P. C. Sreeram: Cinematography is all I know

The reclusive P. C. Sreeram talks to me about Remo and why he thinks Sivakarthikeyan is like Shah Rukh Khan

P. C. Sreeram isn’t at ease doing interviews. He says he isn’t great at verbalising ideas. “Perhaps, that’s why some reporters find me boring.” He isn’t great at the diplomatic stuff too. When called upon at the audio launch of OK Kanmani, he hesitantly walked up to the mic, and finished his speech with two words, “Thank you”. That’s why he’s astonished that an Amitabh Bachchan can sometimes do 40 interviews a day. “I’m glad that Tamil cinema isn’t yet such a corporate beast. A single interview is tiring enough.”

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Cinematography is all Sreeram has ever known. “When the whole world dismissed me for being uneducated, photography helped me understand myself. With each click, life became pleasanter, and I found an identity.” He is not one for the drudgery of administration. “That’s why I moved away from advertisement work.” It wasn’t a decision taken after long nights of careful planning though. He just feels like doing some things… like recording our conversation. “I’m not sure why I’m doing it, but I just feel like I should.” In a way, his choosing Remo, a debutant director’s film, is a bit like that. “Mind you, I have done films with debutant directors before: Mugavaree, one of Ajith’s best films; Kanda Naal Mudhal…” The list tapers off. “I’m happy to work with anybody.”

The approach of R. D. Raja, the producer of Remo, was key to persuading Sreeram to join the project. “The team knew what it was doing. First test shoot, second test shoot… everything was scheduled. It was clear that they respected the project. I saw a lot of positive energy, and decided to do Remo.” Well that, and the fact that he is an admirer of Sivakarthikeyan. “Like Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan, Siva is an entertainer. I really liked him in films like Varuthapadatha Valibar Sangam. He brings to screen genuine humour.”

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Remo is in the same mould. “You guys will probably call it a rom-com.” Sreeram prefers “commercial entertainer”. Referring to Siva’s disguise as a nurse, he says that the team has left no stone unturned in making him look every bit like a woman. There was also concerted effort put into maintaining tonal consistency, and ensuring that in every shot, Siva’s look remained in harmony with the space he comes in. “I know it probably sounds like jargon, but a cinematographer is the co-author of a film. There are some creative decisions I take at the outset. In I, I sought to bring out the beauty in ugliness. Here, I decided that we would make the ‘nurse’ look very real. I felt that when the nurse stands next to Keerthy Suresh, nobody—not even Keerthy Suresh—should feel that it’s Siva in disguise.”

I ask him how he achieved such realism. “You can’t say these things, yaar. The costumes, lights, tones… everything played its part. I had to think as a director, and offer solutions as a cinematographer. Have I answered your question?” At different points in the conversation, Sreeram asks this to make sure he’s doing justice to the interview. “Whatever I’m doing, I have to do justice to it. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do as a cinematographer.” He says he doesn’t make much of all the praise that has come his way, or the hype whipped up on account of his involvement. “All the reactions on social media to Remo’s trailer make me feel like the movie has already come out.”

According to Sreeram, a film decides itself sometimes. “The tones in Remo weren’t arbitrarily chosen. They had a lot to do with the spaces Siva occupies—in this case, a hospital, predominantly. If he had had to wear a disguise in, say, an IT office, the tones would be different.” Even the technology used for a film is a by-product of the story. “In Paa, I had to show a father as a son and vice-versa. We decided we would achieve that by playing with lenses. For close-ups, we used wide lenses and the other way round for wide shots.” He doesn’t lose sleep over the fact that the average viewer may be oblivious to these creative choices. “They experience it subliminally. They may not be able to explain it, but they feel it. They know a good-looking film when they see one.”

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He has always tried to keep up with changing trends. “I was among the first to embrace digital technology in my Vaanam Vasappadum.” Yet, he says it’s important to be cautious of over-reliance on technology. “Ultimately, you want to tell a story. The basics of storytelling, after all, are the same today as they were in the 70s and the 80s.” During that period, Sreeram remembers the evening conversations he’d have with budding filmmakers like Kamal Haasan at the smaller restaurant that was Hotel Samco then. “We would discuss films like Mahendran’s Uthiripookkal.” I ask him if the fledgling cinematographer he was then would be proud of what he’s become today. “I’m still a budding cinematographer… Have I answered your question?”

This interview was written for The Hindu.  All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share it.

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