It was in 1971 at the home of writer poet M. Govindan in Madras Egmore, along with Director John Abraham that I met Mankada Ravi Varma. M. Govindan was at that time publishing the literary Journal “SAMEEKSHA” and his home was the meeting place of many writers and artists. Graduates from the Film Institutes were looked upon as only “Theoretical people” and they were considered unfit when it comes to practical things like shooting a feature film. So they had to work on the fringes of the film industry as assistants or work in documentaries or seek employment in Films Division. Even though he passed out from the Madras Polytechnic in Motion Picture Photography and Sound Engineering in 1952, he got no break in the film industry and had to be content with being employed by the Films Division. He later resigned the job, bought a 16 mm camera and was doing documentaries for BBC and other foreign news agencies.
P.A. Azeez who became the very first Direction graduate from the Poona Film Institute ever to make a feature film “ AVAL” ( Malayalam ) in 1967, gave Mankada his first break as an independent cinematographer. Incidentally Santha Devi who passed away two days back had also acted in that film in which Madhu and Usha Nandhini played the leading roles. Then came the path breaking film “ OLAVUM THEERAVUM” (1969) scripted by M.T. Vasudevan Nair and directed by P.N. Menon in which Mankada broke the shackles and released the camera from the confines of the four walls of the studio floors and brought it to the wide outdoors and real interiors.
He says about his experience thus: "We exploited the available light. The framing and composition of the film were totally different from other feature films. I tried to accommodate all the tones that were available in black-and-white, and shot the film. As I had shot documentaries in very adverse conditions, I decided to make use of all those experiences in a feature film. Usually in poor light, a cinematographer stops shooting. What I did was use it to my advantage."
In 1971 at Madras another Film Institute venture VIDYARTHIKALEY ITHILEY ITHILEY was going on with the crew consisting of John Abraham ( Director), M. Azad ( Script writer), Ravi (Editor), Devadas ( Sound Engineer) and myself as Cinematographer – all from the Poona Film Institute. At Madras in those days, there were no Nagra Recorders in use as the Recordists had no trust in such a small portable tape recorder and preferred big machines running 35 mm magnetic tapes. Since we were shooting our film in Sync sound, Devadas used to bring Nagra from Chitralekha Film Co-operative, Trivandrum. At that time the work of Adoor's film SWAYAMVARAM was also progressing in Trivandrum.
While Raja Ravi Varma used paints and brushes, Mankada Ravi Varma used to paint with light to create his visuals. He excelled in his Black & White films by judiciously mixing shadows and light, highlighting the faces of characters to focus on their emotions. His transition to the colour era was very smooth without compromises as seen in the internationally acclaimed film ELIPATHAYAM.
He always found time to interact with his juniors who seek his guidance and clear their doubts in cinematography. He gladly came over to Thiruvanthapuram to establish our Indian Society of Cinematographers and also became a Founder Member of ISC.