It has just been ten years since Pa Ranjith made his entry into Tamil cinema with Attakathi. Yet, it looks like the director has been a harbinger of change and achieved quite a lot in a decade. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say Pa Ranjith has begun a movement of sorts in Tamil cinema. Films like Pariyerum Perumal or Seththumaan wouldn’t exist had Ranjith not made Attakathi and Madras. In an hour-long conversation with the director, I probe whether he is aware of his contribution, his upcoming film Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, pan-Indian films, and political correctness.
Can you retrace your journey for us?
My entry into cinema is not a non-causal event. It was properly planned, and I can still remember the year I decided to become a filmmaker. It was the 2002 academic year when I was 20 years old. Before that, all I wanted was a job that would earn me an approximate sum of Rs 20,000 per month. So, I thought doing a Bachelor’s in fine arts would pave the way for a career in animation or art direction. However, I kept experiencing unease with the hypocrisy of society, and I found Ambedkar in that process. Parallelly, my exposure to world cinema through film festivals developed a desire to make films. Not any films, but ones that would talk about my politics.
How did you prepare to chase your dreams?
I watched the works of masters across the world. Instead of concentrating on the filmmaking aspects of the works, I learned how to approach a film and contextualize it. Back then, small Tamil magazines published many such pieces of world cinema and their politics. Watching City of God is a different experience from learning the backstory and contextualizing it with Rio de Janeiro’s politics, class strata, and economy. These magazines helped me understand that cinema is a complicated and layered art. I wanted to use that enormous potential to speak about my politics. However, I wanted to present cinema in its language. Thus, I started following filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and films of the French New Wave. Then, I found Alexander Innaritu and Spike Lee. Of course, I am not making movies similar to theirs, but I am inspired by how well these filmmakers handle the artform to convey their ideologies. I wanted to address the oppression Dalits face in our country and how their culture, food, and art forms are disregarded and ignored. I made it my purpose. It was a well-planned journey.
But was that easy?
I would be lying if I said it was a hard journey. I think my progress was smooth because of my initial successes with Attakathi and Madras. However, I wouldn’t say it was entirely a cakewalk either. People were against its release as well, but Studio Green finally saw the film and released it to a good response. The success of Attakathi gave me the confidence to deal with the subject even more in Madras. That gave me the confidence to make Kabali the way I wanted, though Rajini sir was part of the film. Again with Kaala, I became even more confident and uncompromising with what I wanted to say. However, I would say my career till Kaala was different compared to what came later. I would say I had some inhibitions while making Kaala and second-guessed my decisions and added some elements as fan service. With Sarpatta Parambarai, the gloves came off. I made no compromise with the film, and I did what I wanted to do.
But don’t you think even Kaala was a bit bold given how ambiguous the climax was for a Rajinikanth movie?
True. People raised red flags asking how I can kill Rajinikanth in the film. My point was, Kaala is the personification of an ideology. Something like a superpower, and I wanted everyone to have it. I don’t like the idea of power residing in only a few places.
Questions were raised about whether Rajinikanth was fully aware of the politics of the film…
I wouldn’t cheat anyone. I will explain to everyone concerned about my film and its politics. Rajini sir knew what Kaala was about and he was onboard. If not, the film would have been stalled before the release, given that it was ready 20 days before the release.
Coming back to your plans and resolutions. Like direction, was film production also part of your goals?
I never really planned this. Yet, I realised it was a struggle to explain my vision to producers and make films the way I wanted. That’s why owning a production house sounded like a nice idea. The success of Pariyerum Perumal changed things and turned Neelam Production into a bigger venture than it was intended to be.
Tell us about Koogai cinema movement, Casteless Collective, and Margazhi Makkal Isai.
Not just cinema, I am interested in art as a whole, and I find it to be a powerful tool that has a special space in Indian politics. I wanted to work on those levels too, and that’s why I started counter-culture music festivals like Makkal Isai and Casteless Collective. I want all of this to snowball into a movement of sorts. Recently, I was happy to learn that a group of boys in Vyasarpadi has started a group called Black Boys. That’s exactly how I would want this to progress; a movement that organizes itself.
Don’t you think you have already started such a movement, at least in Tamil cinema?
An opening has been created and a precedent has been set. Yet, debates are still going on. It is also being said that only after Pa Ranjith’s entry, Tamil cinema has become casteist, and that wasn’t the case before.
So, why do you think your films, which stand against casteism, are criticized to be casteist themselves?
It is an angry reaction to the new rebellion against oppression. People responsible for the status quo can’t readily accept change. It won’t happen overnight. It’s a process, and I know many non-Dalits who have agreed with my ideas and films. The debate will continue.
It was rumoured that the censor board had issues with Natchathiram Nagarkirathu. Is there any truth to such claims that your films face opposition even before their release?
There’s a lot of truth to such claims. When Kaala was released, it faced two issues. One was due to the comment Rajini sir made about the Sterlite protest in Thoothukudi. Second, a theatre owner told one of the distributors that he won’t screen my film in his theatre even though it has Rajinikanth in the lead. That’s how casteist our state is. I won’t be accepted that easily. What’s more saddening is that I face such opposition from certain sections of the censor board as well. It is shocking to see how they look at my films. Their requests sometimes feel very silly and make one wonder how such people could reach places of power. What’s more saddening is that they are omnipresent.
Does this frustrate you?
More than frustration, I am deeply worried. We call this a digital age; we take pride in saying our country is cultured and all that. But it beats me that people with such regressive ideas are in the front, occupying places of power. They are everywhere, not just censor boards. They play a vital role in all the OTT platforms with the power to approve and disapprove content.
You started with Attakathi, a romantic drama, and after a decade, you are back again to a film about love. What’s love for you then and now?
Back then, love was fun. I grew up watching films like Kadhalukku Mariyadhai. My friends and I were all die-hard Vijay fans. We did many stupid things back then. So, love was a jolly affair. Now, love is given different names especially if it’s of a Dalit guy. Several new terms are invented to disregard his love. Especially after the 2012 Dharmapuri violence, love in our state has been extremely politicized. I don’t know why the same emotion is even termed badly when it comes from people of scheduled castes. Such politics is what Natchathiram Nagargiradhu is all about.
Tell us about your romances.
I am yet to share my love story with Anitha. Haven’t yet documented our journey, but a few dialogues in my films are inspired by our romance. Even before Anitha, I had a string of one-sided romances, you see all of that in Attakathi (laughs). To me, love is something very emotional. Something instinctive. Without it, I don’t think humanity would have procreated and sustained itself.
Can you tell us more about Nathchathiram Nagargirathu?
It’s not a romantic film, but one that discusses romance and love. It is about a group of people, who discuss love. The group has straight and queer couples, but the centre plot revolves around Rene (Dushara), Iniyan (Kalidas Jayaram), and Arjun (Kalaiyarasan). Arjun is the representation of a typical Indian male, who is shaped by society’s casteism and other belief systems. On the other hand, Iniyan is someone with progressive thoughts, but he also has his limitations. Rene is a Dalit, who is unabashedly bold. I am constantly asked why I am an extremist. With Rene’s character, I have answered why.
Seeing the Natchathiram Nagargirathu trailer, I was reminded of Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s Ema…
Oh, yes, I can see why you say so. Ema is also about a similar group… but they are dancers. But, no, this film has nothing to do with that. However, I was inspired by Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. It is about a restaurant run by white people in a black neighborhood and highlights a confrontation between the extremists and moderates. I have just taken the essence of the film.
Are you still in touch with the ground reality or has the success of your films made you distant from people…
As it is, I am a lonely person. I am weary of crowds. I think it is due to childhood trauma. In my youth, I could never participate in festivals. I remained only a spectator when the rest of the community was taking part in it. I ended up hating crowds because of this. I can’t get along with the crowd. I will end up picking up fights for politically incorrect opinions about people.
But lately, the demand for political correctness is criticised as another form of thought policing and a hurdle for artistic expression.
In a society where inequality is the norm, I think there’s a need for political correctness. For example, in Dhammam (part of Sony Liv’s anthology, Victim), there was this cuss word “Nadharingala”. I am not someone who writes such words, but I think it made it to the film through the actor. A friend called me and confronted me about the usage and asked me to remove it. I felt extremely bad and wondered how I let such a blunder make the final cut. This is what I am talking about: the normalization of vocabularies that are devised to discriminate against the oppressed. I think artists have the responsibility to be aware of this word politics.
After making films like Kaala and Sarpatta Parambarai, which are big in terms of star power and budget, why do something of a small scale like Natchathiram Nagargirathu…
According to me, Natchathiram Nagarigiradhu is more powerful than my previous ventures. It will create more debates than Kaala or Sarapatta. I am looking forward to the ripples the film will create. I made this film with a lot of deliberation, and I don’t look at movies through the lens of budget or scale.
Thoughts on pan-Indian cinema?
I think even Kabali is a pan-Indian film, which worked well across the country. But I don’t like the idea of deliberately making a pan-Indian film. While making Kaala or Sarpatta Parambarai, I was not telling myself that I should make something that is on par with world cinema or something that will cater to all of India. All I wanted to do was to tell a story in a language that suits the content.
You are surrounded by books. Do you think reading will fix all our problems?
No. I have personally seen well-read people, who are highly knowledgeable in literature, purporting regressive ideas. Reading alone doesn’t help. One should read from an ideological point of view. In Tamil Nadu, Periyarism, Ambedkarism, and Communism play vital roles. Reading them would help one understand this society. Personally, I profess Ambedkar’s ideas. Upper caste people should read Annihilation of Caste. It’s for them, but we keep giving it to Dalits.