“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”.

Mati Manas (1985)

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!”

Namukk Parkkan Munithiri Thoppukal (1986)

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.

Amma Ariyan (1986)

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.”

Ponthanmada (1994)

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.”

Carbon (2018)

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..!


  • Venu and Jhon Abraham on one of the location of ‘Amma Ariyan


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