In Ram’s Taramani, single mother Althea is on a ship with her son and her boyfriend. As they cruise into the sparkling sea, the camera slowly zooms out, capturing the sprawling sea in all its magnificence; the passengers are mere spots. More than just being a picture of scenic beauty, the frame is indicative of the sea of challenges the unconventional ‘family’ has to cross.
In the final frame of Lenin Bharathi’s poignant Merku Thodarchi Malai, the camera yet again takes the aerial view, this time to capture a man, who loses his dream. Once again, the frame isn’t just about visual elegance but rather about making us ponder about more. The man behind these frames is Theni Eswar, who is currently in the spotlight for his mystical frames in the recently released Ram-directorial, Peranbu.
Ask him if aerial shots are his trademark, and he gives a throaty laugh. “The script usually demands it. It seems special as it is a view that we don’t usually see. I also believe that it adds a new dimension to the script,” he says. This dimension that a visual adds to the script is what makes cinematography fascinating, adds Eshwar.
“We try to bring what the director has written on paper, alive on screen. It is definitely a team effort.” Such depth, however, doesn’t come easily. Every shot in Peranbu, for instance, was planned beforehand.
“The house was a set created on the shore of Mannavanur Lake. For two days, we explored multiple options, and discussed the angles and resultant perspectives.”
As serious consumers of cinema, we are generally criticised for reading ‘too much’ into a film. But talking to Eshwar is sweet validation, as he painstakingly explains the multiple motifs and metaphors packaged into Peranbu — the recurring use of doors and windows to frame the characters, for example.
“There’s a place in the film, where Mammootty says, ‘If I am out, she’ll be inside, and when she is outside, I will be in the house. Like the sun and the mist.’
Doors, windows, glass were all conduits to embody that consciously maintained space between them.” There was a practical angle to this as well, he reveals.
“It also proved to be a source of light as we didn’t use artificial lights for the entire shoot. It is okay to use artificial lights, in general. But using a generator in a place that is brimming with flora and fauna would have disturbed the eco-balance there. That was also one of our reasons.”
While most may consider shooting in natural light quite a task, Eswar finds it exciting. He says he prefers working with natural light.
“I had just used the light from 49 tube lights for the railway station sequences in Taramani. For the night sequences in Peranbu, we only used candles, lanterns, match sticks. It adds a unique texture to the frames and creates a realistic mood.” But he is quick to acknowledge Ram and the team’s effort in making it all happen. “There were times when we lost continuity in terms of light. When that happened, we’d take replacement shots the next day. I consider such opportunities as gifts.”
And what‘s Peranbu without reflections? Both off-screen and on. The film intelligently switches between reflections and shadows — creating drama visually and also metaphorically.
When you see a mirror reflection of Mammootty narrating his own story, it is tough to miss the introspection of his character. “We can’t always be explicit about the problems these characters face. Here’s a father of a special child, who doesn’t know how to connect with her.
To convey this and more in film language, we had to use such devices,” says Eswar. This includes light patterns, colour palettes and also the angles they chose.
“For the Kodaikanal portion, the characters are in sync with nature. The composition of the frames is also like that. But when they come to the city, we used more abstract imagery. There’s fencing to indicate distance, more lights and also a liberal, heightened usage of red,” he reveals.
Also, in an effort to make the film look authentically everyday-like, Eshwar chose not to have light bounce in any frame.“The idea is to capture light as it falls and embraces objects in real life. Hence, the lighting I created was also done in the same fashion. Even with natural sources, I removed negative lights (unwanted sources) and boosted the ones we needed. Digital film gives us the room to explore such options.”
While his filmography is filled with offbeat cinema, Eshwar is happy to work on commercial films as well. Listing several opportunities that he has missed out on, such as Enai Nokki Paayum Thotta, Sundarapandian, and Asuravadham, he shares that his wish will soon come true with Gopi Nainar’s next, which he calls a “commercial film.” He also has Mari Selvaraj’s film with Dhanush up next. “The idea is to always experiment and explore,” he signs off, with a smile.