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The Madras Mail has deposited yet another hard-working and hungry cinematographer in Mumbai. This time it’s Ravi Varman, the Tamilian cinematographer of Barfi!. Like others who have come before and with him, 37-year-old Varman barely speaks Hindi and lives out of a suitcase when in the capital of the Hindi film industry. And like his peers, he is making the most of the opportunity to work in the mecca of commercial film-making. “You cannot go beyond a point in regional cinema," Varman says. “There is a lot of liberty to work in Hindi cinema—the budgets are better, and the films are larger than life."

The initial communication gap between Varman and Barfi!’s director, Anurag Basu, didn’t prevent the creation of the movie’s picture postcard-pretty visuals. “Ravi barely understands Hindi and I talk too fast in English," Basu says about collaborating with Varman to create the magic-realist world of Barfi!, which follows the adventures of Ranbir Kapoor’s hearing and speech-impaired Murphy. “But what is most important is whether we will gel or not, and whether we will enjoy working on the film or not." Basu did have to narrate his ideas to Varman more than once, but the result, which is splashed across the movie’s promotional videos, is there for all to see.

Set appeal: Ravi Varman, the cinematographer of Barfi! Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

It took all of five days to finish the dubbing of Barfi! “We wanted a film that wasn’t plastic, that was realistic," Varman says. “I told Anurag that we should go in for European-style film-making. If you look at French films, the actors have striking faces, and you can see the contrast in every frame." Barfi! was shot on Super 35mm stock—Varman doesn’t care too much for the much-vaunted advantages of digital cinematography—while the use of the telephoto lens in several sequences ensured greater depth. “Digital film-making is not 100% perfect," Varman points out. “It’s a craze just because they are using it in Hollywood. There will be hundred-storeyed buildings, but film stock is like a heritage building."

Varman has shot a few Hindi films before, such as Armaan and Ramji Londonwaley, as well as several Tamil films, including Autograph and Dasavatharam. He follows in the footsteps of several cinematographers who have been shuttling regularly between Mumbai and Chennai, Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram in recent years. Starting with Santosh Sivan in the 1990s, directors of photography such as Ravi K. Chandran (whom Varman assisted for eight-odd years), Ayananka Bose, V. Manikandan, Rajeev Ravi, P.S. Vinod, Thiru and Nirav Shah have left their signature in vastly different ways on Bollywood extravaganzas. They are respected for their hardiness, efficiency and inventiveness. Many of them cut their teeth on low-budget dramas, where the lack of resources had to be combated with imagination.

“In the south, we know our limitations and work doubly hard to prove ourselves," says Varman, who is now shooting Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Ram Leela, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet.

A still from the film

In fact, the promotional videos for Barfi! have attracted comparisons with Amelie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s charming piece of French whimsy that made an international star out of its lead Audrey Tautou. Basu bristles at any comparison with the French hit,. saying it “really irritates" him. “Yes, my films (Murder and Tumsa Nahin Dekha) were inspired by Hollywood films, but I had to make them to survive in the industry," he says.

The first few days of the Barfi! production were a struggle, Basu says—they were unsure if the attempt to make a film that “is feel-good" and “celebrates life" would be successful. “It was like being in a dark tunnel without a torch," Basu says. “We got it right after a week of shooting." The film was shot in Darjeeling, Ooty, Kolkata and Pollachi. “I was tired of making films about gangsters and extramarital affairs," says Basu. “I wanted to make something bright and nice—a film I could take my kids to."

Barfi! releases in theatres on 14 September.

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