“I was always drawn to images and words. So, I used to write poetry, used to take stills.” — Preetha Jayaraman, in a conversation with cinematographer Pooja Gupta, IWCC Tech Talk 2020
This article endeavours to document the journey of the Indian cinematographer Preetha Jayaraman and deeply studies some of her works, including TV commercials and feature films. The article aims to analyse the different techniques Preetha Jayaraman adopted while shooting different kinds of visuals for different platforms.
Being one of the first four women to be included in the Indian Society of Cinematographers, with a varied experience of working in television commercials, shooting music videos, and having multiple feature films to her credit — Preetha gives us so much to look forward to. But this is not where we wanted to begin from.
As much as we were intrigued to understand her work and shooting techniques, we also wanted to know how did Preetha Jayaraman, in a family of engineers and doctors (Preetha’s father is an engineer, and her grandfather is a doctor), decided to take up cinematography, especially at the time when the subject wasn’t in the league of professional courses. What excited Preetha about cinematography? Is it similar to what we, too, are feeling while pursuing our course and studying subjects like advanced cinematography?
Preetha’s uncle, PC Sreeram, a National award-winning Indian film director and cinematographer, had a profound impact on her during her childhood. In the online IWCC Tech Talk Event 2020, Preetha mentioned how she vividly remembers going to the sets and being exposed to films and the process of production, which ultimately drew her toward this career. Having her uncle as an inspiration was one thing for her, but she made sure she learned the practical knowledge and operations properly, before beginning her work on the sets, which is why she talks about her joining the Indian Film Institute.
“I think everybody needs basic knowledge, and then you get into practical. Having a sound technical base gets you a long way.” The discipline of learning and being composed on sets is something Preetha Jayaraman learned while assisting PC Sreeram. The invaluable experiences of dealing with people who are a crucial part of filmmaking — be it the actors or the crew members, observing the DoP and their role — honed Preetha’s skills and brought her this far. She started her journey assisting her uncle PC Sreeram and recalls that she wasn’t even allowed near a camera for many years. This was frustrating for her. However, she learned it all on paper first and then applied her skills practically.
Being on the sets is an experience that, according to Preetha Jayaraman, tests one’s aptitude and patience for being on the field as the work is both mentally and physically exhausting. She mentions how back then, when she started assisting, taking notes diligently was crucial to her learning process as she had to note down the exposure, the frames per second, lighting diagram, etc. Once the film was delivered and the first copy was reviewed, all these notes she took, used to come back to her, making it a full circle of learning and relearning. It is noteworthy how she approaches the digital vs film debate, wherein she admits that digital works very well when she is shooting low light or while shooting in the streets.
Earlier, it was impossible to use the neon lights or sodium vapour lamps, and those are the areas where she likes shooting with digital. The rest she treats as film. Letting her imagination lead her and playing with lights and shadows, she worked as a DOP for Mani Ratnam’s Vaanam Kottattum.
Vaanam Kottattum is a family drama that revolves around Selva and Mangai, who are brought up by their mother after their father gets arrested for killing two people. The story revolves around redemption and a broken family which is trying to come to terms with the loss of the father figure as well as their previous home. It is steeped in patriarchy and underscores it by trying to reconcile the father with his children and restoring the status quo in the end. The film constructs the reality quite convincingly yet doesn’t refrain from using the stylistic tropes as seen in masala movies.
The cinematography reflects the same with the use of vibrant colours from the green banana marketplace, colourful houses, and green landscapes. However, the actors taking up that space are always dressed in muted colours such as beige, brown, dark red or blue, and this does the job of bringing out their ‘commonness’ yet making them stand apart from the vibrant background.
The bustling city doesn’t register as much as the village, which the cinematography focuses on by using high-top angle shots of winding roads, large fields, and sprawling mountains. The city was a strange, cold place where people were greedy and selfish, yet the village that they left behind was still the idealised and nostalgic oasis of familial unity. When the family is reconciled, they are seen returning back to the village.
The lighting is naturalistic. The use of shadows enhances the drama, especially in the scenes where the mother goes to meet the father in prison. The lighting is largely practical, but the use of repetitive red light on the mentally unstable son of the person who got killed by the father seems to make a statement about his antagonism. With lighting being largely naturalistic, this seems forced, as Jayaraman had to add neon lights in certain places to create that effect.
The fighting scene was a dramatic denouement created with the use of sodium vapour lamps and neon lights. Jayaraman also used minimal camera movements, especially in the revelation of characters, and allowed the drama to unfold. She shoots through surfaces, foreground objects or people, to create beautiful compositions.
In Hey Sinamika, which is a light-hearted romantic comedy revolving around a house husband and his working wife, the visuals are bright and colourful, grounded in an urban setting. The urban middle-class space is established by the high-rise apartments, sleek offices and cafes. The lighting is also naturalistic and practical, except for the wedding dance sequence, which has a Sanjay Leela Bhansali-inspired set design and lighting done using warm yellow lights.
She has created contrast using teal and yellow lights to establish an office space. She also uses the workplace as the place where the wife feels isolated and lonely living in the new city with top-angle crane shots separating her from the environment, whereas the domestic space is aglow with warm lighting. The golden hour is re-created a lot of times throughout the movie. The camera movement is minimal, with slow dolly-ins to show intimacy. Jayaraman’s use of practical backlights throughout the movie not only provides separation from the background but also casts a romantic halo around them, which feels intimate.
Her initial work ‘Asli Azaadi’ is a historical documentary on female freedom fighters. It uses various archival footage, photographs, newspaper clippings, monuments, and interviews
of women who were part of the freedom struggle to narrate their role in leading the revolutionary front. The documentary has a constructed sequence wherein three women are listening and singing Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s Bhajan. Her use of natural lighting to construct beautiful yet simple visuals is heavy, with cultural and symbolic meanings ranging from Gandhi’s charkha to wire mesh.
It is fascinating to note the different techniques Preetha Jayaraman adopted for 30-second TV commercials in comparison to the films that she did. A few of these advertisements are uploaded on her Youtube channel, which dates back to 2010. Interestingly, each advertisement has a different style and connection with the audience.
As much as we were expecting to track an iconic Preetha Jayaraman camerawork, we found how experimental her approach has been throughout. For instance, in the ICICI advertisement series (2011) that she did — in each advertisement, she captured conversations between the actors differently. Be it in terms of camera angles, still frame, or motion, the 30-second advertisements were visually engaging, and although the pattern of the script was uniform — two people conversing over the opening of ICICI banks — redundancy was never felt when watching them back-to-back.
Major credit for this goes to the visual creations by the cinematographer of different moods in each advertisement. In contrast to TV commercials, Preetha Jayaraman even did a recent Apple Film Advertisement with Aditi Ramesh (Singer) in a vertical 9:16 format. While this is a growing trend on social media platforms, what stood out in Preetha’s cinematography was how brilliantly even the vertical frame captured a wide view with keeping the subject vertically far from the lens, even if they are in one corner of the room or the kitchen. The close-ups brought depth and pace to the advertisement.
When viewed on the mobile screen, the overall product was pleasing to the eye and refreshing. In conclusion, her simple approach to cinematography that enhances the action and actor and immerses a person into the narrative is what makes her such a prolific cinematographer.
The gender debate in production
“It is not my work as a DOP (director of photography) that is an issue, because once on board, it is all about work. The challenge is in getting that opportunity in the first place.” — says Preetha Jayaraman on why being picked for a project should be about talent, not gender.
In one of her articles in the Times of India, Preetha Jayaraman talked about how the field of production is work-oriented. Ideally, it shouldn’t be gender-focused because it is the work that speaks volumes about you and what you can deliver to the production. Having said that, she acknowledged that women cinematographers like her have worked in a male-dominated environment in which opportunities to men have been offered more than to women and other genders.
While things are changing with time, there is still a long way to go. Jayaraman also mentioned her being a part of the Indian Women Photographer Collective and how she makes and maintains her network of fellow women cinematographers in the industry through WhatsApp.
As budding women cinematographers, we, too, feel that an ideal workplace would be where our skills are measured and not our genders. But to be realistic, we know we can’t always be in the ideal place because we ourselves are a part of this change. As much as learning is important, un-relearning is also what we are asked to focus on by our professors.
Also read: What Does Feminist Film Theory Say?
We hope for a world that asks us about our work showreel before judging us for our genders. Having said that, if at all, we are in the middle of a situation that is poles apart from our ideal world, we know we have pioneers whom we can look up to and learn from. Preetha Jayaraman is one of them. We could relate to her interviews where she mentioned lifting props and heavy equipment, standing in the sun for hours for a perfect take, etc.
Not that we don’t already know this, or we would’ve not progressed in the field if we hadn’t deeply studied Jayaraman’s work, but it just gave us the push to not be pulled down by forces that question you on your gender.
Antriksha Pathania and Himanshi Saini are students of Masters at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia (Batch of 2020-22), with a specialization in Cinematography. This article is a part of research under the specialization. Himanshi can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. Antriksha can be found on Instagram.
Featured image source: Times of India