A new dawn: Roundtable conversation with five debutant directors

In this year-ender roundtable conversation, I bring together five directors who made impactful debuts this year: Mari Selvaraj (Pariyerum Perumal), Prem Kumar (96), Lenin Bharathi (Merku Thodarchi Malai), PS Mithran (Irumbuthirai), and Elan (Pyaar Prema Kadhal)

It’s almost a tad overwhelming, to be seated among five of the most influential Tamil filmmakers this year — all debutants — and to mull over the films they made and your own responses to them. The deeply disturbing Pariyerum Perumal which got you reflecting on your own identity, the moving 96 that breathed life into many a dusted memory, Irumbuthirai which made you aware about the horrors of informtion theft, Merku Thodarchi Malai that showed you life’s inherent cruelty, and Pyaar Prema Kadhal, which was beautiful in its unapologetic portrayal of urban romance, and more importantly, its female lead. I tell the directors as much before proceeding to engage with them about their films, the struggles, and their plans for Tamil cinema:

We have some powerful films among the ones you have made. Perhaps you could start by talking about your favourite among them?

Mari Selvaraj: I haven’t seen Pyaar Prema Kadhal yet. (Elan says, “I figured as much!” and everyone laughs). I saw 96 though, and reached out to Prem Kumar immediately after. While the other films — Irumbuthirai, which was relatable in its content, Merku Thodarchi Malai, which was broad in its scope, or my own Pariyerum Perumal, which was full of shocking events — were easier to market, 96 must have been a different story. Imagine trying to convince a producer with its story. I think this year has shown that people are willing to accept a film as long as it’s a story about real people. In the age of smartphones, I find this heartening.

Mithran: For me, this was a year of nostalgia. PPK’s events reminded me of what I was like when I was in college. Lenin’s Merku Thodarchi Malai brought back memories of watching Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. They are both about how indifferent nature is to humanity. 96 was especially nostalgic, as my dad’s from Tanjavur and mom’s from Tirunelveli. The scene where they show the dry Cauvery river bed was particularly hard for me to take because as a child, I remember what it felt like to jump into a river with gay abandon. Pariyerum Perumal too was a reminder of some of the events in my childhood that I’m quite ashamed about. It’s a film that helped me understand the politics behind certain things I’d grown up not questioning.

Prem Kumar: I was actually hesitant and scared to catch Pariyerum Perumal because I was told something disturbing happens to a dog early on in the film. I caught it many days after its release at an awards screening. Andha first scene undilla nu panniruchu. Returning home after the film, I told my wife I wanted to go and see the dog, and wondered if I should ask Mari to help me. My wife felt I’d be thought of as an amateur if I let out that I was as affected.

All of you have made films that are deeply affecting, and especially after films like Pariyerum Perumal and Merku Thodarchi Malai, you’re left wondering what you must do to change things around.

Lenin: I think the films aim not so much for solutions, as they do to facilitate understanding. We have to understand our world better. Elan made a wry comment about people not seeing Pyar Prema Kadhal, and I get why he said that. In the public sphere, they have made the film seem a bit taboo, simply because it is proud of its female lead who smokes and drinks. We have to understand that the roots of these problems are firmly within our education system, which is designed to create corporate slaves. The trailer of a star’s next film has accummulated views by the million, and we really have to begin asking what we get out of such films. How can we change our taste, our appreciation of cinema? How can we stop making deities out of actors?

Elan: I think you will notice that each of these films are defined less by their actors, and more by how unique and original they are. Even with respect to PPK, I didn’t want to write just another rom-com. I tried to be honest about communicating something. I have special affection for Pariyerum Perumal because it avoided the temptation of simplifying the good vs evil fight.

It’s interesting you mention that. Pariyerum Perumal, Merku Thodarchi Malai, and even 96 are all defined by their reluctance to judge people.

Mithran: Absolutely. We have demonised people for far too long. Our politics itself seems based on this idea, and cinema does much the same by simplifying its battles and polarising groups.

Mari Selvaraj: This is why in my film, I don’t really talk about who Jo’s father is, outside of his views on caste. Just because he’s proud about his caste, doesn’t mean he needs to be an evil person in all other walks of life. I’m simply trying to document a certain truth in the events that occurred in some people’s life. It’s what Prem’s trying to do in 96 too.

Lenin: This simplistic good-evil categorisation can be ascribed to our mythology. Ram is good, Ravana is evil. Devas are all good, asuras are all bad. Our theatre was based on such stories, and our cinema evolved from it. MGR is all good, Nambiar is all bad. Kamal, Rajini, Vijay, and Ajith have all followed suit. That’s why we hardly see their characters commit mistakes in films, not ones that directors painstakingly justify anyway. People seem to crave such cinema. It’s a problem.

Directors typically talk about their first film as being the hardest. Do you agree?

Mithran: I think all directors romanticise the process of getting their first film made. They thrive in getting rejected by producers, of going through the rigours of a struggling director. It’s when a producer approves your script that you truly become uncomfortable. Now you have to face the uncomfortable reality of going on and making your film.  But usually, as you’ve had a lot of time to process the material of your first film, it’s still fairly easy. It’s the second film that’s truly hard because you get almost no time to prepare.

Elan: And yet, you’ve already started work on it, have’t you? (Everyone laughs)

Lenin: I want to avoid participating in this rat race. It doesn’t matter to me if a producer is willing. I need to be disturbed enough by an idea to want to make it into a film.

Mari: I think the real measure of success is if your second film builds on the good work of the first. If you have discussed politics, can you do it with more focus this time? That’s success. It’s not about salary and the stars you work with.

Lenin: The biggest issue concerning a debut film is to have it released, especially if you are not backed by a powerful producer. The director is forced to take on so many additional unrelated responsibilities including being a mediator, holding conversations with distributors… It’s all highly stressful. Vijay Sethupathi was my producer, and yet we found it hard to get Merku Thodarchi Malai (MTM) out. In fact, almost all of us had some powerful people backing our films. Mari had a Ranjith, Prem and I had Vijay Sethupathi, Elan had Yuvan Shankar Raja, Mithran had Vishal…

Prem Kumar: Balaji Tharaneetharan’s second film was supposed to be Oru Pakka Kathai, not Seethakathi, which got recently released. Having worked on Oru Pakka Kathai, I can tell you it’s a beautiful film. And yet, we couldn’t get it released. It’s been 100 days since 96 released, and I’m still engaged in some work or the other pertaining to it.

Mithran: Oru padam mudiyum bodhu, vera oru pirappu edukkaraa madhri. People who know next to nothing about your film make judgments over whether it will do well.

Prem Kumar: Do you know I was asked to include a fight sequence in 96? When I refused, they announced a 25,000 cash prize for anyone who comes up with a good idea for a fight scene. Thankfully, no one did. When people look to purchase remake rights, they typically start by asking how many fights the film has.

How do you fight such a system?

Mithran: Kondhalippom, poraaduvom, azhuvom.

Elan: I think the trick is to consistently keep defeating the system and delivering hits like Pariyerum Perumal.

I was quite moved by the love stories in each of your films.

Prem Kumar: I simply looked to capture the truth in the Jaanu-Ram relationship. I didn’t approach the film with any preconceived notions on how to portray love.

Mari Selvaraj: Pari and Jo’s relationship is determined by who they are, where they are living, what their respective lives are like… The love in each of these films — Pyaar Prema Kadhal, 96… — is different. Some people praise my film because I didn’t show physical contact between the characters, and I’m driven to rage by this praise. They say, “Parisuththamaana padangalai Mari Selvaraj edukka vaazhththukkal.” They say the same about 96. They don’t realise that my film is against these very same people who have such outdated notions about purity. But simply to make a point, Prem Kumar or I couldn’t rob the truth out of the relationship between Jo and Pari, or Jaanu and Ram.

How much did the film in your head become the film we eventually saw?

Lenin: I think the whole thing. We had three years of pre-production and so, it was pretty meticulous.

Mithran: My producer was great, but my hero was horrible (Both Vishal). He would give me great freedom to shoot the film I wanted, but due to his many responsiblities, he would not turn up to the shoot. So, logistically speaking, Irumbuthirai wasn’t quite what it was in my head.

Elan: I’d originally written PPK as a film that could be made for 30 lakhs. I realise it’s impractical, but once Yuvan Shankar Raja stepped in, the budget got bumped up to 3 crore. At every step of the way, the film that was originally in your head, evolves. When Raiza came in, she wasn’t what I had in mind for Sindhuja. But I liked what she was bringing in; so the character transformed into something else.

Mithran: White Devil in Irumbuthirai was written as a cold character, but I think Arjun sir brought a lot of life and turned it into someone different.

When did it truly sink in that you were actually doing a film?

Mithran: On the first day of the shoot, I was too overwhelmed. I’d always been on sets, giving ideas, but to step foot on your own set is quite something. I saw some carpenters busy at work and was told they were readying a cupboard as prop. I’d chosen an apartment as a location, and to see it come alive with such props felt surreal. Ultimately, I think it’s the belief reposed in you by the technical crew that really helps you fit in.

Elan: PPK is actually my second film. My first got halted half-way. I suspect it had something to do with my age — I was barely out of college at the time. Now, I’m older (27 years) and have a bit of moustache and beard. So it’s not a problem anymore.

Now that your respective films have been made and come out to glowing reviews, is there anything you wish you’d done differently in them?

Lenin: I think I’d have loved to record the sound live. I couldn’t do it, owing to the limited time we were allowed in the forest we were shooting in.

Mari Selvaraj: I think I was too nervous, too frightened about making my debut with Pariyerum Perumal. While all of my companions here would have showed their films to dozens of people before release, I only showed it to about five people, including my producer, Ranjith anna. We were worried that it would get branded as a caste film, and receive flak. Eventually he took upon the mantle of getting it released, and the people showed that if there’s honesty and originality in a film, they will support it. If this film had failed, we would have put a full stop to many other upcoming filmmakers who probably have better stories to tell regarding caste discrimination. This pressure to succeed was frightening. Perhaps I’d want to be less nervous.

A word of advice to upcoming filmmakers?

Lenin: Padam paathu, padam pannaadhinga.

Mithran: Even today, there are people out there narrating stories that go, “Ramana Vijaykanth kadhaila villain, Chinna Gounder villain dhaan hero!” Create your own characters.

Lenin: Ours is a state defined by its relationship with cinema. We still reap the good and bad of Parasakthi, the good and bad of making MGR our Chief Minister. I urge upcoming filmmakers to come forward not with eyes on money or power or stardom, but on being an artist, and with respect for the art form.

Mithran: Many budding directors are defined by their self-pity. It comes in the way of self-improvement.

Mari Selvaraj: Do your research on who you take your script to. Don’t take it to everyone; else, they’ll make you lose trust in your own story. One actor insisted that I narrate Pariyerum Perumal in five minutes, and I couldn’t. The juice he ordered before he asked me for the five-minute narration took longer to come. How could I narrate a story in such time?

Prem Kumar: Finish writing your story before you start pitching it. And please write with pen and paper. I see many writing their scripts in Tanglish and it creates problems that I cannot quite explain here.

Elan: Make short films. It really helps you understand the craft.

Mithran: Or work as an assistant director. It helps you understand the business of films.

Elan: I think they can learn that on the job. Learning the craft is more important, I think.

Mithran: But then they would never know that there’s politics everywhere, even in the granting of locations.

Elan: Oh, come on! Don’t scare them. But yes, there are many roads to turning a filmmaker. And I think 2018 shows that.

Lenin: As long as you have an original voice.

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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