Filmmaker Mahendran sets down his experiences in his autobiography Cinemavum Naanum

Director J. Mahendran calls his entry into films a ‘forced marriage’. Still, he is the man responsible for award-winning films such as Mullum Malarum, Uthiri Pookal and Nenjaththai Killathey. “I was pushed into films,” he maintains. He claims to be an average student at school who always craved attention. He spent long hours at the library and read everything that he could lay his hands on. “I started delving deep into Tamil and English literature. In my school days, I published a Tamil magazine called Laddu for children,” he recalls. He was also a regular at elocution, essay writing and drawing competitions. Mahendran remembers how in Class VI, he wrote a play based on Pisiranthayar’s work and performed it as a mono act. He remembers winning Tagore’s Gitanjali as a gift for this.

Subtle emotions

The maverick filmmaker recounts his journey in his autobiography ‘Cinemavum Naanum’, released recently. He says, “It is my anger towards Tamil films that motivated me to make films that are real, where people smiled and spoke normally. I made films for pleasure and not for commercial success.” He dislikes the term ‘trend’ and says that is just a gimmick of filmmakers. Yet, his films always touched a chord and people went in droves to watch them.

Mahendran discusses the creative journey of his career-defining films Mullum Malarum, Uthiri Pookal and Nenjaththai Killathey in his book. “I always observe things happening around at the shooting location and try to incorporate them in my film. For the Rajnikanth starrer Mullum Malarum, which we shot at Sringeri in Karnataka, I decided on the characterisation of Fatapat Jayalakshmi( she plays Manga, Rajnikanth’s wife in the film). She is a foodie who loves fish. This came to me after I observed how there were water bodies and fish everywhere on the location! The song ‘Nitham Nitham Nellu Choru’ enhanced her character.”

Mahendran was inspired to make the film Mullum Malarum by the novel of the same name. But he wrote the screenplay the way he visualised it. The film became a hit and producers queued up at his house. Still, Mahendran chose to make Uthiri Pookal with newcomers. “I could have made my second film with my good friend Rajnikanth again and made my millions. But, I was not interested,” he says.

It’s been over 30 years since Uthiri Pookal released but it still makes its presence felt in any discussion on cinema. Malayalam writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair always refers to the film when he addresses any gathering on cinema. Uthiri Pookal was inspired by Pudumai Pithan’s short story ‘Sittrannai’. Mahendran read it while doing his SSLC and it had a big impact on him. But again, his screenplay was different. The film was recently screened at an international women’s film festival where 175 films from 53 countries were screened. “The audience gave a standing ovation. It was overwhelming. I thank Pudhumai Pithan for sowing the idea in me. It’s always a challenge for a filmmaker to adapt a screenplay from a novel. They should be allowed to have the liberty to change it,” he says.

Another classic Nenjaththai Killadhey (that ran for a year and won three National Awards) took shape in a flash, when Mahendran looked out of his hotel window in Mumbai and saw a young woman jogging. “Her concern was just fitness. Would it be the same once she gets married? I wondered. That is how the screenplay took shape,” he says.

It was his uncle who introduced Mahendran to good cinema. “I watched two Hollywood films and noticed how there were no loud dialogues or larger-than-life action sequences. Later, Telugu filmmaker B.N. Reddy, who made notable films such as Vande Mataram and Malliswari, introduced me to Satyajit Ray and Teen Kanya. It was an eye-opener. Cinema is the common religion of the world. In my twilight years as I watch the best of world cinema and Indian cinema, I realise that, may be, I should have explored the medium in a big way,” he says with a tinge of sadness.

He recalls how the 100-day celebrations of MGR’s Naadodi Mannan at Alagappa College in Madurai was unforgettable. “I got an opportunity to criticise Tamil cinema in front on MGR. Later, he spotted me at a press meet, took me home and presented me with the volumes of Ponniyin Selvan. This was the starting point of my journey as a screenplay writer.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

A school for cinema

Director Mahendran will mentor an acting school to come up soon near Marudhamalai in Coimbatore in April 2014. It will be set up with the help of Sivakumar, Paamaran and Thangavelu, and other friends from film societies in the city. Anyone who wants to learn acting, screenplay writing, direction, and photography can enrol. The institute will offer six-month and one-year courses. “We want it to be a service minded initiative. We want to encourage students from economically weak backgrounds who have a passion for films. We want to identify what the students are best suited to and guide them accordingly. They will see the world’s best and worst films.” That is because, according to Mahendran, “Success can’t teach anything. When a film flops, you learn a lot of lessons.”