Ashwin Saravanan, a filmmaker with a fondness for the genre of horror, accepts that people nowadays are bound to be sceptical when stepping into a new Tamil horror film. As he agrees, the good-is-to-dud ratio justifies the same, but Ashwin doesn’t care about how you step into his film. “The beauty of cinema is to be able to break all doubts over those two to three hours. All I care about is whether the audiences leave the theatre with the intention and emotion that I want to leave them with,” he says.
With Connect, his third in the horror genre after Maya (2015) and Game Over (2019), Ashwin hopes that the audience will leave his screens feeling hopeful. The film, headlined and produced by Nayanthara (who also collaborated with Ashwin in Maya), is about a family that gets separated due to the COVID-19-induced lockdown. “How the family pulls through when one of them gets possessed by a demon is what comprises the story,” says Ashwin.
Excerpts from an nterview:
Firstly, what’s the reason behind the title ‘Connect’?
There are two reasons. One is that to ‘connect’ with each other, we all had to resort to video calls during the lockdown. And we know that the screen displays ‘connecting..’ whenever the network connection is poor. This becomes a recurring motif in the film. Secondly, the entire film is about the love and bond that these characters share; that connection is what they are fighting to get back.
So, is this project a product of the COVID-19-induced lockdown?
This is a story that came out of the anxiety that the pandemic gave me. I didn’t know if I will ever get to make another movie, or for that matter, if any of us will even be alive. I wrote this story when the pandemic was at its peak. I pitched it towards the end of the first lockdown. Then we started shooting for it after the lockdown was lifted.
Setting a film in a real crisis like the lockdown is clever. It not only helps the audience relate better to the story, you also get a great reason to trap your characters; something that is necessary for such horror films, right?
Yes, see, even though we may get over the memory of an event, we will take some time to get over the emotional impact it had on us. We always remember how things made us feel. Like how grief is a very subjective suffering, the experience of undergoing a lockdown was very personal to each individual. All of us felt overwhelmed, and we are slowly recovering. I believe that Connect will make people feel more hopeful about their future.
Did Nayanthara’s stardom ever factor into conversations during ‘Maya’ or ‘Connect’, or while assembling the two projects?
Both Maya and Connect are the products of two people who focused all their efforts to give life to a good story that they believed in; Nayanthara ma’am and I. In fact, keeping aside the fact that she is the producer, even as an actor you will be able to see how selflessly she has performed in the film. She knew that she could do this film only as an artist and not as a star.
If she wanted to make a film solely for her star status, she can get many good scripts that can do that for her. But she saw what potency this story had, the kind of character she would be doing, and how satisfied she would be as a creator. And that’s all that seemed to have mattered.
When and how did your obsession with the genre of horror begin?
When I was young, I used to be obsessed with classic horror serials like Marmadesam. Even though I didn’t consciously realise this back then, the visual elements, the soundboard they had created, and the stories and the characters that were written influenced me a lot and they continue to do so to date.
Moreover, as a genre, I am obsessed with it because it is easy to tell some stories through horror. For instance, if I have to tell a story about members of a family who get separated due to the lockdown, I can write a family drama. But, will a producer bankroll that script? People don’t realise that I have pitched such scripts in other genres, and they never found a taker. With horror, we are immediately getting into a marketable space, especially because of my success with Maya. I don’t despise this, but I’d rather just use it and tell my stories using the genre.
Many creators in this genre, like James Wan, reiterate that good sound effects are more important than jump scares or gore. Having been in this industry as a horror filmmaker, how has the department of sound design evolved over the last decade?
Imagine a romantic drama in which every department — from writing and performances to cinematography and music — do well, but there is a complete lack of chemistry between the two leads. What that is to a romance drama, is what sound is to horror.
In Tamil cinema, sound design in horror has evolved brilliantly. For instance, in 2010, everyone was surprised by what Pizza pulled off. What played a major role in that film was its sound effects, and the audiographer who mixed the sounds for Pizza was M. R. Rajakrishnan, a National Award-winner who recently worked in Kantara. He is also the one who did sound mixing for all three of my films. Working with Rajakrishnan sir is a very enjoyable process, and he deserves a lot of credit for the success of these films.
You get questioned a lot about your long-delayed film ‘Iravaakaalam’ whenever a new film of yours comes out. But given how personal your films are, a delayed release won’t affect the film-watching experience much, right?
That’s the reason why I have maintained my silence and patience till now. I am confident that the film’s soul will resonate with the audience whenever it comes out. To wait for so long is certainly difficult for everyone who worked on the film. Personally, I have put a lot of heart into making it. It will be relevant whenever it comes out
But you are aware of the popularity that the teaser of the film continues to receive...
Yes, I am aware of it. However, such comments about the teaser push me to two extreme emotions. As much as I am happy that people are waiting for the film, I know that anything they say at this point is just another opinion. My job as a creator is over, and now, the teaser or the film belongs to the audience.
Also, this wait for the film to see its light is painful. The release is uncertain and I feel hopeless. So, at times like these, such conversations also make me feel angry. As an artist, I don’t have an answer to the questions that I am being asked about the film’s release and it is not a good place to be in. If I have an answer, I will be the first one to share it with the world.