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HC Venugopal : From a novice to a star lensman, the fairytale continues

The year was 1997. Upendra, then an established director was all set to make his acting debut. The film was titled A, something of a brain-teaser. After all the success as a director, Upendra did not want anything to go wrong with this film. The expectations were high. He wanted everything to be different in A. And he was yet to find a cinematographer who could match his wavelength. Rather than working with someone already established, he was on the lookout for someone fresh. He finally decided to call Venugopal, who had worked with him earlier as a still photographer for the films Sshhh and Om.

Till he met Uppi, Venu was under the impression that he would be asked to design the stills for A. But when Uppi was shown the camera (the film camera) and told that he would be the cinematographer for this film, it was what he might have called a pleasant shock! “I thought he was poking fun at me. But he was dead serious,” recalls Venu, who is today among the highest paid and busiest cinematographers of the Kannada industry.

With absolutely no formal training in cinematography, this first project was a real challenge. At best he just knew what a motion camera looked like. “Trust me, I was as clueless as ‘where’s the damn viewfinder!’ It was all new to me. Upendra had more confidence in me than I did in myself,” he shares.

A phenomenal film, the costliest ever in 90s, it was shot for some 106 days and the film reels ran over 1.25 lakh feet (as against an average of 40,000 feet), a record in Kannada cinema. After six months of working inhumanly hard, A was finally released and it went on to become a blockbuster. Incidentally, lesser known actor Gurukiran too debuted as music director with A. So that makes it three debutantes.

A healthy melange of good acting, refreshing music, a real-life script and amazing experimentation with the camera made A the trendsetter that it was. From then on, Venu became a sought after cinematographer, while Gurukiran replaced virtually every other music director in the business.

“Over the last decade, I worked on some 26 films. Ironically though, I was so involved with my work that I missed the opportunity to work in Upendra’s latest film. But I have always remained indebted to Upendra,” concedes Venu.

Following A, acclaimed filmmaker Sunil Kumar Desai roped in Venu for Sudeep’s debut film Sparsha. “Uppi and Desai laid the foundation for my career. I learnt the ropes of scene selection and shot composition from them. Prabhu Deva taught me the art of visualising dance sequences,” he shares.

The first three films in his career were challenging in every aspect. A song for Sparsha had to be shot in Sikkim, across the ice-cold Teestha River. The camera had to be placed at a great height to capture Sudeep and Rekha on a swing overarching the river. Venu recalls, “Every artiste was dressed in classical dancing gear. The water was so cold that a couple of them developed hypothermia.” Besides, shooting at dusk was another issue. “I had to be innovative. The geographical terrain was not suitable for using a crane. I had to climb a very old and unstable bridge and place the camera at a 90 degree angle all by myself to shoot the song,” he reveals.

That track from Sparsha was a chart-buster and the particular shot that required Venu’s ingenuity is considered a masterpiece. “In the film, it looks like no big deal, but on that rickety bridge, I had to make sure the camera didn’t shake even a bit. Also, I had to ensure I stayed alive to finish the shot!”

In his third project, H20 directed by Upendra, Venu faced the biggest challenge of his career. It was the costliest movie that year, with a budget of Rs 5 crores. Uppi had selected a controversial subject featuring dancing sensation Prabhu Deva. “I was just two films old. H20 required filming a war scene in the deserts of Rajasthan. I had to make sure that there was not a single element of modernity in that scene. It was such a tough task. Once I completed the film, I felt more confident about my work and soon started signing new projects.”

Venu became somewhat of a permanent fixture in the films directed by Uppi and Sunil Kumar Desai which include Parva, Dum, Shriram, Daya Nayak, Aa Dinagalu, Kallarali Hoovagi and Bindaas.

Born to farmer parents, Venu never imagined that art and glamour would one day become his bread and butter. “I was always interested in painting. I applied for a course in a government polytechnic in Bangaluru My application was rejected as I had scored just 38 per cent in my class 10. The cut off was 45 per cent,” Venu recalls his bewilderment. “I wondered how art is connected to marks. It was then that I decided to tread my own path.”

Of course, life did turn a full circle, and how! Ironically, today Venu trains interns from the same government polytechnic that had rejected his application. Three of these are independent cinematographers today. “I tell everyone that creativity is nobody’s property. If you’ve got talent, you can prove it anywhere. You don’t necessarily need formal education.”

So what are his creative insights as a cinematographer? “Shot composition and colour sense form the base. Still photography is the third essential requirement. If you are grounded in all three, you don’t need to study cinematography exclusively,” Venu finds. He is also inspired by many filmmakers. “When I was doing a painting course in 1983, Mani Ratnam’s directorial debut Pallavi Anu Pallavi (the Kannada film featuring Anil Kapoor and Lakshmi) overwhelmed to the extent that I saw it 15 times in a row. Balu Mahendra’s cinematography was captivating to say the least. I wondered if I could one day recreate the same kind of magic.

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