In the world of cinematography, Sri Madhu Ambat, who has been cranking the camera for movies for more than 4 decades now, remains an unsung hero, perhaps because, as a person, he is unassuming to the core, and as a professional he does not believe in making publicity for himself and would like his works to speak for him instead. Leave alone the other facets of his genius, his stand-out brilliance as a cinematographer alone is more than enough to make him an international celebrity. He was the first cinematographer from India to work for a Hollywood production independently (Manoj Night Shyamalan's "Wide Awake" shot in the U.S and the UK). British filmmaker Timothy Fodder was so impressed with his cinematographic skills that he made him cameraman for his "Binodini" in English, based on a short story by Tagore.
Sri Madhu was born in the famous Ambat family in Palghat on 6th March 1949 to Prof K. Bhagyanath and Smt.Ambat Sulochana. Ambat Sivarama Menon, the first elected minister of an Indian State, was his grand-father. Vidhubala, the leading actor of Malayalam movies in the seventies and eighties, is his younger sister. After graduating from Palghat Victoria college, he got admission to the IIT and also to FTII, Pune. His heart lay in cinematography, so he opted for FTII. At the Institute, he became the only student to bag the ORWO merit scholarship for all the three years he studies there. He passsed out in flying colours from the institute in 1970, securing a gold medal.
Immediately he came out of FTII, Madhu worked with the flamboyant Ramu Kariat for a documentary. He then worked for a Tamil movie "Avane Suttri (around him)", even though the Tamil movie did not get screened. This year (2014) is the 40th year of his entering the film industry and so far he has donned the camera for more than 200 films. He has had the good fortune of working with great cinemactic personalities and masters such as G. V. Iyer, K. S. Sethumadhavan, Ramu Karyat, K. R. Mohanan, Lenin Rajendran, Maniratnam, Bharathan, Girish Kasaravalli, Prema Karanth and the like.
Noted for presenting various moods of the movie through befitting tones, shades and hues, Madhu Ambat's camera attempts to convey more through the visual depth than by dialogues. The picturesque depth and dimension that he tries to impart to his frames, as if influenced by paintings, give a true stamp of quality to his cinematography. The frames of Bharathan's 'Vaisali' or 'Amaram' or Lenin Rajendran's 'Swathi Thirunal' or 'Kulam' or 'Daivathinte Vikruthikal' or Pavitran's 'Yaroo Oral', or Prema Karanth's Kannada film 'Phaniyamma' bear testimony to this. Madhu won wide critical acclaim for his emphatic presentation of visuals in such films like 'Oppol', 'Nammavar', 'Bhagavat Geetha', 'Thabarana Kathe', 'Uppu', 'Amodini' and others. His handling of the camera for Manoj Shyamalan's 'Praying with Anger' and 'Wide Awake' has won him international acclaim. “The colours and light must suit the subject, technology must always blend with the subject, and the camera must bring out the internal landscape of the character...” this is what he has he has to say about cinematography.
He won the National Film Award for Best Cinematography thrice, and won several state awards many times over. His first National Award for Best Cinematography was for "Adi Sankaracharya" (Sanskrit) directed by G V Iyer in 1984. In 2006, he got it for the second time in the film "Sringaram" (Tamil) directed by Saradha Ramanathan. In 2010, he got it for the third time "Adaminte Makan Abu" (Malayalam), directed by Salim Ahmad.
The Kerala state film awards that he has received so far are for the films "Aswathama" directed by K .R .Mohanan,"Sooryante Maranam" directed by Rajeevnath,"Yaro Oral" directed by Pavithran, "Purushartham" directed by K .R. Mohanan,"Swathi Thirunal" directed by Lenin Rajendran, "Amaram" directed by Bharathan
Madhu Ambat, who is settled in Chennai with his wife Latha and two sons Darshan and Rythwin, has established the Fantasia Centre for Research and Development of Cinema, a non-profit organisation striving to spread the culture of good movies across all sections of movie-goers. Cinema-lovers fervently wish to see more and more cinematographic brilliance from this versatile genius. Let us wish that Sri Madhu Ambat remains in the field for another 4 decades to show lovers of the tinsel-world more and more picturesque movie frames and compositions...
Written by Kalyani
Various internet portals
Various discussions with Mrs Latha Ambat
മലയാളസംഗീതം- Malayalam Music & Movie Encyclopedia