Littil is his passport name, a spurt of creativity from his dad who couldn’t think of a better name for his youngest son. Littil Swayamp is 28 years old and his debut film as a cinematographer is already getting rave reviews—the exquisitely framed Soubin Shahir directed Parava. Born in Sharjah, raised in Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam, he took up several odd jobs after finishing school (dropped out from college where he was doing a course in designing). He did costumes, editing, art, was the camera attender for ads. Meeting Anwar Rasheed changed his life—he shot the Kerala tourism ad for Anwar and framed the edgy Navarasam video for Thaikkudam Bridge. More from the lad who is based in Bangalore.
How did you come to Parava?
I have been working with Anwar Rasheed for a while. I shot the Ustad Hotel dance video with Dulquer Salmaan and assisted in his production, Bangalore Days. He said there was this story, Soubin Shahir wanted to narrate to me. We met on the sets of Charlie, Soubin and Dulquer were perched on top of a roof (there were in the middle of shooting a scene). We sat there, he began the narrative at 9 pm and it went on till the wee hours of morning. I loved the concept!
Soubin said it was your love for birds that really clinched the deal…
Yes, I do have a parrot and I love animals. For a lot of scenes that he narrated I would be smiling, thinking about the intricacies behind capturing the pigeons making love and watching them take flight. Besides it helped that Soubin had thorough, almost meticulous understanding of the pigeons.
Animals are always known to be very difficult to shoot for any cinematographer. And here we had a flock of pigeons. What was the biggest challenge for you?
Theywere flown in specially from Nagercoil. It’s not possible to start filming them immediately—they had to be trained over many months. Soubin didn’t want to hound the birds. They can’t work for us, we had to work around the birds. Casting for the birds was also a meticulous process—you must pick them in pairs since they won’t mate or kiss any other male or female pigeon than the pair chosen for them. Also, you should study the character of the birds to figure out which one will fly for a longer period, which one will fly short, which one will come back and which one will make love. Soubin had an extensive collection of pictures of each of these birds.
Pigeonslooked stunningly beautiful in every frame. Was that the brief, to capture every bit of them with painstaking detail?
Yes, there were lots of micro-tight shots. There is a double-eyed pigeon whose one eye is black and the other is white. When the bird turned from left to right, both eyes had to be seen so the lens had to be tight. There are so many birds in different scenes and it was important that the audience also recognises the different varieties of pigeons in each scene. Like this white-headed female and brown eyed male pigeon.
Mattancherry has been captured in all its authenticity…
This was something new—the pigeon tournaments and Mattancherry. It helped that Soubin knew every nook and corner of Mattancherry, he would simply walk into homes and sample fish fry, insist on tasting local food and hold conversations with the crowd. They loved him. And the flavours just seeped into the frames. Full marks to the art and costume director for getting into the details of the backdrop, the homes, the people and their clothes. There is only that much I can do with the frames—it’s only when the art, costumes and actors blend in that the frame does its magic. Mashar Hamsa (costume designer) would observe people on the streets and chase them and buy clothes from them.
Framing the pigeons in flight. What was the most daunting part of it?
We didn’t cut the feathers of any of the birds. Usually in cinema, they cut the feathers and throw them in front of the camera, so that they won’t fly away. What we did was we let them fly and kept our fingers crossed, hoping that they would come back. If not, we had to reshoot all the other scenes. We let them fly for one take a day; they would fly all day and came back only in the evening. All the pigeons were flown over 100 times and they would always come back. It showed how comfortable they had grown with the crew, considering there were cameras and lot of crew members on the set. It came to a point when they wouldn’t fly away even when we walked in between them.
Mattancherry is a small town. Were they wary of the crew initially?
Initially, yes. But then they knew Soubin. And since the entire film was done in sync sound it was a task, as they were sounds of bikes and neighbours distracting the scene. But once the ADs announce that they are going for a take, there would be silence. The co-operation was amazing.
That opening shot of the boy spluttering fish into that cauldron of water. Was it the exact brief?
Yes, these are incidents that have happened in Soubin’s life. So, it was easier for me to understand. I thought it was very crucial that the audience watch how the fish is flicked into his mouth and later drains it on the cauldron of water. We also showed the cycling feats and textures around while at it.
Pouring a mouthful of water into their tiny beaks, that might not have been easy to shoot?
I was stressed out trying to keep focus since it was a hand-held shot. It’s not a micro-shot but it’s still tight, as good as a close-up shot. I was excited to shoot it and it showed the bond between the kids and the birds.
What about the kids? They seem to be having a ball…
They were found much before the shoot and Soubin will constantly feed them stories about the character and the birds. Soubin was insistent on letting the kids take care of the birds—feeding and giving water. They were fast learners and Soubin would also enact some scenes for them.
The scene where the boy lands unsteadily after flipping for a high jump match in school only to stare straight at her eyes. Lovely.
That was planned, the love story was a parallel track. That’s why we mixed it with the birds, where he sees her for the first time. It required lot of waiting and it was a one-take shot. Once the birds fly off it takes a lot of time to come back and settle down. The timing had to work—once action is announced on mike, Soubin would clap, birds would start flying and at that very moment the girl must turn her back and look. It’s again what Soubin has experienced in school—he wanted to capture the innocence and purity of love at that age. The BGM also helped a lot.
What are the kind of films you grew up watching?
I used to watch everything—most films in Asianet to Star Movies. I was also intrigued by films that had animals in it. This Hindi film on monkeys and elephants—it made me wonder how they do it. At that age, you look at it very emotionally.
Cinematographers you look up to?
Be it Amal Neerad, Sameer Thahir, Rajeev Ravi, KU Mohanan, Rajiv Menon, Santosh Sivan or Jomon T John, they all have a distinctive style and they imbibe the script into their style very effectively. It’s a huge deal, to live up to these names.
What are you eyeing now?
I want to do every kind of cinema, take care not to replicate the same lighting or frames in the next film and explore and experiment with new and exciting stories.
What was the biggest takeaway from Parava?
This image of Soubin cracking jokes and waiting patiently every morning, praying in one corner, hoping for the birds to kiss and makeup. And once it happens, you can’t even talk since the movie is done in sync sound, so you just communicate your joy through actions. That was a priceless moment. And then the fact that Soubin and Anwar Rasheed could have got any DOP to shoot this, yet they gave me this platform. That’s a huge deal for me. On the last day of shoot, both hugged me. That, I would say was the biggest takeaway.
Comments material that is unlawful, obscene, defamatory, threatening, harassing, abusive, slanderous, racially, ethically or sexually hateful or offensive, or embarrassing to any other person or entity are prohibited.
Fullpicture is an exclusive, comprehensive, online English magazine on Malayalam cinema, put together by a team of experienced journalists who share a passion for everything about Malayalam cinema. The idea is to put out well-written and well-researched features, exclusive interviews,...