R Parthiban is still amazed by the bravado he had when Housefull (1999) went into production without a script. He had three cameras, a few hundred junior artists and a tighter budget, given that it was a home production. Yet, Parthiban says he felt like a king when they shot the film in Madurai.
Perhaps the seed — of taking complete control of the film he was making — must have been sown around this time. Life has come full circle for Parthiban with his upcoming Iravin Nizhal, which is conceived, directed, acted and edited by him.
Parthiban held test screenings for over 1000 people so far, most of whom had positive things to say about the film. Yet, the filmmaker is anxious about the reception on the first day, first show. “I just want the audience to come in large numbers. That continues to be a dream,” says Parthiban, hinting at the fact that he has been solely carrying the weight of Iravin Nizhal on his shoulders. Excerpts from an edited interview:
Since ‘Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam’ (2014), you have been experimenting with the narrative form: ‘Oththa Seruppu Size 7’ (2019) was a solo-act film and ‘Iravin Nizhal’ is a single-shot film. What prompted this change?
I think it started even before Housefull and in Puthiya Pathai [directorial debut] in terms of the way the story was told. Whenever I pitched my first film to producers, they rejected it. Puthiya Pathai broke a set of rules that the mainstream cinema followed at that point.
This maattram [change] started from there, although there were thadumatram [slips] in the middle. The confidence you have in your first film drops by the time you make your fourth film.
Sometimes I wonder who came up with these rules and formulas. Writer Sujatha sir once said that there are 17 ways to write a screenplay but it is still possible for someone to come up with an 18th possibility. That is what I’ve been trying to do. I am not afraid of failures since I got used to it. Since I don’t make too much money from films, the business aspect doesn’t interest me.
Right now, I am married to cinema and I need to treat her well. The success of Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam reaffirmed my belief that audiences are intelligent. I want to cater to their intellect, which is why I started to do experimental films. The problem with that is, audiences don’t immediately receive a film like Oththa Seruppu which has a limited shelf life, compared to a Vijay film.
But ‘Oththa Seruppu’ did get a warm reception, right?
People threatened to stop the screening during its theatrical run. I had to personally talk to theatre owners and convince them to have one show at least. Why should an artist be put in that situation? Later, it released on Netflix and found its audience. So, the reception got was reception delayed. In Telugu and Kannada industries, stars are willingly promoting other stars’ films. Unfortunately, we don’t have that culture here.
‘Iravin Nizhal’ is the second film that says ‘conceived and directed’ by Parthiban as opposed to ‘written and directed’...
I remember directing Housefull without a script. Whereas the idea for Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam was about the hunt for a story. I turned a boring topic such as film discussion into an interesting story.
As an actor, I felt only I could do justice to Oththa Seruppu. There was a screenplay for Oththa Seruppu but I didn’t go by the book. For example, when I was acting, I would suddenly look at a cuckoo by the window. I told my cameraman [Ramji] to carry the camera with him and follow me. How do you call this a ‘screenplay’? Everything I did was instinctive and improvised on the set [for both Oththa Seruppu and Iravin Nizhal].
Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ and Sam Mendes’ ‘1917’ were made to look like a single-shot film at the edit table. However, the Malayalam film ‘Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam’ was actually filmed like a single-shot. What was your approach to ‘Iravin Nizhal’?
This film doesn’t fall into both these categories. But where our film differs is by showing flashbacks in that single-shot. Which is why I’ve used the label [the world’s first single-shot nonlinear film].
With that label as a marketing tool, I could have done a kuppai padam [trashy film]. But the 21 crore we have invested would have been a missed opportunity to tell an intriguing story. I wanted the audience to experience this experiment.
The execution must have been a nightmare…
I wrote Iravin Nizhal as a nonlinear film. But we couldn’t erect sets based on the order of the screenplay. We shot inside a building and it was designed like a maze. For a complex film like this, the actors and technicians have to be in sync.
For example, we have closeup, mid-long and long shots. How can one camera do justice to this, especially in a single-shot film? If the camera has to sustain at one position, then the actor has to extend their performance. Only then can we pan to the next shot. For that, we need professional actors. All of this went into the making of Iravin Nizhal.
Both ‘Oththa Seruppu’ and ‘Iravin Nizhal’ have a theatrical quality to them. Would you attribute this to your background as a drama artist?
It definitely gave me confidence. I like to believe that I’m a really good actor. Oththa Seruppu is a good example because I was able to hold the audience’s attention for two hours, which is not an easy task. It was a film Sivaji sir should have done. Or at least Kamal sir. But I ended up acting in it.
The initial target I set for myself for Iravin Nizhal was that I should act for two hours straight. Plus, the film deals with multiple emotions. There is a scene where I’m joking but there is a scene where I have to cry. There is no time to put in glycerin because it is a single-shot film. So, my theatrical background did help in that aspect.
That was not the only challenge, though. The most important aspect of a camera is the focus. Given the tight set piece, even if you miss a step, you lose that shot. There are three songs in lip-sync. Imagine how difficult it would have been. I still wanted to do it. Otherwise, this industry will sideline you and ask you to pave the way for youngsters [laughs].
At what stage did AR Rahman come into the picture?
I’ve always wanted to work with Rahman and we have been friends for a long time. But that was not the only reason. Oththa Seruppu almost made it into the Oscars’ nomination list. When I was marketing the film in the US, Rahman was also there. Perhaps Oththa Seruppu might have had a fighting chance had Rahman composed the score. Which is why I wanted his brand for Iravin Nizhal.
When I narrated the script, Rahman had one condition. He said, ‘You won’t back out right? You need to promise me you will shoot it like one, single shot.’ When I showed him the set we created for this, he felt confident. Rahman hasn’t done a ‘dark’ film and Iravin Nizhal is about the different stages of a man. It begins with a tragic story of a baby drinking breast milk of his dead mother. Rahman really liked the story progression and I realised the divine power of his music when he surprised me with ‘Paapam Seyathiru’.
Is Parthiban 2.0 here to stay?
My experiment clicked in Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam. I don’t know where I am headed after Iravin Nizhal. I have a few challenging scripts but I’m not sure whether I should do them for the challenge or for change [money].
This film took two and a half years to make. I feel like I invested 25 years in it. I want to cool down a bit and relax. If a big star suddenly realises that I’m a good director and wants to work with me, then I’m game for that too.
What keeps you motivated?
Art cannot be concealed in any form. So if I keep playing to my strengths, I will get worn out and I don’t want to fall into that trap. The way Iravin Nizhal was shot was a lesson for me. Twenty or thirty years down the line, if someone decides to make a single-shot film, then they will probably remember me. What more can an artist aspire for?