Ravi Kemmu took the plunge in TV direction in 1995, when satellite Indian television had just started to come of age. He debuted with a romantic series called Suhana Safar and went on to direct Mausam, a series on NRIs. Dollar Bahu and Dulhan were natural successors.
With Aamrapali, this former protégé of Shyam Benegal has hit big league. The ease and finesse with which he executed this historical of epic proportions has won him admirers already. His strong cultural moorings, belief in the educational value of entertainment and tireless efforts in shooting speak for the enthusiasm and commitment of the man.
Ravi took time off from his frenzied schedule to speak to indiantelevision.com correspondent, Amar. Excerpts:
How did you get started as a director?
My father worked in the Jammu & Kashmir's state department of culture and retired as secretary of the same department. So, the family was involved with cultural activities throughout. Right from a very young age, I have been fascinated by drama and as I grew, this fascination only grew stronger. In 1977, I took an integrated course at the National School of Drama, encompassing acting, direction and stagecraft. I came to Mumbai in 1987 and started as an assistant to Shyam Benegal. My first independent project was a TV serial, Suhana Safar in 1995.
Have any directors influenced your style?
Shyam Benegal has influenced me the most. I have imbibed a lot from the way he would treat a scene, his co-ordination of choreography, his screenplay.
How is Benegal's treatment different from other directors?
Basically, the difference lies in the use of trolleys. He uses the light trolleys in such a way that it exploits the geography of the scene to the maximum and creates depth in visuals. For a historical, the lighting pattern is of key importance because it has to be used to provide maximum details of the pillars, windows and the architecture of the time. Shyam Benegal had his own way and that explains how he created so many successful historicals.
How important is formal training for a director?
It is indispensable. In the absence of trained directors, the aesthetic value of the film gets lost. When assistants turn directors, they invariably tend to emulate the directors they have assisted. While there is nothing wrong with it, a formal course helps in forming a more balanced and rounded view of things. It does not confine you to the learning you can imbibe from one person.
Which factors do you take into consideration before taking up a new project?
My basic concern is that whatever I undertake be fresh as a concept and different from what I have been doing.
"For a historical, the lighting pattern is of key importance because it has to be used to provide maximum details of the pillars, windows and the architecture of the time"
What made up take up a difficult project like Aamrapali?
There are two reasons. One, I felt honoured by the faith the producers showed in me for directing this grand-scale historical. It made me feel vindicated and wanted. Two, I have always believed that the purpose of entertainment programmes should also be to educate. Aamrapali fitted the bill this way. Besides, I have assisted Shyam Benegal on Bharat Ek Khoj which covered this period in one of its episodes and have also always been culturally inclined.
How different is Aamrapali from other projects you have handled?
The grandeur involved makes me slog that much more in every department. Right from the personal appearance of the artistes - dressing them up authentically, right from their hairstyle down to their footwear - to the lighting, camerawork, and choreography - all these require a very careful supervision and control at every stage. This requires me to be on my feet all the time.
How long did it take to shoot one episode of Amrapali?
On an average, it took me four days of 12 hour shifts each to can one episode. The maximum number of re-takes required would be 12 or 13, whereas some scenes would be okayed even in a couple of shots. Most of the scenes have been shot with one camera for colour consistency. For the outdoor scenes, specially where there was movement of horses and animals, we used three or four cameras.
Another important aspect involved in directing a historical is handling the performances. What problems did you encounter?
Well, most actors we have taken have a rich background of theatre, hence it was not difficult for them to adapt to these roles. But, yes there are some new faces - like Shilpa Shinde (who plays Aamrapali) and Seema Kar. The main problem we faced had to do with their diction. Being Mumbai bred, they were not able to pronounce words correctly. My assistants took up the added responsibility of tutoring them in the language. Also, as some important dance sequences featured these two actresses, they had to be trained in specialized dances which took a lot of time and effort. Besides, the actors also had some difficulty in carrying off the ethnic costumes.
But does it make good business sense to put an expensive serial like this on DD?
DD has its own advantages. One, its viewership remains unmatched by any satellite channel. Two, with the Sanskritized form of Hindi used in the serial, it is likely to appeal more to the people in the interiors - Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar - than in the metros. DD certainly has a far better penetration in the interiors as against the satellite channels. Three, with DD, we are able to retain our rights over the serial. This serial will have a tremendous re-sale value and we plan to dub it in several languages, including some foreign languages for retelecast elsewhere later
"One also derives tremendous satisfaction by creating such exceptional stuff at a time when everybody is just interested in saving costs and churning out the same routine stuff"
Don't you feel drained out doing such taxing stuff? How do you motivate yourself?
(laughs) Washed out rather. Of course, directing an epic like this sucks all my energy and I do feel dead at the end of the day. Shooting in the terrible summer heat in a non-stop schedule of 75 days was also some experience! But one also derives tremendous satisfaction by creating such exceptional stuff at a time when everybody is just interested in saving costs and churning out the same routine stuff. Seeing the curtain raiser of my serial gave me a rare high and I am proud to be associated with the serial.
What are the factors you never compromise on as a director?
I never compromise on the way I want a shot to be taken. I never compromise on the kind of lighting I feel will work best for a scene. If I feel certain scenes will come out better with mis-en' shots, I go for them irrespective of the time and effort required.
Which subjects appeal to you otherwise?
I like to take up path breaking subjects that give people food for thought and those that really move them. In the next few months, I will be starting a movie where the story revolves around a 16 year old girl who is forced to become a nun.
What factors do you take into consideration before taking someone under your wing?
Well, the person should be sincere and hardworking. Besides, he or she should have a reasonable level of technical knowledge. I also look at the person's knowledge and understanding of literature and his inclination towards art and culture. These factors indirectly play an important role in the person's approach to work.
On hindsight, do you regret any shot and feel you could have done better, given another chance?
(laughs) I feel that way for every scene I have shot. But the fact is that given the constraints and pressures one has to cope with at least on TV, the best seldom comes out. I don't regret any shot as such.
Which has been the happiest moment of your career?
There have been several very happy moments. Whenever the telecast of my serials have begun - whether it has been Dollar Bahu or Amrapali, I have felt very happy and proud because most of my serials have been widely acclaimed.