We had a long chat with cinematographer Sunny Joseph. His work in Piravi is still a reference point for students of cinematography. The 60-year-old Joseph is also the General Secretary of Indian Society of Cinematographers. His last work was the 2014 Tamil biographical film, Ramanuja.
Sunny Joseph was barely 8 when he first stumbled upon cinema. The inspiration was this local theatre projectionist who would buy medicines from his uncle’s shop. They would hire a projector for 40 bucks, the one that could be rolled by hand. He would make animations out of match sticks and write – ‘A film by Sunny Joseph’ on it. Initially Sunny wanted to assist a projectionist— “I could see two films in a day.” In fact, his earliest memories are of watching a lot of Tamil and Telugu action films. After watching a Sathyan film, he wanted to be an actor. After watching Utharayanam, he wanted to assist G Aravindan. Aravindan told him to get back after his stint at FTII.
At FTII (in 1979) he had no difficulty passing the written exam, but when it came to the discussion with a panel of judges (Mrinal Sen, Hrishikesh Mukherjee) Sunny was painfully shy. The timely intervention by psychologist and poet Manisha Chowdhury, who was part of the panel, saved him from being eliminated.
FTII was no culture shock for him. “I had seen quite a lot of cinema and my perspective widened. Most of the films I saw were the uncensored version. That also made me shockproof.”
His diploma film - TheClown and the Dog - won an award in 1984. FTII, according to Sunny, made him a world citizen. Every border dissolved; religion, nationality, gender, caste and colour. “That’s what an experience of 3000 films does to you.” He started listening to music, reading Upanishads and Haiku.
After graduating from there, he took up a job at the Christian Medical College, Vellore—making films on leprosy, heart health, schizophrenia etc. “Of course, I enjoyed the phase. Every time you are learning something new.” This was also the period that saw him turn spiritual. The Kalavamkodam temple’s KannadiPrathishta made a huge impression on him. The more he read about Sri Narayana Guru, the more he was fascinated. And then he thought of making a film on his philosophy. “I learnt to balance body and mind.” During this time Aravindan called him over to shoot a documentary, but discouraged him from being an assistant— “You already know about filmmaking. Why do you want to assist me,” Aravindan asked him.
It was when he went for this documentary that Shaji N Karun asked him to assist PanchavadiPalam. Then he did a couple of documentaries for Aravindan. After assisting MG Radhakrishnan for Theertham (1987), Sunny was ready to bid adieu to films. But then Shaji N Karun wanted him to commit to EenamMaranna Kaatu (1988) and then came Ore Thooval Pakshikal (1988).
Piravi (1988) was his fourth film. He was never told that he would be filming it, though he was involved right from the film’s inception. After the pooja he was asked to light up.
Were you aware that you were going to be part of cinematic history during its making?
When you are doing it, you don’t think about any of these things. Every minute is spent in problem solving. I was more concerned about taking a shot without spoiling the camera. The script is always the guiding force; the vision is achieved with all available technical support. We were a small crew. Premji was exceptional. We all wore a raincoat and the camera was wrapped in a plastic sheet during the shoot.
Cinematographers worldwide swear that shooting rain is the toughest deal…
Yes, it got postponed for three seasons. We shot it in the second phase of October monsoon. It’s real rain, except in the last scene—when the father comes back desolate and mad. Piravi was shot in available light. We only had to light up the interiors.
Then you were part of a lot of commercial films too.
Ironically, my family members started recognising me only after Kshanakathu. That’s when they realised I had become a cameraman.
You have done two Aravindan films. What’s he like to work with?
Unni was a project film from a Harvard University student. It was shot in available light which was unheard of in those days. We didn’t even use a reflector. My idea of cinematography is somewhat closely achieved by working in these films (the other being Vasthuhara). It’s a joy to work with him. He was my buddy and a father figure. His ideas were original, and he used very few words to put the idea across to you. He loved associating the story with nature - sunrise, sunset, rain; it all culminated beautifully.
And you also worked with Adoor Gopalakrishnan...
He doesn’t impose, instead he patiently listens if he thinks we know what we are talking about. We met at FTII and Adoor has been familiar to me since. When he was the chairman of FTII we had a lot of fights also. He was impressed by my diploma film and thinks I am a better director.
What’s a bad piece of cinematography?
Isn’t it better to define good cinematography?
Ok, so tell me that then?
For that I should describe what is good cinema. It should be life itself; life giving, life nurturing. This applies to politics and art. Every being’s ultimate right is to live. That way anything that supports life is good. Artists and philosophers change the world. Only art has the energy to subvert money.
Which is a recent film you loved?
I saw Angamaly Diaries. It was all right. Films with such editing style have been made everywhere since the 50s —remember The Battle of Algiers? The energy in that film was tremendous. I liked Lijo’s Amen—that had more original thinking. I liked Maheshinte Prathikaram. Annayum Rasoolum was fine but I thought it could have been two films. I am impressed by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, Sudevan, Manoj and Sajin Babu.
What do you think about today’s writing on films - be it reviews or analytical pieces? It’s all over social media...
Now it’s just opinions. I have 35 years’ experience of seeing and practising films. So I have much more of a right to talk about filmmaking than anybody else. It’s not about democracy. Cinema is more accessible and popular now, so studied writing is needed. Any art form should be looked at with humility.
Thoughts on Films versus digitalisation?
Our good actors have been badly affected since the monitor arrived. Earlier a director would decide the yardstick of their acting, now actors decide it for themselves. Look at the top actors: after the 90s even with good scripts they have not crossed what they already do. Digital has pulled it a step down. Earlier the actors or even the trolley pushers get tense if the scene crossed in 2 or 3 takes. Now they know they can go for umpteen retakes; the best shot never comes.
Trained versus untrained?
Training makes you understand the script better. But it won’t make you a good cinematographer. You must learn music, architecture, politics, literature, psychology—everything other than photography will make you a cinematographer. That’s why Malayali cinematographers are accepted widely. Everybody reads, they are interested in different aspects of life.
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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,...