Mankada Ravi Varma – Uncompromising Cinematographer

The year 2010 seems to be particularly cruel to Malayalam cinema personalities by snatching away their lives at unexpected moments as described in MT Vasudevan Nair’s words, “Death is a joker who enters the scene with no regard to the situation.” The latest being Master Cinematographer Mankada Ravi Varma who wrapped up his life at the age of 84, at Chennai on November 22, 2010.

It was at the home of Malayalam writer poet M Govindan in Madras Egmore,  that I  first met Cinematographer Mankada Ravi Varma in 1971. M Govindan was then publishing a literary Journal Sameeksha and his home was the meeting place of many progressive writers and artists. I went there along with my Director John Abraham and Script writer M Azad who were my seniors at the Film Institute of India, Poona.  In those days graduates from the Film Institutes were looked upon as only “theoretical people” and were considered unfit when it comes to practical things like shooting a feature film. So they had to work on the fringes of the film industry as assistants or work in documentaries or seek employment in Films Division. I was fascinated to meet a Film Institute graduate who had made a name in Malayalam feature films.

Mankada Ravi Varma had passed out from Madras Central Polytechnic in Cinematography in 1952.  The course there consisted of two years of common study of Cinematography and Sound Engineering and the final year of specialization in any one subject. After completing the course he had to undergo a year of apprenticeship in the camera department of one of the film studios as part of his course. There the apprentices were not allowed to come any where near the camera and the exposure readings and lens settings were kept as well guarded secrets.  Ravi Varma managed to establish good relationship with the electricians and light boys who shared their experiences with him.

He then went to Films Division at Bombay for training and six months later joined as assistant cameraman. During that period he travelled all over India and gained experience in shooting under different kinds of lighting situations. In five years at the Films Division he regained the self confidence that he lost in the Madras Commercial studios.

After leaving Films Division he returned to Madras and found that  it was hard to get a regular job as cinematographer. He started working as stringer for news agencies and also made several documentaries as well.

It was PA Azeez , the very first Direction graduate from the Poona Film Institute ever to make a feature film, Aval (Malayalam – 1967), who gave Mankada his first break as an independent cinematographer. The film went unheralded but the Production manager of that film took note of Ravi Varma’s work and offered him to do the camera work for his own production, Olavum Theeravum (1969).  The path breaking Malayalam film was scripted by MT Vasudevan Nair and directed by PN Menon in which Ravi Varma broke the shackles and released the camera from the confines of the four walls of the studio floors and brought it to the wide outdoors and real interiors.

He says about his experience thus: “We exploited the available light. The framing and composition of the film were totally different from other feature films. I tried to accommodate all the tones that were available in black-and-white, and shot the film. As I had shot documentaries in very adverse conditions, I decided to make use of all those experiences in a feature film. Usually in poor light, a cinematographer stops shooting. What I did was use it to my advantage.”

In 1972, when Adoor Gopalakrishnan thought of making a feature film, he approached Ravi Varma with the script of Swayamvaram. He was happy with the script and expressed his willingness to work in the film and they clicked as a team. Mankada Ravi Varma was the regular cinematographer for all of Adoor’s films till his latest one, Nizhal Kuthu.  The duo redefined Malayalam cinema and gave it a new framework and aesthetics. Like Satyajit Ray and Subrata Mitra, like Guru Dutt and VK Murthy, while one narrated stories that catapulted Malayalam cinema to pinnacles of cinematic excellence, the other captured his vision thorough the camera.

Ravi Varma remembers how they shot one of Adoor’s best works, Elipathayam. They had drawn electric power from the mains of the house they were shooting in, as they had no money to hire a generator. They were shooting in a village where the power situation was miserable. The supply was erratic. There were days when they used to sit idle for hours waiting for the supply. Somebody from the unit would go to the Electricity Board office on a bicycle to speed them up! “We had to bear up with many difficulties. But we were so passionate about films that we were willing to sacrifice everything.”

From the days of ‘no generator’, they graduated to hiring generators by the time they made Mukhamukham.  But that generator would not go beyond 30 kilo watts. Once it crossed the limit, the colour of the light would change. “Those were the days of struggle! “Today, they ask us, do you want more lights? I select all the equipments, though I may not be using all of them. Everything is so liberal now.”

Mankada Ravi Varma won two National Awards – one for the cinematography of Swayamvaram and then for the documentary on Kalamandalam Gopi. He directed only one feature film – Nokkukuthi – based on M Govindan’s poem, in 1983. It won him the Kerala State Award for the best cinematographer and the National Special Jury Award. His book, Chitram Chala Chitram, won him the Kerala State award for the best book on cinema.

Adoor on Ravi Varma:
The riveting austerity of his frames enhances the narration of the films. Raviettan would work on only one film at a time; his devotion to his work, dedication and enthusiasm set him apart. His frames capture our culture and each shot stays true to our roots and ethnicity. An original thinker, Raviettan uses light like a painter to create unforgettable images on celluloid. He is like an elder brother to me. Raviettan is the only person I show my script to after I finish working on it. As soon as a work is finished, I send it to him in Chennai and he would respond with his remarks. The beauty of it is that we are completely in sync with each other. So, never once has he made a disparaging remark or a negative comment about the script.

Three actors who played the leading roles in some  of Adoor’s films reminisce the professionalism of Mankada Ravi Varma :

He is unique in the film world. It is hard to think of a man without enemies in any field. But Raviettan is a man without enemies. Always courteous and professional, he is completely devoted to his work. For him, each shot is a painting that he composes with great care. For Olavum Theeravum, we had to shoot indoors and outdoors, all in natural light. His greatest quality is his ability to go about his work with no fuss or attempt to impress. Before he started working in films, he had made a number of documentaries and that seems to have given him an academic bent of mind. He does not indulge in any kind of technical gimmicks or showmanship. Man of few words but great experience.

As an ardent film buff I was familiar with his work. I had seen his films and by the time I was cast in Anantharam, both Adoor and Raviettan were legends. It was interesting to watch the professional rapport between the director and the cinematographer. There is quite an age difference between the two but they share a similar vision. Perhaps that is what made each film of theirs so different. Raviettan is a person with simple tastes and few ambitions in life. His passion is his work.

He never ever made us feel small. Therein lay his greatness. If Adoor Sir were to make a short remark, he would turn around, smile and wink at us. Although a man of few words, if you had a doubt or a question, he would take time to explain and tell you why a shot had been planned in a certain way or why the camera was at a certain angle. He was not a voluble person. I remember him reading on the set, when there was a break in the shoot.

While Raja Ravi Varma used paints and brushes, Mankada Ravi Varma used to paint with light to create his visuals. He excelled in his Black & White films by judiciously mixing shadows and light, highlighting the faces of characters to focus on their emotions. His transition to the colour era was very smooth without compromises as seen in the internationally acclaimed film Elipathayam.

Although he  received many offers to work in feature films after Olavum Theeravum, he waited until he received a good script of Swayamvaram from Adoor Gopalakrishnan and the relationship continued till his very end. He never compromised his principles for doing a film and perhaps that was the reason that he and Adoor had such a mutual understanding and wonderful relationship both personally and professionally.

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  1. they’ve left their work…………that window grill cries for Sharada’s character.i collect as read the travails they went thru while shooting.

  2. Its something unheard for the new generation of aspiring film enthusiastic and buffs… Loss is something that should be accepted… Either now or later… ‘Pranaamam’ to the Guru of Lights & Shadows… We pray, to hold the responsibility of legacy that you have blessed…

    Varma Sir, you live in our hearts forever… As long as lights & shadows exist…

    S K …

  3. Experiences and hardships of such great persons always gives me the boost in my life..
    Thank you sir for such a nice share

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