Nna Thaan Case Kodu DOP Rakesh Haridas: In Malayalam cinema, the most expensive resource is time
Rakesh on delivering a naturalistic, less intrusive work, working with writer-director Ratheesh Poduval, and getting the best out of actors
One look at Rakesh Haridas’ superior work in Sherni and Nna Thaan Case Kodu, and you’re bound to ask why he hasn’t done more narrative features. The answer is simple. “It’s all about doing an exciting script,” says the cinematographer, whose work in Sherni impressed Nna Thaan Case Kodu writer-director Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval, a colleague from his Mumbai days working on commercials. Rakesh is glad Nna Thaan Case Kodu is a success and notes that the cinematography not being discussed enough is a good sign because he believes that the less intrusive the camera, the better. “However, if the script demands the opposite approach, then I’m all for it,” he adds.
Excerpts from a conversation:
I heard you only joined Nna Thaan Case Kodu much later —after Ratheesh had already done a ‘trial’ shoot to figure out the length and what works and what doesn’t.
Yes, Madhu Neelakandan was supposed to shoot it first, but then he had other prior commitments. So then, Ratheesh called me and checked if I would be interested in taking over, and I asked him to send me the script—one of the best I’ve ever read. I was laughing throughout the read. I had no second thoughts, naturally.
When Nna Thaan Case Kodu came out, did you find it strange that some people were baffled by the 1.85:1 aspect ratio?
It was a little surprising because one would expect audiences from a film-literate place like Kerala to have an understanding of these things. It was odd to have to answer a question about a problem with projection or why the frame was not covering the screen... things like that.
But I also view it as an opportunity for people to learn about that. When I spoke to Ratheesh before the shoot about the kind of canvas to frame it in, he initially expressed a desire to do it in 4:3, which would’ve been amazing, too. But since it was going as a theatrical release first, the producers would’ve been apprehensive about it.
I heard the film was first supposed to have a more quirky and fantastical texture.
Right. There was an idea of placing it in an entirely imaginary world. But when I read the story, I felt that many elements were close to reality and that it would work better if people could connect to it with their own lives and worlds. And as much as I think using 4:3 would’ve been even more interesting, I felt the film would benefit from a more intimate approach. After all, it happens to be an ordinary man’s story, and a 1.85:1 ratio would be more apt —to see characters closer and get a better idea of the spaces occupied by the actors.
I assume the actors’ performances dictated the camera placements and shot choices.
When the approach became more realistic, we picked lenses and shots that could help incorporate the people and spaces better, be it the courtroom or any of the exterior portions. We opted for 35mm and 50mm lenses because the angle of view is much more expansive—you can include so much more in the frame. The lens choices closely align with the vision you get when you’re looking at someone.
Did you opt for a multi-camera set-up for simultaneous capturing of performances, or was it about just shooting one actor first and then shooting the other?
While we were inside the courtroom set, we had two cameras because there were a lot of reaction shots to capture. A sizeable chunk of the film was happening inside the court, and we had to deal with some time constraints. We had to finish the shoot and then dismantle the entire set. So we used two cameras to speed things up. We did a lot of takes for the actors to get it right.
On some occasions, when two people engaged in conversation, we would film both; on others, we used two focal lengths on the same person to capture the spontaneity of the reactions.
Speaking of the reaction shot, that’s one of the most notable qualities of Ratheesh’s films. Has it become a lost art now?
A reaction shot is essential because a delivered statement and a response to it are equally important for a viewer to figure out what exactly is going on in a particular space. When two people are talking, we want to look at both. How is one person saying something? How is the other person responding to it? And it’s true: not many use reactions shots the way Ratheesh does.
What was it like working with so many newcomers?
It was really interesting because although they were all new, the team figured out what worked and what didn’t on account of doing the trial shoot of the entire script, editing it along with the music, and projecting it. I think it was a great exercise for first-time and non-actors to understand what is possible and what is not and how they can improve something. So even though we had a lot of challenges, the trial shoot helped with getting the diction, emotion, or dialogue delivery right.
I have two favourite scenes— the one in the police station with two women on penance filing a complaint and the ‘Aayiram Kannumayi’ sequence. Were they difficult to pull off?
The police station scene was shot for a day or two, but there were also other associated things to do with that location, like that long scene with the two other policemen trying to explain what happened in the accident and all that. Thankfully, none of the actors took too much time to deliver what was required of them.
As for the ‘Aayiram Kannumayi’ sequence, it was also achieved brilliantly in the edit by Manoj Kannoth, who cut everything together so seamlessly and in a way that makes one feel warm and fuzzy. Besides, the choice of the song itself adds to the nostalgia factor. It was beautifully rendered.
The same goes for even the ‘Devadoothar’ sequence, elevated a couple of notches higher by Chackochan’s dance. It was difficult for him to pull off, given that he is a great dancer and has a certain way of moving. And to break all that... Hats off to him.
Was there a provision to allow available light in the courtroom set—or was it simulated?
Most of the lights required for the shoot were fixed outside. For the interiors, we just employed a few diffusion lamps. We didn’t want to overwhelm everyone with equipment and put lights right on their faces. We did have light slots on top, and, of course, there were windows, too. But since there were passages outside these windows, we had to simulate sunlight—done in such a way that in the morning, it had to appear as though the sunlight would come from the left, and, post-lunch time, the sun would be on the other side. Keeping the sunlight and contrast consistent was hard because it kept changing throughout the day as we were shooting. And one thing we have to remember is that in Malayalam cinema, the most expensive resource is time, which we needed a lot to figure out many things.
Another thing was that we had to shoot some of the background characters’ portions during the day and shoot the magistrate’s portions when the sun went down. Many of his reactions and dialogues were shot at night, with nobody else sitting in front of him, but you can’t make that out because he is so good.