Vijay Kartik Kannan: Controlling laughter was the biggest challenge while filming Doctor
Cinematographer Vijay Kartik Kannan, who is receiving applause for his work in the recently released Sivakarthikeyan-starrer, discusses his experience of lensing the film
Organising video interviews can be tough. The scale of the operation is far removed from that of a film, yes, but last-minute technical glitches always come in the way. Fifteen minutes after cinematographer Vijay Kartik Kannan had landed at our studio, we were good to go. I began the conversation by apologising for the delay, only for him to reply with a smile, “You should visit our shooting spot to see what real hassles are.” His empathetic response comes from his days as a freelance videographer, a one-year phase during which he shot over 100 interviews for documentaries and corporate films. This experience, he believes, continues to guide him. “When I set up a frame, the actor’s face is the first visual I see.”
His latest work, Doctor, which has been receiving praise for its staging, is an opportunity Vijay believes he earned with his honesty. “Sivakarthikeyan offered me his maiden production venture, the Arunraja Kamaraj-directorial Kanaa. I liked the script a lot and we were preparing for the shoot. However, the plan was to complete the filming in a specific time frame, and honestly, I wasn’t confident enough about pulling it off in said time. I communicated this and stepped out of the project. I was nervous about them misunderstanding my intentions, but they trusted me,” Vijay says, adding that Nelson Dilipkumar approached him after watching the trailer of Aadai. “Though Nelson met me, I was not sure if Sivakarthikeyan would bring me on board, considering that I had turned down a project earlier. But SK told me that he liked my integrity. He said, ‘You could have accepted the film and extended the production, citing technical difficulties, but you did not do it’.”
Doctor is a departure from the usual tropes associated with ‘mainstream Tamil cinema’. It employs static shots extensively to communicate the deadpan comedy the film thrives on… the usage of headroom is also evident. Vijay attributes these stylistic choices to conversations he had with Nelson during pre-production. “I found the script to be extremely funny. However, when a filmmaker proposes a style early in pre-production, it is always likely that these choices take a back seat when the actual filming begins, and logistical challenges emerge. But Nelson was clear about the shots and wanted the headroom. The challenge for me was to make sure that the specialty of these shots wouldn’t wear off. If I overdid them, viewers would grow tired by the end, and if I used them minimally, they might go unnoticed. The balance was vital,” he says, adding that using head extra headspace meant additional coordination with other departments. “I informed our art director DRK Kiran about our choice to go with higher headroom and accordingly designed interiors of the heroine’s house. As there was space above the actors’ heads, we filled it with tube lights and photo frames.”
Doctor, in its deadpan humour and its visuals, seems to borrow inspiration from the films of Wes Anderson, with one of my favorite shots being an Ambassador car coming close to another car that’s moving in reverse. Vijay admits that he took several inspirations. “We can call Wes Anderson an inspiration, so was Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida and Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. The idea and intention was, however, to keep it all grounded, and make sure that it didn’t come across as a copy.”
The cinematographer is no stranger to last-minute hurdles and the making of Doctor was not devoid of challenges. One of the film’s best parts, the uproarious action sequence set in a metro train, was in equal parts demanding and enjoyable to pull off, he adds. “We shot the point-of-view shots of the metro sequence in real darkness with a special camera that exposes infrared. The set was pitch dark and actors would go completely blind. Only I would get to see the shot on the digital screen. Yet another challenge was shooting exterior shots in a real metro train due to the scheduling they have in place,” he shares. “The bigger challenge, however, was to control laughter while filming. It was nearly impossible for me to hold the camera steady while shooting the scene in which Deepa Shankar sits on Redin Kingsley,” Vijay says, laughing.
It is not often that we get to see crowd-pullers with a unique style of their own and Doctor is certainly one of the films of the year that has managed this. Vijay says that the response has been overwhelming, and that, more importantly, he is glad that his work has left a mark on viewers. “We applied a few off-beat techniques in ways that would please everyone, and I’m happy that it has all worked out well,” Vijay concludes and checks with the camera person whether the conversation got recorded without any glitches. “Aagalanaa sollunga, marubadiyum pannalam,” he says. Thankfully, there were no issues, but even if there were, Vijay Kartik Kannan’s rare streak of empathy would have come in to save the day for us.