The dynamic frames of Mukundan Unni Associates

Cinematographer Viswajith Odukkathil, who entered the Malayalam film scene with Hridhayam, opens up about his sophomore film, Mukundan Unni Associates
A still from the trailer of Vineeth Sreenivasan-starrer film, Mukundan Unni Associates. (Photo | YouTube)
A still from the trailer of Vineeth Sreenivasan-starrer film, Mukundan Unni Associates. (Photo | YouTube)

2022 has been a rewarding year for cinematographer Viswajith Odukkathil. After making his debut as an independent cinematographer with Vineeth Srinivasan’s directorial, Hridhayam, and followed it up with the Vineeth Sreenivasan-starrer 

Mukundan Unni Associates, a delicious black comedy directed by Abhinav Sunder Nayak. “When Vineeth ettan asked me to shoot Hridhayam, I immediately asked him if he really wanted me to shoot the film because he could go with someone better. He started laughing and asked me if I had any issues shooting the film,” says Viswajith over a Zoom call. “I never expected him to approach me for Hridhayam. My idea was to start by shooting something small.”

Speaking about the first day of Hridhayam’s shoot--which involved a photo shoot and some montage shots for the chartbuster ‘Darshana’-- Viswajith indicates that he was largely free from stress, attributing it to Vineeth’s planning. “As far as Vineeth ettan is concerned, he is quite clear with what he wants in a scene. If he needs 12 shots, he goes for it; nothing more, nothing less. As an actor in his Thira (2013), I observed how he divides his shots,” says Viswajith, who worked as an associate in films like Neram (2013), Premam (2015), and Oru Vadakkan Selfie (2016). “For Hridhayam, he briefed me about the need for a lot of dynamic movements. An average Malayalam film has 300-320 shots in a reel, Hridhayam had nearly 740.”

Viswajith’s second film, Mukundan Unni Associates (MUA), on the other hand, was a departure from his first, both in terms of visual style and modus operandi. “In Hridhayam, we would light up for the entire scene and start filming individual shots. In MUA, we went for a more shot-by-shot approach,” he says, adding that his familiarity with filmmaker Abhinav helped. “He wanted highly sanitised visuals, that’s how he described it. So I kept it simple and clean. And since he wanted the film to have a cloudy feel, we avoided highlights and stuck to neutral colours.”

The film’s most striking creative choice, the usage of multiple aspect ratios, was a choice made by Abhinav during the film’s post-production phase, Viswajith reveals. This comes across as a surprising fact considering the film looks carefully framed for three different aspect ratios—4:3, 16:9, and the conventional 2.35:1. “We shot it in scope, with the headroom balanced for the conventional aspect ratio. When you opt for the highest resolution in the Alexa LF camera, although the viewfinder tends to mask the top and bottom, it records the video in a 4:3 ratio, which we later scale during post-production. When Abhinav told me that he was going for multiple aspect ratios, I knew that there would be some VFX work needed to erase the lights and other film equipment on the top of the screen,” Viswajith shares.

In MUA, the aspect ratio is more than a stylistic choice and the different scales are connected to the progress of the story and the character development. “The aspect ratio changes when he wins his first case. That’s the point when the screen begins to expand. Until then, we bottle him up in a confined space. The second change happens in the pre-climax when the screen cuts to black after a major incident occurs and the film then goes full wide. It can be interpreted as his rise.” Or descent into darkness. “You can interpret like that too. Or him expanding his horizons. That’s up to the individual to interpret.”

Doesn’t he feel possessive about his frames being cropped and scaled? “If you look at the first look poster of the film, it is very clear that although it has names of technicians on it, the film completely belongs to the director,” Viswajith, says, laughing. He continues, “You don’t actually have a say in decisions like cropping your favourite frames. It’s their film and it’s up to them to decide it. We are called in to execute something on their behalf and I believe I have done it.”

Speaking about a facet that made its way into the film on the editing table, the cinematographer says, “Once the voice-overs started to come in, everything changed, including the mood of the film. For instance, all the exposition in the story, where a character is explaining their plans to others, were just conversations and that’s how they were shot. But on the editing table, Abhinav added sequences with motion graphics to elucidate those parts. In other words, we had a scene order based on which we shot the film. It all changed on the editing table.”

Viswajith has a funny and fascinating observation about multihyphenate filmmakers, like Abhinav and Alphonse Puthren. “Every time you read a script, you imagine it a certain way. The closest the script has translated onto the screen was with Neram. With Premam, on which I worked as an associate cinematographer, what we shot was completely different from what I had read. And what panned out on the editing table was completely different from what we had shot! When an editor-writer-director comes on board, you know that the film is highly malleable and will take many shapes during the process. I knew Abhinav was going to do something different on the editing table but I didn’t know what exactly,” shares Viswajith, adding that those experiences helped prepare him while working on MUA.   

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