Cinematographer Santosh Thundiyil has never done what cinematographers in their parlance term ‘signature shots’. He has done 20 films, including Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) and the latest remake of Traffic (2011), and has framed a number of blockbuster hits. Rustom, starring Akshay Kumar, is his latest.
What is the fundamental difference between Bollywood and the Malayalam film industry?
Budget. It alters our approach towards the craft and helps you to plan more wisely. Malayalam cinema has tighter budgets and we are tuned to work within our limitations. This is also why we work as close-knit units. You can finish a film in a schedule or two, while Bollywood films stretch for a year and have multiple schedules.
Why don’t you do many Malayalam films?
No time! Once you commit to a Bollywood film, it takes so much time. Either I work there or here. When you commit to a project in Bollywood, they expect you to focus entirely on it.
Have you worked with a director who didn’t have your expertise?
Some are technically aware, and some are not. That’s why we have a technician on board, right? If the director can do everything, he wouldn’t need me. Having said that, if a director is visually oriented it is better for the cameraman to plan things out. Take Mani Ratnam or Sanjay Leela Bhansali, irrespective of the cinematographer they work with, their films have stunning visual imagery. These directors have their own visual signature.
What do you do if you disagree with the director’s vision?
The director is the captain of the ship. They live with a film for years to bring it to life. We enter in the later stages. So at the end of it, you can’t butt in and say, ‘This is not the way to do things’. You have to help him attain his vision. Every technician should bring clarity to his vision.
What kind of cinema do you like?
My first film — Kuch Kuch Hota Hai — happened to be a big one so I got accustomed to that scale of filmmaking. At the same time, I also did small films. I love both. My pattern of filmmaking was always doing the best of both. After having a seven course dinner, a square meal the next day is a fine balance. No excesses.
What have you learnt from assisting Govind Nihlani, Binod Pradhan, and Venu?
FTII teaches you the basics and introduces you to world cinema. You can even do a film of your own without assisting anyone. But the world outside works differently. It’s like polishing your corners — working with such stalwarts helps you to adapt to the real world. You have to deal with actors, technicians and directors — their temperaments and politics.
Have these makers influenced your style of working?
Maybe their influences are present subconsciously.
Has any actor surprised you?
Mohanlal would ask about lighting and position himself accordingly and act in such a natural way that even the director would have no clue on what he is up to. It’s innate talent.
How would you define a bad piece of cinematography?
When you listen to a composition, some notes sound jarring and it can be distracting. Similarly, in painting, like if you add hues that take away from the beauty of the painting. Similarly, cinematography affects you subconsciously. Overdoing things diverts attention from the main plot.
How much does formal training help and does that make you better qualified for your job?
I won’t say you need formal training, but it does help. You can learn everything in a short span of time. The exposure to world cinema greatly enriches your vision. Your approach to the craft will change. Cinematography is a mixed art. You need technology to support your poetic imagery.
While making a film, do you wonder if it will work or not?
Yes. You tend to observe closely at the theatre and gauge the audience’s reaction. Sometimes, you are confident of a scene you shot so well and then realise that it’s completely lost on the audience. Like a great horror scene can turn into a comedy. You learn with each film.
Do you find any trends in cinematography disturbing?
Trends are there, but the beauty of cinematography and photography remains. The use of small cameras, mobile cameras etc. are just phases. It’s just the excitement of getting a new toy.
What do you need to take note of while filming an action movie?
It’s dangerous, so you need safety measures. Make sure you capture things efficiently; if possible avoid retakes. Multiple cameras are usually used, so you have to be prepared to adjust the lighting.
(The writer is Editor of fullpicture.in)