The actor who was a part of a trade delegation to Cannes Film Festival last month interacted with The Hindu journalists Karthik Subramanian and Udhav Naig about his impressions and the general state of cinema.

Tell us about leading the FICCI delegation to Cannes…

First time when I went to Cannes, I went to the festival as a techie – Intel took me there. Wifi was being introduced and they wanted to stream Marudhanayagam trailer on Wifi. I never got to see any other films or filmmakers, but I enjoyed that.

But I did realise that the films that TN was interested in watching and kind of films that got selected in Cannes were two different kinds. Films like Devdas being the exception. I didn’t know what it meant to select Devdas for the red carpet and not selecting certain good Tamil films. It is all changing now.

What was interesting for me [this time] is the role of FICCI in getting involved, they have done a good job, the Ministers were there. What was even more exhilarating and touching was that that small filmmakers from Chennai, who would not find it easy making a living in Kodambakkam found their way to Cannes. I saw young, Tamil speaking guys with their films, already sitting there. I think it is high time that Tamil Nadu has a film society movement, permeating into the B and C centres.

It is like how Tamils are not averse to cellphone technology, you give them a cellphone, they will use it. Now, it is very difficult to find a village without cellphone. Likewise, I think, if you show them international cinema, they will insist that local films also raise the bar. It is very wrong to take it from the wrong end that our people only to deserve only this much. That is the attitude how films are being made, especially in Tamil. It is not that our Tamil filmmakers are dumb, they are dumbing themselves down, so are the audience.

But isn’t it a circle, you have distribution and other aspects?

See, businessmen have no qualms, when something wins, they go by it. They want to make sure every time, they get a winner. That is not possible. The audience wants something different every time (may be not even the filmmaker). They have some regular fare for their palette. They say, well, Tamils eat Idly and Sambhar all the time. But there has to be a Saravana Bhavan where it is different, it is not the same sambhar I had as an 8-year-old boy.

There has to be a visionary, who keeps pushing the envelope.

Your quote from the Cannes was that we are self-sufficient…?

They asked me what was the problem with Indian cinema? I said our problem is that we are self-sufficient. We make films, we consume it. It is like our toddy, we cannot bottle it. We have not thought of it. What we harvest, we eat. We have a bigger market outside and Tamil films deserve more. And I am not talking just about the Indian diaspora, I am talking about the world.

Unlike China and Japan, we are an English speaking country. People will dislike me for saying it, but if you don’t want to get lost in Gujarat, you read the English signs. Same for a Punjabi in Tamil Nadu. Thanks and no thanks to the British, but it is there. Most of us converse in English, and we should use it to converse it with the world.

Looking back do you regret the fact that you didn’t market your films…?

No we didn’t, even I didn’t know. Instead of lamenting over what was not done, I want to comment on my ignorance on how to go about it. Communication was abysmal and many things were lost in translation. We didn’t have enough people to do it. Which is why I am celebrating FICCI, they are facilitating people…Indian business, Indian filmmakers to take that step forward. Since I was 20, I wanted to make a short film and send it to international short film festivals. It never happened. I became too big a star to indulge in those things.

It should have been done that in that frame of time, in that 2 years. I don’t want to meet people later and hear them say I also wanted to do it and became an IT professional.

Next year’s, Cannes and Toronto, FICCI is thinking of taking Indian delegation and introducing our films and talent to Western audiences.

How do you define World Cinema? How does one succeed there?

The more ethnic you are, the more international you become. I saw a film called Timbuktu and I knew nothing about their culture but it touched me. Because, all of us same similar problems.

You must get interested in cinema, into the business of cinema. You cannot treat it like horse betting or a rice mundy. They sell inanimate things. Cinema is different, it doesn’t come out of a treadmill. The moment it comes out of a treadmill, people will recognise it as monoculture. They want that variation, which only an artist can provide. You must leave the business to businessmen and art to the artists. And each of them must understand how the other works.

We are used to that one medicine to cure all diseases. Sarvaroha nivarani. That doesn’t happen. When one of our censor board chiefs long time back said that we must allow X rated films to be released separately, he was fired. What you call family entertainment has subcutaneous sex sprayed all over it.

I think we should to allow different genres to survive and not mix it all up.

We should make documentaries. There are audiences for that. Why else would National Geographic channel be in Tamil?

The industry has to move away from asking, “How many songs or how many fight in a film?” They have stopped asking that from theatre. That will happen only when pundits who are not connected with filmmaking, have a say.

You’re making this point at an interesting time when big corporate companies are coming into cinema…

But what is their aim? All the studios we had have not reinvested in the business. We have not invested in human resource. Which is why we respect people like KB, who have trained people, may be for their selfish interests, but they did train people. We have only certain technical groups like cameraman, who have to train themselves.

Today, anyone who can tell a story wants to become a director. It is one of the biggest industries in the world, and nobody is training for it. The future in the film industry doesn’t mean that one needs to become a superstar or a big director. This industry requires a lot of personnel – engineers, carpenters, business graduates etc.

China has made some strides with their film industry…

Thirty years back, China was behind India in terms of infrastructure. Now, they are at least 25 years ahead, some say, 50. We didn’t have the tenacity of purpose.

You always said we have the content. How does that reach the consumers?

Content is there in the mind, but it should come to the table. The industry needs trained people. There is nothing called 15 minute body building, that is a con-game. The experts are there and we need to give Indian wisdom to it. I am not being sarcastic. Dabbawallahs are a great example.

FICCI came in a little late, it’s not my complaint but an observation. It’s a step forward. The potential of the industry is in billions, about 17 billion to be exact, but we are not harnessing the potential. We are way below. We are celebrating 100 crore club, what are we talking about? Look at the population of Tamil Nadu, even if 2 crore people see it, it is a hit. Considering each consumer pays 100 rupees, you can imagine how big the gross is. So, if we are celebrating 100 crore club at the national level, what are we talking about?

You have said that institutions like KB’s that no longer exists…

No. There are people, I am one. I am not arrogating myself to say that. I don’t believe in the Guru-Sishya set up, but I help people. There are lot of people learning from me. I make them watch films and so on. I insist they learn it this way. We need more film institutes. Actors need to be trained. Today, actors only aspire and they go and learn horse riding and dancing. What has that got to do with acting? Acting is a wholesome effort. A painter cannot just stop with understanding colours, a painter has to understand the world, different dimensions.

What is your opinion on the quality of film criticism?

It’s the duty of the paper to protect film critics, and give the critic a strong voice. I have seen critics being threatened. As a principle, I will never react to film criticisms. As long as they are part of film fraternity, whatever they say will be beneficial to cinema.

But…the stars are all in their own little islands….

I remember Madan and Sujatha being threatened others being cajoled, hand shaken and taken to dinner, but they shouldn’t budge. They guard much more than what politicians guard. Their pay is less, but they shouldn’t crib about it. Find another job and do it well. I like straightforward critics.

The film stars of today have themselves not constructively criticised anyone with equipoise. For them, they take it as an insult or show false courtesy. I disagree with certain films. Filmmakers have sometimes stood their ground. But, I think, stars should also not think they are beyond criticism, and critics also shouldn’t think that they have a special position of deification. It is the duty of both to do the right thing.

We have come a long way. From the time of killing Lakshmikanthan, we have become cultured and tempered.

What sort of skills do you think need to be developed here?

I am a member of the skill set development council. It is not enough to just develop top 12 departments – direction, cinematography, editing and so on. What about the light boys, costumers, carpenters and electricians? They all must be trained. We can’t employ someone because they are ready to work for lower wages.

But low wages has stopped young people coming into the film industry…

This is the costliest filmmaking town in the country, so much that some are going to other cities. The unions are strong and the wages are high. But, all these allegations against the industry will be addressed once the hole in the bucket is plugged. We are busy fetching water that we are forgetting there is a hole. Only in TN and Andhra, we are fooling around by controlling the ticket prices. The State allows Mercedes Benz and Coca Cola to sell at the market price, but they want to control the price of the movie tickets. Admission price, which actually affects the content, you put a cap on. TN is the cheapest place to watch cinema. It is not doing the health of cinema any good. It affects smaller filmmakers as well. Now, they are building theatres to screen smaller movies. But, it is strongly my opinion and sincerely the opinion of the industry that the bigger businesses must be allowed to thrive.

The FICCI has turned in a request to the government, but it has to be a policy decision. This service tax is affecting everybody and I am afraid that it will generate more unaccounted money. I am sure that the new government will probably address this issue. If it is not done properly, it will generate black money.

On the one hand you are asking the filmmakers to broaden their perspectives and on the other hand, we have these groups – across the spectrum scuttling free speech, how do you expect younger filmmakers to be brave?

I have had a problem with people of various hues – saffron, green, white and so on. Rationalism raises many brows and many hairs. This will have to be fought. I remember reading about an Iranian filmmaker, who wrote the film in jail, slipped the script through the crevice. His assistant shot it and it went to Cannes. That’s the crevice through which freedom of speech will slip through. It has happened before and it will happen again. These experiences have made me more sensible now, and I am sure that it is the same thing for them as well. Even if the country is run by a Mussolini, free speech will find its way. But, the fight shouldn’t be done only for mercantile or commercial reasons, it should be for freedom. I wasn’t scared about losing money, it was about losing my voice.