“There is never such a thing as bad light,” says master Cinematographer Ravi Varman. It happens to be one of many profound thoughts that he shared in the course of this interview. Writing about his narrative, his life’s awe-inspiring journey uphill, I think it would be a gross understatement to simply say he’s witnessed the far end of accolades and challenges alike.
Currently working on Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan, Ravi Varman, much to everyone’s knowledge, is one of the country’s leading, on-demand cinematographers adorning a poetic sensibility to his frames. With a fascinating track record, he’s worked with many directors including Mani Ratnam, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Anurag Basu, Imtiaz Ali, Raj Kumar Hirani, Priyadarshan, Shankar, G.V.M, Duane Adler, K.S Ravikumar, Jeyaraj, Prashanth Neel and TK Rajeev Kumar.
Meeting Ravi Varman again after what really has been years, was a warm experience. Suited in his signature black tee-shirt, military boots, and a familiar grin, we exchanged the humblest of hellos. For a moment, I was reminded of the stark distinction of where he stands currently in the industry and his first moments as a young boy seeing his mother’s out-of-focus photograph in a Thanjavur photo studio—a moment that directly or indirectly inspired him to take to the camera.
As a young boy, he moved to Madras from Thanjavur, “I never thought I’d come this far. I was a simple village boy who wanted to study well, wear colourful clothes and eat good food. When my mother passed away, I had no option but to leave my village. I stopped studying for two years from my seventh standard. I wanted to continue but couldn’t. I had to find a way to live,” says Ravi reminiscing his early days.
Moving to Madras (now Chennai), Ravi traveled in hopes of studying, working, and building a life. He met his father’s friend, a lawyer in Chennai, “Much like my village, I thought I could move to the city and live anywhere, sleep anywhere. My father’s friend treated me as a guest on day one, and then he asked me to clean the car and other things starting day two. At the time, it felt wrong, and I wanted to go back home. A trip back to my village Poyyundarkudikadu, in Thanjavur district required forty rupees and I only had thirteen. He took that money away from me and almost challenged me to go back home or survive Chennai without him,” recalls Ravi, pointing to how this experience pushed him to grow further.
Motivated by many such happenings along with words from Thirukural, Thevaaram, and the works of Bharathiyar, Ravi mentions that he just had to stay back, keep his self-respect intact and survive Madras by himself, “I thought of everything, the things I wanted to do and stayed in Chennai, in the streets, under bridges and wherever I could. I left his house, of course. I knew what Chennai was made of then—an ocean of people, but no one I really knew. I remember at the time my goal was to buy a Mercedes-Benz and go back to my village or never return.” Ravi has gone through life’s many ups and downs, including a crucial, life-changing few days in jail. In retrospect these are collective experiences that could be documented as a book on its own.
Between conversational pauses, moments of collective reminiscence, and the reassuring nods of what has been an extraordinary life, I couldn’t help but think of what it must’ve felt like to tell a little boy at the time that he would one-day paint magic with his camera, that he would visualize the world’s most beautiful love stories, that cinema would remember his name for its posterity.
“After three months in Chennai, I found a job at a hotel. I didn’t want to buy a camera or anything at the time. In my village, during festivals, there were people who came in from other places wearing very colorful lungis. They wore vibrant pinks, blues, even ultraviolet vests. I remember those colors inspiring me. I wanted to wear them too. So, I went to Burma bazaar to buy similar clothes.”
With a salary of 150 rupees, it was happenstance that Ravi stumbled upon a camera shop on his little adventure to find colourful clothes at Chennai’s Burma Bazaar in the quaint and rustic Moor Market. After what felt like the bargain of a lifetime, and a frustrated shopkeeper’s attempt to make some money that one fine day, Ravi parted with a camera at a solid 150 rupees, the entirety of his salary. With no new clothes bought, but a camera in their place, he still remembers protecting it by wrapping it within his clothes. His motivation to stop that day and make this purchase goes back to him seeing his mother’s out-of-focus photograph—a picture that didn’t even reveal her face enough.
The following month, as curiosity got the better of him, Ravi explored the nuances of his camera. With his next paycheck, he got a book on photography from Connemara, along with a Tamil to English translator to help him learn. From here on, watching multiple films to self-learning photography and overexposing reels by mistake in the process, Ravi’s journey to becoming the master cinematographer that he is today, began.
I’ve wondered how much love played a part in his life, much like it would in any artist’s—ebbing and flowing mercilessly in its wake, Ravi indulged us by disclosing charming little details about his wife, “My wife, my then-girlfriend, wrote me my first letter. It was very warm, very endearing—it was made of all the things that your parents would write in a letter: eat-wells and take-cares. She’s been and continues to be my biggest support system.” It was during their notably challenging phase of coming together to marry (considering family disapproval and such), that Ravi recalls planning his life one deeply introspective night in a starry Pondicherry balcony.
Six months from then, he landed his first opportunity as a cinematographer.
Wherever the light goes, art follows
Venturing into techniques, what makes his practice and creative process, Ravi talks about the realities of shooting on the ground, and the philosophies of expectations and adapting to each day as it comes, “Art is collective. It’s not an individual’s job. I read the story like the audience would. A lot of things do change at the location. Light will change, the weather will change. What’s important is being ready to adapt to what the day has to offer.”
Pointing to the room full of people, including myself, the editor, our photographer ensemble, and the creative head, Ravi elaborates, “Everyone is lit differently. Everyone here has a different light on them, you have a certain mood on you, he has a different mood. Every moment and capture of light is very important. There’s magic in it. I learned this from experience. There never is such a thing as bad light.”
Continuing his thought, Ravi talks about light in a way I’ve never heard of before. To him, a particular scene in a film is not consistent with the other, “One scene will have everything. You can’t really make that out as you watch. I’ve wondered why people enjoy certain visuals. I realized it’s because one visual to another is not the same. There are new things to see, new perspectives. The light never changes, but each face in a scene does. I can change the camera by 360 degrees if I want to, but I’d never change the light.”
Ravi makes his final case on the superiority of light in its natural form, in its innate behavior. So much so, it felt like he was talking about a best friend, a lover, a person of utmost reverence.
At that moment, I would be lying if I said I didn’t believe this photon-made entity was a person walking amongst us, “People may think I’m mad, but light speaks with me. When I fix the camera, the light tells me to move the camera a certain way as needed. People say the most valuable language is silence. For me the most valuable language is that of light,” says Ravi.
On inspirations and growth in cinema
Sometimes there are invisible and at others, there are obvious goalposts in a person’s career growth in cinema, or life in general. Ravi is enlightened, let alone aware of how this trajectory works or has worked for many decades in the industry, “When your first movie is a hit, it’s about the survival of the fittest. You give a few more hits, you’re called a star. It’s after that, that you’re called an artist—your performance matters, that’s what people look for.
I didn’t plan any of this, I just kept moving on with the day, now I move on with each second because every second matters. Earlier I was working for a film, now I work for every frame. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, or the next minute. All that matters to me is this second, this frame right in front of me.”
He talks of how once he finishes a piece of work, he never looks back. It’s in Ravi’s nature to move forward to the next thing. Taking a step back, he also dives into where inspirations and ideas come, for artists and the power of responsibility in making art, “We are not inventors, we are simply mediators. With any idea, someone’s already done it, and then there is someone else that has done it before them. I work for myself; the frame works for me.”
Art gives you, what money can’t
Ravi’s convictions of creating art and working in pursuit of its creation are second to none, “Money may never stay with you, but art always does. It gives you an identity. When we talk about Balachander, or Shivaji, we don’t know what car they owned or how much money they made. We only talk about them because they’re artists. I slowly understood that money is not that important. This is the way to focus on ourselves, as an artist.” This, he emphasizes, is the introspection one needs. In a moment’s pause, he also adds, “Smart work is equally important. Work is all that matters. Personally, I’d never look at you and think, who is Vidhya. It’s only about what you do, not who you are.”
Rembrandt, Picasso, and other painter inspirations
Known for his aesthetically alluring work with the camera, and his sometimes-surreal references, Ravi shares his relationship and inspirations birthed from paintings, “After a point, without conscious knowledge, I started looking at paintings, painters and their work. I get inspired naturally by them, and I often think, why not bring this into motion films, which is how Ramleela happened and Sanjay Leela Bhansali liked it.”
Discussing techniques and styles further, Ravi adds in intriguing detail more about his visual inspirations, “Kaatru Veliyidai is a perfect painting, Jagga Jasoos would compare to comic books, think of street photography with Tamasha, and the glare and flare in Barfi.” His introduction of the glare and flare technique in Barfi was a turning point in the industry’s visual storytelling journey. In addition to Ravi’s accomplishments in Barfi, Tamasha stands tall today as one of his most timeless works.
Speaking of specific painters, he adds, “In a particular frame, lighting inspiration may have come from Rembrandt, composition perhaps from Picasso. A single frame can carry many painter inspirations. There’s a collective integration of art here—you’ll see some abstraction in some frames, for example. As I said, we are only mediators.”
Ravi is not sure if it’s luck or Karma that he has had the opportunity to work with big filmmakers in India. All that he knew mattered along the way was his work, what he captures on camera. Elaborating further on other engagements in the industry, it was refreshing to discover that from the year 2014, Ravi was often reached out to by the students of New York Film Academy for their projects on film and making a visual study of his works.
Adaptability and Enjoying the Process
Discussing Ravi’s moments on sets, he mentions that there are no expectations of his everyday work style. Everything boils down to adapting the self, what the day has to offer, and focusing on the visual image of the story, “I have a visual image after the story. I only think of that. We are discovering actors and other aspects of the film. There’s a certain way actors think, and directors think. I just focus on exploration. On set, everyone’s good at what they do. I’m the best cameraman there and the director is his best. I could never direct like the director, neither can the director shoot like me. So, there’s individual space on the spot. It’s only when we poke our noses in someone else’s department would they do the same back to you. I usually avoid doing that. I’ll give my opinion only when asked.”
We ask what his favorite movies are, and Ravi says, “I don’t have any favourite movies. With Barfi, I had to prove myself. I needed one more film after it because I couldn’t do everything I wanted to with it. Similarly, with Ramleela. After a point, life just flows. There are no expectations. I do my best with whatever is available at my disposal.”
I think Ravi nails one of the profound ways to practice art, and live life, “Sometimes we think too much about someone else’s work. I often realize when I do that and stop. I think that’s why I’ve come this far, by focusing on myself.”
We have to talk about our movies, our culture
Grounded in the reality of the country’s trajectory for good films, and our journey there, Ravi shines light on the importance of appreciating art and cinema that is homegrown.
Take it from someone who has lived the last three years away from our hometown of Chennai, in the Midwestern US—to value what’s near and dear can take some conscious retrospection (and distance). Resonating with many humans near and far including myself, Ravi elaborates, “Some people after watching my film said, ‘This Indian film looks good,’ just like one would compare the quality of a film to that of an English or a European film. Hearing people name a category of films as Indian films… made me feel proud as an artist. We have to talk about our movies, we have a great culture, we can’t lose it. We’re very family-oriented, the respect for our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters persist in India as a unique cultural identity.” He smiles having drawn a compelling parallel between films and our lives set in India.
The Philosophy of Life for an Artist
Evolving as an artist, Ravi realized that encouragement from people when you’re ambitious is a given and as part of that very journey there may also be bitter insults or jealousy, “Insults to an artist aren’t because of other people, it’s because of yourself. What I mean by that is, insults are a part of life, all it really means is you’re growing”.
As something akin to a conversation coming full circle, Ravi ventures into how an artist lives life, “In my early years, I had a basic dream and that was to survive. I didn’t carry any big dreams. But after moving to Chennai, I noticed that I was unknowingly jumping into the path of my ambitions. Much like that, I started to face life and society as it came to me then and continue to till today.”
Given his remarkable life, real-world experiences are invaluable to Ravi, “Earlier I felt, I didn’t study in any institutions and that I was unlucky because I couldn’t make it. But, in this world, society and circumstances taught me more than any institution could ever have.
I often think of each day of life as a compartment. People say the world is small, but it’s only the compartment that’s small, it is a big world out there. Living everyday life is like jumping from one compartment to another. The truth is I don't know what my last compartment will be before my end. I do know that before I learn how many compartments I’m bound to see in my life, I am sure I'll die.” Ravi believes there’s always a lot to explore as an artist.
As a natural, but unconscious inclination to his creative endeavours, he notes that his works are not repetitive; but thriving with suspense and often surprises him in the end, “I don’t carry any sort of expectations in life, whatever came my way, I believe happened to be a bonus point for me. All I know is, I’m enjoying the process of this journey, and that’s all that really matters.”
Looking up for a moment, he laughs “We got philosophical there, didn’t we?”