Santhakumar describes himself as a loner. After a pause, he says he is a recluse. It took a long time for him to figure out if it was the right thing to pursue filmmaking. “I think, travel, write and let films happen,” adds Santhakumar, who made his directorial debut in 2011 with Mouna Guru. “Everything has become like a competition and I am an odd one out. I see myself as a free-flowing river,” he muses. At home, as a teenager, he didn’t have a movie-crazy atmosphere though he accompanied his mother occasionally to theaters. “There was a creative side to me, of course,” Santhakumar acknowledges.
The director comes from a family of soldiers. His mother’s relatives were landlords and hunters. “My great-grandfather was part of the Indian Army. Actually, we thought he passed away, but he was imprisoned in Iraq. They freed him post-Independence,” recalls Santhakumar.
Our conversation shifts to filmmaking. We point out both Mouna Guru and Magamuni are arthouse films and Santhakumar is glad to have directed both. “In the past few years, the industry has been pushing boundaries in terms of content. It allows me to choose a path that is fulfilling,” he adds.
Santhakumar doesn’t write scripts for specific actors, but his inspiration starts with the lead character. “I spend a lot of time in building characters. My movies are unique because my lifestyle is unique. I neither fit in with any crowd nor associate with hypocrites. I am like a cat. When I don’t make films, I am home-bound,” he smiles.
Santhakumar gets reflective and reveals that as a child, he had an ambition, laced with angst at one time. “Though I decided to become a filmmaker, I was a bright student in school and got the first rank. I still am like that, except there’s a part of me which has begun to feel like I am in a God mode. After my mother passed away, there was nobody to support my filmmaking ambitions. But deep down, I wanted to be appreciated,” he recalls.
Santhakumar’s movies rely on travelling and stories. “I am not into the business of commercialising cinema. I want to make the audience smile, laugh, feel and cry for my characters. What constitutes a good movie will keep changing over time,” says Santhakumar, adding, he wants the audience to travel with him throughout.
Santhakumar writes like a novelist. He adds, “Normally, for a film, meetings with the writers happen every day and ideas are thrown around, as the story is assembled. Once I zero in on the idea, I need complete solitude to write further. I think of an unusual situation I can put my character in and expand slowly. A part of me is there in all my characters.”
Santhakumar says Magamuni is a soulful film. “I wanted to work on a dual-role. As a writer, it excites me to do a character study of both the characters. I first wrote Maha and then Muni. The idea is to balance both the ‘beast’ and ‘wisdom’ modes in human beings. I wanted the ‘Muni’ character to be a teacher and be able to explain certain things including Karma, caste, spirituality,” he grins.
Santhakumar wants his actors to become ‘characters’ and surrender themselves completely to the script. “Only certain actors can play certain roles. Had my producer suggested Arya for Magamuni five years ago, I would have refused to cast him. But I liked Arya for his mental strength and how he handled himself after a financial loss. A lot of people take to alcoholism when things go wrong, but he became a cyclist, investing his energy in a positive way. He withstood pain, which was inspiring. All I demanded from him was to do the role passionately.”
It took eight years for Santhakumar to start work on his second film, Magamuni. “After Mouna Guru, one of the senior directors I respect, dissed the film. Because of certain political reasons, Mouna Guru was not promoted well and it flopped. I was devastated but gained some perspective over these years,” he shares.
Santhakumar is a believer, unlike most of the filmmakers who address caste. “I was an atheist, but Mouna Guru changed everything. When I was writing the script, a lot of existential questions started haunting me. I started meditation to de-fragmentise my thoughts. That’s when I started to explore God. From childhood, the concept itself is shown as a different entity. Be it Jesus or Buddha, they were also human beings before attaining the ‘Godly’ status. They were born to parents, like us,” ruminates Santhakumar.
Mostly, Santhakumar spends time reading. “I want my thoughts to liberate me. Also, I like my ‘me time’,” he says.
What’s next? “I have ideas, but I need another six months to write a screenplay. I enjoy my journey and do what I like,” he signs off.