Payyannur born KU Mohanan hasn’t shot a single Malayalam film so far. Yet, he is revered by the cinephiles in Kerala for his keen eye for detail and visual aesthetics. His frames for Miss Lovely - a film that shows us the dark entrails of the profitable porn-horror fringe-filmmaking that flourished in Bombay in the 80s - were much talked about. “The camera too takes an authorial position here, noting not just the dazzling colours and the lights and shades, but also letting us look at other cameras recording the bump-and-grind on makeshift beds, being looked upon by men with sweaty palms and leery smiles,” wrote film critic Shubra Gupta in her review for The Indian Express. Bollywood really took note with Don 1. Talaash, Raees and Jab Harry Met Sejal followed. Thankfully, the man has decided to open his account in Malayalam cinema with Venu’s Carbon and Blessy’s Aadujeevitham.
KU Mohanan cannot exactly pinpoint the time and day he started watching films. He was probably 10 or 11 and along with his cousins would spend Sunday mornings at a local theatre in Payyannur, watching Tamil and Telugu action films. Mostly CID films (starring Krishna, Vijaya Nirmala)—the ones that, he later discovered, were inspired from western films. And of course, a lot of black and white Malayalam films of Sathyan and Prem Nazir.
He started devouring art house cinema a little later—post high school, thanks to the sudden invasion of cultural organisations in Kerala during that time. Films were screened through fund raising. That’s where he stumbled upon Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G Aravindan and PA Backer. “Lots of interesting films that never got released.” PA Backer’s Kabani Nadi Chuvannappol (1976), the leftist political drama that came out during the Emergency is a movie that stayed in his memory for a long time. “In Kerala, you understand politics very early.”
In Payyannur college, he joined the Swarga film society, where he looked forward to the weekend movie screening. The venue was a rundown school hall, windows draped in black cloth and a projector for a screen. Serious cinema sought him out during this time—Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, a bunch of European films. Over the next five years, he would see a lot of masterpieces.
The cinematography bug!
For a long time, Mohanan wasn’t sure about what to do with his life. Cinema or cinematography never really figured anywhere in the list. “Payyannur is another world. All the action happened in Thiruvananthapuram or Chennai.” But he was always fascinated by photography. That’s the only imminent prop that would later connect him to a world he was destined to be a part of.
Mohanan recalls his first camera—a cheap, plastic, functional equipment he borrowed from his cousin. A roll gave 12 frames in 120 mm format. He started with the picture of his grandfather. When cousins came back from the gulf, he borrowed cameras from them and would shoot random pictures.
“When you are part of a film society, you keep hearing about FTII,” admits Mohanan. But somehow, he thought he couldn’t afford it. Born into an agrarian joint family, being looked after by uncles (his parents separated when he was young), he never found anyone who could offer him career guidance. Friends were either gunning for a government job or higher education. And he wanted neither. “I didn’t want to do a government job just because that was the only practical thing to do. I wanted to do something that gave me happiness, helped me find myself.”
He weighed the few options before him—get into a fine arts college, teaching or painting. That’s when friends in film society urged him to try FTII. Though he passed the test, his portfolio wasn’t sufficient enough to convince the board. A year later, he went back, armed with enough photographs to impress the board members. “Also, like most small-town boys, I had inhibitions with the English language.”
The big wide world of cinema
In 1984 he joined FTII. It was a culture shock for Mohanan. He saw students and teachers smoking in unison inside classes. Cinema was perceived in a way he had never seen before. He met students from all over the world. And saw films—of every possible kind. “I will always be grateful for FTII. More than as a cinematographer, it moulded me as a person.” Some of his batchmates have already made waves in Hindi cinema. Director Rajkumar Hirani had taken editing. Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali was a year junior. Cinematographer CK Muralidharan (3 Idiots, Agent Vinod, PK) and Director Sriram Raghavan (Ek Haseena Thi, Badlapur) were also classmates. In fact, he has just shot a week’s schedule of Sriram Raghavan’s next film.
For an FTII-ian to get into cinema wasn’t as easy then as it is now. Though he always wanted to make his space in Kerala, he somehow ended up in Mumbai. Moreover, at that time Malayalam cinema wasn’t really open to new technicians.
Mohanan began with documentaries— “I always clubbed documentaries with the newsreels Films Division used to make. Later I realised its vast potential.” He travelled all over the world, teamed with eminent Indian and international documentary directors and the fell in love with them. But money didn’t come easy.
During the summer of ‘95, he debuted in commercials. Roughly 5000 ads with various brands, and Mohanan became one of the most sought-after cinematographers in the world of commercials. In fact, some of our most reputed cinematographers have apprenticed under him.
Though he did start off in films (first film was with director Mani Kaul - Naukar Ki Kameez, 1999), he had to wait nearly a decade to bag his first big commercial film—Farhan Akhtar’s Don with Shah Rukh Khan. “It was my ads that prompted Farhan to call me. Though both of us were skeptical about pulling it off, considering the film was a stylish action thriller made on a large canvass, we decided to go ahead. Farhan’s set-up is well organised, planned in advance, like how we do in the ad world. In fact, Bollywood is thoroughly professional that way.”
Between good, bad and ugly cinematography.
Mohanan either works in a space he is familiar with or a new space he is confident of getting good output from. He thinks people tend to mistake “good cinematography for pretty frames.” Fine cinematography, according to him is the one that helps to communicate the story better. Enhance it a tad more. “In isolation, cinematography can look very ugly.”
It isn’t very easy to educate people about cinematography, he tells me. It’s like Hindustani music. Or a renaissance painting. “You have to take a little initiation. Read a bit. See more. If you want to understand Kathakali you need to read and learn about it a lot more.” Nobody talks about the work you thought should be noticed. The subtleties that goes into the narrative. That’s always sidelined by the loud, in-your-face cinematography.
He isn’t overly worried about the token film critics. “I am my own biggest critic, very rational about my own work. But appreciation is always welcome.” Cinematography, he maintains, is not a high-risk job. A good cinematography cannot make a mediocre film turn into a hit or a bad cinematography turn the tide of a good film into something unfavourable. Period.
He is impressed by the Malayalam cinema frames—cinematographers and audiences are bold. “They try to bring the real cinematography into mainstream.” He picks Rajeev Ravi’s work in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum as a fine piece of art. And says Madhu Neelakandan’s frames for Nadan were understated and beautiful. After eons, he is excited about shooting a Malayalam film—Venu’s Carbon with Fahadh Faasil, filmed entirely in Kerala. Then there is Blessy’s Aadujeevitham.
“When sound, cinematography, editing, colours and all that come together and you only see the film, then that’s the film’s success. In the first viewing you should only notice the film, everything else should come in the second layer of appreciation. Otherwise it will stick out like a sore thumb.” He hates “fashionable cinematography”, the loud and shallow variant. Like pop music—low-quality but popular.
He loves listening to music—folk, Hindustani, Carnatic, film songs, Sufi—that’s one way he finds inspiration for his frames.
His cinematic inspirations? He loves Sean Martin (Andrei Tarkovsky films), Sven Nykvist and Gunnar Fischer (Ingmar Bergman films), Vittorio Storaro, VK Murthy (Guru Dutt films), Christopher Doyle and KK Mahajan. Subrata Mitra (who shot mostly for Satyajit Ray films) according to him is the finest cinematographer in the world. “I keep my eyes and ears open to any work that excites me, inspires me to do better. It’s a continual learning process.”
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