In conversation : Cinematographer Karthik Raja

Aug 30 2020

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Karthik Raja is one of the important cinemtaographers of  Tamil Cinema who graduated from Adyar Film Institute and made a mark, his cinematography was most appreciated for blockbuster film ‘chinna Kaunder’

He has rich  30 year experience in film Industry  from 1980-2020  done 45 films.

He shares his journey with SICA.

About your early days of your life

I was born and brought up at Chinnalapatti  a village  as a school student  i was good at my studies, a stage was set to join PUC my relatives wanted me to pursue MBBS after my PUC to college, but i was not really inclined to go for MBBS, that was the period i was started watching some good movies from Tamil, and at our place we had a theatre exclusively screening some classic blockbuster English films.

But my father wanted me to study any professional course, that time through some of his friends he came to know there is a good prospects for Film Education, where Television Industry is the future it will get some good government jobs.

Father guidance i choose cinematography course at Adyar film institute attended interview during 1977-78 and got selected, to be frank i dont know anything about cinematography or Basics of  Photography.

 Interesting then what happened at film Institute

My batch mates i can name G.P.Krishnan, M.M.Rangasamy, Sundarajan…our immediate senior was P.C.Sreeram, Sallu George and  Final year  Kichaas, name few..initially i was into studies of still photography, processing image, darkroom techniques which was very new for me…but i keenly observed my seniors activities and  watching world class films at Institute was turning point  in my creative was entirely different from the Hollywood movies  saw earlier ,each year i can say we watched atleast 100 films.

At hostel my roommate was final year student Kichaas who really used to  explain me each and every technical aspects of cinematography which was difficult for me to understand…but after second year watching film shooting where i used to participate made to chain the learning process of film making.

During my study period a huge trend happened in Tamil Cinema with the name called Bharathi Raja with his film 16 vayathiline, which was later screened at our institute,  i was able to see the nuances of village life i came across.. the film depiction of rural life that helped me to translate to other state students in our institute.

A  dream like opportunity knocked my way that i got an chance to meet Bharathi Raja sir through our relative, he was so positive and he said will help me after my film studies to get into film industry.

One day i received a call at my hostel voice was Bharathi Raja sir asked me to meet the day next at Maris hotel for a film shoot where he is going to  do a film with new cinematographer.

Maris hotel i was introduced to Kannan sir who is going to do a film in Telugu version of  Puthiya   vaarpukal. Kannan sir was so warm and simple he immediately choose me to work as assistant  cameraman, he was the same person who always a helping hand until his death.

I was assisting kannan sir for twenty days shoot and  i have to appear for my final year exam. During examination i could easily find so much difference in my thought process after attending the film shoot.

How was the shooting experience first time with B.Kannan  We had a very friendly team mates like Asok rajan, Heroine of the film  Kotha Jeevithalu was Suhasini who was my institute junior. But there was anxiety moments at the beginning how Kannan sir would fit in to Bharathi Raja sir after Nivas exit.

Kannan sir was so quick, adaptable, more creative to understand Bharathi Raja sir by just looking into his face.

Can you tell us about Bharathiraja approach towards film making

He is so great in story telling through visuals and has very strong sense of how to manipulate the shots with the art of editing. Once we get into the location early morning whole crew have to be energetic to perform under his captainship.

Bharathi Raja sir is capable of developing a new form to the story already into his mind according to the climate and location beauty, it is a treat to watch him perform that will inspire any person to act. During shoot he was so confident for the dare devil approach to use common people who never saw a camera.

Can you share us  what happened after film Institute days?

I started to work with Kannan sir debut film in Tamil ‘Nizhalgal’ which was a landmark cinema in many ways, but still we did not have elaborate plans to shoot the movie, with some basic idea about the story B.Kannan created beautiful visuals very spontaneously, if you watch closely there was a signature style lighting for each episode for the film, twilight of chennai, coovam river all are memorable one.

Alaigal Oyvathilai is very important film in my initial days of film career.. before becoming a cinematographer. A path breaking love story  B.Kannan used  lengthy trolley movements than usual,( double length trolley  would be 60 feet legth )hand held shots, bringing different visual pattern for Hero house interiors and Heroine house also visually marking cultural differences.

Tik tik tik was entirely different approach from Kannan sir he choose to use pastel colors, soft bounced lighting a thriller made very stylishly.

I should also mention Kaidiyin Diary where the protagonist Kamal  plays dual role but Director Bharathi Raja sir and Kannan sir did magic by carefully orchestrating scenes without using any masks.

Manvaasanai film was turning point in my life in cinema, film visual approach was really daring for that time where most of the sequences was shot in ambient light, Kannan sir was so confident about exposure, his trademark zoom operation was very effective in this film. During Manvaasanai shoot Kannan sir was not able to shoot for two days..Me and Asok Rajan together filmed some sequences which was very impressive to the producer Chitralaxmanan, after viewing rushes he promised us to offer a film under his banner.

Your first film as cinematographer

As promised Chitralaxmanan offered me and  Asok Rajan a film we accepted the offer and worked as cameraman duo as Karthik-Ashok  in  Ambikai Neril Vanthaal'(1984) Directed by ace director Manivannan. though film had good story and cinematography didnt farewell at boxoffice…then Asok started to try films on his own way and i got few films that did not see light for theatrical release..that was the stage i my life i was struck in middle again Kannan sir came  to my rescue to work with him until we get a right break.

 What was B.Kannan specialty in approach

He was completely directors cinematographer never complicates in any of creative decisions, tries to follow by intuition and also apply his vast technical knowledge to overcome the challenges that comes at shooting process.

After shooting every day  we all used  to sit together for dinner, Kannan sir used to have open conversation recollecting what happened on that day…we used to discuss about performance of artists, scenes, about cinematography in a critical view, also about things that can be improved, Kannan sir wisdom of words during this time will be more like a friend, philosopher and a leader who is more caring about complete project and his subordinates.

Can you tell when you got major break through as cinematographer.

Editor B.lenin  directorial venture named ‘Solla thudikuthu Manasu’ Kannan sir was not able to continuously shoot the film as he had to work with Bharathi Raja i had opportunity to shoot for the film, during that shoot   Ilayaraja Sir P.A         Soundar sir observed my style of  operating camera, lighting and also my skill as a team person.

One day he called me to say he recommended to a film maker R.V.Udayakumar  who was my film institute Junior. After meeting personally the film happened was ‘Chinna Kaunder’.

Chinna Kaunder a huge box office hit film – what are the elements happened Behind the scenes?

Chinna Kaunder  had a very good writer R.selvaraj, Ilayaraja musical, Vijayakanth starrer and R.V.Udhyakumar  gaining momentum with each of his film. It was really a huge challenge for me.

After story discussion few thoughts flashed to my mind was this film has very a good storyline also blended with mass appeal  so i thought giving a realistic edge to the visuals will be the best approach for that i decided to shoot most of the film in ambient available light, and more important is to create a depth through lens like a naked eye sees.

Pre production stage i took care to select a very good location that should enhance the screenplay of the film. Near pollachi Aliyar dam 15 to 20kms radius around we started to explore locations, me and director was sure to find some virgin locations which was not familier, we tirelessly travelled and travelled to get streets, empty fields, roads, mountain edges, river streams after getting right places finally have to complete recce  remaining two houses one for the villain and other for the hero. I wanted to house to be like a palace but still remain simple..this was much complicated and location managers not able to cope up…atlast through a local person we came to know that a house is near udumalpet that has Zamindar house which is big and also with simple architecture.

Location selection process was over with ultimate satisfaction and shooting begun i used Arri III camera and had a good grips and lighting setup.

I shot with Single Kodak daylight stock throughout the film, though i decided it for creative reasons for a uniform look, that was the time getting filmstock was difficult it was given thro rationing.

When we are into shooting kerala monsoon arrived, so most of the time the light was cloudy and i was shooting with natural diffused light without use of any artificial lights…Vijayakanth at the beginning advised me to shoot slowly with  good sunshine, but i was so confident that muted light will enhance the film and had clarity not to use backlight during outdoors so sunshine did not matter me.

After few days of shoot photos album arrived printed at Chennai, whole crew was very happy to see the frames had stunning pictorial elements with minimal use of light.

There were some challenges of monsoon mayhem, there was a big panchayat sequences with many artists and nearly 400 junior actors, every day shooting got cancelled due to downpour of rain, nearly four days gone at outdoor without a shoot tension was building up as combination artist date getting struck.

so on fifth day still there was rain i decided to shoot the scene, Director was quick to respond my call to start with closeups, then move on to medium shot slowly as hours progressed rain stopped and we got some sunshine, we completed the big sequence in one full day which was planned for three days.

Visual pattern wise i went for deeper backgrounds even in outdoor as the film costumes has more whites into play.

Each song was picturized in a unique way, stunt sequences also we tried in a novel method to mix match way of using wide steady blocks to close hand held moves to  some surprising tele composition all juxtaposed in editing.

Film got huge critical acclaim as well as box office performance, my cinematography had special mention in all the reviews

As a cinematographer i am happy that i brought visual grandeur also emotional story through 35mm Square format.


What next – Yejamaan  ?

After success of  China Kaunder  Director RV.Udhayakumar called me to inform that  a film with Rajini Kanth and AVM production is going to happen  base again a rural theme.

Yejamaan was my first cinemascope format film which had a grandeur element into the story with Rajinikanth as a lead.

During preproduction process a decision was taken to shoot the film completely outside Tamilnadu as the movie had many outdoor scenes which would be impossible to shoot Rajini.

So we decided to shoot the film at Rajamundhry in and around location which had huge river beds,some stunning locations with very bright Sunshine. Again we have to zero in a grand palace like house for hero story happenings.

With AVM  Saravanan sir influence we got a beautiful palace like house with lots of conditions, not to rig lights at house top roof, walls should not be punctured with nails.

Challenge for me the wall painting had reflective shining so i cant place  lights on the floor. Then i got an idea to use photoflood bulbs for the background which is a warm source…i got special permission to hang bulbs on the top of the roof.

Fore ground i went for neutral tone….so  without any intentional way got a mixed source lighting that gave  Yejamaan visual a edge.

Another important task for me is to compose wide frames with many junior actors in the background yet Rajinikanth should get prominence.

So i used tele lens for wider shots so that images has bold look, songs also picturized with fluid movements.

You had been flooded with offers after Yejamaan success, how you  selected your projects.

After Yejamaan i was very busy shooting many projects nearly went on to do  40 films that includes  Dharani’s Ethirum Puthirum, KR’s Vanja Girija, K.Bhagyaraj ‘s Oru Oorla Rajakumari.

Shooting Yethirum Puthirum was quiet different experience, movie loosely based on Veerapan life incidents…it works as  a thriller with some sentimental tones. Again i  have to deliver a realistic look Jungles as backdrop…here i decided to shoot more like a hollywood film use lights, grips extensively still give a realistic appeal with stylish edge. Mamooty mega star with Napolean a good friend of me .Director Dharani used to observe my work closely…he used to give tips of recollecting my lighting pattern that i had used earlier…that made things so easier for me.

Oru Oorla Rajakumari was another  surprising project as i  thought   K.Bhagyaraj  would offer me a village subject it was entirely different theme which had  a huge canvas with a melodramatic story.

Here also location played a key role to the film…with lots of searching points across the country we choose to shoot at Mysore palace. I used very minimal resource of lights to lit the palace and brought grandeur of the location it had wide night exteriors also.

Vaanavil  was a surprise hit at that point of it happened  for you to step in?

Director Manojkumar  came up with a peculiar story  which hooked me  the name of the film was  “VANAVIL”. After completing mudhalvan Arjun  planned to act in this movie. Abirami  And Prakashraj  a good starcast  and before making of the film   we had extensive discussions with various IPS officers for the authentic value and also added cinematic touch overall.

Movie has various moods that i have to connect visually… film has family emotional connect, city life , some portions at Mussoorie ,Ooty , Jail sequences and at Tajmahal.

So tried to bring variety of  visual look through Lighting pattern which was subtly different.

Your step into Digital Film Making  

Suddenly there was a sweep into digital film making…there was no clear definition in workflow as we have today. But as a cinematographer i did not panic instead i thought it was another medium, experience and a new learning.

During 2010 I had  done a movie “THUNAI MUDHALVAN” with BAKYARAJ . The movie was shot on Red Epic. I researched a lot took some time did some tests, initially i figured out the key difference between film and Digital, then went on to explore the possibilities and advantages Digital platform has.

I Had good experience on both digital and film.

Both has some negative and positive things. I had learnt the contrast difference, HIGHLIGHT AND SHADOW difference and as  i have strong background on film without depending on “DI” post work  that i continued in Digital film making also.

I don’t like the word ‘Let us fix in the Post’!

Your entry into SICA governing body

It was a surprise for me again  it was Kannan sir who made me to contest SICA Elections to bring reform became a executive member , B.Kannan   as Gen secretary and PC Sreeram as President. I was active and had  participation in all welfare activities at  SICA. Under strong leadership and regular executive committee  meeting many were discussed and  as a result we had done lot of workshops to know about upcoming digital technology for  Cinematographers, brought   high quality website where many technical updates are done it was  achieved with contribution by  C.J.Rajkumar

After 2 years again we won the election and currently I am the vice president at SICA.

You had been very active at SICA now during pandemic Covid times

After sudden demise of  Kannan sir who was very active during initial days of  Covid, now we as a team have huge responsibility to take care of our members welfare during testing times.

As a Vice President I interacted with members in SICA. What are the thing should be implemented and  to be done. In COVID 19 we distributed essential materials we received from FEFSI  to almost 90 percent of our members.

At SICA all of us as a team doing our best…few members who tested positive for Covid was given right guidance by SICA  for getting proper treatment.

Drafted by :CJ Rajkumar