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April 4, 1997


"My goal is to be different"


JeevaLet's do a showbiz general knowledge check here - which cinematographer won the state award for 1995 for his oustanding visuals in the Prabhu Deva-starrer Kaadhalan? Who is the cinematographer responsible for the stunning visuals of the Kamal Hassan-Manisha Koirala-Urmila Matondkar starrer Hindustani, due to hit the all-India marquee on August 15? Which cameraman did Rajkumar Santoshi fly down expressly to film a song and dance sequence for his under-production Ghatak? Who did ABCL choose to crank the cameras for its first Tamil venture, Ullaasam?

The answer to all these questions is Jeeva - the newest hot shot emerging from the Tamil film industry that has, in the past few years, produced stellar talents such as P C Sriram, Santosh Sivan and Rajiv Menon, national award winners all.

So shouldn't he be more recognisable a 'name' than he is? "I am what in vernacular Tamil you would call a manja pai," grins the youngster, now in his late twenties.

The reference, for a Tamil native, is obvious - manja pai, 'yellow bag', refers to the crude yellow cloth bags carried by people in the interiors of the state, bags that contain everything from paan-makings to wads of currency. In time, manja pai has taken on semi-pejorative connotations, referring as it does to the country bumpkin, the yokel.

And Jeeva's characterisation of himself as a manja pai is a wry reference to his roots in the temple-town of Thanjavur, as also to his simple, non-starry lifestyle and demeanour.

Jeeva's career-graph, come to think of it, is typical of the backwoods-boy-made-good genre. He started out by assisting a chartered accountant after completing his degree in Commerce, then discovered in himself a flair for photography and moved on to a studio doing portraits and such.

When business fell off, he teamed up with a friend and held the 'sun gun' for video shoots of weddings and parties. And it was during an off-day that he decided to take in a movie at the local theatre.

The film was director Mani Rathnam's bittersweet Mouna Raagam, and Jeeva left the cinema hall much taken by the virtuoso cinematography of P C Sriram. "Right then, I knew this was what I wanted to do, and my ambition in life became to assist Sriram," the cinematographer recalls.

Before he attained that intermediate goal, Jeeva rubbed his knuckles raw knocking on the doors of opportunity, and getting as regularly turned down. But persistence finally paid, and Sriram took him on as one of his assistants.

From that point on, Jeeva was on a roll. His credits, as assistant cinematographer, include hit films such as Naayagan, Agni Nakshatram, Gitanjali, Apoorva Sagodarargal (Appu Raja in Hindi) and Amaran. And so well did he learn his cinematic ABCs that when mentor Sriram turned director with Meera, it was on Jeeva that the bulk of the cinematographic work devolved.

Directing a shot The real break, though, came in when southside director Priyadarshan, of Kaalapani fame, gave him the assignment to crank the cameras for his hit film Abhimanyu. Simultaneously, a young director on the verge of making his debut was looking for a budding cinematographer. Shankar, the director in question, teamed up with Jeeva, and the union was to produce three films - Gentleman, Kaadalan, Indian - all of which went on to become superhits. Simultaneously, Jeeva worked on another hit film, Aasai, directed by brother in law Vasanth.

Of all these films, it is Indian (to be released on the Bollywood marquee as Hindustani on August 15) that Jeeva remembers as his most challenging assignment. "It was a wonderful experience, the film is technically great," says Jeeva. "Director Shankar is wonderful to work with, he has so much raw energy that he infuses into you."

Indian The cinematographer was to need all that energy, for Indian brought with it immense challenges. "For one thing, Kamal Hassan's makeup, in the scenes where he plays an old man, was very elaborate, it used to take four to six hours to complete. So by the time it was ready, it would at times be night - and the scene was supposed to be daylight. So the challenge was to shoot under lights, yet simulate daylight - and I think we pulled it off," the cinematographer smiles.

Shooting song sequences with Kamal and Manisha Koirala in Canberra, Jeeva recalls, was fun, an unforgettable experience. "I have used a lot of top-lighting in the film," he says. "It is something most photographers avoid. But," he adds hastily, "it is not as though I want to make this my visual trademark - my goal is to be different, visually, in every succeeding film."

Jeeva makes no bones of the fact that he idolises P C Sriram, and that he ranks Santosh Sivan among the greats of his profession. "The trouble is," he muses, "that a lot of cinematographers now want to shoot like Santosh. They use back-lighting in an effort to mimic him, but end up overdoing it."

Shankar's three films have all been remarkable for technical wizardry of a high order - leading one to wonder whether computer gimmicry was not, at some level, detracting from the cinematographer's art. "No!," says Jeeva very firmly. "I welcome technological advances. See, even for computer gimmics, the scene has first to be shot in such a way as to meld with the technology, and that is a challenge in itself."

Another Jeeva trademark is his lyrical portrayal of the female star - whether it is Nagma, Manisha or Urmila. Is it true, we ask, that it is the cinematographer who enhances the star's appeal, bringing out the best in them? "To a certain extent, yes," says Jeeva."Most of our stars are quite beautiful, actually. But then, everyone has good features and bad - the cinematographer has a natural eye for these things, he enhances the star's good features and hides the bad.. yes, he does have a role in making the star beautiful."

Jeeva, however, does not rank among the new breed of cameramen who see themselves as the most important cogs of the film-making wheel. "There is an enormous amout of team-work involved," Jeeva explains. "Take a song and dance sequence - it is not enough for the costume designer to come up with the clothes, for the set designer to decide the locales, for the choreographer to demonstrate the steps and for me to shoot. We all sit down together, interact, throw up ideas for one another.

"Like, for instance, I might tell the costume designer that for a certain locale with a lot of mist, a daffodil yellow costume might work best. I might even suggest the material to be used - because yellow, to take an example, films differently when it is silk, or cotton, or wool, or whatever. So it is all of us sitting down together, thinking about the scene, giving each other ideas - the visualisation is done by all of us, my job is merely to take the total vision and capture it on celluloid."

It is this involvement that is getting Jeeva - who, in his spare time, also does ad films ranging from J K Radial to Kumaran Stores - noticed by the moghuls of Bollywood. So much so that Rajkumar Santoshi had him specially flown down to Bombay to shoot a song sequence for his under-production film Ghatak, Boney Kapoor booked him to crank the camera for his forthcoming film starring Madhuri Dixit and Anil Kapoor under Santoshi's direction, and ABCL picked him to film the corporation's first ever Tamil venture, Ullaasam.

It is admittedly a hectic schedule, not giving Jeeva much time for wife Anees (a correspondent for the south movies section on the Star Movies channel) and their baby daughter - but then, Jeeva loves nothing more than the next opportunity, the next challenge.

And Ullaasam, he says, is as challenging an assignment as they come. "See, ABCL wants us to give the entire film a new look and feel - one of freshness, of youth, of spirit and verve. Let's see what we come up with," he grins, as he prepares to leave for the sets. To peer through his viewfinder and to find - magic...