Read any review of Mani Ratnam's latest, Raavan (Raavanan in Tamil), and you're more likely to come across reviews raving about the cinematography than the story. To those in the know, it was perhaps obvious that the two cameramen involved — Santosh Sivan and V Manikandan — are from the south. Nobody is surprised, after all, for decades now, the film industry and audiences have taken for granted that the best film technicians are from the south.
But despite the awe with which names like Ravi K Chandran, Santhosh Sivan and that venerable institution PC Sreeram are greeted, Resul Pookutty’s Oscar, or the seven National awards that speak for Sreekar Prasad when criticised by an Amitabh Bachchan, the winds of change have been blowing, and south India may no longer have an edge.
To understand why, one needs to go back a little in time as filmmaker K Hariharan, now director of the LV Prasad film and television academy puts things in perspective. “You need to understand that back in the 1920s the Tamil film industry was not synonymous with Tamil cinema,” he says. The reason being that films made in the South (Madras to be precise) were truly “national films”. “Each film was made in at least six or seven languages while in Bombay movies were made in only language.”
It was only after Hindi became the national language that Hindi films came to be considered mainstream or national. “So the technical impetus came from the fact that the Tamil film industry served such a huge viewing population. People here had more money so it was only natural that the technicians came to work here from all parts of the country, even other countries like America or Germany.”
Having access to equipment (imported through the Madras Harbour), money and knowledge, southern technicians quickly gained a reputation for knowledge, innovation and discipline. “This is why producers in Bombay chose to work with southern technicians. In fact in the ’50s and ’60s, a whole lot of technicians migrated to Bombay.” It also helps that the early films schools came up in the south (Bangalore and Madras.)
Cameras on a roadtrip
As filmmaker-cinematographer Rajeev Menon explains, “If there are a lot of south Indians working on major films today it’s first and foremost because of the history and quality of creative education in Chennai — whether it was studying in the Art College or studying cinematography at the Madras Film Institute. That gave us the ability to add creativity to a project.” The additional edge came back to discipline.
“The second factor was the work ethic people like us brought to the industry — the ability to be efficient without fuss and to adapt to situations.”
With regard to innovation, the south again came into the limelight when a first-time director named Bharathiraja broke all the accepted conventions of film-making at that time with a film called 16 Vayathinile (1977) — the key was in taking cinema out of the studio and into villages, shifting to outdoor photography.
“He took films out to the villages while Balu Mahendra was shooting in the hills, and trying to capture that misty feel (Moodupani, 1983). At the same time people like Mani Ratnam and (art director) Thotta Tharani were trying to capture an urban sensibility with a bit of realism. People in Mumbai started watching these films because they were still stuck in studios,” Menon explains.
There was a point when filmmakers, not just from other states in the south, but even Bollywood, would hotfoot it to Chennai for sound recording (Dil Chahta Hai, Lagaan) or visual effects. But in the past decade much has changed. Bollywood has caught up with the south.
In the past few years, Mumbai has invested heavily in technology and technicians. According to Hariharan, at this moment, Mumbai technicians are superior because lots of out-of-the-box thinking takes place in ad filmmaking and a huge part of the ad industry is based in Bombay. “They have bigger budgets and can bring down a major technician from Hollywood for a short shoot. In the process all the people who assist the person learn new things as well,” he says.
Meanwhile in the south, technology has enabled the Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu film industries to be more self-sufficient. “Every language cinema is flourishing. Technicians are ultimately a common resource. Equipment these days is no longer huge — anyone can be a filmmaker — the space required to set up post-production facilities is less, so they don't need to come to Chennai anymore,” says the legendary P C Sreeram, who does not believe in the north-south debate.
People from the south continue to migrate to Mumbai for work, though. Menon says half the light crew on any Mumbai set will probably be Tamil or Telugu while film editor Anthony, working on the Shankar-directed Rajini-starrer Endhiran, thinks it’s because people from the south are generally more creative and professional. “We’ve always talked about it when we discuss films — the fact that all our people are there. Whenever I’ve worked in Mumbai I’ve noticed that even the guys who operate the online editing machine are from places like Coimbatore or Madurai.”
Where the money matters
Endhiran’s cinematographer R Rathnavelu points out that some of the advances in Mumbai have now made it a very convenient place to work. “In the south there is more attention to technical detail and to the technician but a bigger budget does have its perks — in Mumbai it’s led to the use of gaffers,” he says. These technicians who create lighting plans and angles which in the south continues to be done by the director of photography himself, make his job is easier. “I can just focus on the next shot,” he says.
Better facilities come in handy also in a field like art direction. According to Rajeevan Nambiar, one of the top art directors in the south, while a huge budget may not be necessary to make a great film, it does allow you to do things on a much grander scale. “With a smaller budget you’re restricted to one or two angles. With more money I can do that extra bit more to improve the look of a set. Maybe even use a combination of techniques.”
The need for more generous budgets has perhaps been felt most in the area of Sound recording. Arun Bose of LV Prasad Studios recalls how from 1975 right up to 2000, the studio, one of the largest postproduction facilities in Asia, introduced new technology in the area of sound mixing, such as 70mm post-production, 24-track sound recording, Dolby noise reduction and the Dolby digital sound system.
But, while directors up till 2000 came to Chennai for sound mixing (Bose himself has worked on films like Rangeela and DDLJ) they eventually invested in their own technology. This spelt doom for the sound studios in Chennai as by then several had mushroomed in hope of business. “But when people stopped coming here, instead of shutting down, these studios opted for a ‘package system’ to survive,” Senthil Kumar, co-founder, Real Image Media Technologies and one of Asia's foremost authorities on sound says.
These packages cost anywhere between Rs 3 - 6 lakh — depending on how much the producer has left to spend at that point since sound mixing is the last stage of post-production. “So while it would be ideal to spend at least three weeks on sound mixing, given the cost and often the shortage of time, it is done sometimes in just days,” he says. Another reason why talented technicians who are passionate about their craft would migrate to Bollywood.
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