K U Mohanan ISC; a cinematographer of big choices

Nabina Chakraborty 


“In Isolation, cinematography can look ugly”.

Payyanur- a small Kerala town in Kannur district, which is famous for its folk art form is the place from where K.U.Mohanan hails. He is one of the leading cinematographers in Bollywood today. He is a member of the Indian Society of Cinematographers. K.U Mohanan was born to a singer father who sang the local folk songs of ‘Kolkali’. The temple art form and culture of Theyyam of Payyanur helped him in developing his interest towards art. In one interview given to manoramaonline he said, “When I was a child I would sit for hours when the facial painting of the Theyyam’s would happen. It fascinated me the most.” In his childhood days he was interested in drama. In one of his interviews, he said that initially he used to watch the Malayalam films or Tamil and Telugu dubbed films in the local cinema halls. He visited the Payyanur Swarga Film Society during 1978-80, which was run by P.T. Ramakrishnan and K. Ramachandran.

This was a major force which developed his interest in world cinema. Eventually his taste of cinema developed. After finishing his college in Payyanur and getting a degree in English Literature, he was sure he didn’t want to give the regular bank exams. His exposure to the world of cinema, made him think that he wanted to do something related to this field. As there was no scope to understand what he wanted to do, he asked everyone he could. As his parents were separated and there was financial constraints, he couldn’t think of joining any film institute. When a friend suggested that he should try to give the exam of Film and Television Institute of India, he was clueless about what was to be done. He had extensively shot the ‘Arakal’ of Theyyams in the temples with a camera gifted by a friend as hobby. His photographs came to his rescue and paved way for him in FTII.

In an interview he said that only after joining Film institute he understood that the news reel documentaries shown before the films screening are not the only type of documentaries. As he had got interested in documentary films, after graduating from the film institute he did camera for documentary films. His work came to recognition when he did the camera for Mani Kaul’s ‘Naukar ki Kameez’ in 1999. Before that he did the camera for Dilip Ghosh’s documentary Feature film ‘Aadhi Haqeeqat, Aadha Fasana’ in 1990, which got the National Film Award for Non Feature film that year. He also worked as additional cinematographer in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ in 1999.

As he was not interested in working for commercial cinema or advertisements, he didn’t venture into it for almost 12-13 years of his career. It was only in 2000s because of financial constraints that he had to take up commercial work. He started taking up advertisements and commercial work. He shot many memorable advertisements for leading brands like Idea, Kotak Bank, HSBC bank, etc. He has shot around 5000s advertisements for different brands. By 2006 he was one of the leading camerapersons in Mumbai for advertisements. Around that he also worked as DoP in films like Freaky Chakra, Samay: When Times Strikes, etc.
Farhan Akhtar saw his work in commercials and approached him to do the camera for Don(2006). Don(2006) is an action thriller wherein Shah Rukh Khan plays the character of Don. In an interview given to manoramaonline he has explained how he approached the film and shot it, “ …in Don, to make it look different from other films, we planned a visual style. We decided the colour palette and decided which colours to avoid. Then, the production designer, costume designer and the cinematographer everyone worked towards to achieve it. In the car chase scene, I was on the edge of the car that was running at the speed of 160-170 km per hour carrying the camera. That scene was shot in real speed and that is the reason the audience gets the feel of it. I did not want more use of special effects for it.”

In the next few years he shot Bollywood films like Aaja Nachle and We are Family. He has also shot films named Y Not?, Rooms of Shadow and Light, The Magnificent Ruin, Agnivarsha: The fire and the Rain and Majuben Truck Driver. In 2012 he did the camera for Ashim Ahluwalia’s ‘Miss Lovely’. He had worked with Ashim Ahluwalia in his earlier documentary film ‘John and Jane’, a film on the youth who work in the call centre. The FirstPost writes about ‘John and Jane’, “…Mohanan’s camerawork brought a sense of intense empathy with the characters. Often, the camera zoomed in, bringing the viewer so close to the subject that you could almost feel their eyelashes as they blinked and their breath when they weren’t speaking.” Miss Lovely is a film on the C grade porn-horror industry. The film’s style was appreciated by the audience as well as the critics. It was shot on Super 16 and 35mm film. The First post writes about Miss Lovely, “Mohanan takes the luridness of this genre, the unpleasantly saturated quality of the colours painting the actors and the sets, and uses them to striking effect in Miss Lovely. Mohanan’s cinematography is as much of a storyteller, speaking through colours and angles rather than words, as the script and the narrator.” This film received two National film Awards that year. Mohanan also did the cinematography for Shivendra Dungarpur’s Celluloid Man, based on the life of Indian archivist and founder of NFAI P.K.Nair. This film has also won the National award. This film was also shot on 16mm film and was later converted to 35mm.

K.U .Mohanan has done the cinematography for Reema Kagti’s Talaash: The Answer Lies Within. Talaash: The Answer Lies Within is the story of a police inspector who gets involved in solving a murder case of an actor. The film is a psychological horror film with many scenes in the brothels. In an interview to the Pandolin, he spoke on the various techniques that they used while shooting the film. While talking about the style of Talaash he mentioned “ …we decided to play with darkness. But we stopped short of going intensely film noir.” He said that for Talaash they shot entirely on the real locations and not in the studio. He shot Talaash on Arricam film camera with Kodak 500 for night shots and Kodak 250 for daylight shots.

In 2017, Rahul Dholakia released his film Raees, which was shot by K.U.Mohanan. Raees is set in Ahmedabad where Raees played by Shah Rukh Khan does smuggling of liquor in the dry state of Gujarat. In an interview to the Pandolin and speaking about filming of Raees he said, “My approach to the film is cinematic realism.” For Raees through the recce they realized that they wanted colder colours like blue and green. Thus, the set was made accordingly. He shot this film on ARRI Alexa and Cooke Lens with it. While talking about the lighting of the film, he said in another interview to The Scroll that “…we used a lot of coloured lights, but we haven’t used intelligent lights [automated, moving lights that can create multiple effects]. In the song Laila Main Laila, we have used glitter balls, for instance, and the location is meant to resemble a run-down bar.”

His most recent filmography includes Malayalam film directed by Venu ‘Carbon’. His camera work in that film was much appreciated. The web portal ‘The News Minute’ writes about him as “Mohanan’s camera gives is an immersive experience of the jungle, sometimes taking our breath away with its beauty and sometimes striking fear in our hearts. The story is mostly shown rather than told. This is shown through a scene in particular where a forest squirrel munches on fruits as the hungry protagonist watches it in frustration and part-fascination. There is no dialogue but you feel taunted…” Another film in Malayalam that he has shot is Blessy’s Aadujeevitham.

His latest work with Shah Rukh Khan was Imtiaz Ali’s ‘Jab Harry Met Sejal’. This was a new genre for him as he had never shot a Romantic Comedy before. Therefore, Jab Harry Met Sejal for him was a new experience. In an interview to the Pandolin he revealed that he shot this film almost as if he was shooting a documentary. He said that he tried to make it as real as possible. He said, “ …the whole process was organic. I never went into the zone of being over dramatic or very cinema like in terms of cinematography for this film.” His most recent work was SriRam Raghavan’s Andhadhun, which is a thriller. As the protagonist is supposed to be blind in the film, the camera skillfully shows the audience what they should know for the narrative of the film.

His passion for films has brought him to where he is today. He considers Subrata Mitra , who shot most of Satyajit Ray’s films as his inspiration. He also loves the works of VK Murthy (Guru Dutt films), KK Mahajan, Sven Nykvist Sean Martin (Andrei Tarkovsky films), Gunnar Fischer (Ingmar Bergman films), Vittorio Storaro and Christopher Doyle. Though he does commercial work, but every now and then he goes back to shooting documentary films which were his first love. Like most film veterans, for him also film making is a collaborative art form. According to him, cinematography is much more than just producing pretty images. Cinematography, according to him, should help in the story telling. He believes that good cinematography comes from observation of life around and watching films. Though he has yet not won any awards for his work, but he is surely one of the most sought Cinematographers in India.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K._U._Mohanan
2. http://www.wica.in/the-city-of-venice-2/
3. https://www.firstpost.com/entertainment/ku-mohanan-and-the-lurid-world-of-miss-lovely-1343437.html
4. https://www.deccanchronicle.com/entertainment/bollywood/110217/the-man-shah-rukh-called-a-genius.html
5. http://muralipayyannur.blogspot.com/2013/02/k-u-mohanan.html
6. https://pandolin.com/approached-jab-harry-met-sejal-like-documentary-k-u-mohanan/
7. https://www.deccanchronicle.com/entertainment/bollywood/110217/the-man-shah-rukh-called-a-genius.html
8. https://pandolin.com/ku-mohanan-gives-tips-on-shooting-low-budget-films/
9. https://scroll.in/reel/826163/raees-is-full-on-commercial-cinema-but-it-is-also-artistic-says-its-cinematographer
10. http://fullpicture.in/interview-detail/112/in-isolation-cinem.html

(Nabina is an editor in the thecompass.in and currently pursuing her MA in Mass Communication from AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)