October 10, 2019 5:59:23 pm
Vetrimaaran has made only five films thus far—Polladhavan (2007), Aadukalam (2011), Visaaranai (2016 – India’s official entry in the foreign-language film category at the Oscars), Vada Chennai (2018) and Asuran (2019)—yet he’s one of the most promising directors in Tamil cinema. “As a filmmaker, I have a choice to be who I am and what I can do. If I’m here, it’s a choice. If I am not here, again, it’s a choice. We choose to be where we are,” he says.
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Q. Four of your five films have had Dhanush in the lead role.
I wrote Aadukalam having Dhanush in mind, but Polladhavan and Vada Chennai weren’t written for him. Dhanush is a dedicated actor and delivers what I need. It was amazing how he transformed himself into Sivasamy for Asuran.
Q. Barring Visaaranai, the template of your films have been the same.
(Smiles) As long as the audience find them engaging, I have no complaints. But scripts that I pick tend to teach me a lot. I do films for the common man and identify myself one among them. My films are a reflection of the society I live in, what I see and observe. I like to keep my films close to reality.
Q. Is that why there are ‘no heroes’ in your films, but ‘characters’?
That, I think, is because of what I like to write, and how I execute ideas. In someone’s universe, I’m not the hero; but just a secondary character. I have always had issues with people celebrating the protagonist, and leaving others. To me, everybody is equal. Their likes, dislikes, dreams, hopes and fears are important, too. That makes the journey interesting and worthwhile.
Q. Had someone handled Asuran, it could be passed off as a ‘karuththu padam’ (a film with a social message).
I can’t stand when others tell this is what I should do. I didn’t listen to my father when I was 14. I am 44 now and why would I listen to someone deliver ‘messages’? I don’t like to watch such films. Even if I ‘say’ something, I don’t want the audience to feel they are being ‘told’.
Q. How do you draw the line? I’m curious.
My tolerance levels are less as a viewer, so I know what it takes to present a film in a non-sermonising way. The last scene in Asuran was unbearably lengthy that I had to chop so much. Though we discuss pertinent issues, I admit it was boring.
Q. You seem quite self-critical.
This is how I am and I don’t like my films. It’s very hard to satisfy the creator in me. First of all, I don’t call myself a director. I am trying, that’s it. I’m more of a writer. I can’t describe how I make a film. It’s organic. My mentor, Balu Mahendra, used to tell if a film should happen, it will happen. I’m just a tool to facilitate things. I don’t mind waiting, but the script I choose should teach me something. I go into a retrospection mode whenever I write. That helps.
Q. Your films brim with culture and have the native feel.
A film must serve a purpose. If I make a film in Kannada, I need to make sure it’s rooted in the lives of Kannadigas. Or else, there’s no point directing it. The same applies to everything. I need to know where I set my premise and who my target audience is. Otherwise, this is what I know—the usual kinds of films I do. You can call it my comfort zone. I don’t know how to make films that are non-Vetrimaran-esque.
Q. Are you the protagonist whenever you write?
Absolutely. I can’t write something that I don’t think.
Q. Asuran is the fastest film you have made so far.
(Laughs) Thanks for pointing it out. Though Asuran has been released, the work is not done. Some of the CG shots were incomplete, and there were lip-sync issues. Overall, the emotional experience of making Asuran wasn’t good and I have no qualms admitting it. Despite letting go of many scenes, I wasn’t satisfied with the output.
Q. How was it to adapt Vekkai into a full-length screenplay?
Though Vekkai was written 40 years ago, it’s relevant, and I liked the premise very much. The same plot involving a son and a father, going undercover, can be developed anywhere. I can set this up in any place you name and still engage the audience emotionally.
Q. Asuran got me reminded of Pariyerum Perumal.
(Pauses) That’s possible; I agree.
Q. Revenge is one of the recurring themes in your films.
I disagree. I have dealt with guilt, humiliation, redemption and survival, but no revenge. Things have been existential, all the time. And, all my characters are dark and live through fear, betrayal and shame.
Q. For Aadukalam, you went to Madurai and lived there for three years. Did you do something similar for Asuran?
I spent one-and-a-half months in Kovilpatti where Asuran was shot. But I could only direct a film based on second-hand information. The moment they know you are a filmmaker, they ‘filter’ things. They know I am not one among them. But I had sent my team of assistant directors before the village. Based on their reports, I met select people and spoke to them.
As for the research work, that’s how I am built. I lack imagination. I need to know everything clearly before I start my work. I can’t think of a shot without knowing what it is. That’s my problem. But hey, it’s also a positive thing.
I feel a film finishes itself. I just have to give my characters the space to grow and develop on their own. Truth be told, my films shape only on the edit table. I can’t ‘make’ everything I think. But I manage to create something from whatever I have. (Smiles)
Q. I’m sure. Moving on… None of our films made it to the Oscars this year. Do you think are we being taken seriously?
The Oscars Committee isn’t a Government body, and they don’t have anything against anybody.
Q. Of the 52 entries so far, only 20 are in languages other than Hindi.
I don’t believe in the language divide. But, why are we skeptical about ‘transparency’?
Q. But nobody knows on what basis the films are being ‘selected’ or rejected.
Why should anyone let the world know, you tell me! No film festival does it, for that matter. When you send your film for a festival, it means you obey their protocols. You play a game only after understanding and accepting its rules, right? When Aadukalam bagged six National Awards, I am sure, someone in the north would have said, “Hey, this Award committee is so biased and doesn’t ‘recognise’ films that are made in Hindi.” But is that the truth? No. Also, you don’t need a jury’s validation for a film to be called good or bad. Making a relevant film is more important. Awards are a bonus. They are like a pat on the shoulders.
Q. You were 23 when you joined Balu Mahendra and, interestingly, your films are far different from his kind of cinema.
No two people are the same. Every human being reacts to a situation based on their experiences. Even the blood relations have different facial features. Their fingerprints, skin patterns, how they are, how they walk; everything varies. Balu Mahendra sir taught me cinema, but how I explore, understand, perceive, interpret, and execute cinema need not be the same.
Q. Are you a serious filmmaker?
No, I don’t want to be perceived as someone I am not. I want my films to reach the masses. Cinema is a people’s medium, after all.
Q. It would be interesting if we see you direct a full-fledged woman-centric film.
I have been writing something similar on those lines. It has to be wacky though. Let’s see.
Q. Up next, you have a film with Soori. Also, you are directing an anthology for Netflix, alongside Gautham Menon, Vignesh Shivan, and Sudha Kongara.
Yes, I am excited about both.
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