Cinematographer KK Senthil Kumar had worked with director SS Rajamouli on 5 projects before deciding to dedicate 5 years of his life to the two Baahubali films. I spoke with the talented lensman about Rajamouli, the Baahubali films and the art of juggling camera work with VFX in cinema today.

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Q: You graduated from the Film and TV Institute of India (FTII), Pune, what drove your interest in filmmaking? What were your early influences which made you want to pursue filmmaking or cinematography?

Senthil Kumar: To be very frank, filmmaking happened to me by accident, I was not interested in cinema, I was preparing for my civil services exams. To be in the mode for competitive exams, I wrote the film institute exam also. After I got through the exams and went for the orientation course, they have a one week orientation course which happens, so when I went there then I came to know about the process of filmmaking and thought it was very fascinating. Then I decided that even if I don’t get through this year, I’m going to join filmmaking.

One of the first films I saw at the institute was a film called Red Beard by Akira Kurosawa and I was really impressed. I never knew that another world of cinema existed apart from regular Indian commercial cinema. When I saw that film, I was really blown and I wanted to get into this world of cinema which is so fascinating.
Q: And since you weren’t interested in films really, how did you decide on cinematography? Why didn’t you take up direction or editing?

Senthil Kumar: It actually sounded good, “motion picture photography” sounded good. Kuch bada tha aur achha lag raha tha. Once I got into film school I started believing in destiny, like God had said that was not your path, this is. He picked me up and put me on the right path.

I needed to keep up with people since I had an inferiority complex, because I got in on my first attempt and did not have any experience. I started putting lots of energy and hard work into it, I used to spend time at the library and understand all things related to cinema, not only about how the camera works and the camera department but also about filmmaking.

Q: You have worked with Rajamouli on seven films, what do you think makes him special and sets him apart from other filmmakers?

Senthil Kumar: There are so many things. Every director does it with passion but he is willing to give every bit of energy into his film. Like so many masters have been doing, he really eats, breathes and sleeps cinema. He only talks about the film he’s doing, dreams about the film he’s doing. When he’s doing the film, everything else takes a backseat. For him, his total focus is only that film.

He’s constantly trying to make every shot better, the story better, every bit of his energy is into making things better. Making the film better in terms of presentation, how do I exploit the actors, how do I make a better set. We start off with the concept art, till the time we shoot it, till the time the last VFX is done, he’s thinking about how to better it. He’s willing to listen to everyone, he’s very open and patient. There are a lot of things that set him apart.

Q: Who are the cinematographers that you look up to?

Senthil Kumar: Whenever I think that I am doing good or have mastered the art, I see the work of Emmanuel Lubezki, Robert Deakins and then I feel like, ‘okay, shit there is a really long way to go’ because their work is like free flowing and there is really so much more to learn and to do. It’s so integrated with the film, it doesn’t seem like the camera exists. And in the Indian context, Ravi K Chandran is someone whose work I have always admired and recently, Ravi Varman is also doing a great job.

Senthil Kumar: There’s a long list, starting from Sanjay Leela Bhansali to Raju Hirani to Mani Ratnam. There’s a very long list but these are the three names that come to mind.

Senthil Kumar: I will definitely do it but I haven’t decided when and how. I am still in the process of learning cinematography, jumping on to direction still has a long way to go.

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