Reading helped me as a cinematographer: Pratheep

Minutes into the conversation, Pratheep Kaliraja makes a point that speaks volumes about his approach to his profession.
Reading helped me as a cinematographer: Pratheep

Minutes into the conversation, Pratheep Kaliraja makes a point that speaks volumes about his approach to his profession. The highly effective Seththumaan—his first project as a cinematographer—is a tale of an old man and his grandson. The film is raw and unadorned, wearing realism on its sleeve. His second project Writer (although it was released first) is also a grounded procedural drama that places its story and characters above visual appeal. As Roger Deakins’ name turns up while discussing masters of cinematography,

I ask him whether it would be a dream for him to do something adventurous on the lines of a 1917 or a Blade Runner 2049. “I don’t think like that,” a determined Pratheep says. “Yes, I am amazed by the ideas other cinematographers come up with and where they derive such ideas from. But I never tend to mimic them. If I like a film, I read and learn more about the cinematographer and their work. It’s all information; I just acquire it, but I don’t necessarily follow it,” adds Pratheep, an erstwhile associate of Murali G, whom he credits his learning experience to. “I can bifurcate my career into two halves: the time during film institute and my time with Murali sir. While I learned the technicality of the profession in the film school, I learned about execution and aesthetics from Murali sir.”

Right from day one, Pratheep knew Seththumaan was an unconventional film to debut with. “Ranjith anna munnadi eh sollitaaru,” Pratheep says with a smile. “He informed us that the making of the film will be complicated and far from a regular shooting setup. We shot the film in a village named Kavakarapatti where the entire team was put up in a mandapam opposite a temple at the village’s entrance. It felt like an adventure.”

Seththumaan has a distinctive, decided visual style, utilising long, uninterrupted scenes predominantly shot in wide angles. It’s completely free of the cinematic-ness. Pratheep shares an amusing and fascinating reason behind this creative choice. “It emanates from Perumal Murugan’s writing. When I read Varugari (the short story the film is based on), I visualised it in a particular way.

For instance, if I read a line that says, ‘oru periyavar theru velichathula oru orama nindraar’, I picturised it as a wide shot,” he says, adding that when he first read the film’s script, he couldn’t entirely connect with it. Only after reading Varugari did he start forming the film’s visual sense which compelled him to go with a handheld camera. “The story feels like it’s written as an observation of people and events. It gives a sense of a man seeing things happening in front of him. I tried to stick to the human-eye level with my shots. We went for close-ups only when needed.”

Pratheep, who reveals he picked up reading just a few years ago, shares that reading can open new creative doors for visual storytellers. “Once I started reading, it eased the process of reading scripts. I love reading fiction. Reading has inspired me and helped a lot as a cinematographer,” he says. “Seththumaan being a literary adaptation, when I transmuted the visual sense of the story into my work, it doesn’t have a cinematic flavour at all. When we erase the cinematic nature from the story, I had to choose how to present it and I chose to do it in a way the viewer connects with the landscape and life of this story.”

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The New Indian Express