employs Low key and high contrast lighting to bring those dark emotions visually. I won’t call Thalapathi dark film per say. But then it is a film about dark emotions, especially in a country where even today unwed mothers are considered a taboo. Ironically, Mahabharata always mentions such children born out of wedlock as son of the Gods.
Low Key High Contrast Lighting
And while portraying dark emotions, visual artists over the centuries preferred high contrast images and filmmakers are no different. Now, Mani Ratnam surely had few creative choices in front of him. As a filmmaker you have the option of shooting lots of night scenes, when it is relatively easy to create high contrast imagery. In day light anything against the sun is total silhouette. So there is little chance of showing facial expression of your characters. Shooting against sun is difficult because dynamic range of film stock, which is less than human eye. Even for human eyes it is difficult to see against the sun.
When Surya becomes Thalapathi,he is shown fighting against the sunlight, in silhouette along with Illaiyaraja's background chanting "Thalapathi"
As Surya is a Modern day Karna, son of Solar Deity, the visual treatment demands creating high contrast situation in day light. And that’s where the challenge begins. It looks like Mani Ratnam surely made a conscious decision to creatively use the sun in conjunction with Surya’s character. Now, once that creative decision of “putting characters against the sun” is made, you are actually committing to use a peculiar style of cinematography, where back light is powerful and key light (the main source light) is low. And inherently it creates high contrast image. Hence It is called low key high contrast lighting, which we see all over in Thalapathi.
Even during Surya and Subhalaxmi love affair, the Sun stays strong in the background
Another way of showing soft and yet strong Sunlight
Personally i would always prefer a song or two less in all of Mani’s films. Usually songs often fucks mis-en-scene on the pretext being surrealistic and/or dream like. But not here. We see again the Son of the Sun God, the Surya against the Sun!
Surya in Dream Song
In this film, we mostly see the evening sun or the sun among clouds. As I said before, it is due limited dynamic range of film stock, noon is out of question. Even then it must have took special effort to creatively use the sun as a light source. You can control a light but with sunlight there is a very limited way to control it. Yes you can fake it. But it doesn’t look authentic. It is always better to wait for the right moment. And it means while shooting you are totally at mercy of the Sun God. It also mean patience. In commercial film making industry where every second costs you, it finally means tremendous production pressure. And at the same time when it is a multi-starrer, it means your schedule is also at the mercy of stars and their busy schedules. And when everything is ready, few clouds come up and everything is ruined, stars are frustrated, producer is worried, crew is bored. And it is so easy to give up. Producer might have said ” after all it is story which important, what is the heck with low key high contrast chicken shit … Mr Mani I am losing my money, please shoot this fuck and complete the damn thing, even without lighting, after all it is just damn a film”
Had Cinema not been Mani and Sivan’s religion, we would not have seen a visual delight. Yes, it is the story but it’s also cinematography and background score which takes Thalapathi to another level. Mani and Sivan, surely waited for right moment for the Sun God.
The Solar Deity
This is the First scene of Rajni in the film, first scene of grown up Surya, the same Surya, who was deserted by his hapless mother, now a violent and angry Surya, who can’t tolerate atrocities on the poor, kills a tyrant Rammana, in heavy rains.
Surya Kills Ramanna
Above shot is actually a night shot. But it features a powerful back light again reminding us of the Sun, and it’s where it becomes Thalapathi’s Mise en scène. There is very less light on both the characters (low key) and hence create high contrast lighting, which Sivan employs to heighten the emotions of the scene. To visually match the evening Sun, Sivan uses very very strong back lights during night time.
Again there is another night scene in heavy rain ,which is again shot amazingly, portrays Surya against strong back light, when he confronts Deva.
Surya Confronts Deva!
This is a scene which simply takes you to another level purely with cinematographic techniques. Imagine had it had same content and same actors and same dialogues and without such kind of visual. Had it been equally effective? A weak confrontation here would have paved the way of great friendship later? This Surya never sets whether its day or night. Mind It. Literally. Cinematically. And this film was made 1991, seven years before Satya, a film which I till date had wrongly assumed as a game changer for modern day Indian filmmaking. Any way lets not compare them. Both of them are great films. I just want to say that i can’t believe that this film was made in 1991, it was way ahead, in its vision and it’s execution.
When Deva is lying seriously hurt and Surya opens the door of the hideout, we see him again against a strong backlight and again it is a night scene.
Deva ... You Can't Die!
In the next scene an angry Surya wants to take revenge. He chases and burns the culprit alive and his step father becomes a witness. Surya and others are paraded into the police station. He is asked about his father and mother, he shouts telling everything his stepfather needs to know!
What's your Father's Name?
Again this epic scene where for the first time Surya comes across his mother.
Ohh the Solar Deity ... I am your Son! Where is my mother?
It is a breathtaking scene, no dialogues and all visuals and just a sound of a train passing by. It was the same sound Surya heard as a newborn baby when his mother dumped him into a train bogey. It was the same sound, which Kalyani last heard when she left her baby and even today she regrets. Kalyani's husband and Surya's Stepfather knows everything. Again Surya is lit by a strong sunlight coming from the temple window. It is also terrifically edited and as well acted especially by Srividya.
Although this post is more about the Sun as cinematographic choice, but its brilliance in almost all department which makes this film a true epic. I just feel it is only the action scenes that are a little outdated compared to present day and time.
In a scene, when his step father tells Surya about his mother. And Surya is shocked and there he is shown against an evening sun in silhouette, even though the shot doesn’t match in cuts, but it takes audience to another level. A dramatic choice in cinematography, heightening Surya’s emotions.
Any other director, except Mani, would have shot the whole scene in silhouette, simply may be because continuity issues (as CUT IN’s doesn’t match partly due to limitation of tech and partly due to bad colour correction) or may be simply because of creative choice. A whole scene against the sunlight in a situation where Surya is told about Kalyani, is not that bad a creative choice. But that’s why Mani is Mani … he never overdoes things … he always keeps restraint as a director … that’s the difference between Ram Gopal Varma and Mani. Many a times Ram Gopal Varma goes over the top. Trying to do too much. BTW I am a fan of both the filmmakers. But in the name of direction, style and dramatic creative option you just cannot fuck your character and their emotions. When it comes to Mani, even if there are continuity issue in the scene, character’s emotions always takes precedence. No wonder he is so popular among the actors. And as IRRANAND pointed out in a previous post, the same thing gave him chance to make Mouna Ragam, despite his early failures.
Anyway the scene ends with Surya asking his step father not to tell her mother about him. Again holding his hand against the sunlight, in front of his mythical father(the sun) and his step father, he cries and decides to stay away from his mother, whom he used to hate. Dramatic !!! I don’t know Tamil and I read only subtitles … but if I can feel power in reading subtitles … I can imagine what it would have sounded in one’s mother tongue. It is an epic scene … because of its position in the film, its content, its creative and tech choices, cinematography, direction, dialogues and acting.
Few more shots which again and again reminds us of Surya, the Solar Deity.
Surya Meets Subhalaxmi and Arjun
Surya secretly watching his Mother!
And finally the scene where Surya meets his mother. I ideally wanted to put a video link , but i couldn’t find one online. So i decided to embed an animated GIF, if it doesn’t play here, in this window. Just open it in a separate window!
The use of movement, use of lighting and use of composition. I think this is masterly. One of the best scene in Indian Cinema. There is also a cut away, where we see Surya’s wife and stepdaughter watching Surya and his mother. There is no need of this cutaway. But it heightens emotions once again. Actually on Deva’s insistence Surya is married to Rammanna’s widow, the man he killed. His stepdaughter loves Surya a lot. And when she innocently asks those few question, which heighten already dramatic scene. It is where editing and cinematography and acting works in tandem, creating unforgettable emotions.
The treatment of using strong back lights goes up till the climax.
Deva dies in the arms of Surya
And when Surya takes revenge. By the way Amrish Puri’s dubbed dialogues are surely a turn off. But Kalivardhan does his job.
Revenge of Surya
Again Image below is an animated GIF of the last scene of the film, where Kalyani decides to stay with Surya and then dissolving into one last tribute to the Sun God and besides it we read “Written and Directed by Mani Ratnam.” (Click and open in separate window if it doesn’t play here)
Thalapathi’s cinematography is outstanding. It has a unique trademark. A unique style. And all that style goes in sync with the story and its character and their emotions. In fact it takes those emotions to another level. But it is not only cinematography but also the excellence in almost every other department, let it be screenplay, acting, music and editing which makes it a classic. It is also a classic because of director’s non compromising attitude and demand of perfection. Also because of the technical and creative ability of his cast and crew to execute his vision.
I would like end the post with some masterly compositions we see in Thalapathi!
Surya with his sweet stepdaughter!
My Brother .. I can't ... because he is also my brother
And Finally The End
This article was originally published on www.madaboutmoviez.com
Also check this out: