'Seeing Vijay dance to Vaathi Coming was a treat'
...says cinematographer Sathyan Sooryan as he speaks about filming Vijay-Vijay Sethupathi's Master, his ten-year cinematic journey, and more...
The year's most awaited film, Master, has hit the theatres. And amid the varying reactions, one opinion is unanimous: Master captures Vijay in his most charming, youthful avatar in recent years. Sathyan Sooryan is the cinematographer, whose earlier work in Kaithi and Theeran also fetched much praise. In this freewheeling chat, he talks about his brand of cinema, working in a Vijay film, and reflects on his journey.
From Yuddham Sei to Master, it has been ten years in the industry. How would you say you have evolved?
At the start, I had a lot of anger. Now, I have calmed down (smiles). I also now choose projects with more clarity. I have evolved to pick only those that excite me.
The films you choose seem to be of the dark, intense variety...
I guess that’s because I started my career with intense films. As they were all good scripts, so I didn't want to let any of them go. I do like such films, but regardless of what the genre is, I always look to give my best.
You were recently invited into the Indian Society of Cinematographers. That must have been quite an honour.
It is… I am very happy about it. I have looked to push myself with each project and it is heartening to know that seniors in the field have noticed that and want me to be part of their society. Though it is exciting, this invitation also comes with additional responsibility. I shouldn't choose films carelessly, not even for my survival… your last film is your identity. I am conscious about picking the right scripts.
The palettes in your films have been story-specific, be it the sombre colours in Maya, the bleached tone in Theeran Adhigaram Ondru, or the consistent fluorescent tint in Kaithi. Tell me about your process.
The first narration from the director is significant as it sets the mood for the film. The story scape the director provides is my biggest inspiration. I pick scripts that are challenging. So, the story and its challenges combine to create a vague palette in my head. Every story has a palette within itself. For Kaithi, it was always about the terrain. The lorry travels in places where there are no streetlights. This automatically gives a visual flavour to the film.
The directors you have worked with have their unique visual styles. What conversations do you have when deciding the look of the film?
The director always gives you cues. For example, H Vinoth wanted the film to have the look of a documentary. Lokesh, meanwhile, gets inspired by the cinema he consumes. For Kaithi, all he told me was that we were doing a never-done-before terrain film that unfolds in the night. I take inspiration from such tidbits.
For Master, we wanted to do a Vijay film that would break the mould. Even if I wanted to use certain angles, knowing that it would look good from watching previous films, Lokesh would say no. We wanted to do a mass film, but not in a way it has been done before. We had grounded moments and subtly captured them, placing him amid several people. Here, JD is a hero who arises very much from the universe of the story.
When Vijay Sethupathi became part of the project, the challenges increased as we now had two stars clashing with each other. We had to do a lot of homework. Lokesh's script contained notes for every moment, and it was so exciting that we kept running what kind of shots and close-ups we could use till we actually shot them.
Filming the Ulaganayagan
“I am usually in a meditative zone when I shoot. We had arranged everything before we called Kamal sir, so the shooting for Vikram’s teaser ended even before I could realise it. I have sketched Kamal sir a lot, painted him on walls, etc. To be filming him and be part of his film is an important milestone for me. We knew that the teaser would be compared with other films. The ambience, the wood house, the light and tone—we just knew there would be comparisons. The truth is, every good moment inspires another. We have to look to build on them. That has always been our goal.”
Was there a moment where Vijay surprised you as an actor?
Almost every other day. He doesn't rehearse much and gives us an idea of what he will do. Even when he rehearses, it is quite subtle. But the actual takes always explode with energy. There was a steady cam shot where he was supposed to walk for the music, but he surprised us with a somersault. Even with Vaathi Coming, seeing him dance to those beats was a treat.
What was your biggest challenge with Master?
We had to work hard to execute our plans within the schedule. That was a challenge. Apart from that, that final lorry sequence in Master was exciting to film. We had shot day for night, and it has been a while since the audience saw that post-Virumaandi. Considering that Kaithi had a similar sequence, I wanted this one to be grander and more different. We shot that sequence in Neyveli; it was a good challenge.
There are different schools of cinematography -- one which leans towards stylised visuals while the other expects the film language to be invisible to the undiscerning viewer. Would you say that we have begun to lean towards the former more now?
Yes, for sure. But I believe a cinematographer needs to know how to do both. On reading the script, I decide its needs and which side it falls under. One must understand which approach justifies the script and the director's vision. And then, there are also the budgetary limitations. It is necessary to know how to achieve both.
Do you have a dream project in mind?
I would love to do a historical film, which allows me to explore grandeur. I also want to do a colourful, romantic film. All my films exist within similar palettes, and as someone with an arts background, I haven't explored a vast range of colours.