A Vincent (1928 – 2015)
Aloysius Vincent, born in Kozhikode in Kerala on June 14, 1928, worked as a cinematographer and filmmaker between the 1950s and 2000. At the peak of his career, Vincent was the most sought-after cinematographer in the Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam film industries. He was among the pioneering artists who liberated south Indian cinema from its rudimental theatrical form and established it as an art form in its own right. A few of his notable films are Neelakuyil, Amaradeepam, Nenjam Marippathillai and Annamayya. His debut directorial, Bhargavi Nilayam (1964), is regarded as a seminal horror drama.
Aloysius Vincent, popularly known as Vincent Master, picked up the first lessons in image-making from his father, George Vincent, a teacher and a photography enthusiast, the proprietor of the Chithra Photo Studio in Kozhikode town in Kerala. As a child, Vincent spent many hours in the photographic darkroom his father had set up in their family home, soaking in its deep red light, learning to develop film negatives. The beginning of a life intrinsically connected to images.
In a career that spanned half a century, Vincent shot over 80 films, in Telugu, Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi, and directed 30 feature films. Several of these films have been marked in the annals of Indian cinema as technical and cultural milestones. Vincent was among the pioneering artists who liberated south Indian cinema from its rudimental theatrical form and established it as an art form in its own right.
Colleagues and family describe Master as a soft-spoken artist and a prolific reader who had a penchant for taking artistic risks. For a shot in the song sequence Engane Nee Marakkum in Neelakkuyil (1954), his first Malayalam feature film as an independent cinematographer, he placed the camera on a platform built on a bullock cart and pulled off an outdoor crane shot - the first of its kind in Malayalam cinema. Neelakuyil, the first social-realist melodrama in Malayalam, was also one of the first Malayalam films to be shot, albeit partially, in outdoor locations-a giant aesthetic leap from the insides of the studio to the vast exteriors. The visuals are deep, a radical shift from the flat lighting and static camera movements prevalent in Malayalam cinema then.
Vincent’s career as a cinematographer began in 1947, at the age of 19, at Gemini Studios in Madras. During the four years spent at the renowned studio, he worked in landmark films such as Chandralekha (1948) and Apoorvasagodharangal (1949) as an assistant cinematographer to A Natarajan and Kamal Ghosh. When P Bhanumathi, the multifaceted superstar of Telugu cinema, founded Bharani Studios, he joined the studio as an assistant cameraman to Mr Ghosh. In 1953, he made his debut as an independent cinematographer through Bratuku Theruvu, directed by T Ramakrishna Rao, the co-founder of Bharani Studios. Around the same time, two young men who were to change the course of Indian Cinematography were also making their debut – Subroto Mitra with Pather Panchali (1952) in Calcutta and V K Murthy with Jaal (1952) in Bombay.
An intelligent and dependable technician, gifted with an artistic instinct, Vincent rose to fame quickly, becoming one of the busiest cinematographers in south Indian cinema. He was particularly well-known for his mastery of creating romantic ambiance and the old-fashioned glamour which drew the audience to movie halls. "In between his hectic schedules in Telugu and Tamil movies, he would take time out to shoot songs and action sequences in the big-budget epic dramas of Kerala's renowned Udaya Studios,” said cinematographer Ajayan Vincent, his younger son.
Vincent did not follow the usual rules of lighting and composition but translated reality into stylized images that heightened the ambiance. In this manner, he would provide subliminal guideposts to the audience, enhancing their viewing experience. In Gandharva Kshethram (1972), a psycho-horror drama, he brilliantly evoked phantasmagoria. In the opening song, a little girl is seen stumbling on a Yakshi -a supernatural being -on a tree, who is revealed through an over-exposed Dutch angle shot. The visual style of Gandharva Kshethram works like an extension of the complex psychology of its protagonist Lakshmi (Sharada). In Nizhalaattam (1970), a film he directed based on MT Vasudevan Nair’s screenplay, Vincent devised a special visual effect in the scene where the protagonist, having lost all his wealth, is forced to leave his house. He turned the image upside down to guide the viewer to reflect upon the man's plight.
“He preferred directional lighting and slightly contrasty images to flat soft lighting,” says cinematographer Jayanan, Vincent’s elder son who assisted his father for over a decade. “However, he diffused the incandescent tungsten key lights with white gauze and white mosquito nets to soften the falloff and Mole Richardson ‘double broad lights’ with ground glass panels to achieve a shadowless soft fill light. And at times, liberally, used the open face Mole Richardson ‘Rifle’ to fill light in larger areas while filming wide-angle."
"He would start by using a typical 3-point lighting technique, 3/4 frontal key light, flat fill light and a high backlight, but then added a directional half-light on the faces, and a cut light from the opposite side of the key, making it a kind of 5-point lighting," Jayanan explains. "The use of an additional half-light raised eyebrows amongst his colleagues and disciples alike. However, when they watched the dailies or rushes, as it was known back in the day, they realized the visual enhancement that the additional half-light created. They fondly christened it 'The Vincent School of Lighting'. It led to a slightly overexposed negative that resulted in richer blacks in the black and white negative."
Uthama Puthiran (1958), directed by T Prakash Rao, is a magnificent testimony to Vincent’s artistry and resourcefulness. While shooting in Mysore’s Brindavan Garden, a particular shot-composition saw Vincent at the end of his wits. The heroine, Amuthavalli (Padmini), hatching an ingenious plan in her mind, is in her room on the top floor of her palace, and the antagonist Vikraman (Shivaji Ganesan) is in the garden. It was impossible to fit both the actors into a wide frame without making one of them look like a pale dot. The problem, related to magnification and perspective, could have been easily solved using a zoom lens. Unfortunately, it was not available in India at that time. Vincent spotted a French tourist roaming the garden carrying a Paillard Bolex 16 mm camera equipped with a varifocal lens. He borrowed the camera from the tourist and filmed the song in 16mm. Later, he sent the exposed film footage to the Kodak processing lab in London where it was blown up to 35 mm. “The technicians in the London lab were surprised to see such good blow-up results and asked me how I took the shot,” said Vincent later in an interview with The Hindu.
Uthama Puthiran was a breakthrough work for yet another reason. In the costume drama, loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’ The Man In The Iron Mask, Sivaji played two characters – twin brothers separated at birth. Vincent had worked with the Special Effects Department while assisting Kamal Ghosh in Apoorvasagodharangal (1949), Gemini Studio's adaptation of Corsican Brothers, which had MK Radha playing a dual role. Vincent chose to improve upon his learning in Uthama Puthiran. Instead of the static matte method that was then widely used to film dual role scenes, Vincent used a new lighting technique, which was to be called the shadow mask. It was a great improvement on the old method that restricted actors' movement within the frame. In Uthama Puthiran, for the first time in Indian cinema, the audience saw two characters, played by the same actor, crossing each other within the frame.
Vincent, as a cinematographer, enjoyed long and fruitful professional relationships with artists, filmmakers and fellow technicians. His association with Tamil filmmaker C V Sridhar resulted in major commercial hits like Amara Deepam (1954) and Kalyana Parisu (1959). Spurred by the success of the latter, Vincent and Sridhar, with their friends photographer Tiruchi Arunachalam and writer-actor Gopu, formed a production company Chitralaya which produced a bunch of acclaimed films like Kadhalikka Neramillai (1964) and Nenjil Oru Aalayam, both shot by Vincent. When these films were remade in Hindi as Nazrana (1961) and Dil Ek Mandir (1963), Sridhar was the director and Vincent, the cinematographer.
Vincent’s first venture in colour, Kadhalikka Neramillai was the first Tamil film to be shot in Eastman Colour. The colour medium, he said, was not as intricate as the black and white medium. “It is easy to make a frame visible, but it is difficult to make a frame impressive. That requires a high level of technical skill, especially in the black and white medium,” he told C K Muraleedharan, ISC in an interview. Vincent produced phenomenal works in colour films too. His cinematography in K Raghavendra Rao’s Jagadeka Veerudu Athiloka Sundari (1990), a fantasy-romantic drama wherein Sreedevi plays a fairy who descends on the earth, is ingenious. He shot the song Andalolo Aha Mahodayam in saturated colours and diffused lighting, bringing alive the celestial on the silver screen.
Vincent was the founding president of SICA (South Indian Cinematographer’s Association), a trade union established in 1972 to recognise and fight for the rights of those working in the field of cinematography in all the south Indian film industries. He also mentored several young cinematographers like PN Sundaram and Bhaskar Rao.
“Back in the days when the art of cinematography was shrouded in secrecy, most of the assistant cinematographers had to learn the art by observing their senior cinematographers at work. But Vincent shared his in-depth knowledge of the intricacies of lighting, composition and characteristics of the film with his disciples and encouraged them to innovate and daringly experiment," said Jayanan. "Since he was also an artist, he drew sketches to depict the frame and experimented with highlights and shadows. He simplified the technical jargon to an extent that even the youngest of his disciples understood the concept. He backed his disciples even after they became independent cinematographers. He filmed songs or scenes for their movies, helped with technical assistance for trick photography and moral support to achieve excellence.”
Vincent, The Director
A strong visualist, Vincent’s career transition from cinematography to filmmaking was a natural progression. Actor Madhu, in a tribute to Vincent in the official magazine of MACTA 24 Frames, described Master as a perfectionist whose concerns on the set extended far beyond the domain of lights and camera to include the performance of artists and the production design.
Madhu was one of the lead actors in Bhargavi Nilayam (1964), Vincent’s directorial debut, a horror drama that took Malayalam cinema by storm. Bhargavi Nilayam is an unusual ghost story where the element of horror is blended into an intense tale of love and loss. Renowned writer Vaikom Muhammed Basheer wrote the film’s screenplay based on his novella, Neelavelicham, in consultation with Vincent, combining the lyricism in his prose with the latter’s technical wizardry. Vincent’s long-time associate, Bhaskar Rao made his debut as a cinematographer with this movie.
In Malayalam cinema, he collaborated with the renowned author MT Vasudevan Nair on several occasions and realized thematically challenging films that garnered critical and commercial acclaim. Their films, treading the thin line between melodrama and realism, veering towards the latter than the former, carved a brave new path for future filmmakers in the state. Murapennu (1965) was MT’s screenwriting debut and Vincent’s second film as a director. The film zooms into the downfall of Kerala’s feudalism and the disintegration of the Hindu joint family system. Prem Nazir, the superstar, essayed the lead role, of a man unable to find his feet in a turbulent time. Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema cites Murapennu as the first of MT Vasudevan Nair’s trilogy of political melodramas.
Eminent playwright and scenarist Thoppil Bhasi and Vincent joined hands for the first time in 1968, for Thulabharam, a hard-hitting anti-capitalist drama. The film won the national award for the second-best feature film. In a partnership that lasted over a decade, Bhasi and Vincent made films that had a staunch ideological commitment to Kerala’s political theatre, amalgamating it with an evocative narrative structure. Thulabharam, notwithstanding its theatricality, possesses a distinct visual style. In the opening scene, in a courtroom where a trial is underway, the film introduces Sharada through minimal yet dramatic gestures. Her shadow on the wall looms large over the lawyers and the judge. The camera then goes for a shot of her trembling hand clutching onto the handrail of the witness box. Sharada won the National Award for Best Actress Award for her performance in the film. Vincent, in a video interview recorded towards the end of his life, said that Sharada was the finest actor with whom he had ever worked.
Vincent chased stories and images all his life and stayed endlessly curious about the technological developments in filmmaking. At 60, he directed Pournami Raavil (1985), the second 3D movie in Malayalam, a fantasy drama with a multilingual cast. Scenarist-filmmaker Dennis Joseph, in his memoir, narrates Vincent arriving unannounced on the set of Adharvam (1989) as a standby cinematographer for Ajayan as he had to leave on account of an emergency. In the next four days, the veteran cinematographer worked diligently with a crew far younger than him, leaving them in awe. Vincent, who had dedicated his life to cinema, eventually became one with it, leaving behind a stellar body of work that continues to enthrall the connoisseur.
A short bio of the author:
Aswathy Gopalakrishnan is a film critic and journalist from Kochi, India. She has written extensively about Indian cinema on Silverscreen India and also contributes to a handful of other publications. She is an alumna of IFFR's Young Film Critics programme and has been a member of the selection committee (Indian films) at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival for the last three years. You can find her works here and here. Follow her on Twitter.