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The saga of a lensman


"The dark little nude woman trembled in my hands, as if she was the most delicate and precious thing I had ever asked for and the foreground in front of me, was like an opaque sheet of canvas, as my eyes were moist to the brim. In my mind I was asking Lord to provide me the strength so that I could hold her firmly against my chest and quietly slip down the ramp to my seat and gently place her on my lap. That night was one of the most memorable nights of my life because it was the unfurling of the dream that I cherished since my boyhood."

That was the emotional expression given by M.V. Raghu on how he felt after receiving the Filmfare Award in 1987 as the best director for his debut directorial venture, `Kallu' (eyes), when he was speaking at the screening of his film by the Vizag Film Society recently.

Though Raghu is synonymous with the general public as the director of `Kallu', he has got a more creative side that actually lends life to the silver screen from behind. If one has seen the crime thriller, `Anweshana', or `Swathi Mutyam', then the scenes that moved one to the edge of the seat or saw tears welling up, were captured by him in the lens. He is an ace cinematographer in the film industry today.

Images on bromides caught his imagination since childhood, as he watched his father produce extraordinary photographs with his antique box camera. "Though my father was a railway employee, photography was his hobby and the entire family assisted him in his venture. Since childhood we were acquainted with the darkroom process and various other operations involved in producing a photograph. My baptism to photography was at home, and at a very tender age I had decided to become a photographer not knowing the difference between still photography and video," says Raghu.

Born in Bhimavaram, he is a science graduate from Vijayawada. But the burning desire to become a photographer overpowered all the suggestions from his family members to take up a job. He was selected to undergo a diploma course at Pune and Adyar Institute of Photography but financial constraints deprived him of the opportunity. But as the saying goes `Fortune favours the brave', Raghu one day came across a piece of newspaper cutting that was used to wrap some eatables by the roadside. It contained an advertisement from the Government College of Fine Arts and Architecture (now JNTU) in Hyderabad. Against the will of his household he joined the two-year diploma course and secured 96 per cent in the first year. For the entire period of two years he worked as part-time photographer in various studios and as a freelance photographer clicking function photographs with a borrowed camera to fund his studies.

"Hollywood movies enticed me since childhood and my course at the institute helped me understand the essence of photography and cinematography. It was here that my mind shifted from still photography to the magical world of motion pictures. After completing my course, I met V.S.R. Swamy, the renowned cinematographer who had films like `Alluri Seetharamaraju' to his credit. I regard him as my mentor, and it was under him I started my career as camera apprentice for `Bhakta Kanappa' that was directed by Bapu. Prior to taking me as an apprentice he enrolled me in the Vijaya Vauhini studios, where I worked under almost 200 different cameramen for over a period of one year," says Raghu.

After having worked as apprentice for more than 25 films under Swamy and as assistant under S. Gopal Reddy for 20 films, he got his first break as an independent cameraman with the film `Maga Maharaju', and that was the beginning of Raghu's story behind the lens. "Even this break had a slice of luck. Earlier, the director of the film, Vijay Bapineedu, used me as an opting cameraman for a day in one of his film and was impressed by my work and that gave me the break. For me it was dream come true. From camera assistant this small town boy Raghu had become a cameraman and was working for a big banner with Bapineedu as director and stars like Chiranjeevi and Suhasini," fondly reminisces he.

Though that was the beginning, the creative side of Raghu came to the fore with the films that he made with director Vamsi. With their creative brilliance, the Raghu-Vamsi combination gave the movie lovers a break from stereotyped masala films.

"Film making is a combination of many subjects and co-subjects that includes right from the make-up man to the side actor and from the light boy to the lead actor. But the most important combination is that of the director and the cinematographer. A creative man should be allowed to explore and experiment to bring out the best in him and Vamsi gave me that opportunity. The creation of `day for night' photography in his film `Sitara' and the use of hand-held 35 mm. camera instead of a steady cam to shoot the tight chasing scenes through the jungle in `Anweshana' was universally acclaimed. Even Amitabh Bacchan who came for the preview appreciated and recruited me for his home production but unfortunately that film was permanently shelved due to some problems," says Raghu with a sense of pride.

Not only his films with Vamsi got him the recognition and fame but he also produced a few award-winning masterpieces with the famed director K. Viswanath that includes films like `Swati Mutyam' and `Sirivennela'.

Years of work behind the lens sowed the seed of directing a film unknowingly. And it blossomed one day when he recalled a drama that he had seen 16 years ago in Vjayawada. "The drama, `Kallu', scripted by Gollapudi Maruthi Rao, always fascinated me and the day I decided to direct a film that became my story," says he.

The message from `Kallu' was hard hitting. Though it was considered a parallel film it created a sensation and ran for more than 100 days in most theatres Statewide. The film received in total 30 awards, including the Nandi Award for the best film, Filmfare award for the best director, and was nominated for an entry to the Oscar and the Indian Panorama from South India. "But the biggest award was given by the Censor Board when the directors called upon me and said that the film was an eye-opener, and that I should continue to direct such films," says Raghu.

Till date he had worked as cinematographer in 50 full length feature films and over 10 documentaries and short serials, including a few award-wining ones like the `Secrets' for the Discovery Channel and `Surabhi' by K.N.T. Sastry that won the national award in 2000, for the best documentary.

For his work behind the lens, Raghu is the recipient of Excellency in Cinematography from the State Nandi Award Board, for the film `Sirivennela'. He was also widely appreciated by all including the critics for his technical brilliance in `Sitara' and `Swati Mutyam' that went on to receive the national awards in the best regional feature film category.

Commenting on the present crop of directors and cinematographers he believes that they are all clichéd. "They tend to follow the same old formulae with a few changes here and there. The advancement of technology is certainly a boon but it has resulted in creative lethargy. Cinematographers rely more on the lab and computers for creating effects rather than try to capture the same through the lens. The industry as a whole, except for a few bright stars who still believe in good stories with strong social message, has become more money-oriented and formula-driven," opines Raghu.

SUMIT BHATTACHARJEE

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