Balu Mahendra passed out of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, in 1969. He began his career as a cameraman for the Malayalam film Nellu in 1974 and his directorial debut with the Kannada film Kokila in 1977. He won the National Film Award for Best Cinematography for Kokila and for Moondram Pirai (1983). His Veedu won the National Film Award for the Best Feature Film.

“I graduated in cinematography from the Film Institute in Pune in 1969 with a gold medal. While we were at the institute, we were exposed to a lot of world cinema, which did not happen outside. There, I saw many countries through their films. Since I was in the cinematography department, you would think that I learned more about cinematography. But it was the other way around. I used to cut my cinematography classes and attend classes conducted in the departments of direction, screenplay writing and editing. However, I used to get the top rank in cinematography, so the professor did not mind my going to other classes. My main concern at that time was direction and scripting with a little bit of interest in cinematography.

When I started watching films with a little more interest in cinematography, I came to know that some films are very realistic and some are far out in camerawork. These films were later termed neo-realistic cinema. Starting with The Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio de Sica in 1948, these films had a totally different kind of a camerawork. The script and other aspects of the film were also real and close to life.

In France, some journalists told film-makers that they were making worthless films and that they would show them how to make meaningful movies. They are [Francois] Truffaut and [Jean-Luc] Goddard. They were called the French new wave film-makers. Their camerawork was remarkably different from the Hollywood style. Though some of the Hollywood cinematographers were masters in their work, others were bookish. My favourite cinematographer was Nestor Almendros. Another cinematographer whom I loved was Michael Chapman. Both these masters made some remarkable films and well-photographed movies. A well-photographed movie is that which is very close to the script. I hate to see the camerawork that tries to be exhibitionist. I immediately stop watching the film if the cameraman tries to attract the attention of the viewer to his work. The cameraman is supposed to work with the film and not show his presence in an attractive way. I noticed then that there were two schools of cinematography distinctly different from each other. They are the realistic school and the Hollywood school.

I finished my training at the Film Institute and came out to work for my first film, NelluChemmeen. As I like realistic cinematography, I thought I would hereafter stick to the realistic school of photography, which I have been doing until now. Here, I want to mention the comments from journalists who see a film and say that the camerawork is beautiful. It is really an ill-informed comment about the camerawork. Now, I tell my students that there is a vast difference between beautiful photography and good photography.

Good cinematography aids and goes along with the script of the film. Whatever the film demands, the cinematography must do to capture it. Beautiful photography means it is a picture postcard. When I work with my assistants and see a film of mine and if anybody says it is a beautiful shot, I immediately throw the shot out. I have seen people clapping for a stupid shot, which a novice can take or an amateur can shoot.

If any shot is needed for my films, I light the place as closely as possible in a realistic way. I keep my beautiful photography for my unrealistic shots. Unrealistic photography in my films are in the songs. I hate to have them. I love songs and like to hear them; they are meant only for listening. Even now I hate to have songs in my films. If at all I keep songs in my films, they have to be a part of the story. Songs were a part of the films in Tamil cinema once upon a time, not anymore. In the realistic school of cinematography in the Tamil film industry, Ashok Kumar was a good cinematographer. I have great admiration for his work. I feel happy that south India has some of the best cinematographers who work in various Indian films. They are P.C. Sriram, Ravi K. Chandran, K.V. Anand, Santhosh Sivan, Shaji Karun, Saney Joseph, and our wonderful Balasubramaiam. I can proudly say that our cinematographers are by far the best in the country. I am also happy that half of them are from some institute or the other. In the other school, namely the Hollywood style, we have the master Marcus Bartley, who has shot films like Missiamma, Pathala Bairavi, and other films for Vijaya Productions. He was a master in lighting, but he adopts the Hollywood style of shooting films. Naturally, A. Vincent, who has worked as an assistant to Marcus Bartley, is a wonderful cinematographer and a perfectionist.

When colour came, some cinematographers where taken away by it. I remember, in Kadhalikka Neramillai in one shot there is a window with rods [grill]. Each rod has a different colour. The cameraman [Vincent] got carried away by the colour. However, his black-and-white cinematography, particularly for Malayalam films, was marvellous. Incidentally, he is a very good director, too. I have a secret belief that Vincent master must have been a strong pillar behind the director C.V. Sridhar as he is the photographer of all Sridhar’s films.

Now, because of the speed and total change in attitude towards film-making, cinematography has also changed a lot. The prime interest of a cinematographer now seems to be to attract the attention of the next producer. I did not see it that way. I followed the realistic way of filming and now I have finished my next film, Thalaimuraigal, which is to be released soon. After shouldering story, screenplay, dialogues and direction in all my films, I have also acted in the lead role in this film. Cinematography has changed, so also the way films are made.

As told to S.R. Ashok Kumar