M.S. Sathyu has charted his own whimsical cinematic career, doing films very few filmmakers and even fewer producers will touch. But, he tells BHUMIKA K., if a story is good, people will watch it
This leonine-looking man can claim a whole lot of divergent credits for himself. The almost-painter who was an animator and ad-film maker, survived unemployment in Bombay for four years, became a pagemaker in a newspaper, learnt Kathakali and Kathak, designed costumes, sets in theatre and plays, directed and produced Hindi and Kannada films, got Shabana Azmi to let her hair down for a Sunsilk shampoo ad, printed lithos, and made a soul-rousing film like “Garam Hawa” that looked at the traumatic aftermath of Partition.
Today, just two months away from his 80th birthday, M.S. Sathyu dismisses his early years with a guffaw and an attitude he's come to be known for: “Romanticising one's own life and making it sound like one big struggle is nonsensical. Everyone struggles.”
But struggle is an inseparable part of the life of a filmmaker who almost always chose to make a film with a political subject. Because producers want nothing to do with such stories. “The type of films one wants to make, it's difficult to find producers,” ruminates Sathyu, with a faraway look in his eyes, sitting at his studio in Malleswaram. “Of my nine films, eight were political. Some people, like Ray and Benegal were lucky — they always found sponsors. In my case it wasn't so. There was always this prejudice that I'll make something controversial.”
So after a 12-year hiatus from feature filmmaking, when Sathyu makes a comeback with Kannada film “Ijjodu” (The Incompatible), which was released last week, audience expect something of him. No, it's not a political theme, but a statement against the devadasi system, woven around the incongruous relationship between a village basavi and a photographer.
The story had been with him for 30 years — the time it took for him to find a willing producer! He'd even identified the location for the shoot then, Pushpagiri, near Hassan, and found a Kalyani (stepped water-tank), in very much the same condition! A long-lost friend at Reliance Big Pictures offered to produce it, gave a budget, and the freedom to work on any subject within that bracket. “It's the lowest budget for a corporate house; I shot in 20 days. There's no dubbing. Meera Jasmine speaks Kannada.” Sathyu even hired another actress to coach Meera every night for the next day's dialogues.
Will an urban multiplex audience accept a story like this from a rural setting? A good story will get you an audience; setting is immaterial, he says. “These are all wrong theories,” Sathyu says with the wave of a hand, “It's the question of a story and how well you narrate it. Your technique and the actors must be good. If the story is interesting, people will see it.”
Talking of today's Kannada film industry, while “Mungaaru Maley” brought a fresh green lease of life to the sagging industry morale, Sathyu believes the momentum was lost with all directors typecasting themselves in the same mould. He also points out that films of Girish Kasaravalli or P. Sheshadri garner awards but rarely appeal to people in theatres. “This is what happens to so-called better cinema. And in commercial cinema, there are a whole lot of bad remakes. I don't understand it…if a film has done well in Tamil or Telugu, how can it not do well in Kannada? Why not simply dub them, then?”
Sathyu's own irony lies in the fact that whatever he achieved in the making of art house cinema was largely learnt in the world of mainstream cinema. Very few know that he joined the Hindi film industry as Chetan Anand's assistant director, also doing costume and set design. “Garam Hawa” are the words of instant recall when one takes Sathyu's name, and he's really not been able to match up to the intensity of that film after. “You sometimes hit a peak in your first effort and it's very difficult to reach that peak again and again. For me, though, it was more challenging to make ‘Bara'.”
But he has no regrets about the way his cinema career has graphed over the years. One can never be content “like that”, and you always want to do more, he smiles. “I do a lot of theatre, in many languages in Delhi, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Bangalore.” While TV series did form a chunk of his work, it was cinema's large canvas that kept drawing him back.
In fact he finds TV too gimmicky, watching only sports and films, avoiding news. He's been watching all the IPL matches. He's busy creating theatre spaces like he did Ranga Shankara, in cities like Hyderabad and Raipur.
And yes, like an ever hopeful director at the beginning of his career, Sathyu still carries in his bag always, a script — a hopeful film in the making.
As he himself contently says, life always comes full circle.