Ravi K Chandran

Ravi K Chandran brings out the hard – hitting truth about the present condition of cinematographers in Indian Cinema

Ravi K Chandran
Ravi K Chandran

There’s no life outside  movies. I’m completely disconnected from my family and have absolutely no time for leisure.  It is like I’m pouring myself into something that I absolutely love and in the process I sacrifice some personal priceless moments for the sake of my art, for instance – missing my kid’s birthday. I was on location when my first child was born. It’s irrelevant now whether the film I was shooting for went on to become a hit or not, the thing is that I couldn’t live that moment my child was born. But the journey has been worth it. I guess it’s a story every person in the creative field tells. Personally for me, work is such a natural high that all other things take a backseat.
In the Indian industry technical awareness among professionals is poor. This makes our job tougher. For example there are no courses for the light men. They lack in basics. A course would help avoid mishaps on sets. As a result of these discrepancies, working on a new set is almost like working with a new crew.  By the time they all get on the same page and get into a groove we’re done shooting half the film. The hardships and mistakes are quickly forgotten as soon as the film hits the big screen. I cannot go back and change the lighting on Dil Chahta Hai for instance. I want to make changes in all the films that I’ve shot so far.

 Importance of training

There should definitely be a course to get the light men trained. A basic 4 – 5 months training before they get on set could avert risking lives.

Hindrance in Indian Cinema

If a set is not ready then the producers are ready to wait for a few days. If a costume is not ready everyone waits. If the make-up is not done, we wait. But we can’t do much when there’s not enough sunlight. If there are traces of clouds, people rush to finish the shoot. I have failed to understand this. According to me it’s the most ridiculous thing in the world. This is one reason why most of the Indian films are not as consistent as their Hollywood counterparts. We miss out on the core point. It’s like spending an entire day preparing a dish and then spoiling it with extra salt. Building a grand set and having awful lighting is pointless. I see this pattern in our industry and hold it responsible for all the bad reviews it earns from across the world.
In India Cinematographers also indulge in manual labour, which is actually not a part of their job unlike in the West. Jobs like laying down the cable and planning on how to use a light takes up 90 per cent of our energy in physical labor. Not all the focus pullers are great and so Cinematographers have to concentrate on that too. They are constantly focusing on the glare, focus, etc and this is a big hindrance. Cinematographers from the West often ask how the cinematographers here function with so many limitations and also multi-task. They’re amazed at how the DOP’s here, rather than just concentrating on the shot division, sometimes even guide the steadycam operator on framing and leveling the camera. Sometimes they even do underwater and aerial photography, which they might not be comfortable doing. It’s a ridiculous position to be in. These are reasons why so many talented cameramen in India are not yet on par with their foreign counterparts. A film like Black did well not because of the camerawork. In fact I didn’t do anything different there. I’ve used the same lighting techniques as in many of my other projects. It looked different because a lot of other elements including Art Direction and costumes were great. It’s teamwork.
There are different ways of doing something including what I specialize in. How do we observe things in life? How do the lights fall? There are millions of ways and positions to capture light. If you keep the light two feet away it has a different feel. Just changing the direction a little bit can change the whole perspective. This applies to cameras too. It is personal and depends on each person’s aesthetics, upbringing, culture, social interactions observation skills, etc. A person’s mindset while shooting also shows in his work. And to add to all of this, there is pressure of the work.
Being quick is another feather in the cap. Slow cameramen are not respected in this industry. People don’t really care if the cameraman is fighting with ten other people to get his job done and if that’s slowing his work down. Santosh Sivan is the fastest cameraman in the country. I consider myself as fast too. I judge what the director wants in the film and go for it. It’s never about a personal journey. I always give what the director wants. It’s like giving a person classical music when he demands pop.
Mani Ratnam shoots fast. He likes to be quick with his work, so even when the camera is getting loaded he doesn’t wait and goes “C’mon let’s roll.” So if you’re working with him, you’re always on the edge. You have to be sharp. He gives very little time for set up and wants the shots finished as fast as possible. He’s like Steven Spielberg where his crew is constantly running around.

 South Indian Audience

When my name appears on the screen, the audiences down South start clapping. They take autographs and really acknowledge my work. In the South Cinematographers are treated like kings. Their name will appear next to the Directors’. Only in Bollywood it’s different. You don’t see our names on posters here unlike in the South where you are given immense respect. You’re constantly invited for talk shows and interviews. Even when I go to a remote village in Tamil Nadu people recognize me. In Bollywood a Costume Designer gets more respect than a Cinematographer. Acknowledgement is a Cinematographer’s greatest reward. I have never been invited for any awards. Anyway an award will not change my style of lighting. Godfather didn’t get an Academy Award for Cinematography. It’s one of the best Cinematography works I’ve seen. Sholaydidn’t get an award for Cinematography; Dil Chahta Hai never got an award. The movie was not even nominated and it’s a cult film.
 Once a film is made it’s out of your hand. It takes its own shape and form, its own existence. People say Agneepath didn’t do very well but it’s an absolute cult film. What’s good work? I would say that if an old film still looks contemporary even after 15 years that’s good cinematography. Dil Se, Virasat, and Devdas still look contemporary. Sholay, Pyaasa and Guide are other examples. Cinematography in a movie will only be considered good if 15 to 30 years later it still looks modern and contemporary.
I was watching Godfather the other day and that got me thinking that in all these years I couldn’t ever do that kind of job; the level of control over lights, the way they have played with shadows, in fact everything about the film. Something is very wrong with our lighting style. I kept watching it repeatedly to understand it. But this will only work if the Director, Producer, and other people involved have the same understanding of cinema. Sanjay Leela Bhansali has a passion for great work and so does Farhan Akhtar. Anurag Kashyap is also trying to do something different.
Factors that you consider before choosing a movie

After I meet the director of a film, for instance Karan Johar or Mani Ratnam, I watch the films they’ve done, understand their work.  I listen to them and try to figure out what they are looking for. Then I read the script and bring my thoughts to them. Then if they are open to it, we proceed. I try to get into their shoes.


My brother K. Ramchandra Babu is a great Cinematographer from the South. He studied and passed out from a film institute in 1970 and he did his first film when he was in his 2nd year. It won a National Award. From Truffaut to Coppola I watched everything. I was in 8th grade when I got introduced to Godard and films like Blow, Fellini’s 81/2. I got exposed to these filmmakers in my school. My brother’s arty clan used to discuss their work while I would be hanging around. All these things were available to me. I grew up around serious cinema discussions. When I was in college we used to run a film society where we discussed movies and saw world cinema in festivals. We also organized film festivals. In parallel I also watched commercial films including Sholay.

Do you think Indian cinema is not taken seriously?

People are making great films in India, especially down South. Hindi cinema is a small part although the market for it is big. The Tamil industry is churning out great films too. It’s fashionable to watch an Iranian film but not Tamil or Telugu films.


3D can only work for short films. After an hour I get a headache. The shot has to be designed for 3D. I shot Chota Chaturin 3D.

Indian cinematographers don’t get opportunity in Western Cinema?

We are not good enough. We focus on actors’ faces and use more lights to make them look better. When we came out of a film institute we all want to do something like Storaro’s film but when actors look in the mirror they want more light on their face; even when they are crying or against the window, they always want light on their faces. This makes it look like lighting on TV. If you don’t use a lot of light you are considered a bad cameraman. So it’s very difficult. I have walked out of a film once because the actress was telling me where to place lights.

What gets you out of bed every morning?

My kids wake me up (laughs). Whenever I see the film that I shot, it feels like shit. I always want to do something better. You are constantly hoping that you can get better and make it look perfect. It took me 18 years to get a movie like Black, 15 years to get Dil Chahta Hain, some 6 years to get Virasat. These are the rare films you get after struggling for so many years. A lot of people loved Paheli. People liked the visuals of the movie and that’s what keeps me going. Most of it was shot in Mumbai; even the desert was created on set. I over exposed it to create heat, which became more challenging as we were shooting in November.

Rate Technician, Artist or Manager

Managing comes very easily to me. I tend to handle situations no matter what the crisis is and that could be because of my experience in working on big films. Artist – I am not sure if I am creative or not. I know this job to an extent where it pays me money. Technician – I am not good at it. I don’t even know how to read a light meter. I judge mostly through my eyes. I do the lighting on the basis of my eye. If it looks good it works for me. I never went by a meter. I never had money to buy a meter so I have trained myself that way.

You mentioned the actors sometimes interfere with lighting. What about the Directors?

90% of the directors I have worked with never interfered in lighting. They always liked what I did. So there was no problem as such. I have got work on the basis of my past work. Luckily I never had to go and ask for it. I would love to work with Mani Ratnam again.

Any shot that you have invented or are very proud of?

Out of necessity I have tried out something new. I shot a lot of things with china balls. Space Lights were brought to India for the first time for the film Saawariya. It was never a part of an Indian package earlier. As it was so expensive to buy in bulk we ended up making space lights ourselves with halogens. It didn’t really work so we bought one from abroad and here they made several. It took a lot of time but we managed somehow. Kinos were bought for the first time and used in one of my films. It was extensively used in Dil Chahta Hai. I bought a Canon 7d camera with a PL mount for the first time. I have not invented anything rather reinvented it.

References for your past movies?

Dil Chahta Hain had a great story, there were no references required. We wanted to keep it spontaneous and hoped to create something new. I have shot most of my films in the same format. I like to do what I can. I can never copy anyone’s style. Each person’s work has something unique in it. The feel won’t ever be the same. In Black while Amitji (Amitabh Bachan) was rehearsing, I would get the lighting ready. So there was a moment while rehearsing when he looked at the floor for a moment and then looked up, I used that moment to place an eye light on him. This worked quite well and Amitji was quite impressed simply because it added to his performance. I reacted to his reaction at the moment and it worked. A cameraman’s job is to tell the story. The greatest Cinematographer can kill the film if he doesn’t know the story. So I’d rather be a storyteller than a cinematographer.

First camera

Arri 2c
Your best work till date?


Favorite Lens

Ultra primes

What is your favorite lighting solution?

China balls.