Filmmaker and critic Amshan Kumar talks about his cinematic trail

Amshan Kumar might be a man of many facets, but it is cinema that threads them all together. Strangely, it was a theatre workshop that propelled him to choose the megaphone over the arc lights. When he discovered he was not cut out for the stage, he panned to the screen, although he made his first documentary on theatre.

The banker turned film-maker is best known for his award-winning feature film ‘Oruththi', but many of his documentaries have won critical acclaim and his book ‘Cinema Rasanai' is staple fare for students of cinema.

With a finger in every pie, he is now ready with his second feature film and simultaneously updating his book, filming a new documentary series and launching a film festival in his hometown.

Documenting history

Born and raised in Tiruchi, Amshan moved to Chennai and commenced his cinematic trail with ad films and documentaries.

“I always had an urge to make a different film,” he says, “but as I could not fit my ideas into mainstream cinema, I turned to documentaries and short films. Interestingly, A.R. Rahman composed the jingles for a few of my ad films. That was when he was known as Dilip Kumar and before ‘Roja' happened.”

A ten-day theatre workshop at Chennai in 1980 was a revelation of sorts for Amshan, who decided that his lot lay with the visual medium. His first documentary on Badal Sircar's third theatre was a take on the plays of the pioneer of Indian street theatre.Amshan has directed around 25 documentaries, predominantly on personalities and developmental issues. “I have always been fascinated by people. But the documentaries are not just about individuals,” he explains. “They are also a reflection of the times they lived in and of the movements and trends they were associated with.” He has recorded on reel the lives of C.V. Raman, Bharathiar and Ashokamitran, among others.

The activist in Amshan has come to the fore in documentaries about disappearing mangroves, women's self-help groups and the burgeoning of village knowledge centres. His latest offering traced the genesis and growth of modern art in Tamil Nadu. His next project, he says, is a documentary series on Bharathiar. “I look at different sides of the man—as a poet, journalist, nationalist and social reformer.”

Featuring women

Realism in mainstream Tamil cinema is all the rage now but Amshan explored a plausible storyline with a realistic touch in 2003 with his first feature film, ‘Oruththi'.

The film made it to a dozen film festivals, was screened at the Indian Panorama and won a special award from the Pondicherry government in 2004. Based on a Tamil short story, ‘Kidai', by Ki. Rajanarayanan, winner of the Sahitya Academy Award, the woman-centric film struggled for screening space.

“It was not exactly parallel cinema,” says Amshan, “but the film did not have a proper theatre release. It was a bitter experience. Television channels refused to even telecast the trailer as the film had no songs.”

Amshan is returning to mainstream cinema with a commercially viable venture.

“I can never make a blatant formula film. It is going to be a balancing act with commercial interest and as little compromises as possible.”

As a film critic, Amshan speaks his mind about Tamil cinema's portrayal of women. “The attitude towards women in our films is archaic. The accent on chastity is pronounced and a woman cannot have an independent life if she loses her chastity. The progress of women in our society is sadly not reflected in our mainstream cinema.”

A aesthetic perspective of cinema

Amshan's ‘Cinema Rasanai', a prescribed text in many universities, looks at film appreciation from the stance of an aesthete. “It has been 20 years since the book was published. I am revising the book to include post-structural, film noir and developments that are a result of technological advancement like hyperlink cinema,” he says.

Amshan also continues to write articles on film appreciation and film theory in various magazines and journals.

Amshan may not think all is sunny in tinsel town but he is all praise for young people's interest in the short film genre. “There was a time when every youngster sought to find expression through poetry. Now they all want to shoot a film. Short film making is a becoming a rage with college goers and social media has enhanced the opportunities. I see a lot of bold and experimental themes hitherto unexplored in mainstream cinema portrayed in short films.”

The film buff loves travelling, Hindustani music, Tamil literature and philosophy. But for someone who thinks, writes, reviews and makes cinema, the world of moving images will always top the list.

Amshan Kumar's dream project is rooted in his hometown. Along with a group of friends, he is laying the groundwork to launch an International Film Festival in Tiruchi. They plan to form a new film society to boost film appreciation in the city. The ambitious project aims at giving Tiruchiites a taste of world cinema. International films procured from embassies, film archives and new directors will be roped in for the first edition, according to the filmmaker.