It takes years usually before a cinematographer can get to work on a film that’s funded by a big production house, helmed by a well-known director and starring a top star. GK Vishnu, however, made his debut with Mersal. It’s been almost a week since the film’s release, but he is still weary from all the work. “We hardly had any scheduled breaks.
The plan ever since we started shooting in February was always to get the film released on Diwali. I must have been home during this period for only about 10-15 days,” Vishnu says.
The young man has assisted quite a few cinematographers before this huge break came his way. “I have known Atlee for a long time. He was the one who introduced me to Richard M Nathan with whom I worked on film such as Vanakkam Chennai, Samar and Naan Sigappu Manithan. The plan was actually for me to do a film for Atlee’s production banner. I made a showreel of all the videos I’ve done so far, including the web series I did for Put Chutney.”
While Mersal’s pre-production work was going on, Vishnu tagged along, just as he had done for Atlee’s previous films, Raja Rani and Theri. “Cinematographer George C Williams’s dates weren’t available, and Atlee thought I should give it a shot. I wasn’t going to say no,” he says. “He later pitched the idea to Vijay who readily agreed. And then, I met the production firm and that’s how it happened.” It helped that he knew Atlee already, because there was no pressure on the debutant. “It’s because of Atlee that I’m here today. He blindly trusted me. Now everybody has seen the film and they know what I can do.”
One of the most striking aspects about Mersal is how vivid and colourful it is. “Mersal has three characters in two time periods. The script itself naturally has the variation that a cinematographer looks for. There was so much scope for the visuals, as all three characters needed to look different.”
Elaborating further on the colours schemes of the film, he says, “Vetrimaaran wears a lot of black. The flashback episode also has a lot of red to indicate energy and anger. We also made sure there was no blue at all.” It wasn’t easy at all. “Imagine handling 2,000 people and making sure there’s no hint of blue. All credit to the ADs who screened all the extras,” he says. “The magician character, meanwhile, seeks revenge. So, he too is seen in a lot of black and red. The colours also apply to all the props we use in the magic show scenes. The interval block shows him dressed in black with a dash of red on his shoes. The foreign scenes have him wearing a black hoodie with a red cross on his chain. Even in the dumpyard scene, we made sure there was red in the garbage.”
The doctor character, he says, is the one who establishes variety. “We used a lot of greens to denote prosperity. He wears a green shirt in the airport scene and in his hospital, and even his house has green walls. There isn’t too much red in his scenes. It’s all just to express the mood with visuals. In the first half, it was important that the story not reveal the identities of Vetri and Maaran. But if you pay attention to the colour, you will easily figure it out,” he laughs. The team also tried live colour correction for the first time for a Tamil film. “We’ve also tried live grading on the sets. It’s usually done in the post-production stage, but we did it to make sure we got the look and feel right.”
Vishnu admits to going all out to make Vijay look good on screen. “I took extra effort for all the close-up shots. Vijay sir is already handsome; so I knew that with just a bit more effort, we could make him look totally dashing,” he says. “I’ve been a fan of his from my school days. I guess you could also say that subconscious fascination showed in my work.”
It also helped that Vijay knew a thing or two about camera angles and lighting. “If we use a tight lens, he knows his frame is narrow for performance, and if it’s a wide lens, he knows he can move around. He even knows how to act to suit the lighting.” Vishnu remembers fondly that Vijay expressed a lot of satisfaction over the output of the film. “During the preview show, I sat behind him, but he made me sit next to him and said, ‘Naan unnoda thaan show paakanum.’ I was on cloud nine.”