Venu ISC – The Poet of Light

Faisal Saleem

“Cinema is a collaborative art, each and every person has their own role to play so has the cinematographer” – Venu ISC

Venu
ISC, born to a middle class family in Trivandrum when the first ever
democratically elected communist ministry was formed in Kerala, during the late
1950’s.  His grandfather Sri Karoor
Neelakanda Pillai, is one of the well known writer in Malayalam literature and a
Sahitya Academy Award laureate. Karoor and Vaikom Muhammad Basheer are considered to be the pre-eminent storytellers
in Malayalam
literature
. His
Mother B. Saraswati is also a writer in Malayalam literature. But according to
him he was never in to writing or any creative activities till the time he
enrolled in FTII Pune. “I was confused after my college, was not sure that I
will get admission in film institute, that changed everything for me” Venu said
in an interview.

The film culture of Kerala is rooted in the film society
movements. Before that the KPAC, Kerala People’s Arts Club movement (theatrical
movement) and social and political renaissance of Kerala formed the cultural
realm of Kerala. Venu’s generation was the first beneficiaries of all these
movements, later by doing the cinematography for John Abraham’s magnum opus ‘Amma Ariyan’ which is considered as one
of the best movies made about emergency and a great piece of cinematic art, He
paid back. It may be a poetical justice of the history.

The craft of John and visuals of Venu made ‘Amma Ariyan’ a milestone in the
Malayalam film history. Amma Ariyan
was an experimental film and paved the road for avant-garde film movement in
Malayalam. Venu and John followed a documentary style in shooting of Amma Ariyan. They interviewed actual
people and politicians. The film portrays journey of ‘Hari’ (the protagonist) so
the camera follows him throughout. There was lots of hand held shots, different
angles and all neo methods of avant-garde were used in Amma Ariyan.  According to
Venu “John
can’t just be called a film director; I mean he is not like that. He himself
had very clearly said, “I don’t need to make film… I am the film.” My only
regret about Amma Ariyan  is that we had the choice of shooting in
16mm colour and 35mm black & white. The 16mm camera available was a 16 BL
which I thought would be not work with all the handheld work. So I thought I
will use the 35mm… I mean it could have been impossible that I could have been
able to take shots like the ones I took, definitely not, Arri IIC is beautifully
nice. For handheld work it’s fantastic, really nice – what is it called –
ergonomics? It’s foolproof in that you can use one hand… no problem. So finally
we had all this talk and John said ok we will do it in black and white, and
after that we went to KSFDC and he signed all those things and he said “You know
it was my dream to make a colour film…” So that I regret. But now Amma Ariyan  is unthinkable in color, The shooting process did not have any limitations. To me
it was a good production. May be it had some limitations when you really think
about it, but I never thought that may be if could have a crane I could take a
better shot, No way. You know we had a whole unit of stuff, we had lights, we
had everything, but they were all lying and we never used them.” There is no
wonder that he grabbed his first National Award for Best Cinematographer at the
34th National Awards in 1987 for Amma
Ariyan
. The award committee cited his work on Amma Ariyan as “For his powerful and disturbing black and white
photography”.

After
graduating from film and television institute of India Pune, he started
assisting cinematographers like Shaji N Karun. His first film was of  M. P. Sukumaran Nair’s “Bhavi”. It was a one-hour film, and not a feature film. They shot
it on 16mm. The first feature film Venu did as an independent cameraman was,
Lenin Rajendran’s ‘Prem Nasirine
Kaananilla’
a political satire. His first major work was happened with Mani
Kaul. Mani Kaul’s ‘Mati Manas’ a
docu-drama about the art of pottery, the film poetically observes the ancient
art of pottery and its deep cultural significance. It was the real learning on
film making for him; In an Interview Venu remembered working with Mani Kaul as
“Till Mani’s film I realized was till then, like most people, thinking that
cinematography meant lighting. After doing Mani’s film I realized that lighting
is just a part of it and there are a lot of other factors to it. I think one
major mistake is, I don’t know about other film schools but I can say about my
experience, that about 90% emphasis was on light which is quite wrong because I
think a lot of things have to click and jell or else your lighting has no
value. So you have to learn to look at other factors like lensing, choreography
or what one calls framing…When I was a student I always thought of a frame as
one where you have a tree on your left and a face on your right. Well, I didn’t
know what the difference between still photography and static cinematography
was. I think if you look at a cinematographer’s job, lighting is not an
unimportant part. It’s a major part but it’s only one portion and it’s has to
be assimilated with lots of other things. I didn’t know lensing existed before
I did Mani’s film ‘Mati Manas’. I
thought before that lensing was used for image magnification or reduction. Now
these things are difficult to explain but I think I know it’s important. I
don’t know the right word but there is something called ‘dynamism’ of lenses. I
am very bad at expressing theory!”

During
his career as a cinematographer he did more than 75 films in various languages
including, Malayalam, Bengali, Marathi, English, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. He
won three National Film Awards and three Kerala State Film Awards for Best Cinematography.
He is one of the leading cinematographer of the country and he worked with
eminent film personalities of the country like, Mani Kaul, MT Vasudevan Nair,
Bharatan, Padmarajan, Bhuddadeb Dasgupta, Aravindan and Pamela Rooks.

            His association with Padmarajan was
not just a director-cinematographer relation, they are good friends and that
friendship resulted in their movies. Padmarajan’s almost all movie’s camera was
done  by Venu. Venu’s first national
award in 1987 was for his two movies one was Amma Ariyan and the second was Padmarajan’s ‘Namukk Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal’. The award jury commented his
work on Namukk Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal
as, “For the lyrical and brilliant visual presentation”.  The film became a cult in Malayalam film
history and Venu’s visuals were appreciated among cinephiles in Malayalam. In
an interview he talked about his association with Padmarajan as, “I think Padmarajan
is one of the most underestimated filmmakers we have. I personally believe that
his films are far, far better than the so-called better films”. Last film of
Padmarajan ‘Njan Ghandarvan’ was a fantasy
genre movie treated in a magical realism way. Venu as a great admirer of Latin
American writer Gabriel Garcia Marques, got to do a fantasy genre film with
Padmarajan was a great combination. The famous ‘Butterfly shots’ in this film
was achieved without any special effects and Venu talks about this scene as
“There was this fantastic guy who could do these things and I just had to shoot
it…So to make it like a little less obvious, I had used diffusion on the lens
and smoke and all that, and I lit it accordingly. There must have been a 100 strings
around… And even the fireflies, they were all LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes).
There was not a single shot that was optically done in the lab…That is one film
I regret actually for its failure.”

            Venu grabbed his second silver
lotus, National Film Award for his work in Pamela Rooks’s ‘Miss Beatty’s Children’, the film and Venu’s work were critically
acclaimed. The story of the film sets in a 1936 South Indian village. To get
that period in camera he used lighting and color palette accordingly. He didn’t
use the mix lighting instead use tungsten lights more. The national award
committee cited his work for ‘Miss
Beatty’s Children’
as “For his masterly, unobstrusive and technically
excellent camera work.”

            Venu’s third national award for
best cinematography happened in 1994 at the 41st national film
awards, through T V Chandran’s ‘Ponthan
Mada’
which is the only Malayalam film in which Nasirudheen Shah acted. Ponthan Mada set in the British era of a
Kerala village, where a Dalit worker and a British man become friends. This is
one of the rare films that portray the life of a Dalit in Malayalam Cinema.
Venu’s brilliant frames in the movie acclaimed in various stages and National
film award jury cited his work on Ponthanmada as, “For the masterly use of
camera, in order to capture the feel of the background, setting, atmosphere of
the subject and making use of striking visuals to communicate the theme.”

           What is good a cinematographic work?
In an interview Venu answered this question as, “Good Work! It would be good
concepts in scripting and filming… only that will work. Nothing else!
Cinematographers have no chance without it.” He takes the same question in
another interview and adds, “…not just beautiful frame can be considered as good
cinematography work, whatever the film demands giving that mood, color, and
frames is a good cinematographic work”. He adds, “…you can’t do brilliant
cinematography in a not brilliant or bad movie, there will be no sync.”

Venu
belongs to the pre-digital era of cinematography he learned and worked
extensively on celluloid camera, he prefers cameras of ARRI, stock of EASTMAN
and Prasad lab for processing. He uses filters like, ‘Polariser’ and ‘SFX’.
Later after the dominance of digital cameras in the industry he turned to the
digital as well, his last movie ‘Carbon’ was shot on ARRI Alexa and ARRI Alexa
Mini. He uses other equipment like, steady cam etc. if the mood of the film
demands. According to Venu, “Steadicam is a very nice piece of equipment but it
is only a piece of equipment.” He
doesn’t believe in the ‘Post-Gimmicks’ like CG or special effects, he wants to
physically shoot whatever the script demands.

Venu
was one of the founding members of ISC, Indian
Society of Cinematographers, the first ever union of cinematographers in India.
According to the official website of ISC, “Indian Society of
Cinematographers is a creative congregation of similar minds to foster the art
of cinematography and to struggle for the authorship rights of
cinematographers. We are a creative collaboration, fostering the artistic
discoveries of each members and the whole group as one entity. We at ISC believe that cinema will
be the prime cultural force in the next millennium, unifying the world. Yes,
“Cinema is love 24 per second”. We also want you to be aware of the
new philosophy of ‘Imagology’. It will be IMAGES that which is going to shape
our civilization of tomorrow.”

            Venu’s first directorial debut was M
T Vasudevan Nair written, ‘Daya’ in
1998 he himself shoot the film. He grabbed the Best Debutant Director award in
Kerala state film awards. His second Directorial venture happened after 16
years in 2014 ‘Munnariyipp’ which was
critically and commercially successful. His latest movie Carbon released this year(2018), cinematographer K U Mohanan did
the camera for ‘Carbon’. Carbon is fantasy adventure movie.

Venu
married to famous Indian film editor Beena Paul and he settled in Trivandrum,
Kerala. His filmography is very rich and wide like the number of films he did
and he worked with many legends in Indian film history. His works and
recognition as a cinematographer is a great chapter in Indian motion picture
history.

He
is a legend, He is truly a poet of light..!

References

ISC – http://www.iscindia.in/about.php 

Faisal is the editor, film, of thecompass.in