He says working in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi cinema throws up fresh challenges and keeps him on his toes
A coastal village on the shores of the Arabian sea is where Ahammadali Sulaiman (Fahadh Faasil) grows up to become Malik. As the camera pans the picturesque landscape, it takes in densely packed shanties, country boats and places of worship that shape the lives of people living there. The frames eloquently paint the character’s background in Mahesh Narayanan’s Malik.
For cinematographer-filmmaker Sanu John Varghese, it was this challenge of capturing the multi-layered narrative that makes Malik special for him.
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“It is different from the stereotypical, male-centric Malayalam films that focus on the hero and his transformation over a period of time into a one-man army righting the wrongs done to him in the past. In some ways, Malik has the same thread but never once does Sulaiman turn into a muscle-flexing macho man. Moreover, the women have significant roles to play. Malik navigates through believable incidents and characters,” says Sanu.
Sanu and Mahesh began working together during the latter’s directorial debut, Take Off. “We have been friends for long, it is a symbiotic relationship. He sends me his scripts and I send him mine. We discuss cinema, stories, themes…That helps us understand and communicate what we have in mind for a scene or a character. When two people visualise on the same lines, it is easier to collaborate,” says Sanu.
Nevertheless, there were arguments about how certain scenes were to be filmed and what would keep viewers engaged till the end credits. Since Malik was mounted on a large canvas, it involved crowds and subplots. “It is tough to decide which was the most difficult shot…there were many that required planning in detail to get the effect we wanted. Framing and lighting also depend on the actor’s performance; what to include in a frame and what to leave out. Mahesh’s screenplay goes into details of each scene; he visualises as he writes or narrates. I try to write like that,” he explains.
Storyboarding scenes help while shooting, believes Sanu, an alumnus of the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram. “My training as an artist helps me in composing frames and in colour grading. I do storyboarding if a sequence is complicated. Veteran directors like Bharathan and PN Menon had also used storyboards and sketches,” he adds.
Prior to stepping into tinsel town, Sanu was working with Doordarshan when he got an opportunity to work with acclaimed cinematographer Ravi K Chandran. Although Sanu had made his entry into Mollywood in Shyamaprasad’s Elektra (2009) after his debut as an independent cinematographer in Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon! (2003), he moved on to work in Tamil, Hindi and Telugu films. Sanu says he wants to work on themes that enthuse him and doesn’t want to get stuck in a template.
“After a while, I found Malayalam cinema was boring me as I was watching the same kind of stories in mainstream cinema. I decided to try my luck in other languages, and it paid off,” he says.
Sticking to the rhythm
Sanu’s filmography has an interesting mix of big-and-small-budget films. The intervals between his films are quite long as Sanu takes his own time in choosing his projects. He believes that the challenge of shifting from big projects to small ones keep him invigorated. From the arthouse film Elektra, he shifted to Kamal Hassan’s Vishwaroopam and then to films such as David, Hasee Toh Phasee, Thoongaavanam, Wazir, Badhai Ho and Jersey, to name a few.
“I came back to Malayalam cinema only when Mahesh was making Take Off. It is not numbers that matter. Irrespective of the language, it is the story and the narrative that catch my attention. I am not constantly looking at my career in a conventional way,” he says.
Earlier this year, Sanu also made his mark as a director with Aarkkariyam, a film shot with several restrictions during the the first lockdown in 2020. Co-scripted by him, the movie starring Biju Menon, Parvathy and Sharafudheen had its share of brickbats and bouquets.
“Aarkkariyam was shot at a certain pace that I maintained all through the film. I could see the film as I wrote and it developed organically. It would not have worked in any other language. My view is that every film has a rhythm and one has to adhere to that. In many films, the tempo shifts during the second half,” he says.
According to Sanu, Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval’s Android Kunjappan Version 5.25 was another movie that stuck to a certain tempo in its narrative. “I feel that it helps filmmakers to think laterally if they are adept in different fields like music, arts, writing etc. It comes into play when one is planning a movie,” he says.
Currently working on the big-budget Telugu film Shyam Singha Roy, Sanu will be cranking the camera for Ratheesh’s new film, art director Jothish Shankar’s debut film as director, and Mahesh’s upcoming Ariyuppu.
In the meantime, he is working on a new script to direct. “Once I finish, I will know if it is worth turning into a screenplay. Otherwise, it will be junked,” he laughs.