Cinematographer and director Rajiv Menon shoots commercials, runs the Mindscreen Film Institute in Chennai and writes scripts that might become movies some day. When he does agree to go behind the camera for another film-maker, you can predict with some accuracy that it will be for Mani Ratnam.
The forthcoming Tamil movie Kadal (Sea) is Menon’s third collaboration with Ratnam after Bombay (1995) and Guru (2007). Menon has shot only a handful of titles, including parts of his second movie Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000), and getting him to loan his eye for beauty and elegance requires persuasion.
“Nobody calls me as such; besides I am in Chennai,” Menon says. “Also, I don’t know if there are too many films that I would loved to have shot. I did (Mahesh Dattani’s) Morning Raga because it is about Carnatic music, which I listen to 365 days a year. It depends on whether I can relate to the director’s vision.”
Fortunately for Menon and his admirers, Ratnam is one of Indian cinema’s best-known visual stylists. All his films, regardless of their storylines, contain exquisite imagery, slick production values, elaborately choreographed song sequences and striking locations.
The trailer of Ratnam’s 23rd movie leans in the direction of gritty over pretty. “Mani has gone out of his comfort zone, he has tried to do something different,” Menon says. “Unless the film-maker has that kind of a vision, a DoP (director of photography) can’t do much. He is very demanding and that is very good, it helps you achieve many things.”
Kadal is set in a Christian fishing village on the Tamil Nadu coast. It’s about young love and old enmities—the dance of the heart between Gautham Karthik and Thulasi Nair is intertwined with a battle for the soul between Arvind Swamy’s priest and Arjun’s gangster. The casting acquired added significance with the presence of Nair, former film star Radha’s daughter. Gautham Karthik’s father, 1980s’ matinee idol Karthik, made his debut opposite Radha in P. Bharathiraja’s Alaigal Oivathillai in 1981. That movie was about a Hindu Brahmin boy and a Christian girl and was also set in a coastal village.
Kadal’s backdrop is all Christian, the Roman Catholic Fernando sub-grouping, to be precise (the movie has been shot mainly in Manapad, which was tremendously influenced by St Francis Xavier’s visits in the 16th century).
“Like a musician does tayaari (preparation), you need to do tayaari for a film,” Menon says. He conducted a reconnaissance of numerous villages, eventually settling for Manapad (some sequences have also been shot in Rameswaram and the Andamans). There is bluntness rather than lushness in Manapad, he says, unlike the locations from such coastal-set movies as Chemmeen, Pokkuveyil and Saagar. “Manapad is like Goa without the trees,” Menon says. “To capture the landscape and to be decisive, you need to have a clear compositional idea.” Some inspiration in framing the characters against the landscape came from the stark images of photojournalists James Nachtwey and William Eggleston.
The production design, by Shashi Adappa, includes elements that existed on location (such as an unadorned granite crucifix sunk into the beach) and a church that was constructed on a hilltop expressly for the movie. “Shashi used steel in building the church to hold against the wind and rain,” Menon says. Since the story opens in the 1980s, wooden catamarans that were used at the time had to be found—the catamarans were replaced by fibre boats following the tsunami in December 2004.
As is the case in nearly all Ratnam films, Kadal has rain sequences—utterly romantic but also utterly difficult to shoot. “It’s not possible to create rain in the sea, you have to wait for it,” Menon says. The sea’s capriciousness played a leading role in the production. “Nothing prepares you for shooting in the sea,” he says. “Some days the sea is choppy, some days the waves are long. When there is no wind, it’s fantastic to shoot, but your brain is burning because of the heat. You are shooting hand-held and taking a crane on a boat, which is risky since you can get toppled over.”
The weather patterns in nature keep pace with the welter of emotions in the plot—the scorching sun and warm tones in the early scenes make way for angry skies when characters go head to head. The budget didn’t allow for what Menon calls the “perfect storm”, but fortunately, nature came to their assistance by supplying one.
Kadal was shot on 35mm, and not only for sentimental reasons. “One reason is the film’s ability to take a battering—the cameras are so solid,” Menon explains. “The horizon blows out in digital camerawork, it becomes white and the sea and the sky become one.”
If Ratnam had had his way, Menon might have been in front of the camera rather than behind it. The film-maker had asked Menon to act as the lead in Roja in 1992, but Menon demurred. “I told Mani I want to shoot, not act, so he kept that in mind and called me to do Bombay,” Menon says. His rapport with Ratnam—they meet socially and live a street away from each other in Alwarpet in Chennai—gives a personal charge to their professional collaboration.
“One way you can have a relationship with a director on a set is like being a younger brother,” Menon says. “You have to understand that there is somebody else in control. He has to have the right to decide even if he is at some point infringing on you, but you can’t be subservient.”
For Ratnam, Kadal is a chance to regain audiences who were turned away from the clunky Raavanan as well as woo viewers who are increasingly opting for violent, small-town dramas and quirky comedies. Ratnam’s classical film-making, which has influenced directors in and beyond Tamil Nadu, is in danger of being dismissed as Chennai-centric and unmodish.
Kadal appears to be making a bid for the hearts and wallets of younger and more demanding audience members. It has fresh faces and an easy listening score from AR Rahman that is likely to resound in college canteens for years to come. Its co-writer, Jayamohan, delivered the dialogue for Bala’s edgy drama Naan Kadavul.
“Mani is more of a classical Indian film-maker—the interval block is important, the songs are important,” observes Menon. “He has taken the heroine from the epic and the non-traditional, progressive hero from Tamil cinema. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Kadal is scheduled to release on 1 February.