Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Slices Of Reel Life

Sanu Varghese, the Kottayam-born cinematographer of the Bollywood hit, ‘Badhaai Ho’, talks about his experiences  

By Shevlin Sebastian

The day before the Hindi film ‘Badhaai Ho’ was released (October 18), the film’s cinematographer Sanu Varghese told friends, “I have no doubt that the film will be a hit. Just not sure how big it will be.”

It is big all right. At the time of writing, it has earned Rs 115 crore at the box office and is now one among the top grossers of 2018.   

The story is simple. A middle-aged couple, played by Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta, get intimate. As a result, Neena gets pregnant. The only problem is that they have two sons, one aged 25 (Ayushmann Khurrana), while the other is 15 years old (Shardul Rana). 

The reaction is predictable: everybody from Neena’s mother-in-law (Surekha Sikri in a transfixing performance), who stays with them at their modest apartment in Delhi, the sons, relatives and the society at large are shocked and ashamed. Thereafter, it is a mix of comedy and sadness but it makes for riveting watching.

The cinematography is unobtrusive. Most times, you forget you are watching a film. But Sanu says that there is also an active storytelling by the camera.

There is one scene where the family is back together, after their mother gives birth,  and the children are cracking a joke with their grandmother,” he says. “The camera stays on the children and then it slowly moves away and focuses on the father and the mother who are in the kitchen. I am leading the audience along. This is deliberate story-telling.”

Asked the reasons why ‘Badhaai Ho’ did well, Sanu says, “It is like a Malayalam script. The best example would be Mohanlal trying to set up a biscuit factory in ‘Mithunam’ (1993). It is a film where you make everybody laugh in the first half and then cry in the second half.”  

Sanu’s journey to Bollywood was not in a straight line. He had been interested in photography even as he did his Bachelors at the Fine Arts College in Thiruvananthapuram. Thereafter, he did a MA in communication at the Sarojini Naidu School of Communication at the University of Hyderabad. Following that, in search of a job, the Kottayam-born Sanu left for Mumbai in 1996. Then, without any technical training, he got work as a cameraman in documentaries and advertising films and later joined TV18.

But he showed a natural talent from the beginning. One who is a fan is ‘Badhaai Ho’ director Amit Sharma, who says, “Sanu is a cinematographer who has a story-telling ability. He has always been an asset on the set, whether it be advertising or feature films, because I have done both with him. He has a clear vision and has his own point of view. His scenes are very realistic. Shooting realistic scenes is much more difficult than taking glamour shots.”  

The start

Sanu got his first break in ‘Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon’ (2003), which was produced by Ramgopal Varma, of ‘Satya’ fame, and starred Rajpal Yadav and Antara Mali. “It received praise from critics but did not do so well at the box office,” he says. Some of the other films he worked in include ‘Karthik Calling Karthik’, ‘David’, ‘Wazir’, the Malayalam films, ‘Elektra’ and ‘Take Off’, and Kamal Haasan's Tamil film, ‘Marmayogi’, which was shelved in pre-production.

But in 2011, he shot for Kamal’s ‘Vishwaroopam’. The shoot took one-and-a-half years to complete, but it was a turning point for Sanu. “When you work with a legend like Kamal Sir, you learn something new every day,” says Sanu. “He comes from a choreography background, so he looks at scenes through that angle. Till then I tended to shoot static frames. But Kamal Sir is the one who opened my mind to the possibility of everything moving. How the total energy of a scene can be changed, with the camera as well as the actors moving. This was something new for me.”

Meanwhile, when asked whether the competition in Bollywood is severe, Sanu says, “I don’t look at what the other guys are doing. I am only thinking about what I can do when I am shooting for a particular film. It is an inner exploration. That’s how I will be able to do work which I can call my own. I also want to tell stories without showing off.”

Interestingly, he says, to be a good cinematographer, you need to understand music, drama, the craft of acting, cinema on a larger level, how light and water behave, as well as the climate.

At present, he is working on a Telugu film called ‘Jersey’ starring Nani, a new- generation star. And, unusually, he does not take any film that is offered to him. “I earn my living by making advertising films so I can choose scripts which I like,” says Sanu, who is married to Sandeepa, a commercial filmmaker and they have a daughter called Miyako. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode and Chennai)

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