Karnan DoP Theni Eswar: Cinematography serves to enhance the vision of filmmakers
Theni Eswar speaks about shooting the much-appreciated Mari Selvaraj film, Karnan
Artists and cast and crew members, especially those associated with big projects like Karnan, are usually in a hurry. After this conversation with Theni Eswar though, he took the time to show us some of his photography work—many that he shot while shooting for Karnan, in order to determine the look and feel of the project. He went on to show how he used DI to enhance these photographs. It was almost like a training exercise, with Eshwar keen to share understanding on good cinematography and what goes behind creating a canvas in which to mount a filmmaker’s vision. “When people say they like cinematography, I am not sure if they are ever speaking about the lighting, colour scheme, etc…” says Eswar, with a smile. “Good cinematography is translating a director’s vision in the best way possible. That is a cinematographer’s most important validation.”
Excerpts from the conversation:
You are the first pair of eyes to see an idea come to fruition. How are your sensibilities for a certain film determined?
It is always the script that decides our sensibilities. In the world of Karnan, each character has a set of values and qualities. It was important for me to understand the lifestyle. It was important for me to know where Karnan comes from. I had to prepare myself with all these details that help create the right look and feel for the film. Karnan required that I bring in a sense of realism and a lived-in feel. We planned every single detail to a T. Even the colour of everyone’s costumes was designed to reflect their lifestyle. In contrast, if I were doing a fantasy script, I would come up with a different set of sensibilities.
To ace the right look for a film, a cinematographer needs to be aware of the other departments of the film. What kind of pre-production did you do for Karnan?
As Mari Selvaraj often says, the village itself is a character in Karnan. One of the biggest challenges was to handle the colours and ensure it would not act as a distraction. Our story needed the village to look arid, but the location was filled with greenery. So, I knew DI would have to be employed to create the colour palette we envisioned. It meant that I went to the sets well-prepared for the bigger picture by thinking about a lot of factors including exposure values. These always run in my mind while getting ready for a film.
On one end, you have an experienced star, and on the other end, you had actors with no acting experience. What was it like to capture these two extremes?
I went to the location a couple of weeks before the start of the shoot to acquaint myself with the villagers, and to familiarise them with the camera. I had to ensure those non-actors were oblivious to its presence and would lose their sense of fright about performing in front of it. In fact, a major support for this was Dhanush sir. It was expected of the people to be intimidated by a star of his stature, but Dhanush sir made sure that he mingled easily with them. Their slang was raw, and in conversations with them, he turned into the character and was the perfect foil for their unfiltered rawness. It was magic.
Another vivid memory of shooting Dhanush sir for Karnan was how he owned the space. Even in a crowd shot, Dhanush sir knew what to do to ensure he would stand out despite blending in. As I said, it was magic to see Dhanush sir’s performance.
In the audio launch, producer Kalaippuli S Thanu had said that he gave you free rein when it came to cinematography.
Thanu sir said, “Thambi enna venaalum edunga... edhuvum yosikadheenga." That line helped me experiment with technique. From a lensing perspective, I tried something new by employing the Supreme Prime lens. For most of the crowd sequences, I used block lenses. These additions helped in providing the audience with a more immersive experience. It allowed me to enhance the director’s vision, and as I said earlier, this is what cinematography is.
You are known for your work in films like Merku Thodarchi Malai, Peranbu, and now, Karnan. Do you worry about being approached only for films that seem to employ a natural style of filmmaking?
No no…(laughs). In fact, I was the cinematographer for the ‘Showkali’ song from Gautham Menon’s Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada. Remember the overdose of lights in that song? I used 40 4k power lights, 25 sharpie laser lights, three generators, and more. And then, of course, I did Merku Thodarchi Malai in which we used no lights. As a cinematographer, I feel gifted to have been able to experiment in multiple genres.
Interestingly, many of your films seem to be socially conscious. Is this a factor that’s important to you?
I am driven to do good cinema. That is my mentality. Of course, the films I do have social messages, and that is important too. I cannot be oblivious to the impact of my films. But at the same time, I look forward to doing, say, a full-blown commercial fantasy film. In many ways, that dream has come true with Karnan. It is both a fantasy and a social drama. It is not often that we get a film like Karnan.