CHAT Director Balaji Sakthivel on making films on his own terms

Recently, a scary scene played out at a traffic junction in Coimbatore. A four-member gang murdered a motorcyclist in broad daylight even as the public looked on in shock. It was captured on CCTV. “They should have stopped the killers. Why didn’t they intervene?” asks Balaji Sakthivel, director of Vazhakku En 18/9.

All his films have dealt with issues that question society. Kaadhal documented a poignant love story based on a true incident near Madurai. Kalloori touched upon an incident where three girls were burnt alive in a bus during a protest and Vazhakku…addressed the MMS issue and the vulnerability of the economically backward. “All my themes come from stories you read in the newspapers. When something affects me deeply, I react. My films are a reflection of society. I try to balance realism and fantasy without affecting my creativity.”

Currently, he is touring pockets of Madurai, Tiruchi and Thanjavur to scout for a story. “I often board a bus or a mini bus, take a ticket to nowhere and discover myriad stories. It helps that people don’t recognise me,” he laughs.

Balaji sees hope in young filmmakers. He mentions Madhubaanakadai, directed by Kamala Kannan of Coimbatore Cinema Club, as an example. “Kamala Kannan experiments with a new genre ‘no story’, where he strings together events happening in a wine shop over a day, and focusses on the regional Kongu dialect. It becomes a cult film. Such films with regional content give rise to the trend of ‘regionalism’. This will be received well across the world, like Iranian and Korean films have been. Technology has democratised filmmaking and thrown open the doors to individual filmmakers,” he says.

However, the challenge is to tell engaging stories in an appealing way. Good content matters too. “Online media helps youngsters promote good films through discussions and promo videos. A good film is always remembered for the content and not for the money it made. An award-winning film such as Thenmerkku Paruvakaatru got noticed only after it was shown on TV. As a commodity, it didn’t make business but the content reached the public. Vazhakku…has its own glory and its returns.”

Big banners such as those of Shankar and Lingusamy have backed his films. “There are so many producers who are passionate about cinema and are willing to take risks to promote good cinema. I request all big production companies to endorse the work of newcomers. They need that initial push. I strongly recommend that they start off as assistant directors. It helps understand the industry better.”

This is why Balaji makes it a point to share his experiences with youngsters. “They appreciate good films and are full of questions. In a discussion on Vazhakku…they pointed out that I should have avoided slotting the sex worker as belonging to a minority community. Also, they felt Dinesh, the negative character, should have been shown as being thrashed. Such things affect them deeply.”

He always encourages his actors to be subtle. “I train them to not act. Sometimes, I candidly capture their emotions and show it to them. This helps them go with the flow. Sri, who played Velu in Vazhakku…worked in a roadside idli shop for 40 days, pushed the cart, washed vessels, learnt to ride a tricycle… when an actor soaks in the ambience, he begins to live the character. Then, execution is easy. For Kalloori, I had to wait at bus stops and observe the way school girls giggle. For someone who eats, sleeps and breathes cinema, it becomes second nature. And, I am enjoying it.”