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In a relatively short period after his graduation from the Film and Television Institute of India in 1994, Santosh Thundiyil has done a wide variety of films-from Kuch Kuch Hota to Pinjar, Waqt, Kaal and Krrish (to name a new), plus documentaries, commercials and Malayalam films. He is getting ready to shoot Kaal director Soham's next.
Besides working with renowned DOPs like Govind Nihalani and Venu, Santosh represented Asia in the workshop for student directors of photography held in Budapest, (organised by Kodak, Panavision and Cilect); trained under two Oscar-winning cinematographers Dean Cundey (Jurassic Park) and Billy Williams (Gandhi) in digital effects and lighting.
Starting his career with Sibi Malayil's Malayalam film Pranayavarnangal, he hit big time instantly with Karan Johar's Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and since then has been nominated for, and won, several awards.
How did Karan Johar sign you for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai?
He saw a few rushes of a film that was never released-it was being directed by a batchmate of mine. He must have liked what he saw because he signed me. So Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was my first Hindi movie. Coming straight from the Institute, I didn't know much about the outside world. Karan wanted a new cameraman. He could have taken any body. In fact I asked him why he didn't take someone like Manmohan Singh, who does Yash Chopra's films. He said he wanted a younger cameraman, someone he could communicate with better and who could give him more time.
Initially I didn't want to live in Bombay, not because of anything else, but the living conditions. So crowded, and these kind of problems I was not able to face. I don't know why. Then I landed up here and started working here and now and loving it. But when I have free time I go to Kerala.
It was Karan's first film too, and he said once that he was often not sure where to place the camera.
He said that? (Laughs). He must have been joking.. But everything was planned so well, the working atmosphere was so nice. No hassles, peaceful. The Institute does not really prepare us to face the mainstream industry. That was my problem too in the beginning.
When I came out and assisted Govind Nihalani, which is a different kind of atmosphere, it took me years to adjust to the industry. In Kuch Kuch... my first film in Bombay, on the first day there were so many artistes. The first day, the first set, was the Koi mil gaya song. There must have been a thousand people, so many dancers and all. So then I just went with my instinct. Of course there is tension; I mean you are handling such a big film, such a big responsibility on your shoulder. But it turned out fine.
You didn't have any major problems?
From the Institute you always handle small films with few artistes and simples situations, you know, and suddenly you are thrown into... it's like you are driving on a lonely road and suddenly you are in the middle of a big traffic jam. How do you drive on that road you don't know? It was like that. After that I did a few movies like Hello Brother and Tera Jadoo Chal Gaya then I did Pinjar. In between I went to Kerala for a year. I did a Malayalam film, and I found that the nature of cinema had changed there also. They were trying to make films like Bombay, but without the resources.
You were nominated for so many awards for Pinjar and won the Screen Award. What was it like working on a period film?
I wanted to explore period movies. In fact, that was one thing that attracted me towards cinematography. From childhood I had seen old period movies like Ten Commandments and was fascinated by how they recreate the period and that was my major inspiration to do cinematography. So when I got Pinjar I was very excited. Because of its Punjabi background, they wanted Manmohan Singh who was busy directing his own movie. Pinjar was an 'effortful' movie. The director, art director Munish Sappel and I had a very good tuning. We used to discuss things in detail. We had a very good, peaceful shooting.
Kaal was a horror thriller, what preparation did you need for that?
In Dharma Productions, one thing is that the script is prepared much in advance. It's not like some others where the script happens on the set. Even for Kaal, the script was given to me eight months before. So you know, you can mentally plan, you can read you can discuss, that kind of planning is always there. For Kaal, I had a diary with detailed planning of each scene, what kind of filter will be used for what kind of mood. How much you are able to do it, to what percentage, there are lot of factors, but still if you have a plan may you will be able to come close to achieving it. I did this myself then discussed it with director Soham, then we decided, he gave his suggestions on certain things, and I finalised it. Film is the director's medium, the technician's job is to help them to reach their vision.Soham had written a very beautiful script, very detailed. You read and you got a feel of the movie. That is inspiring. So once you go through it, then how to create that kind of mood or feeling should be worked. It was almost like a storyboarded script. I think we achieved most of it.
Film is the director's medium, the technician's job is to help them to reach their vision. How did you get Krrish?
Actually Piyush Shah was doing it, there were some problems.Rakesh Roshan had seen Kaal and liked my work. So he asked me to do it.
What was it like working on Krrish?
Basically, the action was very different for an Indian movie; a lot of it was being executed for the first time. There was lots of post-production and visual effects, and I had to keep that in mind while shooting. It was a learning process for everybody. The stunts were choreographed by Siu-Tung Ching. I had seen Chinese films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers and I wanted to work in a film like that.
The basic process of this kind of action is that the actor is wired and hanged to a crane. The people who have to pull the cables to manipulate the action movements are experts. Hrithik had trained himself so well, that he did the scenes like the circus and the running on the road in Singapore himself, no CGI (computer generated images). Computers were used only to erase the cables.
We also used a three camera set-up and shot on high speed like 100-150 frames per second when the normal speed is 24. There were some scenes like Hrithik jumping on the horse, he did the jump with cables and the horse was inserted later. Or in the scene where the older Hrithik is lying in that special room, those machines and magnetic rings were inserted by computers, I just had to shoot him lying prone, imagining where the rings would be. So while shooting one has to keep all this in mind-visualizing what is not there.
A lot of work is done in post production?
Now this Digital Intermediate (DI) has come up, so you have a lot of things that can be controlled. That has become a fashion nowadays, but I still feel you don't need it always. If you feel a film needs it, ok, but a normal movie doesn't, so don't waste the producer's money. Only stylized movies need it. I resisted it in Kaal, my argument was that this is a story based in a forest and a forest should look like a one. You cannot change the colour of the forest to yellow or pink. The audience has to be in a real environment to believe the story; take them out of that, whatever technique you apply it becomes technique standing out separately. In Krrish it was required.
After films like Krrish, do you find shooting family dramas boring?
If people do only that they will get bored. I did totally different kinds of movies, so I was quite enjoying it all. After Krrish I did a small Malayalam film called Palunku, starring Mammootty, which was a family film and making it was very peaceful, even though we worked long hours. In fact people asked the director Blessy why he needed me.
Do you find any difference in the style of working in Kerala and Mumbai?
Nowadays you have to shoot fast and I am known as a fast cameraman also. We planned Kaal for 55 days and finished in 53 days-- that was a major achievement. Life is like that now; have to go fast, it is a natural process. I have worked in Kerala, there the budget is limited, artistes' dates are given in bulk for one schedule, so within that you have to finish and you have to work fast. Here also there are 2 hour-30 minute movies with five songs, there also 2 hour 30 minute movies with five songs, so the output is the same. There our reflexes get very quick.
When you see international films, do you feel deprived somehow... do you wish you could produce results like that?
I do feel bad sometimes. The difference is in planning; otherwise we have the same equipments. We shoot with the same cameras as they do. Sometimes they may be a bit old...we use the same stock. I think still, the cinematographers are doing a very good job, if we get a change to work in that kind of atmosphere, we would do much better. Now, of course a good phase of change is happening in Indian cinema.