The taming of colour and light

Modern cinematography in studios seems to have created a templated, charmless deploying of the very thing that makes cinema possible—light.

Published : Jun 02, 2023 15:55 IST - 6 MINS READ

A still from “Ninaivo Oru Paravai”.

A still from “Ninaivo Oru Paravai”. | Photo Credit: YouTube screen grab

When the cigarette is lit and inhaled, the orange embers of tobacco have the intensity of the sun—not the magnesium white afternoon sun but the bright orange sun of NASA images in textbooks, that glossy, printed orange ink. Faces are half-dunked in red, half-dripping with a grotesquely saturated cotton-candy purple-pink in a dingy bar. Red—an ugly shade of a regal colour—is flung throughout Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s hour-long film Ninaivo Oru Paravai, part of the Modern Love: Chennai anthology, a film which feels like a heady, saturated lump of wet colour.

For all its narrative failings and cinephilic pyrotechnics, Kumararaja’s aesthetics—striking and jarring at best, repulsive and stenchy at worst—move you to consider how vanilla, how unremarkable, how non-experimental, how dull and metallic the contemporary image-making in cinema is otherwise. Few are directors like Kumararaja who, along with cinematographer Nirav Shah, are willing to throw caution to the wind and use colour, use light, in ways that not just wound the spectator, but also cauterise that very wound. But what is this wound?

For example, the film’s persistent use of red is tiring, and not just because it looks unnatural, produced by a computer. This is not a colour that comes from the interaction of light and colour. It is light-agnostic. The colour in this film does not seem to have a body, floating around like pixels; there is saturation but no vigour, no vitality. This is the pinnacle of modern science, the miasma of it, that refuses to see colour as that which can be produced with the interaction of natural light.

The chromatic experience

The ancient Greeks, for example, did not have words for specific colours, but for how these colours interacted with light, with the texture on which they existed. Their chromatic experience took all of it together, refusing to, like Newton, extract it into its individual elements, stratify it, and then label that. When Homer called the seas “wine-like”, he did not mean the burgundy colour but that the seas produced the same shiny impression of wine inside a cup. What the Greeks understood, what the scientists had no interest in, was the subjective experience of colour as embedded in the world, not an objective study of it as captured in a neat vial.

Besides, red is a colour of high “salience” that is, compared to blue and green, it is the colour that captures our visual attention most quickly. To have an entire film wave its computerised red flag at you, pun intended, is like being with a screeching robot constantly asking for your attention. Exhaustion prevails.

Colour can produce what Goethe calls a “violence” upon our mind, a feeling of being violated, stimulated, suffocated, satiated. It is why children’s clothes, in this day and age, are in pastels, to not “stimulate” them too much, those eyes which are just opening up to a world, its shapes, its sounds, its scents, its colours. (My first langoti, preserved by my parents, was a bright silky purple, but this was in the days before child psychology was considered the bedrock of parenting.)

When the anthropologist Anand Pandian walked through Carlos Cruz-Diez’s installation Chromosaturation—three small rooms, each glowing fluorescent with green, then red, then blue—he had a distinct visceral shiver as each hue poured over him: “I remember the slight twinge of nausea that I felt in the green room, the sense of being pressed upon by heat from above in red, and the involuntary sigh of relief that escaped me as I stepped into the soft blue of the final room.”

When, in the early 20th century, Technicolor—the American company, also the name of their technology—was trying to convince filmmakers to use their innovation, flushing in sneezes of saturation into the black-and-white frames, they used the language of “realism”. The argument used was that colour was indispensable to cinematic realism, “to portray life and nature as it really is”, as described by a colour consultant in a cinema trade journal in 1935.

But realism was not what it was used for. Ironically, it was for the opposite—flights of fantasy in musicals and Westerns—that colour was used. In India, it was used for dance sequences in otherwise black and white films—Kanavane Kankanda Deivam (1955), “Jab Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya” in Mughal-e-Azam (1960). It is this legacy of using colour to express the bizarre, the outrageous, the delusional, that Kumaraja taps into. But then, when colour becomes mundane and indispensable, directors and cinematographers think of it like air—something that just happens to be there.

Citing artist and critic David Batchelor’s coinage of “chromophobia”, Pandian notes how modernity, particularly in the West, consider raw colour as “feminine, vulgar, and primitive by nature” and try to tame it with the help of technology. When these foreign platforms and studios leak into India, their expectations, too, throb our art. In the time of Netflix’s metallic realism—where all their images are colour corrected with the same firm hand—how to think of image-making? Are we even thinking of “image-making”, obsessed as we are with “storytelling”?

Impressions of light

It is not just colour; light, too, has become tamed by our films. There are rarely shadows in our big studio films; in fact, there is an active fear of shadows, except for overtly chiaroscuro stylisation; faces are always cleanly lit as though every rouged pore is equidistant from a light source. When light falls from windows, you do not know if it is the morning sun, the afternoon sun, or the evening sun. Often you cannot see the world that exists beyond the window, because it is all shot in a studio; the glass pane is like a milky white translucent layer. In shows like Jubilee it produces that obnoxious claustrophobia, that hammering sensation that this is a show set in the 1940-50s. In shows like Dahaad, it produces a glamourised, sweatless setting of rural Rajasthan.

“Cinematography in Tamil is known as olipathivu, literally “an impression of light”. This phrasing seems to give power to “light”—that light produces an impression, as opposed to light being made to produce an impression. ”

Cinematographers rejoice with every new technology that allows them to shoot indoors, away from the sun, but replicating it without the tension of shooting before the sun dunks into the horizon. When Chloe Zhao takes her superheroes into the natural light with Eternals it is a cause for celebration, an exceptional moment of taking a neat, greenscreen fumble into the unpredictable world of clouds and currents. It is the logic of capital—reduce risks, increase profits. When characters hold each other in Eternals, you can see the light—dawn light, perhaps—flickering between the fibres of the sweater’s fabric. It is a moment of such pure rapture. Where has it gone?

Cinematography in Tamil is known as olipathivu, literally “an impression of light”. This phrasing seems to give power to “light”—that light produces an impression, as opposed to light being made to produce an impression. Modern cinematography in studios, however, is not interested in the impression of light as opposed to the capturing of it, a mastery over it, a terrible control which creates a templated, algorithmic, predictable, charmless deploying of the very thing that makes cinema possible—light. 

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at

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