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Cinematography is like a sine wave: Aadai DoP Vijay Kartik Kannan- Cinema express

Cinematography is like a sine wave: Aadai DoP Vijay Kartik Kannan

The cinematographer has won unanimous praise for his work in Amala Paul-Rathna Kumar's Aadai

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Published: 28th July 2019

Aadai might have opened the Pandora's box of debates but it received unanimous appreciation for its top-notch cinematography that embodied the 'dignified gaze'. In an industry notorious for objectification, this film is unique in how it showed a woman's nudity in a respectful light. Ask Vijay Kartik Kannan, the cinematographer, and he says with an honest smile that it was a team effort. Here, he talks about Aadai, his third film after Sindhubaadh and Iravakaalam, about the need to maintain rapport with the director and how big a part budget plays in cinematography...

Excerpts: 

We heard you had used different lenses for this film--like probe lens, periscope lens...

We came up with four ways to shoot the nude portions — cover using an object, play with light and shadows, use out of focus, or keep her in motion.  For closeups, like the one of her eye, we used a probe lens. We have used a periscope lens for shots like when Nangeli looks through from a bathroom vent.  Such shots can be achieved only with a certain type of lens. However, we were particular that it shouldn't feel gimmicky.

You and Rathna Kumar had created a storyboard with sketches of the shots. Can you explain that process?

We had created an entire storyboard where we had planned each shot. With Ranjith, an assistant, we figured out how to shoot this without it being visually monotonous. Based on references from photographs, we also deciphered postures where her body would act as a cover itself, without it looking contrived. For example, when she is on the terrace and she quickly lies down, her head covers her entire body, except her right thigh. We also had a body double for us to fix these poses. Whenever Amala had to take a break, we would use a double, and then show it to Amala, who also would then improvise.

Rathna Kumar had mentioned that you were one of the major reasons he picked Aadai as his second film.

I know Rathna for about 13 years now. I was one of the first people to read his scripts and have seen him evolve as a writer. His scripts used to be verbal, but with time, turned out to be visual. While Meyaadha Maan gave him an identity, the subsequent offers were all for a similar movie. I know he is more than that though. Aadai has some intense writing. Even though the film has sparked a debate, the things we anticipated would become problems, haven't. No one has accused us of selling the film with that sequence or asked us why it was necessary. As a writer, it is a victory for Rathna. I trusted Rathna's writing more than my skills. His writing was clear as to how he wanted to project Kamini and that showed on the screen. I just wanted people to know what he is capable of.    

Given the film talks about freedom and its limits, was nudity the best way to convey this message?

Take a horror film, for example. The core conceit will always revolve around whether the protagonist will survive. 'Maana bayam' has never been the pivotal point in any film; it just makes for a scene. And this is irrespective of gender. Even if it is a man, he would still have the same fears and inhibitions. We didn't see it as an issue of gender. 

What was the most challenging shot for you in Aadai? 

When a man from the opposite building comes, Kamini comes running to lock the door. Amala covers herself with her hands as she dashes to the door. It was very challenging as there was nothing I could do there. It was all Amala. If she hadn't shown the fear in her expressions, the entire shot would have gone wrong. 

Beyond all these cinematography ideas, were there things done in post-production as well?

We knew what we had to do in post-production while we were shooting. For example, there is a parallel shot just before the interval, where we show Kamini's back and her hip line. Had the endpoint for the shot been slightly different, it would have been in bad taste. Even though we didn't shoot it, Shafiq and Rathna had a major role in presenting it with extreme precision. We also added lens flares, motion blurs, and also darkened certain frames. We had to create certain contrasts that aren't achievable in real life. And yet, we didn't want it to seem too artificial. I would say 50 per cent of what we did, happened in post-production.

One of the most striking sequences of the film is when Kamini walks onto the terrace carrying a mirror. 

That shot wasn't in the script. Rathna initially had a different idea of making her walk on glass so that her feet covers her body, but it wasn't feasible due to logistics. We visited that place several times for ideas and then Rathna came up with this idea. At one point, the audience might question whether she didn't find anything in that huge building. It was a metaphor. Oru point ku mela odamba theda aarambichiruvanga. That's the male gaze. You can't change that. We wanted anyone who sees the woman with questionable intent, to only see themselves. It was Amala who insisted that Kamini sit with her legs crossed. For me, the bars added more visual value to the scene. 

In contrast to the second half, the cinematography for the first half felt more grounded.

We intended it to be weak in the first half. We wanted those portions to be grounded. What is filmmaking if not a graph? Our opening portions, like the subway sequence, were high in colour. When the story settles down, the cinematography also has to tone down. It should allow the characters to take the spotlight. It should feel as if the viewer in another person is in the scene. If it continues to be 'high-funda', the actual high of the latter portions won't hit the viewer. It is like a sine wave; there has to be ups and downs.   

Do you tend to gravitate towards offbeat scripts?

I am not sure. I think I pick films where I know I will have a rapport with the director. I wanted to say this; several reviews said it was the cinematographer who showed Kamini with dignity. My role is only 50 percent. My major contribution was in lighting the scene. But the director's contribution is much higher — he contributes to all departments. The cinematographer cannot achieve anything by himself; he needs to be aided by other departments. Let's take the mirror shot we spoke about earlier. It has inputs from art, costume, the location manager, and benefits from the vision of the director. Even Shafiq had suggested a shot. But the final credit is being given it to me, while it is a collaborative effort.

How important a role does budget play in a film's cinematography? 

An important role, but it isn't enough if you just have some good equipment. It is a balance. For example, if you get a jimmy jib, you might want to shoot every shot with it, but it will look monotonous on screen. You shouldn't overuse equipment just because you have it. At the same time, you shouldn't pass on it if you don't have the equipment; you should find an alternative. It comes with experience and perseverance; veruththu poi shoot panna velaiku aagadhu

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