The iconic filmmaker Mani Ratnam, who weaves poetry on celluloid, is back. Quite appropriately, the title of his 25th film Kaatru Veliyidai, which translates into “Breezy Expanse,” has been inspired by a poem by Tamil poet Subramania Bharati. An intense love story between an Indian Air Force pilot (Karthi) and a doctor (Aditi Rao Hydari), the movie will be released on April 7.
The trailers convey a heady, romantic fusion of Ratnam’s Roja and Dil Se – the movie has been shot in the snowy mountainous landscapes of Leh and Ladakh and Kashmir – but the colour palette and lighting are distinctive and bear the stamp of gifted cinematographer Ravi Varman. Kaatru Veliyidai marks Ratnam’s first collaboration with Varman, who started his career in Malayalam cinema and earned a name for himself in the Hindi film industry with Anurag Basu’s Barfi! (2012), Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013) and Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha (2015). The 43-year-old cinematographer started out without any formal training and worked as an assistant of noted cinematographer and filmmaker Ravi K Chandran for years before taking the leap into solo projects.
Seated in a suitably low-lit study at his house in Chennai, Varman is relishing the praise pouring in from all quarters for his work in Kaatru Veliyidai. He has two other major releases in 2017 – Anurag Basu’s Jagga Jasoos and Rajkumar Hirani’s untitled biopic of Sanjay Dutt – as well as Step Up series director Duane Adler’s Heartbeats and a French-Marathi co-production. Working with Mani Ratnam has been a lifelong dream finally fulfilled, Varman told Scroll.in.
You have worked with many leading directors. What makes Mani Ratnam special?
It has been my dream. I used to hang around Madras Talkies [Mani Ratnam’s production company] hoping he would call me. Then I realised that I had to better myself and raise my quality. Every cameraman wants to work with Mani sir, because he wants unusual visuals and manages to get them into his films.
He called me three years ago after the release of Ram-Leela. I cried when he told me about this film. He told me, Ravi, you are good, don’t make me above you, I am like you. I thought to myself, how can a director, who has so many films to his name, put me on the same plane?
I took this opportunity to give my best and make it one of Mani sir’s best films as well. We discussed this film for three years. In between, he did OK Kanmani and I worked on Anurag Basu’s Jagga Jasoos.
What kind of discussions did you have about ‘Kaatru Veliyidai’?
We used to discuss cinema. He has world cinema at his fingertips. He would message me if he saw a good film, and I would do the same. He urged me to watch all kinds of films, even commercial and advertising films. I read six versions of the script. Our interactions motivated me. Now that the film is over, I am going to miss him.
He’s a great teacher. When he is working, everything should be in place. Luckily, we were in sync. For example, I cannot stay in one frame, I need to quickly move on to the next frame. He too will not stay in one frame for too long. He is a master at capturing a moment and moving on to the next.
Also, he treated me like a friend. When he praised my work, calling it fantastic and amazing, I was dumbstruck. He is a visionary who changed the face of Indian cinema. I thought he was trying to get me to work better. But I soon realised that his comments were for real.
Mani Ratnam’s movies are visual extravaganzas. What was your approach?
When I did Ram-Leela, I tried to make the frames look like paintings. I feel I have achieved this only in Kaatru Veliyidai. You can see the works of master painters like Rembrandt and Michelangelo in the frames. They are inspired by Western classical painters. Mani is also a Rembrandt fan.
The movie has an epic feel, unlike the more intimate ‘OK Kanmani’. Did the locations play their part?
I don’t want to make comparisons. But Kaatru Veliyidai is an intensive love story portrayed on an epic scale. It was difficult to maintain the big-sweep look, but I managed with my composition and lenses. We have not used sunlight, but given a foggy, cloudy and overcast wide sky look to add to the mystery.
Ladakh and Leh were new terrains for me. Usually, they are shown in greys and blues, but I opted for the brown colour that you see in deserts in winter. I went for that winter-brown feeling because brown and reds are related to love and violence.
In this movie, love, like in real life, is portrayed as violent and wild. Kaatru Veliyidai is a wild love story. I have also had a love marriage, and I can identify with the film’s interpretation of love. In all his films, love is never soft, whether it is Roja, Alaipayuthey or Dil Se.
Different colour tones are used for the wedding scene and holi sequence seen in the music videos.
Mani sir and I decided not to clash colours. We used just blue or its related green, or reds and pinks. This singular colour gives the frame a different look. Moreover, I used Rembrandt references for each frame in the wedding song, and I drew inspiration from my shoot of a Holi event in Mathura three years ago.
What is ‘Jagga Jasoos’ like? It seems like a Tintin comic strip.
It is a comic thriller, so it does have that look. I like Wes Anderson’s films, and that kind of old-world look has never been attempted in Indian cinema. I wanted to try that kind of look in India and make it relevant to our culture and skin tone.
What about Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanjay Dutt biopic?
Fifty per cent of the film is over. Sanjay Dutt’s life is an amazing one. Since it is a real story, it is completely new for me. I have gone for a stark documentary look. The challenge is to light up different time periods starting from the 1980s to the present. It is difficult to capture all the moods of each time period. It has all the flavours of life, happiness and sadness. It will be like Clockwork Orange and The Wolf of Wall Street.
You ran away from your village as a child, slept on pavements, and have not formally trained in cinematography. Is your talent instinctual?
I don’t believe in formal training. My hard life has helped me achieve. I always adopt what people shun. In Barfi!, I went for glare lighting, which people usually avoid. Cut the glare, they always say. I think just the opposite.
In Tamasha, each frame was not perfect. I went for that deliberately, since people who shoot on the streets don’t compose a frame. I go against the grain.
My great strength is my lighting. I don’t care about the lens, the camera or the type of film. I love dark spaces. There are no bright lights at home. I love sitting in the dark. But when I look through the camera, I light up spaces and use bright colours. I cannot understand it myself. I connect with a lot of my life experiences, and sometimes I connect with my dreams. I am a dreamer, and it reflects in my frames. It is instinctual.