KK Senthil Kumar with his wife Ruhee after winning the best cinematographer award at the South Indian International Movie Awards in Dubai. Image Credit: Supplied

A quick quiz: What do Telugu films Sye, Chatrapati, Yamadonga, Magadheera, Eega and Baahubali 1 & 2 have in common?

Creative director SS Rajamouli and an equally creative cinematographer KK Senthil Kumar. The Telugu cinema wizards wouldn’t have made such visual treats possible without each other’s creativity.

A scene from ‘Baahubali'

Senthil was in Dubai to receive yet another Best Cinematographer Award at the South Indian International Movie Awards (Siima) on Saturday for his work in Baahubali 2: The Conclusion.

Hailing from Bolarum in Hyderabad, Telangana, Senthil has 16 films to his credit in 16 years. That might not be an impressive ratio compared to his colleagues in the industry, but what distinguishes him is his quality of work.

Excerpts from the interview:

Journey so far
“It has been a wonderful and satisfying journey. I think from where I’ve come from to where I have reached is God’s grace.

I joined the FTII [Film and Television Institute of India] after writing a competitive exam in my first attempt. The film institute is magic: the atmosphere, the course structure. So whatever I am today is because of the Pune film institute.”

“After finishing my five-year course, I went back to Hyderabad and started as a cinematographer for a Telugu TV series called Amrutam. Later, the same director and production team made a feature film titled Aithey [So What?] in Telugu, for which I got much appreciation. That’s how my foray into Tollywood started.”

Major break
“My major break I think was Sye [Ready] that was made immediately after Aithey. It’s how my journey with Rajamouli started with this film. Rajamouli knew Chandrasekhar Eleti, my first film director and producer and Rajamouli’s wife Rama worked as an assistant director and assistant editor for Aithey. So, he knew the difficulties with which we shot the film and he was amazed that I could pull off such beautiful visuals against all odds.

That gave him confidence in me and he signed me for Sye, based on a rugby game. It was an alien sport in India at that point of time. We tried various camera angles to capture the game accurately. It turned out to be a satisfying film and that association with Rajamouli is still continuing and now I am doing his next film, which is yet to be titled.”

Creative ideas
“I keep watching lots of movies and visuals in terms of stills and paintings. They keep inspiring me to reach that level of excellence through my photography. I think we [Indians] still lag behind in visual story telling compared with European cinema and Hollywood. I draw inspiration from them.”

Creative freedom
“See, filmmaking is complete teamwork. As a cinematographer, my effort will be to help my director tell a story, since it’s a director’s film after all. So, I try to contribute as much as possible through my camera: from lighting to composition to movement. It’s not about freedom, but telling the story in the most effective way. Film is a collaborative process and I am happy that I could work with so many directors.”

Kumar on the job.

Working partners
“So far in my career, 90 per cent of the films that I have done are with Rajamouli. So, obviously I enjoy working with him and that’s the reason we keep teaming up again and again.”

Favourite genres
“For me, it’s not the genre that matters, but the film itself. Every film is unique, be it a small budget or a big-budget film. So, every film challenges me to push myself whether it is a family drama, a period film or a mafia-based theme. Each one has to be told in a certain way.

That’s what drives me to tell the story in a right possible way. There are so many genres of films which I have not done so far. Probably, I’d like to do a mafia film, then a fantasy and a hard-core realistic film. I am very happy with the way I am doing and probably in my journey I will come across these genres.”

“First, we discuss the story of the film. Based on that, brainstorming between the director and the production team happens regarding what kind of look we want for the film. Then we do the research work to see if any movies of this particular genre have been made earlier and use them as references but not just to ape them.”

Importance of VFX
“Nowadays, VFX has become an integral part of cinema. Definitely, it’s an essential part of film-making. We cannot separate visual effects from the visuals of the film. As a cinematographer, my work is to seamlessly integrate that work into my work.

Keeping abreast of changes
Thanks to the internet all new developments are available on the web. Also, whenever some new technology comes up, workshops are conducted which I attend. And luckily being in the position I am, people want me to know about the new stuff and keep me updated regarding new camera equipment, lenses or software.”

“Awards are an inspiration. It’s like a pat on your back. Also as people are watching you receive an award, you will be inspired you to do better next time to come back again for yet another award.”

“It’s probably because of the hard work, dedication and the kind of people that I worked with. And I believe if I can reach to this level, anyone can if they have the willingness to work hard and the discipline to do the same thing every day again and again with the same enthusiasm.”