A leaping lion: Veteran cinematographer Ramachandra Babu on shooting for Chottanikkara Bhagawathi

Cinematographer Ramachandra Babu talks about his experiences in the films Chottanikkara Bhagawathi, Vaarikkuzhi and Allavudeenum Albuthavilakkum.

Published: 07th December 2017 10:28 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th December 2017 10:28 AM   |  A+A-

Ramachandra Babu | Facebook

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For the shoot of the film, Chottanikkara Bhagawathi, in 1973, an elephant was required. But the animal which was brought to the set had no tusks. “However, the scene required an elephant with tusks,” says veteran cinematographer Ramachandra Babu. “So, two tusks were made artificially using light wood.”
It was decided that the mahout would hold one tusk and stand next to the trunk while the art director Sree would hold the other. Since the elephant would be moving along with a large crowd of people, it would be easily camouflaged that the tusks were not real.

However, Ramachandra noticed that Sreeni felt very nervous while standing next to the elephant. To counter this fear the latter looked away. Meanwhile, the director P. Vijayan shouted, “Action.” Because there were many in the crowd who were amateurs, they did not start walking, including the elephant as well as the mahout. “But since Sreeni was looking away, he did not know that,” says Ramachandra. “So, he started walking with the tusk but with no elephant beside him. For a long time, he did not know that he was walking alone, especially because it was a night scene, while all around everybody was watching silently and smiling.”Sreeni carried on coming towards the camera. It was only when Ramachandra stood in front of the lens and started laughing that Sreeni realised that something was wrong.

When Sreeni looked back, everybody started laughing.Sadly, the film did not get released because of a lack of funds. But on many sets, during idle moments, Ramachandra would recall this incident. “And when [director] PG Vishwambharam heard about this incident he used it in a scene of his film, Gajakesari Yogam, although I did not work on it,” says Ramachandra.

There was another incident with an elephant in MT Vasudevan Nair's Vaarikkuzhi (1982).There was a sequence when an elephant fell into a pit and actors Sukumaran and Sankaradi, who are estate owners, along with the other workers were supposed to come and have a look.“We had to make a big pit at the location in Wayanad,” says Ramachandra. The unit members managed to lure the elephant into the pit.

Ramachandra was ready with the camera. When he looked through the viewfinder, he saw that both Sukumaran and Sankaradi were within the frame. “But suddenly, I noticed a change in their expression, and then they vanished from the frame,” says Ramachandra. While the cinematographer was trying to figure out what was happening, his assistant removed the camera.The reason for this behavior became clear later. The elephant clearly felt uncomfortable in the pit. He had raised his two legs up to the edge, towards where the camera was and was trying to climb up.

The shooting came to a halt. It took the mahout several minutes before the elephant calmed down and the shooting could continue.  In the film, Allavudeenum Albuthavilakkum (1979), it was the turn of Kamal Haasan to face the music. The shoot was at Sathya Studio in Chennai. Kamal played street urchin Alavuddin who had to fight a lion in a cave.Accordingly, a lion was brought to the set. The trainer assured Ramachandra not to worry, as it had been sedated, its toe-nails had been clipped and mouth stitched. So, Ramachandra organised the lights and placed the camera on a stool.
Then Kamal came up and slapped the lion on its back. The moment he did that, the lion made a huge leap.

It went over Ramachandra's head, as well as the camera. “Then it hit some lights and escaped through a gap in the set,” says Ramachandra. “Since the lights broke, somebody put off the main switch. So the whole set was in darkness. There was panic all around. Nobody knew where the lion was. There were shouts of ‘Put on the light, put on the light’.”

Finally, the lights were switched on, but by then the set was completely deserted. Everybody had run away, out of fear. The trainer and his assistants ran out, and after a hectic search managed to locate the lion. He was brought back.Anyway, after a break, shooting resumed. In the movie, which can be viewed on YouTube, there are several scenes of the fight between the lion and Kamal. “This was the first time we were shooting with animals,” says Ramachandra. “So, it was a learning experience for all of us.”


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