Balancing Act

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Janaki Viswanathan says she wants to reach out to everyone

Janaki Viswanathan has just completed a 45-minute featurette “Naanum Avargalum” (Me and They), an experimental film full of narrative surprises, abstract links, and philosophical undertones, drawing parallels between God and man. “We share the same creative faculty after all!” Janaki laughs.

The only child of an English professor and banker, with bureaucrats for uncles, Janaki had neither training nor background in cinema. Her young dreams had more to do with writing.

Married to development professional Ramesh, she was happy to retreat into full-time motherhood with two children. Three years later, she decided to do her masters in journalism. Freelance writing followed as also stints in ANI and TV18. She entered a whole new world when she interviewed film stars Kamal Haasan, Gautami and Khushboo. On the sets of Santosh Sivan’s “Terrorist”, Janaki was taken aback when he asked her if she was interested in filmmaking. “Something clicked then,” she recalls.

During the family’s temporary shift to Delhi, Janaki actually wrote a film script that is “still to see the light of day.” Janaki and her friends launched a foundation for documentary film making. From silk-reelers in Bhagalpur to the Dikshitars of Chidambaram, Janaki started exploring the medium. “I learnt everything hands-on.” Back in Chennai, writer Sivasankari was so impressed with Janaki’s TV feature “Maalai Nerathu Bhoopalam” that she asked the young film maker to look at her story on child labour. Funded by the Danish Embassy and produced by her supportive husband, “Kutti” (2001) became Janaki’s first full-length feature, winning two National awards, one by a special jury, and another for Best Child Actor.

“I couldn’t have had a better start. Writers are not usually happy with filmed versions of their work, but Sivasankari was. M. T. Vasudevan Nair was appreciative, Revathy said she came sobbing out of the theatre, director Bala called to congratulate me, and Santosh was delighted that I got a commercial release.”

Critical acclaim

After seeing “Kutti”, a stranger called to say that he had sent the young maidservant working in his home back to her parents and was paying for her education. Her next film “Kanavu Meipada Vendum” (2004) looked at the plight of sex workers. “Disturbed by newspaper reports of sexual exploitation, I felt compelled to deal with it in my own way. No awards this time, but it did win critical acclaim wherever it was screened.”

She also felt privileged to get the chance to make Subramania Bharati’s last unfinished story into a tele-film. “Doordarshan continues to screen ‘Chandrikaiyin Kathai’, a story of its time and ahead of its time.” Ask Janaki if she makes art films and you provoke irritation. “The boundaries are blurred today. My ideas have also changed. I want to do a balancing act — reach out to everyone while retaining certain aesthetic sensibilities and social concerns. Look at “Thevar Magan”! What a complete film it is!”

Though multiplexes have made it possible to make films for niche (though, mostly urban) audiences, funding remains a problem. “I don’t have a track record of commercial success. Sadly, inadequate funding also makes some amount of compromise inevitable.” However, Janaki’s current project, tentatively named “Bodhi”, is a mainstream venture, focussing not on a specific social evil, but on the consequences of human actions. “I want my films to be seen by my own people, and not merely at film festivals,” she insists.

Where does she see herself 10 years from now? “I want to avoid being typecast as the maker of a certain genre of films. By then, my passion should have turned into a financially viable, reasonably rewarding career. Hopefully, I will be in a position of not having to wait four years to make my next film. I don’t see why these wishes won’t come true. After all, different kinds of cinemas are evolving now, affording space for a variety of genres.”

What is so mind-grabbing about making films anyway? “Scripting to editing, I get incredibly high on the whole process. You play God — shape characters, decide their destinies. So far, I’ve made no money out of filmmaking, but I still feel enriched.” A final word? “My family is an integral part of my life. This may not be the politically correct thing to say from a gender perspective, but frankly, I’m a mother first. I get as much joy with my children as from my work.”





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