Interview: Rajiv Menon

Posted on January 28, 2007


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‘I’m sensitive to the unwritten equation between director and cameraman’

Rajiv Menon began making ad films in 1987, in July, and that would make this July his twentieth year in the business. But with the overwhelming response to his cinematography in Mani Ratnam’s “Guru”, the celebrations have begun in January. Catching up with the filmmaker-cinematographer… (Or is that cinematographer-filmmaker?).

JAN 28, 2007 – We keep hearing about this whole digital thing that’s been done in Guru. Is this the first time something like this has been done in the country?
No. Digital Intermediates (DIs) have been around for the last four-five years. They allow you to get inside the frames and do corrections – secondary colour corrections, or other innovations within the frame – and store the information digitally. But with DIs, there was always a problem of losing the “film” look. Things were looking too grainy, too contrasty, too enhanced, the colours popped up too much – it was not looking like real film. When we started Guru, we wanted it to be very real, and whatever we did with DIs, our first objective was to get back the “film” look, in the sense that the contrast ratio had to be closer to what you’d see in a positive on normal film.

Guru is a period film, spanning the 1950s to the 1980s. What did you do here that’s different from the way other period films have been shot?
Normally with period films, you’re talking about a flashback. You go back in time and then you come back to the present. So you could just have the flashback in sepia or something. But in Guru, there was no going back and forth. You had to live with those people over time. You needed to see the pale pink of the lips turn bluish over time, you needed to see the skin change with wrinkles over time. The other thing about period films is that you deify images in a way that the reference point is cinema itself. So when someone goes for a fifties’ look, they try lighting their film the way Guru Dutt did – and it becomes a retro look. But we didn’t want that, because the rain is rain whether it is in the fifties or the eighties. Instead, we put little flags in people’s minds, to show where you are, what era you’re in.

Are these flags in the script, or are you talking about visual flags? Can you give us an example from the film?
Let’s take the scene where Manik Dasgupta (Mithun Chakraborty’s character) meets Guru bhai (Abhishek Bachchan) on a street corner, outside his flat. Where should that be? Somewhere near Peddar Road? But that doesn’t exactly communicate fifties’ Bombay. So you decide to flag it and set it in Marine Drive, because nothing gives the Bombay feel more than Marine Drive does. But how do you pull off Marine Drive of the 1950s? So you go through the visuals of the time. You understand the kind of cars, the kind of streets, the kind of rocks there. And then you say, “Let’s shoot it at the Pondicherry sea-face in the morning, shoot the background planes in the evening, and merge the two.” The roads and the traffic and the people, those are in Pondicherry, but the buildings and the sky are from Bombay.

But that’s more like a special effect, isn’t it? Can give us an instance of a flag that did not involve such trickery?
Well, the first flag is that of a little boy from a village who travels to a foreign land and works there and comes back. That fantasy land is Turkey, a land that looks – to our minds – like something out of the Arabian Nights. When we went there and walked around, we discovered (in a bookshop) the work of the Turkish photographer Ara Güler, who was a shishya of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Güler visited India in the late sixties/seventies, and for him, India was always water bodies and trees and great faces. And I thought this was a very good flag: India is trees, and Turkey is domes and minarets. So if you notice, there are no trees in the Turkey portions. And when you come to India, to the village school, there’s a big tree. Then Aishwarya Rai dances under a tree. So the reference point for the Indian-rural became the tree and the water, and the absence of trees is when you get into the Pydhoni market and so on. The Bombay streets are without trees.

There’s a beautiful shot where Aishwarya Rai leaves home at night on a cycle, and you see her face in the nightlight. The skin tones are remarkable, as she’s not bathed in that overpowering blue light that usually indicates night.
That’s a day-for-night shot. The blue you’re talking about is because people don’t know what to do with HMI light. (That’s Hydrargyrum Medium-arc Iodide, and it’s one of the two kinds of lights we use, the other being tungsten lights.) The first thing you notice when you go outdoors in the moonlight is that the paddy is not green, the ocean is not blue, and when you hold a person close to you, you cannot see the pink of the skin. So you have to create this “colourless” light by killing the predominant colours – say, by doing a minus-green on the tungsten light, meaning that you kill the green. Also, you must take effort for the light to come from a great height. So when she’s leaving her house, when she’s opening the door and coming out, you see the faint blue in the sky as dawn is breaking. There’s also the level of exposure, because if you make it too bright, it looks like day. Day-for-night has gone out of fashion, but it’s actually a great device if you study where the sun is and use it to your advantage.

Everyone has come out saying that Aishwarya looks amazing. Did you shoot her in any particular, special way?
I was influenced by the way women were shot in Amélie. It’s conventionally believed that faces look good when shot in telephoto, and action in wide angle – but I just reversed that. The reference point for this was a leading food photographer who once said that whenever you shoot a hamburger you must shoot it in wide angle. That’s when you can feel the physical distance between you and the hamburger, and you start salivating as it gets nearer. Why can’t that be the way you look at a woman? When you’re getting close to a woman, ready to kiss her, she’s not going to be forty feet away, right? But for that, your light has to be terrific. Your exposure has to be dead-on. When you’re so close, even if the actor takes a breath, you feel it. People say she looks real in this film, and that’s because we’ve gone so close to her. I‘ve shot her in wide angle. We also worked on the lighting. BEST has a web site where you can see what kid of gas lamps were there at the time. The mercury vapour lamps introduced in Marine Drive were amongst the first in Asia, and people came from all over to see the great road which was so beautiful. That meant, in all of interior Bombay, the lights burned yellow, not blue. So when Ash leaves the house and you go and see the street outside, you discover that the lights are yellow on her face.

You mentioned Amélie. Did you watch anything else as a reference point before shooting? Say, movies that are considered quintessential “Bombay” movies, like Mr. and Mrs. 55.
We didn’t watch any Hindi movies because (a) we don’t have any iconic film from that time which is realistic, and (b) they were all influenced by the Hollywood of the time. But Mani Ratnam, myself and (art director) Samir Chanda, we saw Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love twice, for the styling of Guru’s house. It gives you the sense of period when the spaces are limited and people are struggling, yet there is great dignity and beauty in the way these people live. Somewhere along in India, beauty in art direction came to be misconstrued as grand staircases and large Corinthian pillars – very influenced by the Raj – and most of the reference points for art direction come from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam or Pakeezah or things of that nature. And in a culture where you sponge off your own films, there is no looking back at what else is there. One of the architectural movements we’ve used a lot is Art Deco. There are clear Art Deco references in Dasgupta’s office. The light here is harsher than in the house. Progressively, when it gets to the sixties, you see the tubelights coming in, you see a cyany-green in the picture. Finally, when Guru is down and out and in the ICU, it’s like a shadowless light – enveloped all around by white sheets. It’s eerie. And the climax – where we tried to show the transition of time in a single space (because the commission went on for a long time) – is an ode to JFK.

It’s interesting you say that, because I thought you’d talk just about the cinematographic influences, whereas your answer is more holistic – alluding to your collaboration with the art director and all that.
The responsibility of a director of photography is not just to do lights and camera movement. It is to liaise with the costume designer, the production designer and the entire post-production chain to achieve the final look. Samir and I worked really well together. He is very, very strong on research. He knows if you’re talking of 1958, if you can put a Kaagaz Ke Phool poster on the wall or not. You don’t have to debate that. He has done his homework. He constructed this huge set at Binny Mills, all the while racing against time. When an art director builds a set, he builds it realistically but he makes it just a bit bigger so that the unit can work inside it. And you’ve got to shoot it tighter so it looks real. If you hold on to a shot for too long, you’ll see it’s a set, so you have to move with the actors. The earlier house that Guru bhai and his wife live in, we built it one floor up, so that we could look down from above. Also, on the first floor, the light is different from that on the ground floor. The skylight comes in and therefore the colours come out better.

You shot Bombay for Mani Ratnam more than a decade ago. What’s the difference between the Rajiv Menon of then versus now?
In Bombay, I was trying for a combination of natural lighting plus camera moves, because backlight creates limitations on camera movement. And by freeing the camera, moving the camera more, it doesn’t look staged. It looks more real. Mani never ever tells me where to keep the camera, but in Bombay, he would always tell me, “It’s not hitting me. It’s not just coverage, I want it to hit me.” Is the visual arresting? Does it have an aesthetic quality? That’s what he wants in a frame, and I knew that after working in Bombay, so one decade later, it just became a lot easier to work with him. In Guru, I’ve also tried to concentrate on the lensing, which is very underrated in India. If you ask me what the change is in me over the last ten years, it’s this. Where you place the light, what is the filtration that you use, how far is the object from the lens and what is the angle you are choosing – that is more under control for me now. With any shot, I feel I have more than one way of shooting it. When a batsman is in form, for each ball he probably has an option of three strokes. It’s like that for a cinematographer, because you are using your tools to underline the unsaid of a director. It’s very important that you hear all the dialogues beforehand. Hear the text, prepare for the subtext. You must get that out in your camerawork.

When you say Mani Ratnam doesn’t tell you where to keep the camera, I have to ask this. How much of an image is the director’s vision and how much is the cinematographer’s contribution?
In our case, we both talk everything out. I’m sensitive to the unwritten equation between director and cameraman. There is no doubt that the director is the captain of the ship, but who has right over the image? Spielberg has worked with so many great cinematographers, but now he’s settled on Janusz Kaminski. He said he always struggled to get his point across and it was confrontational. But with Janusz, he felt like he had a younger brother on the set. If he had a problem, he could always turn to Janusz. It is that implicit trust that a director should have in you, and it is that unfailing loyalty that you must have to your director and your project. I did try my best to be Mani Ratnam’s younger brother on the sets of Guru. 85 days of filmmaking without an argument is a testament to the kind of synergy that’s there between us.

Cinematography is one of the fields that’s developed rapidly in the country. If I were to ask you for a then-to-now capsule on cinematography, who would you talk about?
Earlier, in the fifties in Tamil cinema, we had great cinematographers like Marcus Bartley. Then you had a kind of resurgence when colour came in, with Balu Mahendra and Ashok Kumar. Then you had the strong backlight and strong composition by PC Sreeram, and the natural styles by Santosh Sivan. As for me, I try to keep it real, the way Subrata Mitra did. He was one cinematographer from India who taught the world a few things. He was the leader of the naturalistic style, and whatever he did was so great, we can only look on in wonder when you see Charulata or Apur Sansar or Nayak. The other person I really appreciate is Ashok Mehta. He’s my atmiya guru. I really loved 36 Chowringhee Lane and I loved Utsav and Bandit Queen too. He taught me the power of composition and decisive camera movement. Don’t move the camera unless you are clear, but if you do it, do it powerfully.

Where do you see yourself in this continuum? And why don’t you shoot more films?
I can’t really claim any position in the list of great cameramen. I do one film in a decade. I’d like to shoot more films, but I’ve directed two films and I’ve spent the last five years writing scripts and dumping them. I’m too critical of my own work. Now I’ve written a script based on Fiddler on the Roof, with Amitabh Bachchan in mind. I hope I get to do this once the formalities are worked out. And when you become a director, there are not many other directors who come and ask you to shoot their films. Besides, if you find my work in Guru interesting, it’s only because Mani Ratnam’s canvas was so big that it was possible for me to paint like that. If he wanted to tell the same story in close-ups and get done with it and finish the film in three crores, I couldn’t have done all that I’ve done. There have been some offers but they just haven’t been challenging. Even with my ad films, I don’t shoot very much because I can’t do two things – directing and shooting – at the same time.

Now that you’re thinking of getting back to directing, what’s the continuing fascination with ad films?
I find being part of a marketing effort really interesting. I enjoy being part of the chess game that you play, because you’re making an ad and they’re making another ad and you’re fighting against them for the mindspace of the consumer. But, yes, films are where the fun is. I really feel I’ve underperformed as a filmmaker. I could have done at least two more features as a director, and a few more as a cameraman. This hurts me, it irritates me – because there are certain stories that you can do at a certain age and you can’t do them when you get older, so you must do as much as you can when you are young. Because Indian cinemas are about love and marriage and things of that nature, and you start looking at other things after some time. But then I’ve built an organisation – Rajiv Menon Productions – and I have the luxury of saying no. I can choose not to work and work only when I want to work. And that is a great liberating experience.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express