The 2017 Tamil directors roundtable

It was an almost familial coming together of Tamil cinema’s staggering directorial talent at the Park Hyatt, as directors, the names behind some of 2017’s best work — Gayathri-Pushkar (Vikram Vedha), Suresh Sangaiah (Oru Kidaiyin Karunai Manu), Nithilan (Kurangu Bommai), Mohan Raja (Velaikkaran), Gopi Nainar (Aramm), Lokesh Kanagaraj (Maanagaram), ARK Saravan (Maragadha Nanayam), and Bramma (Magalir Mattum) — generously accepted my invitation to partake in a never-before-seen interaction about everything from feminism to censorship to discussing each other’s films.

Excerpts from the chat, as the directors begin talking about what 2017 means to them:

Mohan Raja: 2017? With Velaikkaran, I hoped to sustain my reputation as a socially conscious filmmaker who could write his own films. I think I have achieved it to a large extent.

Bramma: The second film is usually thought of as a milestone. I collaborated with friends, mainly, to make my debut film — Kuttram Kadithal — but Magalir Mattum was different. There were a lot of senior artistes like Jo, Urvashi etc. I’m glad I was able to make a film that reached out to a large audience.

Gopi Nainar: All the years are important. (Everybody laughs) For many years, producers kept telling me that I’d have to compromise on certain aspects of Aramm. Finally, I made it — just as the politically charged film I wanted it to be — and got it released this year.

Nithilan: Is this year special? Truth be told, Kurangu Bommai should have got released last year. (Everybody laughs) I liked this idea of a man, who’s carrying a bag, without realising that it contains his father’s head. I’m glad people liked the film. Even if they hadn’t, I’d still be doing what I am now: figuring out my next.

Gayathri: Sometimes, what directors want to say completely synchronises with what the audience enjoy hearing. This year, it happened with Vikram Vedha for us.

Pushkar: We were a quivering mass before the release. What if people didn’t get the film? But after the first show, we heard good feedback, and that’s when we relaxed a bit.

Lokesh Kanagaraj: If Maanagaram, a film I’d been struggling to make for many years, hadn’t been received well, I’d have packed my bags and headed out of the city. Now that it has been, I feel additional responsibility in making my next.

Me: There are a lot of debutants among us, and I noticed when surveying the films of this year, that much of the good work that has come out in 2017 has been by debutant directors.

Gayathri: I think a lot of credit must be given to the producers for trusting in their ability.

Bramma: I think the trend has peaked this year. I see this happening a lot more during the coming years.

Mohan Raja: People like us will now have to think as debutants do. There was a time when it was important for producers that directors have experience — not anymore. I think people are loving how new directors often come with a lot of new ideas.

Pushkar: New ideas like hyperlinking stories (referring to Maanagaram and Kurangu Bommai).

Lokesh Kanagaraj: Thank you! I have been humbled by many of the films made this year — most recently Aruvi. I wasn’t sure at all how the director (Arun Prabhu) managed to convey such complex ideas to his producer. When I was narrating Maanagaram to a producer, he looked at me baffled, clearly struggling to comprehend what I was talking about. My composer kicked my leg and said we should head out quickly. (Everybody laughs)

Me: The year saw the failure of some films that attempted to cash in solely on star power. On the other hand, there were films — directed by some of you — that did well despite not having popular names in the cast. Perhaps this is the year when that oft-used media phrase ‘content is king’ finally came true?

Gayathri: I think both small-budget films and star vehicles have a place in the industry. I think the latter is important for the survival of the former.

Pushkar: I’m seeing that even worldwide — in Hollywood, in Korean cinema, in British cinema — the big stars are turning towards content-oriented cinema. They are all keen to step out of their comfort zones, once in a while, at least.

Me: Talking about comfort zones, Indian cinema has faced a lot of censorship issues this year. The title of a film was a problem. Another suffered because they thought it attacked a religion.

Mohan Raja: Name the films! (Everybody laughs)

Me: I’ll put this straight: as directors, do you feel your creativity hindered?

Bramma: This is a new form of restriction, I think. When there’s political pressure on filmmakers to dissuade us from handling sensitive topics, it’s quite annoying.

Mohan Raja: The sort of topics we handled, say, 20 years ago, we can’t do anymore. We may be going forward in terms of clarity, vision, inclusiveness, but we have been forced back in terms of content.

Bramma: Films are reflections of the socio-political climate they come out of. After the Jallikattu protests, I noticed many political films being made. They shouldn’t be suppressed.

Lokesh Kanagaraj: I’ll admit before all of you that I’m now a bit scared about what I’ll write in my second film. For Maanagaram, somehow, we managed to get all three censor certificates. We got an A first, then a U, and finally, a U/A.

Gopi Nainar: (rather incensed) Your fear is their success. The problem is how isolated a filmmaker often is. We have a responsibility to fight for each other. The other problem is how little many filmmakers know about their society. How can such people make films that are useful for their society? That’s why I liked Velaikkaran. It talks against corporate evil. I’m astonished Mohan Raja sir managed to get it released.

Mohan Raja: (in a whisper) Let’s not talk about that. (Everybody laughs)

Bramma: (looking at Gopi Nainar) I like your idea of filmmakers rallying for each other, but the problem is, many of us don’t even know when another filmmaker has a problem. For the moment, we are all just figuring out ways to outsmart the censor board when making a film. And I do think it can be done — Velaikkaran is an example.

Me: We may fallen back in terms of freeedom of expression, but I do think we’ve gone ahead in our understanding of how women should be portrayed in cinema. At least, there are eyes closely watching films for harmful portrayal.

Bramma: Yes, I think it’s a cultural change. Audiences find it silly when a filmmaker misrepresents stalking as love.

Pushkar: Cinema is but a reflection of society. Much of this progress, I think we owe to women’s right groups, the feminist movement, and the press.

ARK Saravan: The first producer I pitched Maragadha Nanayam to said he wanted Nikki’s character to be shown in a saree. Given that she gets possessed by a man, I refused because I knew it would seem vulgar. Thankfully, the next production house was more cooperative.

Nithilan: Now that we are all discussing this, allow me to express my regret at how I showed women in Kurangu Bommai. Every time, I showed them, they were either in the kitchen or doing household chores.

Bramma: If we are on about changing our respective work, I think I’d like to change about sixty percent of Magalir Mattum. (Everybody laughs) The issue is that there’s often much passage of time between when we write the film and when it ends up getting released. By then, we have likely evolved as thinkers, as filmmakers.

Me: While on women, I can’t help but notice that we have only one woman (Gayathri) director among us. Did I miss inviting anyone?

Gopi Nainar: The truth is that our society isn’t encouraging of them.

Gayathri: I think more women can come forward.

Gopi Nainar: That’s because they are made to feel discomfited by the all-powerful creature called man.

Gayathri: Sure, but we can’t transform society overnight. We can change ourselves though. I think women should lose their fear of the industry. We (Pushkar and her) constantly tell women that cinema is not the evil industry it’s portrayed to be.

Nithilan: Also, sometimes, I’ve heard producers expressing doubts over the ability of a woman.

Pushkar: Sudha Kongara’s a shining example of what a female director can do. She made a sports film, a harsh sports film, in fact. With more role models like her, more women will feel encouraged.

Me: The conversation has been too serious. Could you perhaps talk about what you liked in each other’s film?

Pushkar: We loved Oru Kidaiyin Karunai Manu — the title, the poster, the sweetness of the idea. We also loved how multiple stories come together so beautifully in Maanagaram and Kurangu Bommai.

Nithilan: Thank you. I loved Kidaiyin… too. Some of its dialogues, I’d only heard in real life. I also loved Vikram Vedha and its idea of the struggle of two men.

Bramma: I’ve been a fan of Pushkar-Gayathri from my Loyola college days. I chanced upon their first film, Oram Po, and instantly became their fan. I loved the writing in Vikram Vedha, and the performance of Vijay Sethupathi. I also loved Bharathiraja sir’s role in Kurangu Bommai. Oh, and I also really liked Aramm. While I don’t really have the stomach for horror, some of the horrific moments in Aramm really made me squirm.

Pushkar: In our directors community, word about a good film often spreads even before its release. For instance, we’d already heard the story of films like Oru Kidaiyin… and Kurangu Bommai before they hit the screens. A film like Maanagaram actually exceeded the pre-release hype. It’s great when that happens.

Me: On that note, thank you all for coming together.

Gayathri: Thank you. It was great to be here, and to meet directors I had only heard about till today.

This interview was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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