Thamizh Talkies: Show, don’t tell
The writer is a content producer and art curator
Last week, there was an online poll about naming the one filmmaker in whose cinema the camera work was noteworthy. This was a question thrown open about the movies of the world, but it got me thinking about who that one filmmaker would be in our context.
There is no cinema without the camera. Sound came in later, but without the camera, there is no story to show in this mass medium. Hence the role of a cinematographer is key, and the sync they have with the storyteller/director is, way more importantly, vital. The era in Tamil cinema and later on, in Indian cinema can be divided into Before-80s and After-80s. It is not just for the technical brilliance that took over but also for the stories and actors who emerged across the various film industries. The brilliant cinema of the 50s/60s had to do with stories and performances (the era of MGR and Sivaji Ganesan), with technical brilliance getting utilised mainly for the mythologicals and/or clear black-and-white frames. A story conveyed thought a shift in camera movements, and more importantly, a story that would even take place in the outdoors, was more of an 80s trend. When it came to cinematography, Balu Mahendra showed us what ‘realism’ on cinema looked like. When it came to a director whose films stood out for the way they looked, there was really only one name that mattered: Mani Ratnam.
Till date, pretty much no one allows for a movie to be filmed the way he does. Even an inanimate object in his frame looks aesthetic and aspirational at the same time. As for his camera collaborations, he has worked with the best of talents in each film of his, beginning from Balu Mahendra for his debut, Pallavi Anupallavi; Ramachandra Babu for Unaru and Pagal Nilavu; Rajarajan for Idhaya Koil... From Mouna Raagam began his superlative association with PC Sreeram followed by Santhosh Sivan, Ravi K Chandran, Rajeev Menon, and now, Ravi Varman. This list of cinematographers could well be headlined as ‘Top 10 cinematographers in India’ with all of them either debuting or working with Mani Ratnam in some landmark film or the other. In a Mani Ratnam film, the camera becomes not just the eye of the story but also its heart. It’s as if the lens speaks to the faces captured inside them, as if the natural beauty in a scene is stored in a memory card forever. Camerawork for a film is not just about capturing a picturesque moment, of course; it’s about effective storytelling. Song situations have never been the same since Mani Ratnam stormed into the filmmaking arena. The same goes for romance and how women have been shown on screen.
When a filmmaker truly relies on the camera to convey a story, the film becomes intensely visual. The minimal dialogues in a Mani Ratnam film were once mocked at, before they went on to be mimicked, and thereafter, became the trend. The filmmaker heralded an era in which the silver screen stopped being treated like a stage in which rhetoric and histrionics were required in great measure. Brevity was not just the soul of wit but also emotion in his films. A single shot conveyed what reams of dialogue paper were needed for. This is why his cinema looks ‘updated and modern’ even today. Even in a film like Iruvar, which is set in the late 50s and travels to the 80s, the dialogues and flashback parts were filmed with deft aesthetic control. Mani Ratnam decided to shoot the film in an aspect ratio that was followed during the time the story was set in. That made all the difference!