In the underrated 2018 revenge film, Asuravadham, there’s a shot of the film’s lead actor, M Sasikumar, standing in the middle of a dark field with a cigar… You see him as a silhouette even when lightning strikes sporadically. It’s an image that frightens the film’s antagonist; it also makes a cool “elevating” move for the hero. Cinematographer SR Kathir, who shot the film, reveals there is a story behind this shot, one that connects to the origins of his journey as a cinematographer.
You see, when this Coimbatore native moved to Chennai at the end of 1999 with the long-term goal of becoming a cinematographer, his first short-term goal was to help one of the two eminent directors of photography: PC Sreeram and Santosh Sivan. Kathir learned that Santosh had moved to Mumbai. PC Sreeram, who already had eight assistants in his team, advised Kathir to work with cinematographer Ramji on dumm dumm dumm. Seven years later, after multiple associations with Ramji, a few abandoned projects and a few heartbreaks, Kathir made his debut as a director of photography with the famous director Ram, Kattradhu Tamizhand followed it up in 2008 with the equally iconic Subramaniapuram.
Speaking of Asuravadham thunderbolt, Kathir explains that this was done as a tribute to PC Sreeram, who used a similar gunshot idea in Mani Ratnam Agni Natchathiram (1988). “I try to resist influences in my work, but for the first time in my career, working on Asuravadham, I felt that I had to express the influence of Mr. PC Sreeram. I even told him while I was designing this shot,” shares Kathir, who is an avid admirer of the veteran cinematographer. His WhatsApp profile picture, in particular, is a photo of him hugging PC Sreeram during an awards show, when the latter presented an award for his work on Kidaari (2016).
Two trends emerge when browsing Kathir’s filmography. The first is his association with Sasikumar which he reveals dates back to their Mounam Pesiyadhe days. “When Sasi became a director with Subramaniapuram, Rajesh Yadav was originally supposed to shoot the film, but he pulled out due to delays. When Sasi heard about my work from Ameer, he asked me to shoot the film. I told him that I had given CDs of my showreel to over 100 filmmakers and that he was the first to approach me, when I hadn’t given any to him!
Second, his filmography is filled with hard-hitting and intense films. Nadodigal is the story of three friends whose lives take a violent and disturbing turn when they help a couple to unite; Eesan is about a young boy who avenges the deaths of his older sister and father; Lens explores the real world repercussions of pornography; most recent Jai Bhim needs no introduction. Does the seriousness of a subject affect it, or does it disconnect from the emotion of a scene, choosing instead to focus on technical expression alone? “It is impossible not to be touched by the emotion of these films. For example, police brutality in Jai Bhim was hard to digest, even though we knew we were shooting with actors in an atmosphere that was controlled and created under the supervision of action choreographers,” says Kathir, adding that it’s essential to experience the highs and lows of a character to do the movie justice. “You have to live through the emotions of the characters and the story. This is the only way to achieve something meaningful with our work. Therinjo theriyaamayo, I keep being offered such serious films.
There are, however, a few exceptions in his filmography. For example, he shot the song sequences for Gautham Menon’s romance, Neethane In Ponvasantham, which he says happened by chance. “I was shooting Rajathanthirampresented by GVM, when CIPthe cinematographer had scheduling problems; that’s how I got on board.
Along the same lines, the latest version of Kathir, Kaathuvaakula Rendered Kaadhal— another stint in his otherwise serious filmography — is also a film that came to him after the film’s original cinematographer, Vijay Kartik Kannan, couldn’t find a way around his scheduling conflicts. There’s another pattern here, observes Kathir. “Lightweight Movies ellam naan thedi pona padangal kedayaathu… enna thedi vantha padangal“, he says, laughing.
Interestingly, the two cinematographers, Vijay Kartik Kannan and Kathir, teamed up to shoot for Kaathuvaakula… While Vijay shot the club’s interior sequences involving Samantha and Vijay Sethupathi, Kathir shot the exteriors. Vijay Sethupathi’s shot at the bus stop, as Samantha and Nayanthara propose to him, was shot by Kathir, while Vijay shot the parts where the actor steps out in the rain and enjoys his coveted choco-bar.
Kathir lists the one-piece showdown involving the three leads as one of his favorites. It’s a long take with fluid camera movement in sync with the actors, who make mathematical use of space. “We rehearsed the scene the day before filming where we noted the actor’s movements to work out the scope of the shot. Also on the day of the shoot, they played it several times, and when we shot, it was approved in one take.
The famous dance number from the film, ‘Two two two’, will stand out as perhaps the most unique part of Kathir’s filmography, with color and glitter splashing everywhere. “Vicky likes to make colorful film, and when he sees even a tiny bit of darkness in the frame, he asks me to light it up. So yeah, K.R.K. is definitely a very colorful film.
Kathir notes that a film and its story seek its visual language. “Unlike a serious movie, where the tone and mood of a scene is communicated through the color and temperature of the visual, in movies like K.R.K., the atmosphere is given by the performance of the actors. In such cases, we need to keep the visuals simple, colorful and beautiful. When you have beautiful actors like Sethu, Nayanthara, and Samantha, you’re free to add flourishes in the visuals, but this movie didn’t demand that treatment. Directors are always aware of the tone of a film. For example, Maruthupandian (Asuravadham) was precise about the staging and treatment. Vicky, on the other hand, has a different set of requirements, like looking shiny and making sure the actors look presentable. It’s about adapting to the director’s vision,” he concludes.