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Interview with Senthil Kumar
Date: August 20, 2009, Hyderabad
senthil kumar

Cinematographer Senthil Kumar announced his arrival with the off-beat success Aithe. And he never looked back once he associated with Rajamouli for Sye. His work for Yamadonga, Arundhati and Magadheera speaks volumes about the talent of this Pune Film Institute’s graduate. Senthil Kumar is one of the very few successful technicians of Tollywood who came from proper training school. Here is an exclusive interview with this educated and the most talented cinematographer –

I am a Tamilian born and brought up in Hyderabad. My entry into films is a sheer accident. May be a call of destiny. I was very fond of cricket and represented my college in cricket leagues. Kapil Dev being my role model . I did fast bowling and was good with the bat too.

My interest was towards civil services as a career.A friend was applying to Pune Film Institute and asked if i would take the test as it would help in preparation for civil services exam. Pune Film Institute offers 3-years course in Direction, Sound Recording, Editing and Cinematography. I applied for cinematography. They admit 10 students per year. Two seats are reserved for the third world countries. It was an amazing selection process. 40 people were called for the interview ,half day training, half day of G.D.s for a week. They selected eight out of 40 for admission and i was one of them.

The first film I saw during selection was ‘Red Beard’ by Akira Kurasowa. That movie opened a new world for me. After that, I decided that if not this time next year i must join the film institute . Pune film institute happened to me. It is an amazing place to be ,it changed my perception towards life itself and my thought process. The first movie i saw, was of director Andrei Tarkovsky. They showed various movies of him that week. I could not understand any of his movies and would doze off in the theatre. I felt I may not be cut out for this industry. A week later, they showed a comedy film titled ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’, it cheered me up. I slowly began understanding the films as the years progressed. My second year was on merit scholarship . 1995- 1998.

Since I had graduated from Pune film institute, I thought that I would get a red carpet into Telugu film industry. Disappointment is all i got as i had no contacts or background in the industry back home, Hyderabad. At Prasad Labs, i met a film grader called Punnayya who asked me to assist any cinematographer before expecting an opportunity.

I joined cinematographer Sharath Sir. My first film as assistant was Premaku Velayara and worked till Jabili movie. Working as an assistant cinematographer I realised that people work for you in the film institute and you work for people in film industry.

Chandra Sekhar Yeleti asked me to work as cameraman for his TV serial Amrutham. Short of oppurtunities in films I agreed though television never interested me. I worked for 13 episodes. My television migration turned out to be my platform. Chandra Sekhar Yeleti directed Aithe and took me on as the cinematographer. This movie debut a team of actors and technicians.

We created a realistic look for Aithe. People felt that we shot the movie without lights. But lights were used and still brought the realistic tint to the movie. I was jobless for six months after Aithe though my work was acknowledged well in the industry.

Rajamouli called me after Simhadri movie and narrated the story of Sye. I loved it. i asked him why he had chosen me. He said he knew under what circumstances I did Aithe . He promised better time and budget. When someone like Rajamouli believes in you so much, you stop at nothing but the best.

Rugby was a new game to Indians at that time as the Rugby world cup was telecast in India for the first time. We had two months of Rugby training for the cast. I observed TV telecast of Rugby to understand the camera angles as I had to recreate the live atmosphere in the climax of Sye movie. We were able to pull the climax scene with realistic camera work.

In Aithe movie, we didn’t have glamour angle as it was a story driven by thriller. But Sye was a commercial film. Hence we needed to show artists (Nitin and Genelia) glamorously without compromising on the realistic aspect. I learnt the nuances of showing stars with a realistic look with Sye .

Till recently Chatrapati was my best work. I strongly believe that cinematographer’s work is not to be able to make visuals look good. But to help director tell his story more efficiently. My work should be in perfect sync with the director’s narration. Since it was a harsh story, we used a good lot of brown tint. We deliberately avoided a colourful look. There are two interesting aspects from cinematographer’s point of view in Chatrapati

Pre-interval mud fight: There is a pre-interval mud fight in the movie shot in the rain. We needed constant light to cover a wide outdoor area. Balloon lights did not exist in hyd at that time. I used a 40 ft x 40 ft iron frame and stuffed it with lots of lights, diffuser and dangled it using a 100 ft industrial crane. I used soft lights while shooting the fight in slow motion. The mud water splashing scenes in that fight are inspired by a scene in Sleepy Hallow movie.

Monotone song: We had a song called ‘A vachi B pai vaale’. I wanted to have a mono-color feel to it. It was never done in recent Telugu films.the choreographer objected that mono-color theme will not highlight his steps. The results were amazing.

Chatrapati was my first step towards visual effects. We canned a shark fight in the movie. We did major blue-mat work for it.

Ashok movie introduced me to super 35mm camera first to be shot in tollywood and DI (digital intermediate). DI is an integral part of cinematographer’s job. There is a sequence in the movie where dead friend (Rajiv Kanakala) of hero (NTR) appears on the screen. To show the contrast we did Rajiv Kanakala in black and white and the rest of the frame in color.

I used to like the greeting cards done by the photographer Ken Anderson in black and white except for a small thing like rose in a red color. I always wanted something like that. In a fight sequence of Ashok, I wanted the blood to be in red color and rest of the frame in black and white. When I asked director Surender, he agreed. And the concept was well recognized in the movie.

I learnt a lot about DI through Ashok movie.

Arundhati film was committed by me after the completion of Ashok project. It was like a dream come true to work with a passionate producer like Shyam Prasad Reddy. Arundhati was a big step towards visual effects. Working for Arundhati was an out-of-the world experience. It had mind-boggling visuals for the standard of any South Indian movie. Shyam told me that even if he shouts at me, I should take my own time to get the final output to perfection.

We also used motion control camera for the first time in Telugu films to can a few sequences. It remembers the path of camera and repeats it. Using that we could shoot glittering fort and dilapidated fort with the same motion control. That camera is not available in India. We imported it from Australia. The DI colourist is a talented technician {SHIVA}.

Doing Yamadonga movie gave me immense confidence about my abilities as a cinematographer. The Yamalokam set erected was the biggest indoor set in India. I never worked on such big sets. I was not sure of how i would light up such a massive set as I needed huge number of lights for it. When we try to show gold glittering we use harsh lighting which casts shadows. Hence I got the whole set under a huge skimmer. Soft lights so that there will not be shadows. When Rajamouli asked me for glittering effect, I took a day’s extension. I got a huge box of household lights behind the camera and lit them up. Since these were specular lights, they give the glitter without casting shadows. We used all the available lights in Hyderabad to light up Yamalokam set.

Sekhar Suri is a dear friend who possesses a great visual sense. Movie is supposed to be a visual medium, but most of the Telugu films made it a dialogue medium. I accepted that film because they promised to wrap up the movie in 3 months. I had to leave the project mid-way because of my prior commitment to Magadheera movie. We used balloon lights for the first time in telugu industry as we needed to create a very soft moonlight effect ...

I am always fascinated with movies like Gladiator, Ben Hur and Brave Heart. When Rajamouli narrated the story of Magadheera, my joy knew no bounds. At that same time I was sceptical if I could pull it off. Rajamouli gave me lots of confidence , that we pulled off Yamaloka set so we can also achieve bigger things with Magadheera.

Visual effects were never used in such a large scale in Indian movies before. I had to co-ordinate with VFX team even before the shooting started as visual effects are seamlessly integrated into my work.

Chariot Race: Scouting for locations was fun. We were looking for dry, open lands for the chariot race scene. We went to Gujarat to look for it. Out there Some passersby told us that there are white lands around 200 km away. We were thrilled to find salt lands in Dholavira. We doubted whether horses could run on salt . While shooting, we needed a light weight vehicle to follow the horses. So we bought a Maruti van and cut off the top part and used it to mount the camera along with jimmy jib to shoot the race. We shot a part of Dheera Dheera song in Dholavira salt land. I wanted a dry tree in the backdrop and the art director got one from nowhere. We used a couple of ox as backdrop for a sequence in that song.

100 warriors episode: Rajamouli conceived 100 warriors episode first. We had to make the hero kill 100 warriors,but it had to look convincing. It would be believable if the hero fought with 4-5 people at a time. It struck us that we could use a passage to restrict the number of fighters. Then the conception of a bridge, a cliff and bhairava kona came into existence.

Stadium (Arena): We created the kingdom of Uday Ghad on computer graphics but Developing it was a tedious process. We don’t have the culture of arena fights in Indian history as it belongs to roman culture. Conceiving and shooting in that arena set was one of most cumbersome and satisfying experience.

Golkonda Song: There is a specialty in Panchadara Bomma song. Hero and heroine shouldn’t touch each other, but the romance should be strong between them. It is one of the best songs we ever shot. We explored Golkonda in Sye and Yamadonga before. It only got bigger and better in Magadheera.

Allu Arvind: Hats off to the producer Allu Arvind. The entire production work was handled by the co-producer Bhogavally Prasad. He provided whatever we asked for. We faced no production problems at all.

Understanding with Rajamouli:
Rajamouli is constantly growing with each and every film by pushing the limits to the next level. We have great understanding and compatibility. We know each others strengths and weaknesses. We do argue sometimes, but we realise who is correct at that point of time. We complement each other.

Any chances of directing films in the future?
Directing movies has been my dream since my film institute days. film industry is actor-driven and good budgets are provided only for movies which has big stars. I want to direct a movie when I get a big star to do my film which will have universal appeal. I am currently working on the script.

I entered into wedlock with Ruhee on 25 June 2009. I met her couple of years back realised that we are made for each other. She is a yoga teacher and heads the Hyderabad division of Bharat Thakur’s Yoga classes.

Why are Pune Film Institute graduates are not making it big in Telugu film industry?
Lots of people went to Mumbai and Chennai after their graduation. I came to Hyderabad because I could stay with my parents and try for the movies. I was lucky. Most of us film graduates think that we are superior when we go to a film school. I sincerely feel that film industry existed before Pune Film Institute was started and will continue to exist.

Film institutes have given us best cinematographers like Santosh Sivan, PC Sreeram, Madhu Ambat, Binod Pradhan, Anil Mehta etc.

What are your favourite movies?
Bicycle Thief and Godfather. I am in awe of Gordon Willis (Cinematographer of Godfather). There is a saying that eye is an index of mind. He managed to hide the eyes of Marlon Brando so that we don’t know what’s playing in his mind. He puts psychology into his cinematography. He is also the first cinematographer to use Sepia tone to maximum effect.

Do you recommend any books?

1. American Cinematographers Manual.
2. Masters of Light
3. Basic Photography
4. Film Directing: Shot by Shot.

What is your dream?
My dream keeps changing from time to time. Initially it was to become cinematographer. Then it was to become the first preferred cinematographer. Now I want to be one of the best cinematographers in India. Deep down my heart I have a secret ambition. That is to become the first Indian cinematographer to win an Oscar. I know that it’s a long way to go.

What are your future projects?
I am currently doing a film titled Takita Takita that is being produced by Bharat Thakur for Down town Films

How did your parents respond to your career choice?
My father was willing to support me till I completed my post-graduation. Though he was hesitant about films as a choice he believed in me..

Finally I would like to thank my assistants for their unconditional support in all times .....

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