Cinematographer SR Kathir: KRK is a decidedly colourful film
With his latest film, Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhal, playing to houseful screens, cinematographer SR Kathir looks back on his 15-year-long career
In the underrated 2018 revenge film, Asuravadham, there’s a killer shot of the film’s lead actor M Sasikumar standing in the middle of a dark field with a cigar… You see him as a silhouette even when lightning strikes sporadically. It’s an image that frightens the film’s antagonist; it also makes for a cool ‘elevation’ shot for the hero. Cinematographer SR Kathir, who shot the film, reveals there’s a story behind this shot, one that connects to origins of his journey as a cinematographer.
You see, when this Coimbatore native shifted base to Chennai in late 1999 with the long-term goal of becoming a cinematographer, his first short-term goal was to assist either of the two eminent cinematographers: PC Sreeram and Santosh Sivan. Kathir learned that Santosh had moved to Mumbai. PC Sreeram, who already had eight assistants in his team, advised Kathir to work with cinematographer Ramji on Dumm Dumm Dumm. Seven years later, after multiple associations with Ramji, a couple of dropped projects, and a few heartbreaks, Kathir debuted as cinematographer with the acclaimed Ram-directorial, Kattradhu Thamizh, and followed it up in 2008 with the equally iconic Subramaniapuram.
Speaking about the Asuravadham lightning shot, Kathir explains that it was done as a tribute to PC Sreeram, who employed a similar flicking shot idea in Mani Ratnam's Agni Natchathiram (1988). “I try to resist influences when doing my work, but for the first time in my career, while working on Asuravadham, I felt I should express PC Sreeram sir’s influence. I even told him while I was conceiving this shot,” shares Kathir, who’s an ardent admirer of the veteran cinematographer. His WhatsApp profile picture, notably, is a photo of him hugging PC Sreeram at an awards show, when the latter handed an award for his work on Kidaari (2016).
Two patterns emerge while skimming through Kathir's filmography. The first is his association with Sasikumar, which, he reveals, goes back to their Mounam Pesiyadhe days. “When Sasi was turning director with Subramaniapuram, Rajesh Yadav was originally supposed to shoot the film, but he opted out due to delays. When Sasi learned about my work through Ameer, he asked me to shoot the film. I told him that I had given CDs of my showreel to over 100 filmmakers and that he was the first one to approach me, though I hadn’t given one to him!”
Secondly, his filmography is filled with hard-hitting, intense films. Nadodigal is the story of three friends whose life takes a violent and disturbing turn when they help a couple unite; Eesan is about a young boy who avenges the death of his elder sister and father; Lens explores the real-life repercussions of pornography; the more recent Jai Bhim needs no introduction. Does seriousness in a subject affect him, or does he disconnect himself from the emotion of a scene, instead choosing to focus on technical expression alone? “It’s impossible not to be affected by the emotion of these films. For instance, police brutality in Jai Bhim was tough to digest, despite knowing that we were shooting with actors in a controlled, created atmosphere under the supervision of action choreographers,” Kathir says, adding that experiencing the highs and lows of a character is vital to do justice to the film. “One must live through the emotions of the characters and story. It’s the only way to achieve something meaningful with our work. Therinjo theriyaamayo, I keep being offered such serious films.”
There are a couple of exceptions in his filmography though. For instance, he shot the song sequences of Gautham Menon’s romance, Neethane En Ponvasantham, which he says happened by chance. “I was shooting Rajathanthiram, presented by GVM, when NEP’s cinematographer had scheduling issues; that’s how I came on board.”
In a similar vein, Kathir’s latest release, Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhal—another sojourn from his otherwise serious filmography—is also a film that came to him after the film’s original cinematographer, Vijay Kartik Kannan, couldn’t find a way around his scheduling conflicts. There’s another pattern here, Kathir observes. “Light-hearted films ellam naan thedi pona padangal kedayaathu… enna thedi vantha padangal,” he says, laughing.
Interestingly, both cinematographers, Vijay Kartik Kannan and Kathir, have combined to shoot for Kaathuvaakula… While Vijay shot the interior sequences of the club involving Samantha and Vijay Sethupathi, Kathir shot the exteriors. The shot of Vijay Sethupathi in the bus stop as both Samantha and Nayanthara propose to him, was shot by Kathir, while Vijay shot the parts where the actor steps out into the rain and savours his coveted choco-bar.
Kathir lists the single-stretch confrontation involving the three leads as one of his favourites. It’s a long take with fluidic camera movement in sync with the actors, who make mathematical use of the space. “We rehearsed the scene a day before the shoot where we took note of the actor’s movements to work on the range of the shot. On the day of the shoot too, they performed it a couple of times, and when we shot, it got okayed in a single take.”
The film’s celebrated dance number, ‘Two two two’, will perhaps stand out as the most unique part of Kathir’s filmography, with colours and glitters splashing all over. “Vicky likes to make a colourful film, and when he spots even a tiny, dark portion in the frame, he asks me to light it up. So, yes, KRK is decidedly a very colourful film.”
Kathir notes that a film and its story seek its visual language. “Unlike in a serious film, where the tone and mood of a scene get communicated through the colour and temperature of the visual, in films like KRK, the mood is set by the performance of the actors. In such cases, we have to keep the visuals simple, colourful, and beautiful. When you have beautiful actors like Sethu, Nayanthara and Samantha, you are free to add flourishes in visuals, but this film did not demand that treatment. Directors are always conscious of the tone of a film. For instance, Maruthupandian (Asuravadham) was specific about the staging and treatment. Vicky, on the other hand, has a different set of demands, like a glossy look and making sure that the actors look presentable. It’s all about adapting to the director’s vision,” he concludes.