Thiruvananthapuram: Noted cinematographer M J Radhakrishnan passed away following a heart attack at a private hospital in the state capital on Friday. Renowned as the master of the ascetic frame, he worked in around 75 films in a career spanning nearly three decades. He was 61.
'Desadanam', 'Karunam', 'Bioscope', 'Nalu Pennungal', 'Kaadu Pookkunna Neram' are among his most well-known films. Radhakrishnan's movies have been exhibited at film festivals in Cannes, Toronto, Chicago and Rotterdam, among others. His ‘Maranasimhasanam’ won a prize at Cannes. ‘Ollu’ of Shaji N Karun was Radhakrishnan’s last film.
While he was the go-to man for veterans like T V Chandran, Dr Biju, Jayaraj, and Ranjith, debutants keen to make a mark - Murali Nair (Maranasimhasanam), Priyanandanan (Pulijanmam), G R Kannan (Theerthadanam), Avira Rebecca (Thakarachenda) - had unfailingly sought him out for aesthetic direction.
That a legend like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who had always preferred to work with Mankada Ravi, had no qualms about working with him after Mankada's death is testimony of his unimpeachable talent.
Radhakrishnan was the master of natural lighting. He was the cinematography equivalent of an ascetic sworn to a life in the wilderness. He was so finicky about capturing nature as it is that he considered artificial lighting techniques a kind of sacrilege. In the opening scene of Jayaraj's highly decorated 'Ottaal', Radhakrishnan uses just the soft moonlight and a warm candle glow to evoke a bleakness that is more heart-rending than any that artificial lights could conjure.
At times, even Radhakrishnan had no choice but to use artificial lights. Those moments still had an authenticity that only Radhakrishnan could summon. No one can ever say that the murder scene in Jayaraj's 'Kaliyattom' was done using any other source of light than a traditional multiple-leaf oil lamp.
Filmmakers who had worked with him say he understood the mercurial moods of the sun like he was its closest buddy. Those who had worked behind the camera for Dr Biju's 'Painting Life' have still not stopped wondering how he managed to capture Gitanjali Thapa just when her hair turned a magical gold. “He instinctively knew the exact moment the sun would slant at just the perfect angle to give Thapa's hair a golden glow. He is not the kind who would waste time looking up with fingers cupped over the forehead,” Siraj, Dr Biju's chief associate said.
Radhakrishnan is also known for his stunning economy with frames. He is one of the few cinematographers who began as a professional still photographer; he was the still photographer of K G George's cult classic 'Panchavadippalam'. Those days, an efficient photographer had to get it right in a single shot, and Radhakrishnan excelled at this.
It was this stunning economy of function that he has brought into filmmaking. His frames had just the right amount of elements. Picture perfect they were. In a game-changing visual in 'Ottaal', which explores a little boy's bond with his grandfather, Radhakrishnan shows the boy and his grandfather in a boat on a lake. They are herding a flock of ducks along the vast expanse of the lake.
But it is Radhakrishnan's framing that evokes the mood of the moment. The entire surface of the lake is shown like the top of a spherical water world, the waterbody sloping on either side. The boat with the boy and his grandfather is right at the centre, making it seem as if they are on top of the world. What better way to show how the little one enjoys being in the lake with his grandfather, or better still, how life with his grandfather meant the world to the boy.
No wonder he won the state award for best cinematographer seven times, which is a record. Only another cinematography legend, Mankada Ravi Varma, can boast of such an imperious record.
The movies that earned Radhakrishnan the award were ‘Desadanam’ (1996), ‘Karunam’ (1999), ‘Adayalangal’ (2007), ‘Bioscope’ (2008), ‘Veetilekkulla Vazhi’ (2010), ‘Akashathinte Niram’ (2011) and ‘Kadu Pookkunna Neram’ (2016).
Radhakrishnan belonged to Tholicode in Punalur and was the son of Janardhanan Vaidyar and P Lalitha of Sreenilayam. He took up started his career as a still photographer and was also associated with Shaji N Karun. The first film Radhakrishnan worked independently was ‘Mamalakalkappurathu’ directed by Ali Akbar.
Yadukrishnan, Radhakrishnan's son, has followed in the footsteps of his father and is also a leading cinematographer.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan remembered Radhakrishnan as an artist who played a major role in elevating cinematography to
academic status. “His contributions to making cinema a visual feast are noteworthy. Radhakrishnan’s death will create an unfathomable
loss for the film industry,” said the chief minister in his condolence message