We didn’t want to spoon-feed the audience: 'Chithha' Cinematographer Balaji Subramanyam

'Chithha' Cinematographer Balaji Subramanyam speaks of hand-held cinematography, a focus on emotions, caution about making the film feel like a documentary and more.
'Chithha' is a film revolving around themes of pedophilia and child safety.
'Chithha' is a film revolving around themes of pedophilia and child safety.

Way before tension builds in Chithha, we see a deer sticker in the protagonist’s house. The deer not only symbolises the fascination of the eight-year-old Sundari but also subtly hints at the larger hunt that the drama majorly derives its conflict from. Impressively, Chithha believes in taking time to build the world rather than force-feed details. DoP Balaji Subramanyam, who shot Chithha, concurs, “We didn’t want to spoon-feed the audience, but we added elements while shooting to subconsciously plant ideas in the audience’s minds.”

Balaji, known for his work in the Enjoy Enjaami video, not only made his feature film debut with Chithha but also went through a process of unlearning 12 years of his process. “Before thinking anything visually, I was analysing the characters of Chithha. Director SU Arun Kumar ensured we didn’t use any equipment like tracks, cranes, or steadicam. When I asked the reasoning behind it, Arun said he once attempted to do a documentary and wanted to recreate the same feel in Chithha. The style was something different from what I have learned so far, and he wanted to shoot as if someone was watching the events of the film,” says Balaji.

To facilitate this approach, Balaji opted for hand-held cinematography. “As human beings, we have a limited scope of vision. We don’t move in track or use any artificial movement. The challenge was that we shouldn’t be making it as a documentary. Even the shakiness you see was due to my breathing. It was only the actors and director, and me filming that scene, and it made shooting all the more intimate.” Balaji also used over-the-shoulder shots and close-ups in the conversation-driven first half of Chithha.

While these shots also serve to paint an intimate portrait of the whirlwind of emotions that characters go through, they also give us a sense of claustrophobia. About drawing these two emotions, the cinematographer says, “When we talk to someone, we don’t always see the world around them. Secondly, claustrophobia is in the entire film language and we were specific about showing what we wanted the audience to see. Our approach with lighting and cinematography was not to create distraction. Once we saw the edit, it was claustrophobic and it did not allow the audience to settle. So there was no way their attention gets diverted.”

Drawing an example from the film, Balaji explains how he is responsible for directing the frames, whereas the filmmaker has to direct the actors. “When Easwaran and Ponni go out of the frame for some moments, it was written in a way that someone is watching them. It is taken from the POV of people who accuse him,” explains Balaji.

While Chithha is set and shot in Palani, Balaji reveals that he took inspiration from a 2008 film that was set in another temple city about 130 kilometres away. “Initially, we did not have any references, and at some point, I had to stop watching films because I was getting influenced. But something that came close was Madurai-based Subramaniapuram, especially in terms of how the camera moves and the usage of pastel colours,” says Balaji. However, the city of Palani and its crowded nature helped the makers establish a sense of loss and longing. The vastness also served as a purpose for Balaji, who used it to frame the antagonist, a pedophile. “When he is standing there against the landscape, we can know the vastness of it and the smallness of the person. I wanted to show him small and insignificant. I could show him as an isolated person.” 

With the film revolving around themes of pedophilia and child safety, the team was sure that bloodshed and crudeness were not shown. Wanting everyone to watch Chithha, including children, Balaji says, “The script was so dense that when we translated it visually, we had to make strong decisions about what was shown and what was not. For example, in an inquest scene, where the FIR is explained in detail, the director was certain it should be there, but I didn’t. I wanted to use cinema as a visual medium and use dialogues as just an aid. But in this case, it was different and since he wanted the dialogues, we avoided the visuals.” Signing off, Balaji talks about his biggest takeaway from Chithha, which provided him the opportunity to experiment and push his own boundaries. “If the story is good, we don’t have to depend on beauty.”

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The New Indian Express