Interview: Shaji Karun

Posted on April 23, 2006


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Shaji Karun’s first film was about a commoner. His forthcoming feature is about Raja Ravi Varma. The filmmaker talks about aspects of this interesting journey.

APR 23, 2006 – TYPE IN WWW.SHAJI.INFO AND you’ll be greeted by the photograph you see in this story. If this isn’t a worthy entry point to the web site of a renowned cinematographer, I don’t know what is. That’s Shaji Karun, corkscrewing himself towards us. But this pose is hardly as unusual as that handrail to his left, an electrocardiogram in metal winding past an eerie blue light from a window before disappearing into a gaping mouth of nothingness. “It means a lot to me, the way you look at a picture,” says Karun, when I ask if this picture means something. All he’ll say is that he was filled with a strange kind of emotion at this location, a church in Switzerland. “I felt this moment should be captured.”

Ever since he graduated from the FTII with a degree in cinematography, Shaji Karun has been capturing moments, not merely images. “I am influenced by Aravindan, with whom I’ve worked with on several projects. His films say a lot through silence instead of dialogue, so what you see on screen aren’t just pretty pictures. They are the primary means of communication.” That remained the philosophy when Karun decided to turn director in 1988 with Piravi (Malayalam). (He’d made a few shorts earlier.) “It’s about a father waiting for his son. The son is, in a sense, the main character, but he’s not shown at all. Instead, I tried to tell the story with the help of visuals – the rain, the river, the storms, the skies…”

The universality of these visuals is possibly rivalled only by the universality of the acclaim for the movie. Piravi was widely hailed as the most stunning feature film debut in the country since Satyajit Ray burst on the scene with Pather Panchali. Cannes awarded it the Camera d’Or, for best feature film by a first-time director. It won the Silver Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival. (Trivia note: The bronze that year, for Where is the Friend’s House?, went to an Iranian filmmaker named… Abbas Kiarostami, who wasn’t quite the art house darling he is today.)

It’s perhaps inevitable that Piravi turned out the masterpiece it is. After all, 15 years of training and preparation went into it. “It took me that long to get ready, to convince myself that I could direct,” says Karun, who, even at the FTII, realised that cinema is essentially a director’s medium. It didn’t matter that by the age of 24, he had on his mantelpiece the National Award for cinematography – for Aravindan’s Thampu. What he really wanted was to make movies from his own point of view.

But Karun doesn’t dismiss the years he toiled as cinematographer (for the illustrious likes of Aravindan, George and Vasudevan Nair). “A filmmaker is like a doctor,” he says, and the analogy isn’t as strange as it first appears when you learn that he got an admission to a medical college in Trivandrum, to do his MBBS. “But who is a doctor? He is one who knows about the whole of the human body, and who then goes on to a specialisation.” Now you know where the analogy is headed. “Similarly, a filmmaker has to have knowledge about all of cinema, whether he wants to end up as cinematographer or director. Even as cinematographer, I would look at something the director did and ask myself how I would do it if I were in his position. All this training helped me.”

But once Karun decided to take the plunge, things came together quickly. He got a loan from the NFDC. He made the film. And he got the luckiest break when it was picked up by Cannes. Piravi was released across Europe and proved a big success. Since then, though, he’s made only three features – Swaham (1994), Vanaprastham (1998) and Nishad (2002). “In the earlier days,” Karun says, “I needed about Rs. 6 lakh to make a movie. That’s how much Piravi cost. Now it would cost almost Rs. 60 lakh. Almost ten times more.” It makes you think a minute, that this amount would merely cover the costs of Kareena Kapoor’s wardrobe in a Karan Johan production – but Karun doesn’t have any issues with mainstream cinema. “That’s an entertainment, and human beings need entertainment.”

Besides, it’s a mainstream producer – Bobby Mangal Pandey Bedi – who will finance Karun’s next film, “a human passion drama that looks at Raja Ravi Varma from the point of view of a model from Maharashtra who inspired him.” Varma was apparently 35 when he met this muse, and after this meeting his painting is said to have acquired a different dimension. “What does it mean for a human being to be inspired?” asks Karun. “There’s a lot of information available today about Raja Ravi Varma, but not about the model. There was a scandal involving the nudity. She ran away and he went in search of her. That’s the story.”

At the moment, Karun wants Ajay Devgan as his leading man. But he’s still writing the screenplay and he says he doesn’t approach actors till he completes the writing process. “That’s because I don’t want the person in front of me to influence the characters I am writing.” But it’s Vishal Bhardwaj who’s writing Karun’s other project, based on a T Padmanabhan short story called Kadal. “Sometimes, I ask others to write,” says Karun. “I give the ideas, but my writing skills aren’t very good. My strengths are the visuals, not words.”

Sometimes, those words are not in Malayalam. Sometimes, as in Nishad, those words are in Hindi and Pali. The film was set in the Himalayan regions, in a Buddhist settlement, and Karun says, “My idea of language is that it should reflect where the actions take place. Language is a part of the landscape.” And now, in the Raja Ravi Varma project, though the artist is from Kerala, the film is set in Mumbai. So Marathi and Hindi will be part of the landscape. In any case, Karun feels the language shouldn’t be a deterrent in today’s multiplex scenario. “The multiplexes are great, even if they are only in the metros. The audience has begun patronising different kinds of cinema, and there’s hope that we may again see a period like the 70s, when all kinds of films were being made and everyone was enthusiastic about watching them.”

Karun hopes to start shooting by the end of the monsoon and finish in time for an October 2 release. That date marks the centenary of Raja Ravi Varma’s death. If it appears that there’s very little time between June and October, Karun says, “Once my screenplay is ready, I need only 45-50 days of shooting, and my post-production takes very little time.” And it must help that he’s been working on the movie for the past two years. “My first draft was only about Raja Ravi Varma. The second draft, I wrote from the viewpoint of the model. The third had location details. Now I’m onto my fourth draft of the screenplay, which even has details of the sound design.”

Karun says he can afford to take this kind of time with his films because he’s never considered cinema as something to earn his livelihood from. “For that, I just go and photograph someone else’s movies. Or I make short films, like the one about a blind man who did embroidery. For me, cinema is a craft. So I wait until I can make the movies I want to.” So does that make him a cinematographer first, a director later? Karun doesn’t hesitate. “Just call me a filmmaker.”

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