Rathnavelu aka Randy, who started his career with Sarath Kumar-starrer Aravindhan (1997), can’t say it enough that cinematography is as important as direction. “We are co-creators of a film,” he says. That’s why he prefers listening to scripts before he signs a project. “If a film doesn’t appeal to me, I politely decline. I don’t go by the star value,” he says.
The cinematographer, who has worked with big names in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi, tells us that regular films mounted on four songs and three fight sequences don’t interest him any more. “Something about the script should appeal. For instance, Mahesh’s Babu’s 1: Nenokkadine. It wasn’t a blockbuster, but people still appreciate my work in it.”
He works closely with his directors and tries to “add a different perspective from the cinematographer’s point of view.” Rathnavelu cites yesterday’s release, Rangasthalam, as an example. “Sukumar (director) and I were bouncing off ideas, and he told me he had plans to set the film around 2015. Naan dhan 80s feel-la edukka sonnen. We thought we could connect to it better.”
Sukumar and Rathnavelu have known each other for 14 years. In fact, he was the cinematographer for the filmmaker’s first venture, Arya (2004). “After seeing my work in Sethu and Nandha, he approached me. Our friendship remains intact even after all these years,” he says.
The DoP adds they were keen to make a film with a rural backdrop and real people. “When you watch the film, you’ll get reminded of your own village. The story also has a universal appeal,” he tells us.
The protagonist (Chitti Babu, played by Ram Charan) can’t hear properly, and Rathnavelu says capturing the romance between him and Samantha was challenging. “It’s not your usual love story. The first half will be lighthearted, and the second will run high on emotions.” He apparently asked Samantha to get a tan for the film. “She was very surprised after seeing the output. I take great care to make actors look extra appealing onscreen.”
For Rangasthalam, he chose to showcase parched lands “because today’s villages aren’t only about greens and browns. I had to do some extra work to make people believe it’s a real village.”
Rathnavelu believes that whatever he’s today, he owes it to Rajeev Menon. “I was quite determined to assist him when I started out because he’s an amazing technician. His thoughts were way ahead of that time. I also worked on many ads because they let you tell a story in less than 30 seconds. That’s where I equipped myself.”
He doesn’t take criticism too seriously. “I’d have done something significant about lighting and frames in a film, but people would hardly notice that. They only appreciate silhoutte shots, sunrises and mountains, which require little skill,” he says with a laugh.
He also rues how, with easy access to technology today, everything is being mistaken for ‘graphics’. “I remember someone asked me what I did to achieve that pristine look in the Kaadhal Anukkal song (Enthiran). I didn’t know how to react.”
Rathnavelu, who has worked extensively in Tamil and Telugu cinema has done only one film in Hindi —David. “That’s because I didn’t want to start from scratch in Bollywood. Though I got a couple of offers to do Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar-starrers, I refused. I didn’t want to leave my family and head to Mumbai. I was also busy doing back-to-back films in the South. South Indian technicians are much sought after in the North. But I am not here for the money.”
Even top heroes in Telugu cinema check if he’s willing to give them dates before considering another cinematographer. Rathnavelu still remembers the excitement of seeing his name in the credits, twenty years ago. “It was priceless. More than that, when Bala held my hands after seeing Sethu, I felt so happy. No compliment is bigger than one given by the director.”
He holds what Balu Mahendra said once close to his heart to this day. “I grew up watching his films, and he once told me he loved my work.” Looking back, he feels he could have done better work on every film. “I think if I were to do Vaaranam Aayiram today, it would be different. It’s a favourite.”
Speaking about his next, Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, he says, “You may have seen those photos of Amitabh Bachchan and Chiranjeevi, which went viral on social media. It’s going to be massive.” He says Amitabh is “extremely down-to-earth and a powerhouse of talent.”
Rathnavelu is shooting the period drama in cinemascope format. “We are using the latest technology and equipment, in order to take the audience back to their roots.”