You have moved from editing (Kamal Swaroop’s 1988 cult Om-Dar-B-Dar, Kaizad Gustad’s Bombay Boys, 1998, etc.) to making documentaries and features (Gangoobai, Baaram). Which do you find more satisfying?
I love directing movies and editing my own. So, I get the best of both worlds. But I love film editing. It’s a lesson in patience, choice-making and instinct. It teaches me writing, discipline, minimalism, self-sufficiency, and how to tell a story on a daily basis.
Both your feature films are two ends of a paradigm. While the Sarita Joshi-starrer Gangoobai (2013) celebrates old age, Baaram is a grim look at the practice of senicide. What’s so compelling about old age?
I was raised by wonderful grandparents in Secunderabad. My grandmother and aunts reared me on stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Ananda Vikatan magazines. I was a fussy eater, so the rule was one story per meal. Those were long meals and I left a queue of exhausted women in my wake. As a rule, I’ve learnt a great deal from older people. They’re either an inspiration, or a cautionary tale. Either way, they deserve gratitude and respect.
Baaram started as a documentary…
It was called The Killing then. I thought it would be an easy sell as a documentary because of the hard-hitting subject. But I knew it wouldn’t be cheap. We needed many actors and locations to recreate the story. I wasn’t excited about staging scenes for a docu. And, docus don’t have the reach of feature films. Funnily, the two years of work on the documentary, including a three-minute pitch promo made with interviews shot at the location, came in handy to raise funds. And the docu scripting became Baaram’s foundation.
Had you heard of thalaikoothal before?
I’d never heard of thalaikoothal. That was the trigger to make the film — the fact that it was happening on such a large scale, and nobody knew about it, or cared. What bothers me is that India is on the cusp of an explosion of the ageing population, 60 per cent of these elderly live below the poverty line and are extremely vulnerable.
How old and widespread is the practice of thalaikoothal?
Thalaikoothal literally means ‘head bath’. Individuals in certain communities in India voluntarily opt for end-of-life measures for a variety of reasons. But that is not thalaikoothal as it is practised now — a violent and brutal act of murder. It’s not certain how old thalaikoothal is, or how prevalent, or exactly where (it is practised), since it’s done clandestinely. Obviously, there are no records. Some say it began with the British, others say, hundreds of years, a hundred years, and, 30 years — I think it’s probably a home-grown practice.
But it is practised under different names all over the country, not just in Tamil Nadu. People and organisations are studying it professionally — and are alarmed at how widespread it is. It is like a hidden contagion.
What were your findings?
In 2012, I stumbled upon accounts of thalaikoothal in online news reports. It seemed incredible. I read horrible stories, like a guy who finally got a government job he desperately wanted, and so he killed his ailing father to take it. I came across an episode of Aamir Khan’s (TV series) Satyamev Jayate on the issue. I then went to a small town in Tamil Nadu to research the phenomenon. That trip was an eye-opener. I had to carefully broach the topic as people were suspicious. The most unlikely of people would admit to me in confidence that they, or someone they knew, had practised it. I met a practitioner — affable, sweet — in her 60s, who said she’d never charged for her services, which, to her, was a form of community ‘seva’. She’d learnt it from her mother, who’d learnt it from her mother. The last person she did it to was her own mother — but her mother survived and lives happily with her. It was so bizarre.
The first to go are elderly men, because they have no social skills, such as cooking or caring for grandchildren, so they’re basically seen as useless when they stop earning. Also, young women are reluctant to physically clean up ailing old men. Sons administer thalaikoothal to their parents, followed by daughters-in-law. Strangest was to find out that members of my unit said it had happened in their families, too, and they were surprised nobody had thought of making a film on it before this.
Tell us how you selected R Raju to play Karuppasamy, the ailing elderly who is euthanised.
The casting process lasted five months, and was very difficult because I’m tough to please. I don’t believe in ‘acting’, or casting against type. That’s the secret to believable performances. Acting is like music — the director sets the pitch. I wanted a very natural performing style — no theatrics or melodrama. Luckily, I found Raju who understood that at once, since he’s from NSD (National School of Drama, New Delhi). The main characters were cast through workshops conducted at the Pondicherry University. Where the actors couldn’t deliver, we reshot the scenes in Tirunelveli with other actors after we saw the first cut of the film. Performance is key, and I’m reluctant to compromise on it.
You have earlier won the National Award in 2004 (for the documentary The Eye of the Fish – the Kalaris of Kerala). What does this year’s win mean to you?
The National Award is the country’s most prestigious film award, and is a huge honour for our unit. To me, it honours the hundreds of elderly people who fall prey to thalaikoothal every year, by recognising that it happens. Hopefully, this award will bring attention to the issue, and dissuade people from practising it. That would be the best outcome of the award for me.
Like Chezhiyan’s To Let (last year’s National Award winner for the Best Tamil Feature Film), nobody had heard of your film until this win. The film, shot in 2017, remains unreleased, and there are no trailers or teasers.
Baaram premiered in the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India, 2019, which showcases only 22 of the country’s best films in any given year and is, therefore, very difficult to get into. Baaram was also one of two Indian films nominated for the prestigious ICFT-Unesco Gandhi Medal, an international competition section at the IFFI, last year. So, it had a dream debut. It’s travelled to festivals in India and outside, and will now go to Singapore in September. Audiences are generally shocked, stunned, disturbed and moved by the film, which is pretty much the reaction I was hoping for. I was stoked when a prominent filmmaker told me after the screening at the Bangalore film fest, ‘It’s not a film, it’s a mirror.’ Despite all these, knowledge of the film was restricted to the film-festival circles. People in Tamil Nadu want to see it now. We’re working on a release, theatrical and online.
The Tamil film industry was apparently not impressed by Baaram’s win, since the movie hasn’t been released yet. Discrimination against Tamil cinema is being alleged and there were reports that veteran filmmaker Bharathiraja and actor Rajinikanth expressed their displeasure. Did you know of this?
I’m not active on Twitter or aware of general industry reactions. I have the greatest respect for Rajini sir. He’s a star and I’m in awe of what he’s achieved. I loved Bharathiraja sir’s riveting performance in Kurangu Bommai (2017). And I’m a huge fan of the astonishing Vijay Sethupathi since Pannaiyarum Padminiyum (2014) and loved both his performances in last year’s 96 and Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. I loved Mammootty sir’s performance in Peranbu (2019). Having said that, Baaram is a Tamil film, and most of the artistes and technicians who worked on it are from the Tamil film industry, so this National Award credit goes to them, too. It would be wonderful if the Tamil film industry could watch the film first before arriving at a decision about its worthiness.