Cinematographer K.K. Senthil Kumar Made Rambos Out of His Actors in ‘RRR’

We chat with the cinematographer about striking the right balance between fairy tale action and historically accurate drama.
RRR K.K. Senthil Kumar

Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the industry’s most productive and thoughtful behind-the-scenes craftspeople. In this entry, we chat with cinematographer K.K. Senthil Kumar about finding a visual balance within RRR.

Remove any scene from RRR out of context, and it will trigger a visceral emotional reaction. The filmmaking on display is “pure awe, wonder, and spectacle.” In short bursts, RRR leaves the viewer stunned. When an audience gives itself over to the film’s full three-hour and seven-minute runtime, they recognize a profoundly authentic celebration of historical figures and the modern-day icons who play them. The energy and craft required to accomplish the film’s visuals are nearly impossible to fathom. And yet, if you ask cinematographer K.K. Senthil Kumar how he and director S.S. Rajamouli pulled it off, he answers very modestly.

“I’m getting used to this kind of stuff.”

Nearly a year was spent filming RRR. When compared to American blockbusters or micro-budgeted indies, that’s a lifetime. For Senthil (who prefers to be referenced by his first name), that’s half the time he and Rajamouli spent shooting their previous magnum opus, Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali 2: The Conclusion.

“Generally,” says Senthil, “the motivation comes from various factors. Sometimes, it’s the great new techniques we come up with which really excites and ignites us. Other times, we inspire each other, and the team tends to keep it going.”

Committing years of your life to a project becomes normal. The person next to you is doing it, so you have no excuse but to commit equally. The material is the propulsive force, and honoring it is paramount.

“First and foremost,” says Senthil, “film stars are celebrated in India. I don’t think anywhere else in the world celebrates stars like how we celebrate them. At the end of the day, people come to watch the cinema for the stars. In Hollywood, that existed with Arnold Schwarzenegger or Rambo or Van Damme. This was a big responsibility for me, to present this film in a cinematic way while keeping the authenticity.”

RRR explores the tangled friendship between real-life revolutionaries Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju, played by two of the biggest names in Telugu cinema, also known as Tallywood for its box office rivalry with Bollywood, N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan Teja. Their bond is immediate, but circumstances put them in opposition. Tension and delight rest in how long the film keeps one opponent’s true goals hidden, delaying their ultimate team-up to take on the British Raj.

“This was a very specific time,” says Senthil. “People know about these two legends. I wanted it to be more authentic rather than this stylized thing. We can stylize in the action sequences, but I wanted to present a reality for the majority. Maybe this might all have happened; that’s the feeling they should get.”

RRR‘s tangibility begins with its lighting. Senthil refused to get overly fanciful with his sources. The light derives from our world, and one should be able to map its origin on the frame. Once established, he could play around and heighten its capabilities.

“I try to make it source-inspired,” says Senthil. ” If you have a light in the room, it’s from a window or a door. That’s the inspiration, but I don’t have to stick only to that. Again, actors are important. I start with the source but improvise it a little, stylize it, and glamorize it. It’s based on what the audience should feel, and it should be inspired by the beauty of the actors and the emotion they’re feeling. But it’s majorly source-inspired.”

Lighting continuity could have proven quite difficult for Senthil, especially considering some shots were picked up nearly a year after their initial scenes were captured. Through experience, the cinematographer relies heavily on strenuous journaling. Every frame realized is recorded and documented dutifully.

“I prepare very detailed notes,” he says. “For each shot, I note where the camera is, what is the height of the camera, what is the time of day, where the sunlight is, and what is the ambient light. I have very, very detailed notes, so it’s easier for me when we have to do some pickup shots or we want to re-shoot some stuff later on. That’s how I maintain the track.”

Staying on target meant RRR couldn’t stray too far from the historical record. Rajamouli and Senthil want the blood pumping through the audience’s bodies, and they anticipate they’ll spend much of the film on their feet cheering, but again, the background is a genuine time and place. The characters are ripped from the textbooks. RRR could never fall into a complete fairytale, so Senthil spent significant time researching classic cinematic works.

“We went through so many documentaries,” Senthil continues, “which were done at that period of time. I looked at how people were approached during that time and at how master shots were approached during that time. We took many references of what they did back then. And then said, ‘Okay, now what should I do? What do our sequences require?'”

Senthil doesn’t want to spend too much time highlighting RRR‘s most impressive shots. He will accept compliments regarding the mystifying bridge sequence or the mad brawl scrum that kicks off the movie, but he wants most of our attention focused on the story. He remains forever in service to the script.

“If I steal the attention from the audience to my craft,” he says, “then it is a failure. I should always make sure that they’re paying attention to the story. If they’re coming out of the theater and saying, ‘Wow! That shot was good! What great cinematography!’ Then I consider it as my failure. I need to make the audience emotionally moved by whatever the content is there, whatever the story is, whatever the scene is.”

For every frame, Senthil has a checklist. And the order never changes.

“Every shot is an emotion being conveyed,” says Senthil. “That is the primary aspect. Then, okay, are my stars looking good? Where does the focus need to be? Is my audience going where we want them to go? Storytelling is very important, and I need to help my director tell his story with my craft of lighting, cinematography, camera angles, lensing, and other things.”

While Senthil is incredibly proud of RRR and somewhat amazed by the reaction it has garnered across the globe, he cannot take extra credit for its realization. He merely did what he felt the narrative required, what his stars demanded, and what his director asked of him. He followed his checklist, and he took a lot of notes. It’s the process he used in the Baahubali films, and it’s the process he’ll also use in his next film.

RRR is now streaming on Netflix.

Brad Gullickson: Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)