REPORT A talk between filmmakers K. Balachander and Gautham Vasudev Menon kickstarted the ‘Namma Chennai' series, organised by The Hindu MetroPlus and Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers

How do you pack in a slice of the city and capture its ethos in the middle of all that Lights, Camera, Action, Chaos?

Dadasaheb Phalke awardee K. Balachander, making his first public appearance since the award, and Gautham Vasudev Menon, filmmakers belonging to two different generations of Tamil cinema, spilled the beans to Baradwaj Rangan, Deputy Editor, The Hindu, as MetroPlus in association with Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers, kickstarted its ‘Namma Chennai' series of events celebrating the city on Tuesday evening.

Film, fashion, food

“The people, the places, the ethos here reverberates, and has an impact on everyone who has been here,” Virendra Razdan, General Manager, Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers, said, announcing the series. “This is a step to celebrate film, fashion, food and so many layers that make the city what it is.”

Observing their penchant for films set in Chennai, and their flair for churning out urban Tamil stories, Baradwaj Rangan started off the discussion asking the filmmakers about the challenges of shooting their films on location.

“Early films, till the Sixties, were shot on set,” said K. Balachander. “Those days, no cameraman would accept to shoot outside the set. They would say light reflection would be there. When I wanted to shoot directly in houses without erecting sets to give authenticity to what we wanted to convey in ‘Apoorva Ragangal', I had a good cameraman Loknath who said we could do it. I trusted him. We went in search of good houses, found bungalows that belonged to sons of the AVM family. The result was extraordinary, especially in black and white. Loknath won a national award for cinematography and ‘Apoorva Ragangal' won Best Tamil Film. He proved himself right. Once it had been proved, films started making inroads into houses.”

Films were set indoors because most happenings in the script would be domestic in nature. Filmmakers would keep outdoor shooting to the minimal because it would be difficult to capture live sound on location. “Only five to ten per cent was outdoor shoot,” Balachander recalled.

Gautham Menon began by pointing out, “Nobody shoots live sound these days and all the films are dubbed. I don't like to shoot on sets at all. As much as possible, I try to shoot on location.”

“I drove past one of the houses in Tiruvanmiyur and asked them if we could shoot there for ‘Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya' because it seemed straight out of the pages of the script. Unless it's a song and something fancy, I would rather shoot on location,” said Gautham.

Balachander admitted that films were born out of available resources back then. “You get a house and accordingly change the script. We create something to suit our available resources. Though I have prepared text, I don't take the shots verbatim. If the location itself inspires you, then you change to get the visually perfect script.”

Since shooting at most outdoor locations would draw crowds, Balachander would film secretly in locations such as the traffic-prone Anna Square, shoot from a parallel car and then have the actors whisked away to the next location.

Is there an ethos in Chennai cinema, Rangan asked them next, illustrating his question through Ram Gopal Varma's “Satya” capturing the essence of Mumbai.

“Yes, and I would use a film of the same name to explain. When I saw Kamal Haasan in ‘Satya' growing up, I started wearing a kada, I used to cut my hair short. That film had him and Amala on PTC buses, hanging from the footboard, shots of the Marina... There was a lot of Madras in the film. Or take Mani Ratnam's ‘Agni Natchatram' with Karthik sitting on the wall of the Chennai Museum. I choose characters from people I know, so I end up setting my stories here.”

Observing how “Mouna Raagam” probably had the first instance of a guy asking a girl out for coffee, Baradwaj Rangan commented on the changing ethos of romance in cinema as it was classically depicted in films such as “Oru Thalai Raagam”.

Slowly, cinema started capturing the drift between the rural and the urban. The shot of the “Welcome to Chennai/Come Again” board pelted with a stone in “Pattina Pravesam” made people from Chennai turn pale, Balachander recalled.

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