It was her first professional credit. It had to be special – and it was. The opening titles of K Bhagyaraj’s Chinna Veedu declared in Tamil: Debutant cinematographer. Pride of womanhood. First Tamil woman.

The Limca Book of Records later widened the scope of BR Vijayalakshmi’s feat, naming her the first female cinematographer in all of Asia.

Vijayalakshmi is indeed a rarity in a filmmaking department that was and continues to be dominated by men, especially in India. Starting with Chinna Veedu in 1985, Vijayalakshmi shot over 20 Tamil films until the 1990s, including Aruvadai Naal, Therku Theru Machaan and Mall Veeti Minor.

Although no longer a cinematographer (she is a high-ranking employee at Saregama India), Vijayalakshmi has not been allowed to forget her achievements. Journalists seeking to chronicle the often-ignored contributions of women to filmmaking end up dialing Vijayalakshmi. When the Indian Women Cinematographers Collective was set up in 2015, the organisation honoured Vijayalakshmi.

This year’s Oscars, in which female nominees feature prominently in the prestigious categories of direction, writing and cinematography, is only the latest excuse to speak to Vijayalakshmi.

Much has changed in film industries across the world, but especially in India, 63-year-old Vijayalakshmi observed. “I don’t think there are that many women directors here, but there are many cinematographers, all of them busy and having done very well for themselves,” she told from Chennai.

BR Vijayalakshmi.

Unlike many of the cinematographers currently working across Indian cinema, Vijayalakshmi did not train at a film school. She learnt the hard way on the job, hauling equipment and observing her mentors.

As the daughter of BR Panthulu, the director of such classics as Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Ayarathil Oruvan and Karnan, Vijayalakshmi was familiar with the workings of the Tamil film industry. But her father’s death in 1974, when she was 16, robbed her of the chance of working with him.

Although Vijayalakshmi trained as an interior designer, by the time she was 20, she found herself on a film set. Her friend Suhasini, who had studied cinematography, was Ashok Kumar’s camera assistant. Ashok Kumar was working with some of the leading directors in Tamil and Malayalam cinema at the time.

“I was sitting at home doing nothing,” Vijayalakshmi said. “Suhasini was already assisting Ashok Kumar, so I joined the crew of Nenjathai Killathe.”

That film by Mahendran, released in 1981, marked Suhasini’s debut as an actor. Impressed with her feisty personality, Mahendran cast Suhasini in Nenjathai Killathe – the first role in what has turned out to be a long and illustrious acting career.

Vijayalakshmi continued to assist Ashok Kumar in at least 30 productions for close to five years. “Ashok Kumar was working with some of the most creative directors at the time, so I had the opportunity to witness all of that,” she said. Since Ashok Kumar was originally from Uttar Pradesh and did not know Tamil, Vijayalakshmi also acted as a translator for her boss.

BR Vijayalakshmi in the early days of her career.

The other women on the sets, in addition to the actors, were mostly choreographers, make-up artists and hair-dressers. “Although I did feel lonely at times, I wasn’t free for even a second – cinematography is a day-in-and-day-out job,” Vijayalakshmi observed.

Besides, the 1980s were a fruitful period, bursting with a variety of films and upcoming talent. “It was a good time – there were actors like Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Prabhu, Chiranjeevi and Sathyaraj and heroines like Suhasini, Revathi, Nadhiya and Rohini,” Vijayalakshmi recalled.

This was also a time when the cinematographer had the final word in terms of the screen image. “Since we worked only with celluloid, we didn’t have the video assist system where you can rewind to a shot to see if it is okay and then go for another take,” Vijayalakshmi explained. “The cinematographer had the last say, and you had to trust the person behind the camera.”

Despite all-male camera crews, including gaffers and focus pullers, Vijayalakshmi cannot recall any overt bias or mistreatment during her years as an assistant. In her telling, she was one among many professionals piling on the hours to complete projects on schedule.

“I kind of blended in – I was very thin at the time, and I would wear shirts and pants,” Vijayalakshmi said. “I looked like a boy. I felt I couldn’t complain about shooting conditions because I might be judged for being a woman. These barriers were placed by me internally.”

BR Vijayalakshmi (with the cap).

Her hard work paid off when Bhagyaraj recruited her to shoot Chinna Veedu. “These people had seen me slogging on the sets for over four-and-a-half years,” she said. “I had carried lights and mounted lenses. I had worked just like a worker, and people saw me as one of them and gave me respect.”

Bhagyaraj insisted on marking Vijayalakshmi’s professional debut with a title card: “It will matter later on, he told me.” He also gave Vijayalakshmi another important life lesson: “He told me, make sure to remember your first film, it should be a good experience. No other director has ever told me this.”

One project followed another. Vijayalakshmi’s ability to wrap up shoots on schedule made her a “producer’s cinematographer”, she said. “I also worked with a lot of first-time directors, and since I am strong on my film grammar, I was needed to guide the directors and finish the film on time,” she added.

She shot all kinds of films, from melodramas to action films. “I was an assistant on Mahendran’s Kai Kodukkum Kai [from 1984], which had Rajinikanth. I finished my work and nobody said anything, neither Mahendran sir nor Rajinikanth. I later thanked Rajinikanth and he said what for, everything has come out so well.”

It was not always smooth. Among the naysayers was a producer who didn’t think that a woman could shoot a film all by herself.

“I felt awful,” Vijayalakshmi said. “I thought of the mandolin prodigy U Srinivas. I said heck, if this guy can be considered a genius at such a young age, why can’t I shoot a film? That same producer later saw my work and praised it. He had forgotten his previous comment about me, but I remembered.”

BR Vijayalakshmi.

Some of the films shot by Vijayalakshmi are now considered to be examples of regressive and sexist storytelling. The debate about the screen representation of women is familiar to Vijayalakshmi, who later directed her own movies, including Pattu Padava (1995) and Abhi & Anu (2018), as well as television serials.

“I faced this question all the time in television,” Vijayalakshmi said. “One way of looking at it is that 90% of India is regressive. Films and television reflect life and the violence against women in society.”

Her own regrets include missing out on projects that were more creatively inclined than the commercial blockbusters that fill her resume. “All of us just wanted to be successful and do as many films as possible,” Vijayalakshmi said. “I refused some art films since I was shooting commercial films. Perhaps I could have shown my talent there better, and even got awards for them.”

Among the reasons Vijayalakshmi cut back on her assignments was the birth of her son when she was 43. “It had become difficult to go on outdoor assignments, so I thought television was a better choice,” she said. “That was the beginning of the transition. I don’t regret giving up work for my son. But yes, this is a choice that men don’t have to make. If you are passionate about any kind of art form, everything is a burden, whether marriage or children. If I have any advice for young women, it is that focus is very important.”

In 2001, Vijayalakshmi joined the music and film production company Saregama India, where she currently serves as Senior Vice President (South TV). Ever so often, she is reminded of the trail she blazed for herself and countless other women.

“The cinematographer Santosh Sivan was the one who told me that my name was in the Limca Book of Records as the first women cinematographer,” Vijayalakshmi said. “I felt okay, maybe I have done something after all. When the Indian Women Cinematographers Collective paid tribute to me, I felt like crying. It made me feel very good, like I had contributed something in this life.”

Suhasini (left) and BR Vijayalakshmi.

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Women cinematographers speak up: ‘The mainstream is hostile, diverse pool is simply not available’