The unforgettable images of Saani Kaayidham
Cinematographer Yamini Yagnamurthy speaks about designing the many memorable shots in the recent Keerthy Suresh-Selvaraghavan starrer, Saani Kaayidham
Years ago, when cinematographer Yamini Yagnamurthy began her career as a product photographer, she might have scarcely imagined that a day would come when she would be busy shooting the scene of a bloodthirsty heroine running down dozens of hateful men. "I joined PC Sreeram as an assistant, after my stint with photography. It all began from there," she reminisces, adding that working in Halitha Shameem's Sillu Karupatti and Saani Kaayidham have turned out to be great learning experiences. "I am still learning," she says.
Saani Kaayidham, the second in Arun's revenge trilogy after Rocky, is a story of ruthless revenge carried out by Ponni (Keerthy Suresh) and Sangayya (Selvaraghavan). Though Yamini worked on the film, she says that watching it at home, like she were another viewer, was an emotional experience. "Some scenes, like Sangayya crying in front of the burning hut and his climax, really stood out for me," she shares.
Arun’s debut film Rocky convinced Yamini to take up the director’s second film. “I didn't know who Arun was when Rocky came out, but I already knew cinematographer Shreyaas (Krishna). I was thrilled by the film language of Rocky." Her vision of how Saani Kaayidham must look was apparently in alignment with Arun’s. Though Arun’s second film is set in the 80s, the minimalism in the choice of colours and setting ensures that it doesn't come across like other films set in the same period. "We can show a period differently through look and feel, but nothing will match the effect of true colours. We went for the minimalistic three-colour theory. You see blue in Ponni's blouse, the van, and of course, the sky, and red in Ponni's sarees and the blood, and khaki in the skin colour, earth and Sangayya's clothes," adds Yamini.
The locations too played an important part in the film’s mise en scene. Like in Rocky, here too, they are almost obscure, aiding the wide desolate shots Arun seems to like. Locations themselves are a character, says Yamini. "The Matador van was a character, as you know. We sought locations that would make the van stand out. In fact, I’d say we hunted for them." Finding them wasn’t easy at all. "When you scout so extensively and then frame a shot there, it feels so rewarding," she says.
Some signature visual elements of the film include frames-within-frames and retro black-and-white shots. "We opted for frame-within-frame shots not just because we could do it. They communicate meaning. I am also a huge fan of balanced framing and symmetry," she explains. It is interesting that many black-and-white shots capture a journey at its beginning or at its very end. Young Sangayya, for instance, is predominantly shown to be static in the beginning before embarking on a journey. For Ponni, the long journey halts when she visits the ruins of her decimated hut. "In one of these shots, Sangayya can be seen on top of a dune on the left while Ponni and her mother would be walking toward the frame on the right. The focus is on the centre of the frame. It’s a black-and-white shot, and in such shots, you don't deviate a lot and the characters are often dynamic," she says.
A memorable moment in the film is of Sangayya wailing in front of a burning house, captured in a single take. "We had a camera on wide and two more cameras ready in a double-camera set-up. I was operating the wide shot, and we wanted to check the exposure of the fire. However, during the test, they ended up lighting the hut on fire by mistake, and so we could only afford that one take." Arun and the direction team had to stage the scene immediately. "I had to run towards the hut because Selvaraghavan sir was performing with such passion. The entire scene was a single take. Also, while capturing the close-up of Sangayya wailing in front of the house, I felt responsible to capture his emotion to my best potential. I was really moved even while shooting it," she adds.
Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film is Ponni running over gangsters in a narrow lane. Considering that torchlights and the van's floodlights are the only sources of light, it must have not been easy to shoot the scene. "We used a camera jib and rigged it to the van. I had to fit it into the small space inside the van to capture every action that was happening, be it the gang attacking or Ponni’s responses," she says. "We didn't do much colour-grading, but Balaji sir helped us bring out the layers of the light. I ensured that the exposure fit the right contrast ratios," says Yamini.
Sometimes, great shots happen by accident. One such shot was of Sangayya, lighting up a beedi in the darkness of a vast expansive space. "It was unplanned," reveals Yamini. "We couldn't move closer to the subject as we had swampy land in between. So, we shot him, and I overexposed the frame. The light you see is just from the sky." However, when they realised the light wasn't enough, the team thought of making him light a beedi. “We knew we could use the spark from the beedi to illuminate the frame further. Every frame you see in the film, planned in advance or otherwise, was the result of conversations between Arun and me," says Yamini, who ends the conversation by communicating delight at all the appreciation coming the film's way.