It was after Vishwaroopam that the world sat up and took stock of cinematographer Sanu John Varghese. He stunningly captured the expansive canvass of Jordan, the conflict of war, and the beauty of story-telling. Then came Take-Off and he is suddenly the man of the moment. Wikipedia lists the very impressive and underrated Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon as his debut. Sanu, despite hailing from Kerala, has only done two films in Malayalam. He has widened his repertoire in all languages. When I call him, he is in Shimla shooting for an ad. Like most of his compatriots, Sanu is very articulate, eager to be part of good cinema, and helps you understand his process without much complication. Over to him.
Was it Vishwaroopam that got you acquainted with Mahesh Narayanan?
No, in fact it was the other way around. I am the one who introduced him to the crew.
What intrigued you about Take Off?
I found the story a very compelling, emotional tale and Mahesh has visualised the film clearly in his head. Such films don’t come every day and I had to do it. There are some stories when you hear it and you know instantly that it will work. I had that feeling when English Vinglish was first offered to me, but I had already committed to Vishwaroopam. This time I got lucky.
And the biggest challenge…
To make it within the constraints of such a budget. But then we put our heads together and came up with a workable plan.
You began your career assisting Ravi K. Chandran. What brought you to him?
I started with news channels—TV 18, CNBC —and mostly covered development and economy. It was during a story on South Indian cinematographers for CNN IBN that I met Ravi K. Chandran. I was keen on switching to cinematography then and Ravi suggested that I meet him. Snip was the first film on which I assisted him.
What did you learn from him?
Ravi’s got solid technique and is a brilliant craftsman. If you have noticed, none of his films look the same—they seamlessly blend with the genre. Ideally, when you assist someone you pick up a few things and reinterpret it your way. In a way, it was a blessing that I wasn’t aware what I was getting into. It would have scared me.
Did your debut film come after a long wait?
It took me 6 years with Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon. I had also gotten into ads. .Another issue was that we were using anamorphic lens those days and it required a certain budget. Anamorphic is a medium with shallow depth of field, which requires you to shoot at a certain f-stop that gives more depth of field ( to make it look ' in focus'). Since you need to pump in more light, budget will be high. Till 2006 most of the movies were being shot on anamorphic . And I was being offered movies which had less budget for lights and also locations where you could not do lighting to that level of intensity. That's the reason I waited till spherical lenses became the norm. It happened after 2009 and ever since I have tried to have one release a year.
Is it always a strain to work within the constraints of a budget?
I thrive in such a setting. It poses the biggest challenge for any cameraman. Like how to use one light in three different ways. Low budget is your biggest litmus test. A different grammar emerges out of the constraints. Finally, it’s the stories that drive you. Another thing is that I sustain myself on ads and that gives me the freedom to do the films I want. I don’t want to depend on movies for a living as I feel I will be bereft of choices. I also paint, sketch and do graphics.
Lot of cinematographers swear by ads…
They help you to fine-tune your craft, widen your perspective, and they keep you on your toes. You also get used to different locations and learn the nuances of this craft.
How did Vishwaroopam come to you?
Kamal Haasan had called me to work on Marmayogi—but it got shelved after 6 months. Then he called me back for Vishwaroopam, but I balked at the idea of doing such a VFX heavy film. I bought some time from Kamal, studied various films (including Apocalypto) and sourced out various materials on it. Once I figured its basic concepts, I was good to go.
And working with Kamal Haasan?
It was like upgrading the operating system on your computer. Since I didn’t train in a film school, it was immensely gratifying to learn a lot of things from Kamal Haasan. He has been working from the age of 4 and I missed that kind of learning. He is akin to a film school. He is a man of varied interests—from nationalism, science, Dravidian politics, to latest technology…the conversations are never ending. When we did Thoongavanam, we scheduled it to leave room for those conversations.
Take Off is only your second Malayalam film. That’s a terrible number for someone who hails from this place.
Malayalam cinema is a storehouse of talent. Why should someone like me come to Kerala unless there is enough scope for me to display my ingenuity? Anything else would be like making a fool of myself. None of the movies that came my way were enticing enough. Besides, all my childhood idols come from here. Venu sir has no parallels I feel.
But you were constantly aware of the trends in Malayalam cinema…
There was one stage when I was seeing only bad cinema and so I lost touch. Then the new wave happened and I caught up with it way too late.
You debuted with Electra in Malayalam. Quite an unusual choice…
Electra was a dark film and that’s what clinched the deal for me. I wanted to something like an Irakal. And such scripts won’t come to you in Hindi.
Does failure hit you badly?
You tend to doubt your credentials and feel responsible, for sure.
Is it good to hear about great cinematography in a bad film?
Ideally nobody should talk about cinematography alone. It’s just subservient to the story. When they pointedly talk about it, that means you are doing something wrong. Being loud enough to be visible is when you have failed. If in Take-Off, the work of Ranjith Ambady, who is a talented make-up artist, stands out, I am in trouble. You see tacky art and costumes, blame me. It’s only when all these elements seamlessly blend in that the magic happens.
What are the kind of films that shaped your aesthetics?
I spent four years in Thiruvananthapuram studying at College of Fine Arts. There, thanks to a thriving film society crowd, I used to watch a film every day. But I never watched it with academic interest. When the 100 years of cinema came, I slept through a lot of films (Latin American, Eastern European films). I remember watching Battleship Potemkin some 10 times and wondering what the fuss was all about. Then I discovered AmericanBeauty in 1999.
And it changed your life?
I saw it 200 times and each time it was a different film for me. It was shot by a 74-year-old Conrad L Hall. There is a scene where the boss is getting into the room and telling a man he is getting sacked. He soon turns the table on the superior and we are shown how he grows in the frame and the superior becomes smaller. I understood this only in the 15th viewing. Such is the subtlety, technique, and detailing of the film.
Are you in the habit of taking references for a film?
I try not to watch films which provide direct references. So, I studiously avoided watching Argo and Battle of Algiers before Take-Off, as I didn’t want to watch them with the clear intention of taking something from it. Films subconsciously influence you, nothing wrong with that but not on a one-to-one basis.
Sure, but even that will come only after some experience? What to pick and what not to pick, I mean…
Yes, we need to think about how these things work and guard against a lot of these traps. If you know a fair amount of technique, you can copy a lot of stuff around. It’s vital to create a signature of your own.
Would you call this the most challenging time to make a film?
Yes. So many technologies, so many visual arts—mobile cameras, flurry images, images in silhouette. So much exposure and many diverse techniques. Visual perception has undergone a sea change and I am sure every cinematographer in the world is grappling with the realities of this transitory period. Cinema is changing every single day.
Do you read reviews?
I do read, but I don’t take them seriously. Like I said earlier—it took me 15 times to figure out the nuances of a film—I don’t expect a reviewer to get it right the first time as to what I meant or not. It will take a lot of years and several viewings to understand a Venu sir cinematography.
Did you expect such overwhelmingly positive reviews for Take-Off?
It surprised me as we tried a hardcore realistic approach for the film. The shot placements are designed in such a way that when people are talking we pan from one person to the next one speaking—like you reach there on time and then he talks. Generally, you turn your head after hearing a bit of talk but here, we opted for a more realistic framing. It is not pretty cinematography—this is a very functional, grainier framing.
I was watching David the other day. It’s something new again what you did…
I only did the black-and-white portions and trust me, it was tough! I have new-found respect for those who wielded the camera in the black and white era. You never realise this, but we can communicate a lot through colours, the colours around are a great cue for change. How do you give colder and warmer tones in black and white? How to give that difference between early morning and evening in black and white? Night and day are easier in colour. It was a cleansing experience for me.
And what next?
Just looking out for great stories. Meanwhile, I want to do a period film.
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