Location Diaries: A leaping lion
Veteran cinematographer Ramachandra Babu talks about his experiences working on the films Chottanikkara Bhagawathi, Vaarikkuzhi, and Allavudeenum Albuthavilakkum
For the shoot of the film, Chottanikkara Bhagawathi, in 1973, an elephant was required. The animal which was brought to the set had no tusks. “However, the scene required an elephant with tusks,” says veteran cinematographer Ramachandra Babu. “So, two tusks were made artificially using light wood.”
It was decided that the mahout would hold one tusk and stand next to the trunk while the art director Sreeni would hold the other. Since the elephant would be moving along with a large crowd of people, it would be easily camouflaged that the tusks were not real.
Ramachandra noticed that Sreeni felt very nervous while standing next to the elephant, and to counter this fear he looked away. Meanwhile, the director P Vijayan shouted, “Action.” Since there were many in the crowd who were amateurs, they did not start walking right away, including the elephant as well as the mahout. “But since Sreeni was looking away, he did not know that,” says Ramachandra. “So, he started walking with the tusk, but with no elephant beside him. For a long time, he did not know that he was walking alone, especially because it was a night scene. All the while everybody around was watching silently and smiling.”
Sreeni carried on coming towards the camera. It was only when Ramachandra stood in front of the lens and started laughing that Sreeni realised that something was wrong. When the art director looked back, everybody started laughing.
Sadly, the film did not get released because of a lack of funds. But on many sets, during idle moments, Ramachandra would recall this incident. “And when [director] PG Vishwambharam heard about this incident he used it in a scene of his film, Gajakesari Yogam, although I did not work on it,” says Ramachandra.
There was another incident with an elephant in MT Vasudevan Nair's Vaarikkuzhi (1982). There was a sequence when an elephant falls into a pit, and actors Sukumaran and Sankaradi, who played estate owners, were supposed to come and have a look, along with the other workers.
“We had to make a big pit at the location in Wayanad,” says Ramachandra. The unit members managed to lure the elephant into the pit. Ramachandra was ready with the camera. When he looked through the viewfinder, he saw that both Sukumaran and Sankaradi were within the frame. “But suddenly, I noticed a change in their expression, and then they vanished from the frame,” the cinematographer says. While he was trying to figure out what was happening, his assistant removed the camera.
The reason for this behavior became clear later. The elephant, who clearly felt uncomfortable in the pit, had raised his two legs up to the edge, towards where the camera was and was trying to climb up. The shooting came to a halt, and it took the mahout several minutes before the elephant calmed down and the shooting could continue.
In the film, Allavudeenum Albuthavilakkum (1979), it was Kamal Haasan's turn to work with an animal. The shoot was at Sathya Studio in Chennai. Kamal played street urchin Alavuddin who had to fight a lion in a cave.
Accordingly, a lion was brought to the set. The trainer assured Ramachandra not to worry, as it had been sedated, its toe-nails had been clipped and mouth stitched. So, the cinematographer organised the lights and placed the camera on a stool.
Then Kamal came up and slapped the lion on its back. The moment he did that, the lion made a huge leap. It went over Ramachandra's head, as well as the camera. “Then it hit some lights and escaped through a gap in the set,” he says. “Since the lights broke, somebody put off the main switch. So the whole set was in darkness. There was panic all around. Nobody knew where the lion was. There were shouts of ‘Put on the light, put on the light’.”
Finally, the lights were switched on, but by then the set was completely deserted. Everybody had run away, out of fear. The trainer and his assistants ran out, and after a hectic search managed to locate the lion and bring him back.
After a break, shooting resumed. “This was the first time we were shooting with animals,” says Ramachandra. “So, it was a learning experience for all of us.”