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April 3, 1997


Women in the desert

The silence that speaks

Shobha Warrier in Madras

It is a common enough sight in all the major book shops of the city - a simple poster of a mother and child, and impressed onlookers milling around it.

The poster has been signed by P C Sriram, one of India's most acclaimed cinematographers (Agninakshatram, Nayakan, Anjali). But it isn't the signature that attracts the crowd. It's the disturbing quality of the picture, the powerful emotions it conveys and the many questions it throws up.

Mother and child The covered back of the veiled mother, in unpretentious black-and-white, is an uncompromising image of stark reality that forcibly reaches out to you. And you wonder - does her life have no colour? Is it so wretched? But the sleeping baby, depicted in bright colours, conveys the feeling that brightness, optimism and hope are just round the corner. Tomorrow, the poster seems to say, everything will be fine. And you conclude that Sriram is one of those who believe that reality is dark; that the future holds more promise than the present. That the man who directed and wielded the camera for the much-acclaimed Tamil movie, Kuruthipunal is, in fact, an optimist.

''Me, an optimist?" The raised eyebrows signal serious doubt. "I don't think so. And no, today is not always dark. Except for the common man who has been denied the opportunity to own and enjoy any form of art. We have confined art and music to the upper strata of society."

Art, he holds, especially his art, should be available to everyone. Which is why he has priced his now-famous poster at just Rs 400. ''People tell me that my image will suffer because of this. I think that's pure nonsense!" he grins.

P C Sriram
P C Sriram
Sriram also believes in communication through art - in fact, he believes that art should communicate with a person differently at different times. ''The poster in your room should interact with you," he elaborates. "You should be free to interpret it anyway you want. In short, it should be in complete harmony with your life."

Posters, obviously, are his latest passion. ''Unlike other countries, art in poster form is not very popular in India," he says matter-of-factly. "So I tried to think from an average Indian's point of view. What would make him buy a poster? A kid, of course! See, everybody is a kid at heart. I also wanted to give warmth to the picture. And what other better way than have a mother in it?"

The marketplace After Kuruthipunal (which was India's nomination to the Oscars last year), Sriram went on a year-long hibernation - working non-stop for 14 years was a little too much even for someone like him. ''I wanted to spend some time with my two children. And I badly wanted to catch up with my reading."

It was then that he came across an old pile of still photographs which he had snapped over the years. Many were damaged. And, as he worked at restoring them, he was mesmerised by the appeal of those photographs. So, for the next 15 days, he spread the huge prints in his room and scrutinised them in detail.

''As far as art is concerned," says Sriram, "mental exercise is not a favourite pastime of us Indians. So I chose only those 19 photographs which, I felt, would make direct contact with the people and their lives." The mother and child picture, now such a rage all over Madras, is the first of these. The rest are on exhibition in Madras.

Sriram's flirtation with the camera began a long time ago. It started with a Brownie camera his grandfather gifted him when he was just nine. "And my very first trial with it," Sriram says, "was disastrous." After shooting various nature scenes in Cubbon Park (Bangalore, where his family was located then), he opened the camera and took out the film.

Sunset And got the shock of his life when he saw the blank negative! It was the first mistake of the amateur and the disappointment he experienced was intense. He mourned his loss until his grandfather agreed to supply him with one more roll. This time round, success was at hand. "It was like magic. The pictures came out the way I wanted them to do. It was simply amazing! I kept on experimenting... shooting all kinds of pictures at all sorts of shutters speeds, you know!"

Soon, though, it was people, in their varied moods, life styles and expressions, that appealed to him more than nature. His passion to register on film everything that caught his eye took him to the Pune Film Institute. "My years there provided me with an opportunity to see some of the greatest cinematic works in the world, created by the greatest masters of all time," he says.

What does Sriram feel about cinematography dominating other aspects of film-making in south Indian cinema? For instance, about the beautiful picture postcard shots which often distracted the viewer from the storyline.

Sunlight "In south India, the awareness about technicalities is too strong. Suddenly, people want good sound. And the aim behind seeing a movie today is good photography - which is definitely an unhealthy trend. Actually, we should not be aware of the camera at all. We should only be aware of the film. Did you see Sense and Sensibility? A beautiful film. Did anything in the film stand out? No. I didn't even know I was watching a film! That's the way it should be. And that's what I like about Hindi cinema. They don't bother much about technical aspects like cinematography. Faces and dances are more important to them. Their audiences go to see a movie to see the star."

Despite his hectic cinematic schedule, Sriram has made it a point to be in constant touch with his still camera. ''I grew up on still photography," he affirms, "I identify the world through it." For the still camera, and the 'reality' he snaps with it, is Sriram's way of compensating for the fantasy he creates on screen.

P C Sriram's photograph: Sanjay Ghosh