Noted cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan loves travelling to new places as part of film shooting. Each location has its own peculiarities and choosing a favourite among them is not easy, he says. Madhu enjoys working at Fort Kochi as well as in the Himalayas.
However, the trip to the Himalayas for shooting 'Rani Padmini' made Madhu realise the immense power of nature. ''One can neither describe it in words nor capture on camera,'' he says.
The sights and experiences the mountains offer to a visitor is incomparable, according to Madhu. ''Peaks that rise up to the heavens, mountain paths covered with snow, valleys that are surrounded by rain clouds, the awe-inspiring magnitude of the rivers, vegetation so different from that of Kerala….'' he struggles to describe the Himalayas. ''One wonders whether they are on another planet,'' he adds.
Madhu visited Himalayas earlier for the shooting of a Shyamaprasad movie. But it was in another part of the mountains. For 2015 film 'Rani Padmini', Madhu travelled to Himachal Pradesh. The exact location was near Manali. It was an elevated place and Madhu was swept off his feet by the unique geography. ''The temperature was very low and we took extreme care of the camera equipment during the 20-day shoot,'' he recalls.
There is song sequence in the film which is Madhu's favourite. It shows the shots in random.
The weather is unpredictable in the Himalayas. For instance, one may notice a gently flowing stream in the morning. But by evening, it may have swelled into a wild river. Snow and glaciers melt in the upper reaches of the mountain, bringing down a torrent of water all of a sudden. ''The mountain tracks are always dangerous.
''Moreover, the body takes time to acclimatize with the higher altitude,'' Madhu explains the challenges of shooting at the world's biggest mountain.
Madhu has a habit of observing people and their lives as well as learning local history, whenever he reaches a new place as part of work. ''I have heard people saying that they were attracted to a new place by its unique character. However, what strike me are the common features between Kerala and the new locations,'' he says.
Scenes like a mother entertaining her child or a farmer grazing his cattle or youngsters playing a game are no different in the Himalayas and Kerala, according to the photographic vision of Madhu. ''It reinforces the belief that, ultimately, life is the same everywhere,'' he says philosophically.
What connects Madhu to a place is its similarities with our state. ''The sight of 'kadukkan,' a large yellow flower native to tropical climates and common in Kerala, in the Himalayas surprised me,'' he reveals.
Inhabitants of the Himalayas lead a life which has limited contact with the outside world. During winter, all the paths will be blocked by snow. ''A welcome coexistence with nature can be observed in these regions. The people rear the yak, cultivate crops on the steep mountain slopes, and tackle extreme weather conditions. They lead an unhurried life and thankfully are free of the greed that affects modern living,'' says Madhu. He was deeply touched by their closeness to nature.
A scenic spot that Madhu often recalls is the confluence of the Parvathy and Beas rivers. He also had a fulfilling experience visiting a Buddhist monastery near the shooting location. ''It was so peaceful there,'' he says.
With the Himalayas witnessing a steady stream of travellers, tourism is picking up in many areas. There are also trekking locations which offer many thrills. ''However, with a new dam coming up across the river, one wonders how long the scenery that captivated us during the film shooting would remain as such,'' says Madhu.
Fort Kochi and Ottapalam
In Kerala, film shooting at Fort Kochi has given Madhu much satisfaction. Remnants of history are present everywhere there, he points out.
Another location he prefers to work in is Ottapalam, which has retained its rustic charm till the present day. ''The place is typical Kerala,'' he says. A stroll along the village paths in Ottapalam makes you fall in love with the area.
Meanwhile, the narrow lanes in Fort Kochi have borne the footsteps of visitors from around the world. The trees in the background and the unique architecture of the place have also moved Madhu. ''Each of the attractions there is special,'' he feels.
Several Malayalam films have been shot at Fort Kochi, but the 2013 movie 'Annayum Rasulum' stands apart. During the shooting, the director asked Madhu to ensure that the characters looked like real local residents. ''A cinematographer is not attracted by the beauty of a location; but how suitable it is for the story,'' he reveals.
''Cinematography also involves excluding the unnecessary elements in a frame,'' Madhu discloses a cameraman's secret.
The peacocks of Karaikudi
However, the most moving experience Madhu had was at Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu where he had gone for shooting a Hindi film by T K Rajeev Kumar. ''The houses of Chettinad, the local cuisine, wooden architecture and carvings really amazed me,'' he says.
''Some visuals like the frolic of peacocks on village lanes and youngsters chasing the peacocks are still etched in my memory,'' Madhu adds.
He saw a similar scene at Trincomalee in Sri Lanka to where he had travelled for an ad shoot. ''The peacocks glided above the houses and deer crossed the roads, but the villagers went about their lives as if there was nothing unusual,'' he recalls.
Wherever he has travelled to, Madhu has been attracted by such seamless collaborations between man and nature – be it the Himalayas, Ottapalam, Karaikudi or Trincomalee. ''The film script may not require these scenes, but they can never be edited out of my memories,'' he says.