Siddhartha Nuni vividly remembers receiving the first call from Gautham Menon’s office. The cinematographer, whose credits include trend-setting Kannada hits, Lucia and U Turn, was initially told it was regarding an opportunity to shoot the second season of the political biopic, Queen. To his disappointment, he was informed shortly after that there was a miscommunication over the call, and Siddhartha, in his words, felt it was too good to be true that he was being offered a chance to shoot for Gautham Menon.
However, the next text message brought delight to the disheartened Siddartha, when he learned that the opportunity was, in fact, to shoot a film. He went on to meet Gautham for the first time, when the filmmaker enquired about his modus operandi. “I told him that I work on the pre-production for two months when I take up a project,” the cinematographer says, only to receive a response from the filmmaker that they would have to start shooting in a week. “I am a method-oriented person but I had nothing to say to that,” says Siddharth, laughing. His familiarity with Gautham’s oeuvre and cinematic sensibilities, of course, came in handy and one week later, Siddhartha was in Tiruchendur, shooting Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu, one of the most fascinating Tamil films year—both structurally and visually.
Some of the defining attributes of the film were almost spontaneously decided. The first fifteen minutes of the film, for instance, employ only static blocks, making the viewer a distant observer of Muthu’s distressing life in his village. “It is completely static. Almost like art cinema,” he says, revealing that this choice helps in pronouncing the contrast when the story sends Muthu to Mumbai. “Once we enter Mumbai, we had to capture the energy of the city. In the village, however, everything is quiet. We wanted to illustrate the stillness.”
There is more than one style on display in Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu, which aims for realism. If the hand-held operation of the camera is one, long takes and realistic lighting are another. The film has minimal locations but utilises them fully, creating a realistic yet brilliantly cinematic look. The top floor of Esakki Parotta Kadai, for instance, is a character of its own, housing the characters, their stories and many sequences that transpire there—ranging from conversations to gunfights to a song-and-dance sequence in the form of the highly celebrated ‘Mallipoo’. All of Siddhartha’s craft and even some gimmicks, come together here. “I believe cinematography is not just about different types of shots and glamorous lighting; it is about the world around you. The world around you has to become a part of the scene. I believe in good mise-en-scène and subscribe to the French new wave school of filmmaking. I don’t light for just the actor’s face but the whole space,” Siddartha says.
Speaking about the immaculately staged ‘Mallipoo’, the cinematographer says, “Shooting ‘Mallipoo’ song is one of my most memorable experiences. I was extremely nervous about it, with shadows being my main cause of concern. If you closely observe, the lighting in the room, before and during the song, is different. When we see the supporting actor holding the phone, the light streaks come from the windows, but had that light remained, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to move the camera,” Siddartha says, before going on to reveal the trick under his sleeve. “We panned the camera from there to the actors sitting opposite him and in the meantime, an actor who walks out of the bathroom closes all the windows. Once this is done, the image becomes soft. That is how we avoided the shadows. And once the song segues into the police raid, the windows get opened seamlessly.”
Siddartha reveals that the team was pushing the gambit right from day one. When the team began filming, they started with one-minute takes, then extended to two-minute takes and then eventually grew so comfortable with long shots that they even managed to pull off a five-minute-long sequence—one that ends with the killing of Kutty Bhai. Siddartha believes this was made possible with his lighting and the ease of gimbal operation. “I created 360-degree lighting, giving the characters and the camera the liberty to move everywhere. I wouldn’t ask the actor to stay rooted because there is light on one particular space. If there is no light, it is fine; he will walk into the light at some point. These tiny bits add drama.”
Having spent more than a year on the film, especially the past few months confined to the DI studio, the cinematographer is now finally relaxing. I ask him what’s happening with VTK 2? “It has been a long journey with the first film, and I feel I need at least a month-long break,” Siddhartha says, laughing. “The discussions are on, with Gautham sir and Jeyamohan sir tossing ideas off each other. Whenever the second film happens, I am sure it will be beautiful.”
Siddhartha Nuni, the cinematographer of Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu, discusses the artistic choices that defined the texture and visual quality of the grounded gangster drama that’s running to packed houses