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Ray of Light

Cinematographer KU Mohanan talks about his admiration for art-house cinema and why he is drawn to natural light in his frames.

January 16, 2014 11:41:13 pm
KU Mohanan. KU Mohanan.

It’s Mumbai in the night, and the streets — lit by the reddish yellow hues of sodium vapour gas lights — are dark and mysterious. This singular image formed the basis of how cinematographer KU Mohanan shot Talaash, a deeply atmospheric film involving a cop with a troubled past, a murky murder case and a mysterious hooker, which takes place mostly in the night. “It’s often the image that forms in my head the first time I see a script,” says Mohanan, who at that time was in the Czech Republic shooting a documentary on the country’s new-wave cinema. The 2012 film was only the fifth in Mohanan’s eight-year-old career in Hindi mainstream cinema, which started with Don: The Chase Begins Again (2006). The director of photography admits he is extremely choosy about the projects he takes up — the only other films he has done are Aaja Nachle, We are Family and Fukrey. For someone who firmly believes in cinema as an art form, it can be difficult to choose Bollywood films, considering they are primarily driven by commercial interests. “I generally don’t like glossy pictures. I am more drawn towards art-house cinema and my photography is more about play of light and shade,” says the 52-year old cinematographer.

Until 10 years ago, Bollywood was perhaps not even an option for Mohanan. Shaped by sensibilities far removed from the glamour of showbiz, the FTII graduate talks about his views on cinema. “I am an idealist. I have a certain romanticism as to how cinema should be,” he says, adding, “Later, I got married and had kids. So I made peace with doing commercial films.”

Impressed by Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai, he decided to take the plunge into Hindi films when the filmmaker approached him for his remake of Don…. It marked the start of a phase of rediscovery. Mohanan manoeuvred his own style within the frameworks of commercial cinema. But it came with its challenges — the canvas became bigger, and the shooting schedules longer. “It has to be either the script, or something in the film that I can take from,” he says, explaining what drives his decision to choose Hindi films. Despite the highly stylised, sleek product, Don… was not your regular Bollywood thriller. It was a reasonably dark film.

His latest, Miss Lovely, he confesses, is the closest to his kind of cinema. Those who have seen the trailers will vouch for its stunning visuals, the dark and moody images born out of the Bombay underbelly of the ’80s. To bring alive the vibe of the sleazy ‘C’ grade industry, Mohanan shot in dingy, low-lit, real locations, including abandoned mills and old dilapidated buildings. “Instead of doing up the places, I would just let them be. The space is more important than the character,” says the cinematographer, who struck a great rapport with the film’s director Ashim Ahluwalia back in 2002 when he shot a documentary for him. Called John and Jane, the part observational documentary and part science-fiction film remains, by his own admission, among his best work. His experience of working on documentary films for over a decade has contributed greatly to Mohanan’s style, most importantly perhaps, his artistry with natural light.

“Unlike fiction, the source of your subject is purer, and not constructed. I learnt a lot about cinema from there,” says the cinematographer, who was introduced to the world of documentaries through Ranjan Palit in 1988, an acclaimed cinematographer and filmmaker. But Mohanan’s influences in cinema range from Satyajit Ray and the jagged cinematic voice of Ritwik Ghatak to European masters such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. He is thankful he got a chance to watch their films at FTII and during film society screenings at his hometown of Payyannur in north Kerala.

“I would watch one film again and again and discover new things. It was the first time I was watching anything like that. To me, cinema should be a balance of story and form, not just story-heavy as we make them here. When I make a film, it will be along those lines,” he says.

FTII graduate

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