Jomon T John is a phenomenon when it comes to cinematography. His very name triggers a recall of mesmerizing images of some of the most picturesque on-screen moments in Indian cinema in recent times.
Jomon is just 13 films old, but has already made a mark with films, such as Beautiful, Thattathin Marayathu, Ayalum Njanum Thammil, Thira and his latest Ennu Ninte Moidden, which is a visual treat for the eyes.
This interview was scheduled to be held three years back, soon after Ayalum Njanum Thammil was released but Joe (as he is fondly called) never really got time to sit down for a free-wheeling chat. He is currently the most sought after among cinematographers in South India and that tag keeps him busy always.
When we finally found time to talk to him, he looked exhausted. He is back after wrapping up the final schedule of the Dulquer Salmaan starrer Charlie, but despite the obvious fatigue, he springs to life when I ask him about the challenges of filming, his controversial remarks on some of the theatres in Kerala, from where he hails, and his upcoming projects.
In an hour long conversation, Jomon rants, raves and laughs. In this gloriously candid interview, he talks with clarity.
Excerpts from the interview
Ennu Ninte Moideen is by far the biggest work in your career so far. Each frame of the film gave us something very unique in its colour tone, but you were left shattered after watching your work in one of the theatres in Kerala. You openly lashed out at the theatre owners for the poor quality of projection systems in some of the cinema houses. What was going on in your mind when you were watching the film?
I was literally shocked and equally hurt because there was so much of hard work that went into making that film. It is the case with every film and Ennu Ninte Moideen became the reason for me to speak out. By criticizing the theatre owners, I did not mean to hurt anyone. I know Kerala also has some of the best cinema houses that showcase exceptional viewing experience. But there are other theatres that need to race against time because as film technicians we take care of the minute details, using the best and the most modern technologies available to us, hoping to provide superior moving experience. But all the money and the effort are wasted when it is not reaching the audience as expected. Soon after I gave that interview to a leading newspaper, I did receive good support from the people concerned and of course the fans. At the same time, I received calls from the authorities promising me that they will look into the issue. I hope things will change in the future.
Cinema has become an integral part of Indian culture; it actually binds the country together. But has the habit of going to watch movies in theaters reduced in recent times among the audience?
You are right. India’s film industry has become more vibrant than ever, but I don’t think it has stopped the fans from going to theatres. In fact that habit has just improved, compared with before. Bahubali’s collection exceeded 2 crores in the Aries theatre, Trivandrum and that is the highest collection from a single theatre in India. It’s a classic example. If you give these fans the best quality viewing facilities, they will certainly come to watch in large numbers. When we have supportive producers talented and ambitions directors, artists and other technicians, why is all the effort failing to reach the audience? It is unfortunate that we have no regulations to monitor this. I know this is not going to be an overnight change.
Good cinema is just not all about screenplay or the actors. It’s also about good images.
Cinematography is one of the fields that have developed rapidly in the country. You created a revolution many years ago by shooting a film using a still camera. Since then, you are constantly surprising us with new ideas, themes and techniques. You are now 13 films old. Youngsters, who want to become cinematographers, look up to you these days. Looking back, how do you evaluate your journey so far?
Have I really come a long way? (laughs) Frankly, I never thought my work would get noticed. These days you really need someone to push you to enter films but in my case, it was all a blessing. I started by using a still camera because the subject of that film demanded a realistic feel. But as you said, that created a revolution in the state. Soon after that many youngsters started making short films using a still camera. That itself is an achievement. Looking back, my journey has been unexpectedly quick. I just realised that I am 13 films old. Each work I did was challenging and in all these films, I tried to surprise myself. Good cinema is just not all about screenplay or the actors. It’s also about good images. That’s what makes legends, such as Balu Mahendra, P.C. Sreeram, Santosh Sivan and Surata Mitra look different from the rest.
When we have supportive producers talented and ambitions directors, artists and other technicians, why is all the effort failing to reach the audience?
Do you think filmmakers should have a strong grasp over cinematography to better communicate their needs or vision to a cinematographer?
You’re absolutely right. It is always good to work with a filmmaker, who has knowledge about the visual medium especially to have a feel is important. You can’t just turn the camera on and capture the image that is already there. You need to think about the scene and whether it is dark or light. A good filmmaker should have an artistic idea.
Is that why you love to work with your close friend and director Vineeth Sreenivasan? Your chemistry with him is so good.
Vineeth is a close friend. He is good writer and a brilliant director. Interestingly, we share the same ideas while making a film. I can easily sense what he wants in his film. That’s when you really enjoy your work. My next work is with Vineeth and it will be shot in Dubai. The film is entitled Jacobinte Swargarajyam.
You can’t just turn the camera on and capture the image that is already there. You need to think about the scene and whether it is dark or light.
Do you think cinematography has become less of an art?
I don’t think so. The only thing that people see as art these days is the visual treat in the movie. The reason why people like you and other film lovers appreciated my work in Ennu Ninte Moideen was because it’s visually beautiful. I still believe it’s an art.
Most of the cinematographers these days are becoming filmmakers. Your own mentor Samir Tahir has also become a successful filmmaker. When can I see a film directed by Jomon T John on screen? What I get to hear from your friends is that you are close to making a film. Is that true?
This is the question that most my close friends ask. (laughs). When do I direct a film? Frankly, the discussions are on and I will make a film sometime next year maybe. But I have still not finalised the script and when I do that, the camera will begin to roll. And you will soon see my name onscreen as ‘director’.
What advice do you want to give to young cinematographers?
Over the last four years, what I have learnt is that a good cinematographer needs to lead from the front and not imitate. You can make mistakes, but you need to learn from them. A good cinematographer needs to be a good observer. Every day I get to learn many things about the camera, because I still believe I am a student of cinematography. Everything is changing in terms of technique. Those lessons are never-ending. For me, cinematography is a passion more than a profession.