The make believe world of cinema is inching closer to reality thanks to the huge advancements in cinematography. One man who makes every frame come alive with his Midas touch is Senthil, a name that resonates with perfection. Swarnalata Pothapragada frames the man who wielded the camera for some of the biggest blockbusters in recent times
What do Magadheera, Arundhati, Eega, Aithe and Sye have in common besides being super hit Telugu films? The answer is Senthil, the ace lensman, who has pushed the limits of cinematography to wow the audiences with his breathtaking and high impact camera work. He believes in simple living and high thinking. He is proud of his art and his craft and is never seen without a smile.
His home is a picture of serene domesticity. His sons are playing around; his doting wife makes us feel at home with her warmth as the ace lensman, dressed casually, gets down to sharing nuances of his life. Being the son of an army officer and a majority of the family members in defence services, he had zero exposure to anything remotely connected to films.
“I was not interested in getting into this field. It was purely by accident. I was preparing for Civils and had given myself two years. During this period I was appearing for all the competitive exams possible. However, destiny had something else in store for me. As luck would have it, one of my friends had applied to the Pune Film Insitute. The eligibility criteria was `Graduation’ and my friend hadn’t completed his degree yet. He who got me to apply because he did not want to waste the application form. To my amazement, I cleared the entrance exam and was called for the next phase of the interview scheduled to be held after orientation. During the orientation, I fell in love with the camera,” elaborates Senthil.
Much as his entry into the course was serendipitous, he had a tough job on hands to find a foothold in the film industry. “I passed out from a premier institute and I thought I would get a red carpet entry. But very soon I realized that graduating from a prestigious college is an excellent start but the industry doesn’t really care about qualifications. A degree from a prestigious college is fine, but people want to see your work. I had thought that I will get a break after graduating but when I realized that it’s not going to happen, I started assisting people like Sharath and Ravi Chandran and worked for about 16 films. Then I decided to go solo and started searching for independent opportunities,” reminisces Senthil.
After a successful stint as an assistant cinematographer, television gave him his first break as an independent cameraman. “Television was in its flowering stage during 1999 – 2000 when I was offered Amrutham. I never wanted to do television because once you get into it, it is very difficult to get back to films. Films and television differ in terms of work culture and attitudes. Once again, destiny intervened. I accepted Amrutham. I was fortunate to have worked with a wonderful team consisting of Chandrasekhar Eleti, Director, Ravi, Art Director, Kalyani Mallik, Music Director and Gunnam Gangaraju, Producer.
Thankfully the serial was a big hit,” shares Senthil about his independent début on television.
Amrutham went onto become a hit not only as a serial but also as a team. They eventually collaborated for the 2003 sensational hit Aithe. “This was also a sudden decision. We had shot 13 episodes for Amrutham and Chandu (director) decided to quit the show and launch his movie; and the same team moved to Aithe. Now when I look back I feel I was fortunate that I got to do Amrutham. If I had not accepted it, Aithe would have not happened. That is the reason I believe, we must utilise every opportunity we get,” says Senthil.
The first film is always special but working on a trendsetting film like Aithe would have been an exhilarating experience. “Yes. It was exciting. Firstly, because we were making a trendsetting film, and also because the entire team was in complete sync. It is very rare that the art director, director and cinematographer envision a film alike. There was no stress and it was completely fun filming it. On a personal level, I feel I was very fortunate to get Aithe as my debut film, because it was a film with a realistic approach. Till then the film industry had seen a lot more colourful and glamour oriented cinematography. But in Aithe, it was completely opposite, with realistic colours ,and making it look like natural light is a task in itself. When Aithe became a hit and people appreciated my work, it gave me a high and a lot of satisfaction.”
The film went onto become an unexpected hit and brought about a new wave of filmmaking. The success of the film must have put him in the big league immediately. “Hmmm… no. It was the other way round. It was more difficult. As I said, commercial cinema needs glamour photography. After Aithe, many said, `Ok you did a good job, but can you deliver in commercial cinema?’ I was like, what I did is the toughest so why will I not be able to do something that is easy? But people did not believe me, as everyone has their own doubts. That is the reason that I had a huge gap after Aithe. I did do a film before Sye but due to some complications with my director, I backed off. Now when I look back, I’m glad I did so because I got Sye,” says Senthil.
Sye which became a sensational hit not only brought him lots of appreciation but also marked the beginning of his association with director Rajamouli. “During the gap after Aithe, one day, Rajamouli garu called me and asked if I would be interested to work on his upcoming project. Simhadri was a big hit, and I was obviously super excited about the offer and readily accepted,” says Senthil about his official entry into the Rajamouli Team.
While shooting for Sye, we used to communicate a lot. Also, when Rajamouli garu likes someone, he keeps discussing the film. So, in my initial stages of association, these kinds of discussions used to happen so often that we started understanding each other not only professionally but also individually. So now I know what he wants. This kind of understanding between a director and cameraman is very essential as it becomes less time consuming. The director is relieved of the burden and can focus on his direction. Over time our the rapport between me and Rajamouli garu has grown so strong that there is never a basic level discussion. I know what he wants and he knows that I will convert his vision into reality. We have a discussion only when he wants something more. He is someone who doesn’t compromise whatsoever. There are no concessions for friends. He always pushes his technicians to another level. For example, if you see from Sye till today, the team has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of quality. His expectations are growing and I am happy and fortunate that I am able to live up to his expectations. That’s the reason our association has been long standing,” says Senthil with a sense of pride.
Working continuously with a perfectionist like Rajamouli would have definitely made it difficult for him to work with other directors. “It is slightly difficult because the kind of homework he does and the hardwork he puts in is very rare to find. When I work with other directors, I am not sure if they have such precision. So, I am loaded with that extra responsibility of going out of my way to work on things. However, there are directors like Mohan Krishna Indraganti who are well planned and do their homework. Also, I feel it is not right to compare as everybody’s style is distinct.”
The cinematographer is the unseen hero of the film who captures the vision of the director, the creation of an art director and the implementation of actors in every frame. Sounds simple, but the job of a cinematographer needs a lot of management skills. “Every job is tough and so is cinematography. Yes, we do need management skills and leadership qualities too. While shooting, it is probably only the camera team that works continuously. We set up the shot, we shoot, and then we set up the next shot and go on. So, if you observe, the actors and directors do get some time for a break, but the camera guys are constantly on their toes. It is tough but every job is tough,” shares Senthil about how cinematography is a marathon task.
Any favourites from his films? “Every film has been memorable. I have loved working on all of them and at the same time, every film had its pros and cons like some moments you are genuinely excited and there have been moments when you feel it’s a pain. (Bursts into laughter). Like for example while we were shooting for Chatrapathi, we were working day and night with different artists. We used to sleep for two hours a day. This was our routine for about 10 days and we were wondering when it will be over. It was a similar situation when we were shooting for Arundhati. Our time to start the shoot was fixed but we did not know when we will finish the shoot. It could be 24 hours or more. So, there have been films that we have worked relentlessly till we got exhausted. However, we thoroughly enjoyed shooting for Sye. It was like one big party. The entire crew used to play rugby after the shoot and we had so much fun. There was no stress at all,” says Senthil.
It is known that he is immensely hardworking and a dedicated cameraman. So, what makes him take up a project? “Basically it’s the director. I believe that if the director is sensible, he will choose a sensible story, a sensible producer and sensible artists.”
In an industry where every individual wants to create their niche, does he have a signature style? “See my philosophy is very simple: Whatever is right for the film, I try to do that. When I am doing a film, I am not trying to showcase my skills or capabilities as a cinematographer, I am putting my skills and abilities in the best possible way for the overall good. Therefore, I have no signature style, because every film is unique and different. Just because I did an Aithe, I can’t use the same style or approach for a film like Sye which demands a different style of working. Also, filmmaking is team effort,” says Senthil about his style of working.
With over a decade in the industry, he has grown to great heights and has been one of the most sought after cinematographers. (With a sense of modesty in his eyes) “I never thought but I dreamt about it. Now when I look back I feel very happy that I have reached this stage. I never take up a project thinking it will be a benchmark film. Be it Magadheera, Golconda High School, Arundhathi or Eega, I always picked a film and gave my 100% to it. It may sound philosophical, but it’s Karma Siddha. Results are not in anyone’s hands. All you need to do is put in your 100%. For me anybody or anything that is in front of the camera is my responsibility. I put in the same effort for every shot. Also, I don’t panic or stress. I always stay calm and focussed on my work. Because when you are under pressure you cannot perform,” confides Senthil.
Recently, he won the ‘Best cinematographer’ award for Eega. “Awards make you happy but I haven’t bagged much except the current SIIMA award. Working on a CG film has a problem. People don’t know where cinematography ends and CG starts. Be it Arundhati, Magadheera or Eega or any CG film; a cinematographer has to put in more effort in a CG film than a normal film. Filming Eega was extremely tough. Whatever I learnt in my whole career was at one level and working on Eega was at another. It was like seeing the whole world in a new perspective,” says Senthil.
So how does he feel working on Bahubali. the magnum opus in the making? “It feels very nice. Bahubali is Rajamouli’s vision and we are putting in our best to implement it. All I can say right now is that he’s pushing us to the next level this time.”