Director Vasanth: I don’t chase the limelight anymore

Director Vasanth S Sai speaks of fame and self-expression, while dissecting his short film, Payasam, from the Netflix anthology, Navarasa

Veteran director Vasanth S Sai has made what’s arguably the pick of the lot in the Netflix anthology, Navarasa. The film, Payasam, is centred on the bibhatsa (disgust) rasa, and is a retelling of the story of a man whose all-consuming envy and hatred for a relative, fills him with much despondence. It’s a film that, while seemingly concerning itself with the authentic recreation of a Brahmin wedding set in the 60s, is actually about the complexity of human relationships and of making peace with what life gives us. Here’s the director himself helping uncover various facets of this fascinating film, while also revealing a lot about himself:

While it’s often difficult to compare one film of an anthology with another, I can safely tell you that I best liked your film, Payasam, in the Navarasa anthology.

(Laughs) Thank you. But like you said, why compare… I think comparisons are fair if all nine of us filmmakers had been given the same script, but here, nine of us filmmakers were working on nine different scripts. But yes, I’m lucky that my film has been well-received. I’m also in a space where I want to work on only those projects that interest me. I have been in the box office game and done star vehicles. Now, I am in a phase of self-expression.

While your film is on the bibhatsa rasa, might you have been interested in doing a film on any of the other rasas?

I might have, sure. I found bibhatsa exciting because it’s a negative emotion and elicits a strong reaction. There’s no ugliness without beauty, no sound without silence, no light without darkness. Our first task was to define disgust in this story. I don’t believe these rasas are about the outside; they are about the inside. Hence that opening quote: Fear is danger to your body, but disgust is danger to your soul.

What do you attribute this resurgence of the short film format to?

Well, we want everything fast, don’t we? I don’t mean this as criticism; it is what it is. We see that the average duration of a film has come down. I suppose this acceptance of the short film format is a natural consequence. I love this format too. In fact, I love even some 30-second films. Ultimately, the duration of these films did not surprise us. The scripts were readied only after such requirements were shared. And frankly, I think this format allows for more precise storytelling, and avoids flab.

You have adapted a short story by Tamil writer, T Janakiraman. What was your interest in this story?

It’s a story I have read again and again over the decades. It speaks of an emotion that’s universal: envy, and through this, I speak of disgust in this film. Who among us can claim to be free of envy? If you think about it, this is an emotion I have done many feature films about, including Satham Podathey and Aasai. I suffer from envy too, and I hate that about myself. But of course, I don’t go to the lengths that the Delhi Ganesh character does in this film.

While his character is named in the book, you have done away with it, preferring instead to let other characters refer to him by his relationship with the person he dislikes so much, the successful Subbu.

I have seen how annoyed my father gets when people refer to him as ‘Vasanth’s dad’. “I have a name, you know,” he would say. I picked this idea up from my life, and thought it was quite relevant to the protagonist in this film.

Delhi Ganesh, who plays the protagonist, is 77. Did you have to manage age-related challenges while shooting? In one scene that looked rather uncomfortable to behold, he stumbles and trips, while walking into that wedding.

He may be physically frail but has a heart as strong as a lion’s. I like to cast actors in age-appropriate roles. You will scarcely see my actors wearing a wig or being made to look really young in flashback portions. Delhi Ganesh had just undergone a bypass surgery at the time of shooting, and it was a delicate time too, given that the second wave was at its peak. So, yes, we had to be careful. I was happy, however, to let him do the scenes whenever he was able to. We go back a long way, having had fruitful associations from Nee Paathi Naan Paathi (1981)… We share a beautiful affection.

For Delhi Ganesh, acting is as natural and easy a task as drinking water. For one scene, all he had to do was walk and take his seat in the wedding hall. We were covering many details of the wedding with the other cameras, and I was not paying too much attention to this shot of him walking in, as I felt it was straightforward. But I was shaken to see his performance, to see how he communicated a certain arrogance and insecurity, though he had no dialogues. He’s a great actor.

Some of the topics handled by this film, including oppression of widows and the limiting roles ascribed to women in general, are relevant even today. Why then did you set it in the 60s?

You ask why. I say, why not? Also, I’m just being loyal to the short story by setting it in that period. It also served as a new challenge for me. Art director Bala and cinematographer Sathyan Sooriyan were quite excited by the prospects too.

Also, I think that when you see something happening in the past, you get some distance from the characters, which prevents you from judging them in a way you would otherwise.

In small ways, you show how a widow attracts glances of disgust. I also caught some commentary on the futility of traditional practices too.

I have suffered a lot over the years and learned a lot. So, I like to make certain observations in my films. I think of them as my punchlines. In this film, Rohini’s character says, “Siladhu kidaikkum, siladhu kidaikaadhu…” and encourages her husband to make peace and count his blessings. This, to me, was the point of the whole film.

I thought you did a great job in capturing the explosive energy of a wedding venue, and the sheer colour and spectacle of it.

I enjoyed capturing it; in fact, I always have. Weddings are colourful affairs, and the only instruction attendees were given was to put on a happy face. I don’t think there’s another occasion that unites people in such joy—not even festivals.

I also noticed what a keen eye you have for the dynamics of human relationships. I dare say that your teacher, the late director K Balachander, might have been proud of this work.

Thank you. That means a lot. I believe that if we fix the micro, the macro automatically gets fixed. For instance, in this film, a single unhappy man prevents an entire wedding party from drinking payasam. I’m deeply influenced by Bergman and his films like Through a Glass Darkly and Scenes from a Marriage. I have spent a long time thinking about human relationships, about how no matter how close we are to someone, we are closer to ourselves—about how this causes conflict sometimes. I find this to be an important issue worth making films about.

Sometimes, it seems to me that the theme of these anthologies perhaps gets a bit restrictive for filmmakers.

I suppose it’s necessary, as it’s the fulcrum around which such anthologies get commissioned and approved. Even when I wasn’t given a theme—like with my upcoming anthology, Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Pengalum—I have chosen to unite the stories under the theme of women. The themes are never the problem; it’s almost always the manner of interpretation.

I liked the dark humour in the film as well—like that line said by Delhi Ganesh’s character, where he takes a dig at coffee preferences.

I think that comes from my own taste in coffee. Kasandhaa dhaan coffee, illainaa payasam. In our society, those who demand that their coffee be sugarless, like me, are often judged to be diabetic. I usually lecture such people about how coffee should be taken. Some of my preferences make their way into my films.

There was some commentary on hierarchy too, and about a change of guard, concerning the cooks.

There’s a word, ‘current’, that’s often used in cinema circles. It’s about how you need to always stay at the top. They are constantly asking, “Current-la irukaara?” Thankfully, I have made my peace with where I am today. I have realised that ultimately, my choice dictates where I am. Today, all I ask myself is, “Do I have something to say? Can I say it in the way I want?” I also owe some of my mental peace to my piety. I have long been absorbed by the question of who I really am. Such reflection helps.

Look, I know that I can’t think of love as Karthick Naren does. I don’t even see romance as I once did. I would rather make films befitting my age.

My film, Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum, has made the rounds at international festivals and will be getting out on SonyLIV and with Ilaiyaraaja sir’s music no less. That’s what I’m excited about right now.

Is staying in the limelight important for you?

Well, it was. Not anymore. I have realised over the years that ‘limelight’ is essentially this carrot in front of a rabbit that it can never get to. If you chase the limelight, you have to run forever, and it will make you unhappy. This realisation has provided me with a lot of humility and calmness. But hey, if people are saying that I’m in the limelight now, and that my film, Payasam, is being appreciated, that’s not a bad feeling at all.

This review was written for Cinema Express, and was originally uploaded here.

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