‘I’m more a storyteller than a director’

Lenin Bharathi talks about his directorial début Merku Thodarchi Malai and his interest in making people-centric films

September 14, 2018 06:19 pm | Updated 06:22 pm IST

“I would like to be called a storyteller than a director. As someone who communicates with the audience, sitting next to them. The visual language I believe in is devoid of dramatisation or exaggeration,” says Lenin Bharathi, who has directed the recently-released Merku Thodarchi Malai , a realistic movie set in Thevaram, a hamlet in the foothills of the Western Ghats in Theni. With an emotive storyline, arresting frames and an engaging tone, the film walks one through the daily-life struggles of the labourers who transport loads of cardamom up and down the hills.

“As all the actors are real-life people from the village, an effortless realism was easy to achieve. The film never judges or criticises but just presents and juxtaposes the various issues and the politics concerning these people. I was careful not to take a preachy tone,” says Bharathi, who spent close to three years in Thevaram, before starting to shoot. “Growing up in Theni, the hills were always close to my heart. And having observed the labourers even as a child, I could finish the script in just two hours. However, training the people to act, living as one among them to gain the experience of trekking up and down the hills on a daily basis and to understand their credo to life took a long time. In fact, I made Gayathri Krishna literally work in a cardamom estate for a few months, so that the character came alive.”

 Lenin Bharathi

Lenin Bharathi

“The forest was a big challenge to shoot in, with the risk posed by wild elephants. But, we managed to pull it off without disturbing even a single tree or plant. That‘s why there’s much reference to human-elephant conflict in the movie and how the people brave all odds on the hills just for meagre wages and a bare-minimum life. The film is much about the landscape. I wanted to quell the romaticised notion of the Western Ghats,” says Bharathi. “We chose to shoot in winter when the leeward slopes remained dry while the high-ranges were lush-green and clad in mist, thus portraying a stark contrast in both the land and the lives of people. We hardly used any extra lights and shot entirely in natural sunlight.”

Referring to repeated silent wide-angle shots that punctuate the movie, Bharathi says, “Silent scenes add layers of meaning to the script. Theni Eswar’s contribution in terms of the frames has given the film much value. For instance, when the leafy cardamom plants are shown swaying in the wind, it’s taken from a top-angle and it feels as if the plants are dancing. I wanted the scene to be seen as a menacing domination of a cash-crop that’s fast taking over the hills.”

He adds: “Likewise, I also kept the dialogues minimum, sometimes repetitive and mostly overlapping, which is rare in a feature film.” “The idea was again to bring in authenticity with local dialect and a natural manner of talking.” He adds, “For me, the pace of a movie is not the swift cuts and fast scenes; it’s all about how well and deep the audience connect to the characters and the plot. That’s why the first few scenes pack so many elements to hook the viewers. I wanted to make them feel they were at Thevaram.”

“I am interested in making humanist people-centric films, that are beyond just formulaic love-revenge-heroism combinations,” says Bharathi who has four more scripts in hand.

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