An insight into the interests, career, and struggles of one of India’s promising cinematographer, who’s carving a niche for himself in the film industry with indomitable passion and hard work. Arjun Ravi, who joined us in a virtual space amidst this pandemic and consequent limitations, opens up about his life in the industry and gives us a sneak-peek through the cinematographer’s lens.
So, let’s begin from the beginning! Could you tell us how you first broke into the industry, your #originstory?
All original only hahaha! I used to take good photographs and I realized that I enjoyed it very well. I took up Visual Communication because I was good at photography, especially wildlife photography and I thought I’d become a photographer eventually. Since I understood that it was an expensive profession and wanted to get into the industry quicker, I took to the camera and joined Tirru sir for the movie ‘Geetanjali’ which was directed by Priyadarshan sir. Then I went on to do an Ad with Tirru sir, after which he went on to direct a film. Since I was more passionate about the camera than direction, I joined Pradeep Nair ettan (means. Brother) and worked with him for Lal Jose sir’s ‘Immanuel.’ Then I worked alongside Jomon T. John in ‘Ennu Ninte Moideen,’ immediately after which came ‘Picket 43’ and it was a beautiful experience shooting in minus 14 degrees everyday for two weeks, moreover, it was also the last of film cameras in the industry itself. All these make up my career as an Assistant Cinematographer.
I bet every story has a ‘coming of age’ experience. Please take us through yours.
Post this, I worked as a freelance cinematographer in Mumbai for Channel V, MTV, Disney and Hotstar. That period was a struggle as I tried my level best to go without my dad’s name, but I had fun as it was like a competition between dad and me! I worked more and worked harder by myself. I took up anything and everything that came my way. In fact, I worked for ten years as an assistant with zero pay! But these ten years gave me my own ideas and I did a lot of collaborations. Actually Bombay was the kick on my back, because Bombay treats you like a dog and it doesn’t care if you’re Anil Kapoor’s son or Bonny Kapoor’s father, it only says ‘You make your name, you have fame.’
Everything is so unpredictable in the industry. I’ll tell you an instance, I was shooting for a show when my grandfather passed away and dad asked me to fly down to my native the same day. I told the director about it and he told me that I could leave after three shots. After lunch break, as I was setting things up for the third shot my director tells “So Arjun, you said you had to go somewhere?” I said “Yes sir.” He said “Okay fine, leave.” I was confused “Sir, what about the shoot?” and he tells me – “No, your replacement is here.” I was kicked out without any payment and was never called back to that production house! So every work I do now is like one more step closer to my sweet revenge of making a big comeback in Bollywood. After this, my dad asked me to meet Santhosh Sivan sir to join him as his Assistant. But he suggested that I do a Masters course in America as it’d give a better exposure to my career. So I looked up the best schools in the US, cheapest ones also. Indians, I tell you, we look for the cheapest everywhere! New York Film Academy, Los Angeles was my choice. I did my Masters course in Cinematography for a year and then worked there for one and a half years.
What and how was the first, life altering turning point in your career as a cinematographer?
After that, I returned to India and worked with Tirru sir in his Rajinikanth starrer ‘Petta.’ In December 2017, when I went for IFFI in Goa, I met Abrid Shine sir and a month and a half later, I got a call from his Secretary saying that he wanted to meet me. So I flew down to Rishikesh and then to Joshimath. That journey was fun, twelve hours on the road in a local bus and I went crazy! All this time, I had no idea that Shine sir had called me to propose an offer. I reached there by nightfall, and he took me to a few locations and told me about the place etc. but I was still clueless and went about taking pictures. That night he broke the news to me that he was going to do a new project ‘Kung Fu Master’ with a lot of new faces and that he’d like to have me as his cameraman. I was on cloud nine! So that was my first film and I gave it my life and soul. It is a ‘one of it’s kind’ action movie in the Malayalam movie industry. Period.
Turns out it was worth all the hitchhiking, right?
Hhaha yes! The reason why I said all these in detail is to describe the struggle. The struggle is the best part, I’ve always enjoyed it. I still enjoy the struggle every bit.
Why did you choose to be behind the camera instead of experimenting on-screen?
I’m more of a gadget guy. Since childhood, I’ve been a gadget freak. I liked to physically work on things and get technical about everything. Secondly, I used to love art – graffiti, calligraphy, comic strips and the like. Photography was the next best thing after art and since it had a good lucrative value I thought ‘Career bhi ho jayega, hobby bhi ho jayega!’ but I guess photography remained a hobby, it didn’t become a career. Cinematography was something that came up on the line afterwards. I didn’t take up direction because I’ve seen my dad and I thought ‘What will I do if I ever want to work with him? If I become a director, I’d always have to work under him. But I felt I wanted to work with him.’ As I’d mentioned before, he was not someone who’d let me use his name to get things done. It was me against him and I wanted to work along with him so this was the only way ‘I could stand with him and work with him.’
Tell us more about the father-son dynamics between Major Ravi and Arjun Ravi.
He’s been a very strict father since childhood. He used to push me through a lot of things. When in school, he used to push me through athletics and I got into horse riding, and made it to the national and international level and won a gold and a silver medal. He was always a very motivating father. When you’re young you don’t realise that it was a good thing that your father was pushing you but when you grow up it’s like, yeah it makes perfect sense! I’ll tell you an instance, when I was in school he was popular after the film ‘Keerthi Chakra’ and I told him that I wanted a geared cycle to go to school but he wouldn’t let me have one, he would make me take the bus. Being the son of Major. Ravi, people thought I was a pampered child but my dad was the last person who would pamper. But now, he’s like a friend to me, he’s been quite supportive and understanding when it comes to my career. Dad used to not show that he’s guiding me to something good, but he would push me to struggle for it.
How far has your father impacted your experience in this field?
Honestly, he didn’t do anything. “You’re learning. Get the maximum amount of input you can out of it. Learning is the best payment you can ever get. Your experience working under big names and networking skills will help you reach heights. That will fetch you respect.” that’s what he tells me. His success is his success, the name he gets is his money. So I think he’s motivated me to see it in that way too. He taught me value for money from a young age and brought me up well. So even in my career, in the first ten years, my regret was not that I wasn’t paid but that I couldn’t make it to an Associate from an Assistant Cinematographer. All throughout, dad was just being dad!
Your Instagram bio says ‘Photography is my first love.’ How and when was your first encounter with photography?
As I mentioned earlier, I was into gadgets. Phones like Nokia and Sony Ericsson with it’s amazing flash and tiny screens were the ones I used to take photographs first. That’s when my father gave me one of his old film camera, the Lumix N6 and taught me how to use it. That was my first experience with the camera. This one time when dad went to Dubai, he got me a Sony Alpha A7 camera. It was my first digital camera and since then my scale for camera and photography has improved. From then onwards, I took up photography as my hobby. Dad told me to make my hobby my career as well and motivated me to learn about it professionally. So I took up a course in Visual Communication in Hindustan College of Arts and Science. But, I was working in the industry at the same time so maintaining my interest in photography became difficult because being a cinematographer our day begins from the start of the call sheet till its end. This time crunch made photography remain a hobby. I still like the play of light and certain other things when it comes to photography but cinematography became my career.
Music videos or feature films. Which is your favourite niche?
Ahh! This is like you know, you want Subway and you want Domino’s hahah! I love both music videos and feature films also. Music videos are easy, it’s more of the creative and fun side. It lets you explore out of your box and do anything and everything you feel like. On the other hand, cinematography has its own style, feel and way. I mean, it has its own swag. But I like all of them, sometimes I feel like doing one and sometimes another. You feel like you want to change and explore and I like doing it, not many people get to do that.
Cinematographers you look up to, or those who have influenced you to become who you are?
Of course, Santhosh Sivan sir! I’ve looked up to him since childhood. I love him, his work, his amazing lighting. After him, it’s Tirru sir I looked up to – my first genuine boss. He’s an amazing man and the first person who taught me about lighting and related things. They’re two of the most talented people in the industry. I particularly love the works ‘Hey Ram’ and ‘Dil Se,’ they’re two favourites and two superheroes of my life.
In ‘Kung Fu Master,’ the stunts were mostly in challenging circumstances with high altitude and low temperature. What made you go for it?
Reason one – I wanted to stand up to a lot of people. Reason two – I wanted to be independent and make a name for myself on my own. Reason three – I wanted to bring something new to the table I wanted to be ‘the first’. I think these are what motivated me to do this movie.
‘Vaanku’ has a subtly metaphoric touch to its style, with the protagonist Razia being shown as a parallel with nature etc. and ‘Kung Fu Master’ has an explicitly powerful or rather rigorous style. Of these two, which did you enjoy doing the most?
In any genre of my work, I think the thrill is always in Action movies so I think ‘Kung Fu Master’ gave me the thrills. But I enjoyed working in ‘Vaanku’ a lot. It is a feel good movie, so it was a chance for me to make the audience have elements to feel good about. It was quite different from the other projects I’ve done. I had to be very careful when working on it, because a little extra could make it look like a commercial serial as it deals with a very delicate subject. What made ‘Vaanku’ thrilling was that we had to finish the shoot in just twenty-eight days.
Major differences you’ve seen between Hollywood and Indian cinematography?
This answer might sound diplomatic but it’s not, it’s the truth. When I was in America, I loved the working style and techniques quite a lot, not to mention the equipment. But, the thing is that you’re doing something that every fourth person would do there so for you to stand out, you’ll have to do something huge. I’d always had a passion towards Indian cinema and I wanted my career to grow in India, although I knew that if there are six people doing your particular work in America then there are thirty here in India. The competition is way more here so it feels good working through the struggles. America is one of the best though. I’d put it this way – I’d love to work in America but at the end of the day I’d come back to India.
Can you think of a shot, either throughout your career or in the last few years, that has been particularly challenging and is close to your heart?
Hahaha, tough question for an upcoming cameraman! It’s like choosing between your father and mother. I love every shot of mine! My work is my life, I attempt to prove something to myself through every work. So every frame that I’ve taken in ‘Kung Fu Master’ and in ‘Vaanku’ are very close to my heart. But if you ask me for specific shots – although it’s not there in the movie, there was this shot taken for ‘Kung Fu Master’ which was at night in Lakshman Jhula where the actress takes a face dip in the river Ganga. The light on the bridge that falls on the river makes it look golden and it is as if she’s scooping out liquid gold and splashing it on her face. My next favourite shot would be from ‘Vaanku.’ It’s the opening shot where the lead actress walks into the forest.
Apart from being a cinematographer, if given a choice, which other role would you choose – a director, scriptwriter or actor?
Director! Director! Hands down, direction. Anyway not acting, it’s definitely not my cup of tea. I hate acting! I’d choose direction any day.
What do you think of the current state of cinematography in mainstream and world cinema with respect to the transition from film to digital camera?
Wow! Great question! Very rare people ask these questions actually. I think you’re the second person who’s asking this to me, after a person back in Los Angeles. I love film a lot, the way a film rolls over and how beautifully it shows a person – there’s so much to a film. I’m not a big fan of digital to be honest, I’m a little old school that way. But in this tele-era, you have to cope up with it. Given an option, I’d shoot in film. The discipline that you get in film, you’ll never get in digital because there you can do as many revisions as you want over and over again. In a film camera, when someone presses the record button, there is perfection that needs to be kept in the highest standards – the dialogues need to be performed correctly, the actor has to come up to the mark, the light needs to be perfect – everything needs to go in a sync. This makes the old movies stand out and that’s why I’d say that actors like Mammootty and Mohanlal are legends for a reason.
One thing you like and dislike in your profession.
Alright, I’ll go with the like first. Being a cinematographer, I love the crafting of light. Lighting is something that I’ve always wanted to learn, I’ve learnt and I’d like to experiment more in every movie I do in my life. Even a sixty watt bulb, a tube light or a streak of light coming from the outside could catch my attention. That’s actually the only reason that makes me stay in my career, as a cinematographer. As for something I dislike, everyone isn’t given the opportunity. There are younger, upcoming people who wish to work with big directors and I don’t find it reasonable that even an upcoming director would want a big cameraman. There’s no equal opportunity. I know that there are so many people in the market and everyone cannot be given a chance, but everybody should be given at least a platform to give a shot.
Over the course of your career, has someone disagreed with your artistic vision? How did you fix it?
That’s a good question! There is something you learn with ten years of experience in the industry and ten films you’ve done. My takeaway is that every idea needs to be heard. I would always listen to people’s ideas and motivate them to share, and if it’s impractical within the limits, I’d come to an understanding with them that it wouldn’t be possible. Maybe because of the struggles I had when I was coming up in the industry, it’s important to me that everyone’s word is important. I think I respect them and I get it back as well. Experience speaks, so when I say that things are not possible, it is accepted. If not, I negotiate.
Can you share any funny or embarrassing moments that took place on a set?
Mmm… I’ve had a lot of fun but funny moments are difficult to spot hahahh! There have been times when I had to run behind sets and stand coolly and wait for them to call ‘Action’ when ten people would come running and yelling “Hey! They called ‘Action’ why are you not putting the smoke up!” This was during the sets of ‘Ennu Ninte Moideen’ where the cast was a kilometer away and I was supposed to throw the rain and let the smoke out from a big distance. There were these big actors like Prithviraj and Parvathy waiting for me to start it and I was standing there chilling! The funny part was when I came up after a shot to the set and was asked where I was, I said I was next to the rain and they told me – ‘I don’t think the shot had rain!’ All the big actors gave me looks as if I’d murdered someone, and it was a typical cringe moment.
What does your typical work week look like?
Before and after a shoot, I’m busy. There are times when I’ve gone away for an entire year for shoot related things like pre-production look, first location outing and things like that. After coming back from the location I’d be looking into lights and cameras, ways to reach there, equipment required for the shoot like bulbs or ropes, and the like. So from the beginning of a film till its end, I’m preoccupied and occupied. An entire sixteen hour work schedule everyday, on and off. There’s no five-day work week in the industry, so I’m occupied during the weekends also. Actually, this lockdown period has been the restoration period of my life hahha!
What is it that still excites you about the film industry these days, i.e., what is it that gets you out of your ‘Monday blues?’
Oh my! I’m sure so many of us in the industry feel that way so I’ll give you a single answer that I think speaks for many – nobody comes into this industry just for the heck of it. You cannot just come into it, you need a passion for it. There are times when we had to work for three to four days straight, going from one set to another but the struggles and sleepless nights, they all come in a package. So if you are in the industry you’ve to give it your heart and soul. The industry is all about passion, and I think it’s a passion that drives us to work and work more.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career, someone who aspires to be the next ‘Arjun Ravi?’
‘Be passionate about what you are doing.’ Don’t make the industry look like your career option, don’t look at it as something you can make money out of. In all honesty, you’ve to give your heart and soul to this industry. Make sure you are passionate about what you do and let success follow you!