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November 4, 1997


The Grand Illusion


Venky. Click for bigger pic!
For three-time national award winner Venky, the assignment to handle special effects for the Mahesh Bhatt production Duplicate is, frankly, just another day at the office.

But even routine days in the workaday world bring with them compensations, and for Venky, the compensation here is working with Shah Rukh Khan. "Dedicated youngster, Shah Rukh. It's a real pleasure being on the project with someone like him."

Venky, like a lot of top-flight South Indian film people, is remarkably easy of access on the telephone. No "let me see if I am free" about him. First up, he asks me where I am, figures from my location that I am closer to his studio than to his home, and invites me over for a chat to find out what I am looking for.

And once he knows what I am about and what kind of interview I am looking for, he gives me his home address and suggests we meet there, since he will be more relaxed and able to talk...

Like his studio, his home -- spanning the first floor of a bungalow in a posh suburb of Madras -- speaks of the artist. The landing and stairs leading up to his place are lined with reproductions of paintings, and black and white portraits, of Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. His terrace garden meanwhile boasts, among a plethora of terracotta figurines, seals of the zodiac signs Cancer and Aquarius -- neither of which signs, incidentally, being his.

While he is quick to agree to meet you, you realise right away that he is not too comfortable talking about himself. In fact, he comes across as painfully shy. Cigarettes, apparently, are his preferred means of combating that shyness, so it through little puffs of smoke that I learn of how he did his masters in fine arts from Madras. "No one in my family is even remotely connected with showbiz, so I can't say that I ever dreamt, even, of getting into this field," he says, first up.

"Soon after college, I did do some caricatures, then worked on a couple of cartoon films... but these were more of the ad variety."

Venky's special effects at work in Indian. Click for bigger pic!
It is the lack of a celluloid godfather that makes Kamal Hassan, for Venky, a figure of almost iconic proportions. "When he was planning Apoorva Sahodarargal (Appu Raja, in Hindi) he called me over and we had several very stimulating discussions... and this was what pushed me into opting for films as a medium, these chats I had with Kamal," recalls Venky.

"To my mind, Apoorva... remains the best special effects film done in India to date. We used optical illusions extensively, especially for the part where Kamal plays the dwarf. I can't talk about how we did it, of course -- but it was easily up there in the top bracket. And Kamal's drive, his enthusiasm, eagerness to back you when you are doing new things -- I guess all this combined into a debutant's dream."

Apoorva... may have been a trendsetter, but it did nothing much for Venky in terms of offers. A song sequence featuring Venkatesh and the late Divya Bharati, wherein cartoon figures and real life ones were mixed and merged, was about all he had to show for his ability...

Till, that is, Mani Rathnam came along with Anjali, his story of a spastic child. "This was a challenging assignment again," recalls Venky. "For one thing, Mani insisted on extraordinary effects -- but to produce them, we didn't have much in the way of sophisticated equipment, the post-production techniques were also rather dated... In one sense, Anjali was not satisfying because it was essentially a patchwork of ideas from English films... but in another sense, we stretched our own limits, worked against the odds given what we had to work with, and in that sense it was a good learning experience."

Venky with Shankar on the sets of Jeans. Click for bigger pic!
And after that? Oh, nothing much, shrugs the master of illusion. "Some two-dimensional stuff for songs, gimmicky adornments for standard boy chasing girl round bush type scene..." It comes out with a shrug, an eloquent one bemoaning the lack of challenge.

Shankar was at the time planning his directorial debut, Gentleman, and the result of a chat between the director and the FX man was Chikku Bukku Raiyile -- the first Tamil song to bust the charts in Bollywood's various top ten programmes, thanks as much to Venky's little tricks as to the loose-limbed Prabhu Deva's gyrations. "The song became a rage," recalls Venky. "But more to the point, while working on it we came up with many ideas we couldn't use, so we used them all in Shankar's next film Kaadalhan.

"In this second film," recalls Venky, "we stretched the envelope somewhat... Earlier we were into optical graphics; with this film we went into digital effects. How do I explain the essential difference? Well, see, optical graphics, you add stuff at the post-production stage, after first shooting the standard scene. In digital, we are actually shooting it all, the real stuff and the computer stuff, at the same time...."

Kamal's Apoorva Sahodarargal had won him his first national award, while Shankar's Gentleman and Kaadhalan had mde him noticed. Immediately thereafter, he was to team up with both of them to earn his second, when Shankar directed Kamal in Indian.

"This has been my most challenging assignment to date," recalls Venky. "The toughest part was the portions of the film where it appears as though Kamal is actually marching shoulder to shoulder with Subhas Chandra Bose and his INA.

The invisible Prabhu Deva in Kaadalhan. Click for bigger pic!
"Our problem was that Films Division didn't have the material we required. What little footage they had, was grainy and dim. So first I had to remove the blemishes and convert the 35 mm footage into film format. And then I had to merge Kamal into the scenes... after we first shot him in the costume of that period... and at the end of it all, produce what looked like an authentic newsreel shot of Kamal and Netaji marching, talking to each other...."

The film was a spectacular hit -- but Venky's contribution went largely unnoticed by the masses who tended to ooh and aah more over the makeup Kamal, playing the father, sported.

"Yes, well, not too many people commented about what we had done, I guess it looked so good that it just passed unnoticed. But then, the citation for my national award made special mention of the recreation of that footage, and that for me was a big moment. And besides, working with Kamal and Shankar, who are both hard-driving, enthusiastic film-makers, was a good enough reward."

Almost simultaneously, Venky was working on another prestigious project -- one, moreover, that was to earn him national award number three. "Priyadarshan's Kaalapani (Sazaa-e-Kaalapani in Hindi), well, we teamed up for the action scenes in that one. The train explosion was tough to do. I would give the hero, Mohanlal, the entire credit for the way it came out... and again," he says with a self-deprecating grin, "the optical illusions involved in that shot just went unnoticed. But," he adds, "paradoxically, it is when your work does not raise a comment that you know you've done it well... a good special effects touch should not stick out like a sore thumb."

Kamal Hasan meets Subhas Chandra Bose in Indian. Click for bigger pic!
For Venky, the Jim Carrey vehicle, Mask, is his ultimate kick -- and the focus of his own dreams. "The effects in that were spectacular," he says, "but more than that, what I like about the film is that its orientation, its raison d'etre, is itself FX. Now that's a concept that is yet to come in India, something I hope will happen one day. When the effects, rather than the hero, holds the viewer and, in fact, provides the reason for making the film -- like FX -- Murder by Illusion, for instance.

Trouble is," he shrugs, "here we are hero-oriented in our film-making, most of our stories are even written for particular stars... maybe one day it will happen, they will make a film centering around special effects..."

But perhaps, I say, playing devil's advocate, we don't make such films because we can't? I mean, didn't he himself say in context of Anjali that the production and post-production facilities were both totally below par?

"State-of-the-art equipment is not available here. Nor do we have people capable of making the miniature models that are so essential for good visual gimmickry. But that is a vicious circle situation -- we don't have them because we don't make films that utilise them. What we don't do are fantasies -- like say a Jurassic Park. The closest we come to that are our mythologicals, but those are technically very crude. The day we begin making fantasies is when we will prove that we too can match the best the west has to offer," says Venky, sounding -- surprisingly so, for a person of his reticence -- totally confident of his own skills.

Dreams? "Well," he grins, "to finish the two projects I am working on, and then get some time to relax."

Said projects being Bhatt's Duplicate, and Shankar's Jeans (the latter starring Aishwarya Rai and Prashanth). And 'relaxing' involves hiding out in his little holiday cottage in Kodaikanal, doing some gardening, trying his hand at a bit of sculpture and yes, playing with his baby boy-child.

Simple, workaday desires? Perhaps -- but then, Venky comes across as a simple, workaday kind of person -- in total contrast to the magic he conjures up.

But yes, he somewhat sheepishly confesses at the end of our chat, he does have a little dream of sorts. "One day, I want to make a special effects-oriented film. A fantasy. And I want to make it for children."

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