God’s Own Malayalis: Roby Raj – The Cinematographer Making Every Moment Count

 A picture is worth a thousand words. Every cinematographer swears by this. While cinematography in dictionary terms would mean capturing moments in films or still photography, it is much more complex than that. The visual artistry that cinematography demands requires a lot of people management and knowledge. The most important job, though, is to portray the crucial essence of the film through pictures that are reflective of it. Put differently, it’s telling stories through pictures; an art that requires precision and intricate visualization. As it becomes more technical, the cinematographer has to upgrade with innovation, easily blending through the challenges. Much of photography is all about the right lighting and finding a unique standpoint.  To get that one perfect shot, one has to consider a lot of exterior and interior factors, as Roby Varghese Raj would confirm. 

Roby Varghese Raj has had his share of success as a cinematographer in Mollywood. With each movie, he has only learnt to seamlessly integrate the thoughts of the director by reflecting it in myriads of images. Born and brought up in Thrissur, Roby was determined to become a cinematographer, no matter what the cost. Quitting his IT job in Chennai was the first step towards following his dream. He went on to study cinematography from the Mindscreen Film Institute, located in Chennai, where he worked under Rajeev Menon sir and assisted Jomon T John for a few years before making his debut in Puthiya Niyamam. He took a leap of faith and it was the best decision he has ever made. 

With a charming sense of determination and maturity, Roby Raj shares with us how he was able to let his passion lead his work. He also talks about his successful careers, his inspiration, and his future goals. Take a look.

What are three interesting facts about you?

I resigned from my job as a web designer to follow my passion in cinematography.

I would like to direct a movie someday soon.

I am a hardcore foodie.

What’s the best part about being a cinematographer?

We work as the soul of the director. We create the mood of the film. The director’s views are visualized in our own way and we make the audience believe in it. Cinematography is the tagline between a director and a common man. 

How would you describe the role of a cinematographer to someone who doesn’t know a thing about it?

Cinematographer is the person who visualizes what’s there in the script. He/she is responsible for all the lighting, lensing and the gimmicks required in a movie. He/she has to blend his/her creation of a scene with the costume colours, art materials and the choreography of the scene. 

What are the typical challenges a cinematographer has to overcome at work?

One of the major challenges I have faced is during an outdoor shoot. Since the sunlight varies, it is quite difficult to get a continuous shot. Very few directors or the crew understand the difference sunlight variation makes during a shot.

Also, the time we get for setting up a shot depends on the artist timing, crowd, lighting, etc. When a film is being produced, it has a certain timeline so if we are not quick and focused, it may end up in huge losses. 

What is it like working with Mammootty and Nivin Pauly?

Mammootty is one of the legendary actors in Indian cinema. I have complete respect for him. In fact, it felt more like a dream while working with him. He is truly a great mentor and for several youngsters. It’s easy to capture his performance as he makes us believe that acting is an effortless task. Nivin, on the other hand, is more like a buddy to me. We have worked together in Action Hero Biju and Hey Jude before Love Action Drama. He is one of the coolest dudes I have seen in the industry. His comic timing is too good and does it with ease.

What was your most challenging film?

The most challenging film I have worked on was my debut film Puthiya Niyamam. I had two superstars in frame, Mammotty and Nayanthara. 75% of the movie was shot inside a 1300 square ft sized flat and I had faced a huge challenge lighting up a lot of the night scenes during the day. Very minimum lights and crew were used to make it happen due to the size of the flat. You can only imagine a 12 people crew working inside this 1300 square ft flat. 

Who are some of your influences?

I would say my father and older brother. My father uses to run a film theatre. At the age of 10, I used to spend my vacation there and most of the time, I use to be at the projector room overlooking and being curious about everything. Naturally, I was into the fantasy world of cinema through my father. Later on my older brother supported me to achieve my dreams.

The films that have influenced me quite a lot are unlistable. But, here’s a few of them:

  • Schindler’s List
  • Citizen Kane 
  • Sound of Music
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Jurassic Park
  • Taxi Driver 
  • The Godfather 
  • Iruvar
  • Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  • Motorcycle Diaries
  • Big B

How do you plan for a shoot?

I take references from other films and ad films. I prepare the light list, material list and camera needed after reading the script and visualizing it in my terms. A day before the shoot, I try to isolate myself to keep my mind at peace. I only think about what I have to do the next day for the shoot. But mostly, it doesn’t go the way I imagine because shoots are a process of chaos and hurry burry. 

What do you do when you have a creative block?

I usually find a corner where I can be alone, which usually doesn’t happen in a set so it’s more of being a unicorn in a crowd. I had overcome all my creative blocks during my assistant days and when I worked independently. If u spend more time on pre production work of film/adfilm, then there is no space for creative blocks.

Name 3 movies you would have loved to work on

Everyone’s got their own style of lighting, Lensing and movement of the shots. Every DOP has done their best in their own way, so I would like to work on my own movies to do better. If I were to choose one,  I would pick Apoorva Sahodarangal , Kalapani and Dil Se.

Can you tell us one shocking incident on sets? 

Actor jayasurya in the movie Captain had to fill air inside football by blowing into it. He had done it in such a way that the whole crew including me was stunned. For a second I thought he was gonna burst his veins. 

What’s the most unusual but fun experience you’ve had on sets?

I keep a very close relationship with my associates and assistants. Our work is a mix of mental and physical strain so I make sure that there’s moments of fun and happiness around us. Each set experience is fun, for sure. The shooting of Kudukku song in Love Action Drama was so much fun that I had to literally dance along with them for a continuous 3 minute shot .

What do you do when you aren’t working?

I watch a lot of movies, I love gardening, petting my cockatiels and discovering new restaurants.

The one mantra you live by

Breath in, Breath out

What are the top three things you want to accomplish before you die? 

To start a restaurant along with my wife. That’s going to be our retirement plan. And, I plan on visiting at least 20 countries with a labrador who can travel with us. Someday, I also plan to work in Hollywood too.

What’s your favourite Kerala dish?

Thalaserry Biriyani, Kerala parotta and chicken deep fry. 

Aishwarya Gopinathhttps://pinklungicom.wordpress.com/
A foodie at heart, an aspiring novelist, and an enthusiastic writer by nature, I love to dig deep into culture and lifestyle of the place and people around me. I hope to make people cry, laugh, smile, angry, and satisfied with my writing.

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