Aravindan's Thamp: Shaji N Karun blames his youthful arrogance for taking extreme risks as a cinematographer

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Shaji N Karun won his first National Award through the film 'Thampu.' Photo: Special Arrangement

Back in the days when director G Aravindan shot his timeless film 'Thampu' (now Thamp), it was a common practice for filmmakers to develop stocks within a day or two of shooting to correct the technical errors.
However, Shaji N Karun, fresh out of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), decided to try out something new for this film – that too, without informing the director, producer or others!

As Cannes is screening a restored version of Thamp in the Classics 2022 category, Shaji revealed to Onmanorama the three risks he took while shooting the film, which went on to win him his first National Award for the Best Cinematographer.

“It's only after reaching the set of 'Thampu' that I understood the extent of lighting the shoot required. And all I had were the basic lighting arrangements. So, I decided to use fast stocks to compensate for the lack of lighting. As studios here didn't have the facility to handle those reels to their full capacity, I also contacted AVM Studio in Chennai to process the film. I was told that it could be done, but not in parts, as the chemicals used to wash the reels had to be separately made, considering the technical specifications,” Shaji said.

The young cinematographer shot the entire film without checking the quality of the results. And now, looking back at the whole episode, he blames his “arrogance and age” for taking such a risk.“Even when I was asked whether we are not sending the films for washing, I kept saying, 'We will do it later,'” he remembered.

Interestingly, after the shoot, he took the whole film to Chennai by himself, in a reserved train compartment, without reservation! “I kept the three sacks near the toilets in the bogie. And I couldn't tell anyone what the sacks contained, as films were a banned item inside the train. At certain points, other travellers kept their sacks too on top of it, but I couldn't object, as that would mean revealing my contents. And any water from the toilet could also have ruined the rolls. So I stood there without sleeping,” he said.

Aravindan and Shaji N Karun
Aravindan and Shaji N Karun during the shoot of 'Thampu.' Photo: Special Arrangement

Shaji couldn't even hire head-loaders once he reached the Madras (now Chennai) station, as they knew film rolls weren't supposed to be carried in such a fashion.“The chief technician at the studio went out of his way to help me develop the stock. He came in on a Sunday, which was a holiday for the studio, and prepared the chemical mix as per my requirements. We worked on the stock till 4am next day," Shaji said.

The luck favoured the brave, and the result was outstanding. "But again, I would blame my youthfulness and arrogance for taking extreme risks. If something hadn't worked, we would have lost the whole film,” he said.

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