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Painting with light

SARASWATHY NAGARAJAN

Mankada Ravi Varma’s frames remain true to the culture and images of Kerala. Right from the days of ‘Swayamvaram,’ his partnership with Adoor Gopalakrishnan created a new aesthetics for Malayalam cinema.



Legends: Mammootty’s photograph of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Mankada Ravi Varma on the sets of ‘Mathilukal’ captures the rapport between the two

Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Mankada Ravi Varma: The Ingmar Bergman and Sven Nykvist of Malayalam cinema. The duo redefined Malayalam cinema and gave it a new framework and aesthetics. Like Satyajit Ray and Subrata Mitra, like Guru Dutt and V.K. Murthy.While one narrated stories that catapulted Malayalam cinema to pinnacles of cinematic excellence, the other captured his vision thorough the camera. Mankada won two national awards – one for the cinematography of ‘Swayamvaram’ and then for the documentary on Kalamandalam Gopi. He made only one film – ‘Nokkukuthi,’ based on M. Govindan’s poem, in 1983. It won him the State award for the best cinematographer and the National special jury award. His book ‘Chitram Chala Chitram’ won him the State award for the best book on cinema.

Dadasaheb Phalke award winner Adoor Gopalakrishnan says the duo was so tuned to each other that, often, they knew what the other was thinking on the sets of a film. Mankada was the cinematographer whose camera focussed on the austere black and white frames of Adoor’s first film ‘Swayamvaram.’ Thirty years later, the opulence of nature in ‘Nizhalkuthu’ was also captured by Mankada’s camera. Mankada also worked in Malayalam classics such as G. Aravindan’s ‘Utharayanam’ and P.N. Menon’s ‘Olavum Theeravum.’

Adoor pays tribute to the master cinematographer who has been selected for the J.C. Daniel Award by the Government of Kerala.

Raviettan’s [Mankada Ravi Varma] brother Rama Varma and I were students at the Film Institute in Pune. He used to talk to me about his brother, a cinematographer, who was then freelancing for the BBC and other agencies after passing out from the Madras film institute. He had worked as assistant cameraman in Films Division also.

Seven years after I left the Institute, in 1972, when I thought of making a feature film, I approached Raviettan with the script of ‘Swayamvaram.’ He was happy with the script and expressed his willingness to work in the film. We thought alike and we clicked as a team.



Mankada perfects his frame.

Prior to my films, he had worked with Aziz, a former FTII student, in a film called ‘Aval.’ He has also worked with P.N. Menon for the film ‘Olavum Theeravum,’ produced by P.A. Bakker, G. Aravindan’s ‘Uttarayanam’ and Singeetam Sreenivasa Rao’s ‘Dikkatta Parvathi.’

He never did more than one film with any of them. But he has been my cinematographer for all my films and documentaries since ‘Swayamvaram.’

Austere frames

The riveting austerity of his frames enhances the narration of the films. Raviettan would work on only one film at a time; his devotion to his work, dedication and enthusiasm set him apart. His frames capture our culture and each shot stays true to our roots and ethnicity. An original thinker, Raviettan uses light like a painter to create unforgettable images on celluloid. He is like an elder brother to me. Raviettan is the only person I show my script to after I finish working on it. As soon as a work is finished, I send it to him in Chennai and he would respond with his remarks. The beauty of it is that we are completely in sync with each other. So, never once has he made a disparaging remark or a negative comment about the script.

Although I wanted to shoot ‘Kodiyettam’ in colour, the restriction on colour film at that time did not permit me to do that. So, my first colour film was ‘Elippathayam.’ Colour has to be used judiciously and aesthetically. Raviettan rose to the challenge posed by colour and achieved the same excellence that he perfected in his black and white shots.



Adoor takes a look while Mankada watches during the shoot of ‘Anantharam.’

The only time he expressed reluctance was before the shoot of ‘Nizhalkuthu.’

He told me: ‘I am too old and perhaps it is time you chose someone else. I find it difficult to stay on my feet all day long.’ But I managed to persuade him. I told him to choose some one to assist him. Finally, it was Sunny Joseph, an accomplished cinematographer in his own right, who worked with us and the cinematography of ‘Nizhalkuthu’ has been credited to both of them.

But once, Raviettan reaches the sets, he never sits or relaxes. Although he suffers from varicose veins, he prefers to stand while working. His drive inspires each person working on the set. He used to take a break only for a frugal meal of rice and curd.

Awards and commercial success do not enthuse him. It is his quest for excellence that makes him the cinematographer he is.

Close-up of a lensman



CLASSIC: Mankada Ravi Varma's shot of Madhu and Sharada in 'Swayamvaram.'

Three heroes of Adoor’s films reminisce the professionalism of Mankada Ravi Varma. Veteran actor Madhu, a recipient of the J.C. Daniel Award, has worked in two films that were filmed by Mankada Ravi Varma – ‘Olavum Theeravum’and ‘Swayamvaram.’

Mammootty worked in three of Adoor’s films, ‘Ananthapuram,’ ‘Mathilukal’ and ‘Vidheyan.’ Mammootty, a keen photographer himself, had clicked Adoor and Mankada on the sets of ‘Mathilukal.’

Ashokan was the hero in ‘Anantharam.’ As a teenager, Ashokan had worked with some of the finest directors in Malayalam cinema. ‘Mukhamukham’ was his first film with Adoor and Mankada Ravi Varma.

Madhu

“He is unique in the film world. It is hard to think of a man without enemies in any field. But Raviettan is a man without enemies. Always courteous and professional, he is completely devoted to his work. For him, each shot is a painting that he composes with great care.

For ‘Olavum Theeravum,’ we had to shoot indoors and outdoors, all in natural light. His greatest quality is his ability to go about his work with no fuss or attempt to impress. Before he started working in films, he had made a number of documentaries and that seems to have given him an academic bent of mind. He does not indulge in any kind of technical gimmicks or showmanship. Man of few words but great experience.

Mammootty

As an ardent film buff I was familiar with his work. I had seen his films and by the time I was cast in ‘Anantharam,’ both Adoor and Raviettan were legends. It was interesting to watch the professional rapport between the director and the cinematographer.

There is quite an age difference between the two but they share a similar vision. Perhaps that is what made each film of theirs so different. Raviettan is a person with simple tastes and few ambitions in life. His passion is his work.

Ashokan

He never ever made us feel small. Therein lay his greatness. If Adoor Sir were to make a short remark, he would turn around, smile and wink at us.

Although a man of few words, if you had a doubt or a question, he would take time to explain and tell you why a shot had been planned in a certain way or why the camera was at a certain angle. He is not a voluble person. I remember him reading on the set, when there was a break in the shoot.

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