Monday, January 18, 2010

Frozen images

In every Malayalam film, a photographer is there to record every scene. These pictures enable directors to follow the continuity of a film. They are also used as publicity material for the print and television media, as well as flexi board posters

Photo: Paul Bathery

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2004, movie stills photographer Paul Bathery was on the sets of the Malayalam film, ‘Kaazcha,’ directed by Blessey. The shooting was taking place on the edge of a pond in the town of Edathua in south Kerala. Blessey had placed a camera on the steps leading to the water, while Paul stood behind him.

More than a hundred curious onlookers were sitting on a nearby wall to watch the scene. Suddenly the wall collapsed and the people fell down in a melee. Some of them rolled down the steps. The movie camera fell into the water, and Blessey’s assistant broke his leg. Paul was also pushed into the water, but somehow he managed to keep his camera above his head.

“It was a traumatic moment for all of us,” says Paul. “Blessey started crying. It was his first film. If there had been a tragedy the shooting would have been stopped permanently.”

But eventually the people recovered their composure, the shooting resumed, and Paul carried on with this work.

Accidents and unexpected disasters are part and parcel of the movie still photographer’s job. But he carries on gamely.

One of Paul’s primary tasks is to provide continuity in the film. Usually when a shoot takes place at a particular location, the next segment at the same spot might take place after a week.

“The director and the crew will look at my photographs so that they have an idea of the clothes worn by the actors, how the scene looks like, and identify the last shot before the shooting was suspended.”

Photos are also given as publicity material, to be used by newspapers, magazines and web sites. Sometimes, the stills are used in TV programmes, and for flex board and paper posters.

On a good day Paul will take a few hundred photographs. When he returns to the hotel room, he will transfer it to a laptop, select the best photos, copy it on a CD and give it to the director and other unit members.

The speed and the huge number of photographs that he takes, around 15,000 for a film, has been made possible, thanks to digital photography. “My laptop has a memory of 320 GB,” says Paul.

Veteran photographer M.K. Mohanan says the process took much longer in the past. When he started out three decades ago it was the era of black and white photography. Whenever he went to a shoot, he would carry the chemicals, the enlarger and all the paraphernalia necessary to set up a dark room in the hotel.

“I had to work many hours into the night to develop the pictures, so that I could show them to the director and the actors the next day,” he says. And since there was only colour laboratory in Chennai, an assistant had to take the rolls by train and get it developed there. “We were able to see the colour prints only after the shooting was over,” he says.

But Mohanan has slipped easily into the digital era, and continues to maintain his high standards. So, what is the secret behind a good photograph? “I follow only one method,” he says. “I take photographs as the shooting is taking place. So I am able to get good and dramatic photographs. I rarely make the artistes pose for me.” Paul also follows the same method.

Of course, thanks to the nature of the shooting, there is no fixed working hours. Sunil Guruvayoor remembers that for the film, ‘Passenger’ which was shot nearly entirely inside a train, he once reached the shooting location at 5 a.m. and left the next day at 5 a.m., only to return at 8.30 a.m. to resume work. “That is how it goes,” he says.

For ‘Passenger’, the train had been hired for a brief period and hence the shooting had to be completed before it was returned to the Railways.

The trio works in five to six films a year. And each film has a shooting schedule from about 40 to 60 days. So, in effect, for several months in a year they live away from their families. “My wife has got used to my long absences,” says Paul, who stays in Wayanad, and has two teenage sons.

For Sunil, 54, when the children were younger, coming home was like a festival for them. “They always looked forward to my arrival,” he says. Today, his son is a software engineer in Qatar, while his daughter is a married housewife. “But I did ensure I was present at all major functions, or emergencies, even though I may have been on a shoot far-away.”

All three have taken photographs in hundreds of locations in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and a few locations in north India. For Paul, the most beautiful places are Pollachi and Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu, and Hampi in Karnataka.

Sunil and Mohanan feel that there is no place more beautiful than Kerala. Mohanan says that Paris is also a stunning place, where he had gone to shoot for a Sathyan Anthikad film.

Today, they are as busy as ever. Paul is taking photographs for a Lenin Rajendran film, ‘Makara Manju’ in Gundalpet, Karnataka, while Mohanan is in Munnar working on a Harikumar film, which has Suresh Gopi and Navya Nair in the lead roles. Sunil is in Vandi-Periyar, a town in Idukki, shooting stills for a movie called ‘Mummy and Me’, which stars Mukesh and Urvashi.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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