It is perhaps hard to find a more worshipful film technician than Vetri Palanisamy, the cinematographer of the Ajith starrer Vivegam. This is not Palanisamy’s first film with the Tamil star. Before the August 10 release Vivegam, Palanisamy shot Veeram (2014) and Vedalam (2015), but his admiration for Ajith has increased multifold over the years.
“If on the first day of Veeram’s shoot, I was awestruck, those feelings have multiplied three times as much today after nearly 400 days of shooting with him,” Palanisamy told Scroll.in during an interview. “He is a rare star – humble and hard-working. His soul is untainted.”
All three films have been directed by Siva and star Ajith, although they were not planned as a series. In Veeram, Ajith plays the sacrificial older brother while in Vedhalam, he is a gangster in disguise. “But Vivegam will showcase Ajith sir in a completely different avatar,” Palanisamy said. “He is playing a spy in this film. The entire film has an international look on the lines of the James Bond and Mission: Impossible films. But at the same time, it is also a sentimental tale full of Indian values, which is Siva’s strength.”
The fan who worshipped the star is now a part of the film crew that is bolstering the star’s screen image. “The opportunity is incredible – this is Ajith sir at his peak and I get to contribute to his image quite literally,” Palanisamy said. “When we made Veeram, we didn’t know if Vedalam would be made. Vivegam was definitely not on the cards when Vedalam was made. At every point, it was Ajith sir who came to Siva and asked him to prepare the next story. And each time, we’d sit together and discuss what can be done differently both in terms of writing as well as making the film.”
Ajith was responsible for picking Siva, known for such films as Souryam (2008), Sankham (2009), Siruthai (2011) and Daruvu (2012), to be the director of Veeram. “He called Siva and said they must work together, and they developed the story of Veeram together,” Palanisamy said. The cinematographer could not believe his luck when he was asked to shoot Veeram. “Siva and I are classmates from film school and have worked as a team in many films,” Palanisamy said. “But when Siva told me that he suggested my name to Ajith sir when they were finalising the list of technicians, I didn’t know how to react. Ajith sir hadn’t even seen my work then.”
As a student of cinematography at the MGR Government Film and Television Training Institute in Chennai, Palanisamy had stood by the trees in the film city near his campus watching the shoot of Ajith’s Kadhal Kottai (1996) and Vaali (1999). Ajith was at a crucial juncture in his career at that point. Vaali would go on to change Ajith’s fortunes and spark off a slew of such blockbusters as Amarkalam (1999), Dheena (2001) and Citizen (2001). Vivegam marks 25 years of Ajith’s career.
“I didn’t think I could work with him someday,” Palanisamy said. “I thought it would involve more of a struggle to convince him to take me into his team. Now, I’m known as Ajith’s cinematographer. The reputation has earned me immense respect both within and outside the film industry.”
Palanisamy is from a village in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruppur district. His interest in studying filmmaking was sparked by R Aravindaraj’s Oomai Vizhigal (1986). “I learnt that the film was adapted from a short film called Murder Echo made by college students,” he said. “That’s when I realised that this was a discipline that could be studied. I found out that there is a film institute in Chennai too.” Cinematography became his major at college because unlike the direction course, which required an undergraduate degree, a 12th standard graduate was adequate for the technical courses.
“I love cinema and particularly enjoy the steady diet of commercial blockbusters, the action films and the comedies that I’ve been fed right from a young age,” he said. “Film school introduced me to films I had never watched before – classics from world cinema and Indian parallel cinema. But my heart was always in the commercial entertainers that cater to the masses and have that larger-than-life feel to them. I knew once I graduate I would want to be a part of those films.”
Palanisamy went onto to craft a slow but steady career in mainstream Tamil and Telugu cinema. He briefly worked as an assistant to Saravanan, who was the cinematographer for the blockbusters Sooryavamsham and Poove Unakkaga. “Souryam, directed by Siva in Telugu, was my first hit,” said Palanisamy. “Then I worked in such films as Masilamani, Sankham and Kanchana 2 but the real big break has to be Veeram.”
If Veeram was set against a rural backdrop and Vedalam had an urban setting, Vivegam concerns all of India. “These are all Ajith sir’s ideas – it was his idea to do an international spy thriller film,” Palanisamy said. Usually, Siva comes up with a one-line story idea that Ajith helps builds upon.
Vivegam was shot in Bulgaria and Serbia (Ajith’s films are usually shot outside Chennai because crowd management is difficult). “We had intense discussions about the look of the film, we wanted it to match the production standards of a Hollywood film,” Palanisamy said. “We shot in three countries with crews coming to assist us in each country.”
In productions featuring A-listers, every frame, prop and lighting reference has to be carefully planned in order to boost the actor’s appeal. “Fans of Ajith expect a grand and a different entry scene from him in every film of his, and we have to plan that,” Palanisamy said. “The scene may sound simple on the page, but when a star is playing the role, it needs to be elevated on the screen. In one scene in Veeram, we deliberately shot using a wide lens to show him larger than life. We kept the wide lens close to him so that he appeared huge on the screen. Expectedly, these scenes garnered a huge response from fans.”
Palanisamy lets the script guide his stylistic decisions. “For Veeram, I looked at other films shot in a village backdrop, Thevar Magan, for instance,” he said. “I look at the props, costumes and the kind of lighting in these films. And now that I have seen them, I try to see what I can do differently in our film. With Veeram, even with a rural setting, we wanted a stylish look. We shot near Rajahmundry in Orissa and Satara in Maharashtra to give a non-Tamil and hence fresh village look.”
With Vedalam, which is set in Kolkata, he looked at such films as Yuva, Parineeta and Kahani, only to decide the locations he shouldn’t use. “What I experimented with in Vedalam is contrast lighting,” Palanisamy said. “In one of the crucial fight sequences on a yacht, I deliberately used in-built lights instead of external lights. For a song set in North Chennai, we bombarded the frame with lights in the backdrop. We used 20 mirrors, reflected sunlight off them onto [Ajith] sir’s face and matched the movement of the mirrors to the beats of the song. A grand look of an actor is because of the cinematographer’s efforts. And for stars, this look has to get grander and more different with each film. That’s what fans will want.”
Palanisamy has spent so much time with Ajith now that he can hazard a few guesses about the reclusive icon’s personality. “He is just a really nice human being – in fact, he is as much a hero off-screen,” Palanisamy said. “He will arrive early for the shoot and greet everyone right from the spot boys to the associate directors. He will eat lunch with the team. On outdoor shoots, he will stay until the entire team has finished shooting, even if his scenes are done.”
Ajith also insists on doing his stunts himself. “He says his conscience does not approve otherwise,” Palanisamy stated. “Now, a star like him doesn’t need to impress anyone anymore. But he doesn’t think so. He once told us that he has worked really hard to get to where he is. He has to work harder to remain there and even harder to go higher.”
The actor’s credo about box office success forms a part of his persona: “Ajith’s philosophy is, let everyone’s film have a good run. But let ours run for one day more than the others.”