Aching beauty

Published: Jul 21, 2019, 05:38 IST | Meenakshi Shedde

Of course both cinemas share common elements, but more regional indie films are realistic, on socio-political issues; earthy, with traditional/folk music and dance that is practically erased from Bollywood

Aching beauty
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeWhile curating and programming films for various festivals over the years, including the Berlin Film Festival, I am accustomed to dealing with diverse cinemas within the subcontinent. For instance, in Bollywood, it is quite normal for the more grandiose films to have a budget of '100cr – '200cr, hundreds of cast and crew on the set, and productions that drag on for months, sometimes, a year. Contrast this with Dr Bijukumar Damodaran ("Dr Biju"), a highly awarded maker of Malayalam films. He would tell me, "I will start shooting the film in September, so I can send you a cut of the film by November." In other words, he will finish the shoot and much of the post-production of his film in about two months. My festival colleagues would do an eye-roll in disbelief when I told them, but I knew Dr Biju would keep his word, and he did. Or he would say in self-reproach, "I was supposed to finish the shoot of the film in 16 days, but I took 18 days. Oh God." Only in regional cinema can you finish the entire shoot of a feature film in just over two weeks, with the leanest of budgets, ranging from a few lakhs to about R1 cr. The crew is small and efficient, and the lean budgets also allow them to take greater risks in the subjects and narrative treatment, than mainstream Bollywood. Of course both cinemas share common elements, but more regional indie films are realistic, on socio-political issues; earthy, with traditional/folk music and dance that is practically erased from Bollywood.

Yet, many Indian regional filmmakers have been showcased at film festivals worldwide. Dr Biju's own films have been shown at Cannes, Telluride, Montreal World Film Festival, Shanghai, Fajr (Tehran), Tallinn Black Nights (Estonia), Cairo and elsewhere. One of his closest creative collaborators on this journey was the brilliant cinematographer MJ Radhakrishnan, a pillar of Malayalam cinema, who passed away last week.

"MJ", as he was called, had worked with two generations of the finest Malayalam directors, including Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shaji Karun, Murali Nair, Jayaraj, Ranjith Balakrishnan and Dr Biju. He had generously supported a large number of first-time directors and independent art-house filmmakers. I was quite heartbroken to hear of his passing. I have seen at least 22 Malayalam films he has shot over the decades, including three by Jayaraj alone, that were also at the Berlin Film Festival—Kaliyattam (Berlin, 1999), Karunam (Berlin, 2001) and Ottaal (The Trap, that won the Crystal Bear at Berlin, 2016), among others. The cinematography in Ottaal, especially, about a boy and his grandfather, has an aching beauty.

I once had lunch with MJ and Dr Biju in Thiruvananthapuram, and peppered him with questions. He answered all my questions with a broad, genial smile—that was MJ. He had won seven Kerala State Film Awards for best cinematography, and six international awards, working in about 70 feature films over four decades. His acclaimed films include Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Naalu Pennungal and Pinneyum; Murali Nair's Marana Simhasanam, Pattiyude Divasam and Arimpara (all of which were screened at Cannes), Jayan Cherian's Papilio Buddha (Berlin); Jayaraj's Desadanam; Ranjith's Thirakkatha; Leena Manimekalai's Sengadal and Ligy Pullappally's Sancharram. Perhaps his most prolific collaboration was with Dr Biju, with whom he made nine films, including Saira (Cannes), Perariyathavar, Veettilekkulla Vazhi, Kaadu Pookkunna Neram and Veyil Marangal (Trees Under the Sun). His last few films were Shaji Karun's Olu, which opened the Indian Panorama at the International Film Festival of India last year, and Dr Biju's Trees Under the Sun, which just won the Golden Goblet Outstanding Artistic Achievement Award at the Shanghai Film Festival last month.

By contrast, the average Bollywood-goer has little interest in movies beyond the stars. He is unlikely to be able to name any Hindi film cinematographer, let alone a Malayali one. He always walks out before the end credits roll—who cares?

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. She can be reached on

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