People think I will only do films that take years: Ramji
Cinematographer Ramji, known for films like Ayirathil Oruvan, Paruthiveeran, Mayakkam Enna, and now, Oththa Seruppu, discusses his latest film, while reflecting on his career
What was your first reaction to hearing the idea of Oththa Seruppu?
I immediately said yes. In 2001, I had pitched a similar idea to Nandita Das. The story was different, and we didn’t think of a film in a closed room. At the time, I told her I couldn't afford her; like what Parthiban told me initially. But all she asked was, “You will book tickets for me, provide me food and accommodation, right? That's all I need." While that project didn't take off, I told Parthiban, ‘En aasaya unga mela vechi thinichikaren’. (laughs)
The Irandam Ulagam you saw is not the original story. If we had made that story, the film would have been appreciated. I asked Selva why he let that go, but the question remains unanswered. The CG people didn't deliver at the last minute, despite us allocating 90 days for it. I had given them pictures as references, but they didn't come through. The film I had planned and shot, was different from what came out.
That Oththa Seruppu happens in a closed room makes its cinematography particularly interesting.
I got the final script six days before we began filming. I realised I only had 180 degrees to explore. Dividing it between characters, it was about 45 degrees each. While we could show only one face, I needed to place a camera perspective for each character. I had to know the dialogues as well so that I could know the body language and mimic it with my camera movements – like how we shake our heads while talking. I used wider shots for the senior official, to show his broader perspective to life while the other policeman will have narrower shots.
I also decided that all the properties would be characters. Like a pair of spectacles. That was my most challenging shot. We had to cover Parthiban’s face, move to his hand picking up the glasses and pull back to show him wearing it. Similarly, we used the pendulum of a clock by creating a set for it. And we laid a track above a tube light so that we could place a shot there. It took us three hours to do it. I designed small equipment for such shots. I usually don't allow any interference. But Parthiban went a step ahead and was encouraging me.
Ameer and I used to sit on the floor and discuss the film. We had nothing then. Even Chaudary sir, Jiiva's father, used to tell Ameer not to spend more than 1.5 crores. But he didn't pay heed. He always used to say, "Namma pannala na, vera yaru pannuva sir? It will all come back." Tamil Nadu is missing a stellar director who was so passionate about the art.
Your filmography shows a tendency to collaborate repeatedly with some directors like Ameer, Selvaraghavan, and Mohan Raja.
It started with Ameer. We had finished Mounam Pesiyathe and I was working on a Hindi film. He told me he was starting a production company, so he could make the films he wanted. He pitched Ram to me and I was impressed. After that, he spoked about Paruthiveeran. I couldn't let that go as well! (laughs).
I was approached by Selvaraghavan around that time, and I was a bit apprehensive as it was for Malai Nerathu Mayakkam, which had already gone on floors. But it ended up being Ayirathil Oruvan. I was stunned listening to the story and spent three years on the film. After that, it was Mayakkam Enna and Irandam Ulagam. When that was done, I was approached by Mohan Raja for Thani Oruvan, and later, Velaikkaran. All of them have dared to go into zones less travelled. Several people ask me why I spend so much time on a single film. I don't know; these films demand it. Henceforth though, I want to do quick films from now on.
The fire sequence was planned as a single stretch but as the terrain was uneven; we had to place a few cuts. I believe fire is an important element for a human. So we used it as the only source of light for the entire sequence. But truly, GV Prakash is the king of that sequence. Perhaps someone else may have placed better shots for that music.
At the time of release, the kind of questions I got about the film were absurd. We were rebuked for spending that money. But today, the film is being celebrated. I must thank Baahubali for that. Had Baahubali not happened, no one would have respected AO.
Why is that?
Ellarum enna oru madhriya paaka arambichitanga (laughs). While shooting for Ponmagal Vandhal, Prathap Pothen and Pandiyaraj asked me if I shot for 200 days! I had shot only 12 days for the film and they refused to believe me! (laughs). That's the image I have. Also, I have been told that youngsters are hesitant to approach me. But I love working with them. With Fredrick (Ponmagal Vandhaal), we only shot for 45 days and are almost done with the shoot.
During this period, DI was becoming advanced in our industry. After the film, I got several congratulatory calls appreciating the DI work. They said the tones could have only been created with DI. But I didn't use DI even for a single frame in the film. We didn't have the funds back then and I had worked on each frame manually in the labs.
One of the major shifts in cinematography was when it transitioned from film to digital. Do you miss film?
Definitely. My confidence in handling film is more assured. It is what I learned from mentors. When I see the frame, I know what my exposure should be. I would even leave it underexposed at times. But in digital, it automatically gets adjusted. With DI (Digital Intermediate), one can do anything, but it looks digitised. The distance between the audience and the screen on film is non-existent in film, but in digital, there's a gap. Maybe, we will eventually adapt beter. I only use DI only as an additional tool. Films I work with need a soul.
I used DI for this one and corrected four reels. The film was being censored at that point. Selva called me and said, "The board specifically asked who the DOP was and said the colours were beautiful." I immediately went back and drained the film out of all extravagant colour. It is a photographer's story; I could have made it flashy. But my cinematography should never disturb the soul of the film. The film became one of my most appreciated works.