Shaji N. Karun says he is inspired by images from life and that pain remains his favourite theme
Shaji N. Karun won a National Award for cinematography when he was 24, but he turned down lucrative offers to capture photograph other filmmaker's films, and instead began making his own instead. “Piravi”, “Vanaprastham” and “Kutty Srank” were acclaimed both nationally and internationally.
The last, a National Award winner in 2010, retraces the life and death of Kutty Srank (played brilliantly by Mammootty) through the memories of three women, a Buddhist, a Christian and a Hindu, in three different geographical locations (North Malabar, Kochi and Travancore). “Vanaprastham” starred Mohanlal, in one of his best performances, as Kunhikuttan, a kathakali dancer from a lower caste. “Piravi”, made in 1988, was about a father's futile hope that his missing son will return.
It was screened in over more than 70 international film festivals and won more than 30 awards, including the Sir Charlie Chaplin Award, the Camera D'Or at Cannes (1989) and the Grand Jury Prize (Silver Leopard) at Locarno.
Shaji simply says that some people are destined to follow their heart. Good cinema, like good architecture, music, and dance, surpasses time.
Cinema is complex, because it works like the human mind at the subconscious, unconscious and dream levels. This is difficult to comprehend easily and therein lies the challenge for the filmmaker. “I enjoy such challenges,” he says. Excerpts from an interview with Shaji.
Why did you choose such an unconventional narrative for ‘Kutty Srank'?
‘Kutty Srank' attempts to understand the human psyche. As the day progresses, with events and experiences, our mind realises certain things and rearranges them. This happens in cinema too. That's why the film is an experiment in non-linear storytelling. Author (Gabriel Garcia) Márquez used it to great success.
How do you create such an authentic native flavour in your films?
I go with intuition and illusion. My knowledge comes from those images. It's about feeling the rhythms that some places leave behind. The mind speaks to you interestingly in many ways. Classic filmmakers such as Fellini and Bergman tackled such rhythms through their camera lens.
What is the trigger when you set out to create something new?
Being a cinematographer, I observe life. It becomes the trigger for my stories. Every time, I start afresh. When I made ‘Piravi', I was confident because I had an audience. For ‘Kutty Srank', I did not know who my audience was.
I find myself helpless, but I continue to go with my intuition. Van Gogh's works were never appreciated in his time. We invariably make films with a hope they will be recognised later. That is our optimism, our strength.
Tell us about directing Mammootty and Mohanlal.
They are talented actors who have creatively joined hands with directors to promote good cinema. The missing link is to find producers who are committed to society. They should uplift societal values. In the consumerist world, cinema, which addresses growth at a psychological level, has become a victim.
Why do all your films deal with pain?
My protagonists are good human beings. They live with failures, and start believing that they have no right to live. Who is to be blamed? That is what my films deal with. If people can make comedies, why can't my films be about pain? It is my favourite theme. I would like to see the details of black on a black cloth. Pain is embedded in any creative journey. It is a source of strength that allows one to reach philosophical levels.
What do you think is lacking in films now?
The human mind is not explored well enough. Human beings are complex, unique and a bundle of stories. Last year, I watched 130 films as a jury member in various film festivals. Cinema is considered entertaining and not food for the brain. Hollywood films want to bring their content into Indian cinema. Any film with native content, which addresses social issues, is no longer relevant. After TV came into force, everything is made for TV, which has no ethics, philosophy or thinking. The literacy of the visual medium is corrupted. Cinema — which once relied on intellectual inputs from literature, poetry, music, dance and filmmaking — is now only about economics. There is a big intellectual and cultural vacuum in cinema.
How do you feel about the awards and recognitions you have received, such as the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French government? (Shaji is only the third Indian film personality after Satyajit Ray and Sivaji Ganesan to be honoured so)
Awards are not relevant. Cinema is an art form that has the ability to integrate people culturally, morally and diplomatically. Satyajit Ray's films addressed a huge population, and they are considered a flagship of Indian cinema. Cinema is food for culture, an important tool in moulding society.
Your next project?
A film on Indian classical music. It deals with the clash between a husband and wife. He learns to appreciate the artist in his wife only after she dies.