Interview | Movies

This doctorate scholar in theatre arts is looking to change Tamil cinema’s approach to casting

Sugumar Shanmugam

Sugumar Shanmugam   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Acting coach first, casting director next and then an actor, Sugumar Shanmugam made a breakthrough in Tamil cinema with Priya Krishnaswamy’s ‘Baaram’. He discusses why adopting a casting methodology could help Kollywood churn out better quality films.

Sugumar Shanmugam presents a contradiction in terms of artistes in Tamil cinema.

For one, he prefers to identify himself as an acting trainer and a casting director more than an actor; though it was an acting assignment — as Veera in Priya Krishnaswamy’s National Award-winning film Baaram — that put the spotlight on him.

Also, very few actors, if any, in Tamil cinema discuss Konstantin Stanislavski and Michael Chekhov in their interviews, especially with the effortless ease Sugumar does. When we meet, he is holding a monthly Tamil film magazine in his hands.

The edition, an ode to the Vetri Maaran film Asuran, has an essay that Sugumar penned, wherein he discusses why the filmmaker struck gold with the film’s casting. “Chekhov says the point where the psyche and physique conjoin is when one begins to understand the character. I saw that in Dhanush in Asuran. I relate to these aspects due to my academic background,” says Sugumar.

Casting right

Hailing from a family of therukoothu performers, Sugumar holds a Master’s degree in Drama and Theatre Arts from Pondicherry Central University. Subsequently, he aced a diploma course in intensive acting from the National School of Drama (Bengaluru).

Since 2015, he has been pursuing a doctorate in Theatre Arts with the Department of Performing Arts in Pondicherry Central University; his research topic is Characterisation, actor’s physiology and bio-psychology. He also runs the Pondicherry Theatre Arts Academy in Kalapet, his hometown, where he trains 18 students.

As a casting director, he names people like Kim Ki-duk and Woody Allen as inspirational.

“If you do the right casting, I believe that you have completed 30% of the movie before it is shot. I learnt this from painters. The ideological emotions they capture with people’s faces or animals... that process is casting. The painter does his casting after determining if it would help sell his art. So casting is important not only in the film business,” he says, adding, “The best casting director that I know of is Charlie Chaplin. I don’t think there has ever been someone better or that there ever will be. He understood the importance of characters.”

Sugumar Shanmugam

Sugumar Shanmugam   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement


It was after working as a casting director in a Kannada movie, Beerangipuram, which Sugumar says was “shelved after its first schedule”, that an opportunity to meet Baaram’s director Priya Krishnaswamy materialised.

“She had reached out to my Head of the department (R Raju who played the central character Karuppasamy in Baaram). She told him that casting was important for her film and he (Raju) pointed her to me,” says Sugumar.

When the duo met, he told Priya that there were two approaches to casting that he is offering her.

“One, I could get experienced professionals, but I should give them a workshop and brief them of the character, backstories, economic backgrounds, period, geography and other details. The second option was to find real people who live as these characters, and give them a workshop on how to face the camera. Priya liked the second option more though I told her that we may not get an exact likeness to how she visualised the character in her script,” he adds.

Characters like Nagamma (the maid whom Karuppasamy’s son hires), Buchi (the shepherd) and the women with whom Veera discusses Thalaikoothal were all selected through such a process.

Psychological process

Sugumar’s academic footing helps establish a certain aesthetic that his line of work helps to add in the filmmaking process. But he has a gargantuan task at hand: convincing an industry of a process that helps deliver better output.

Sugumar Shanmugam

Sugumar Shanmugam   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement


“In Hollywood, even for commercial films, they engage casting directors. I don’t know what understanding filmmakers here have about a casting director but it certainly doesn’t mean that directors cannot do casting. It is a simple psychological process. There may be a thought process that casting directors may get involved too academically, and would end up confusing the actors. That is not true. A doctor does not diagnose a patient by telling him the chemical, physiological definitions of the person’s problem. Likewise, I train them in a way they will understand the theories I have learnt,” he says.

However, getting the Tamil film industry to take to a novel idea is a huge task.

“Which is why we must appreciate directors like Ram, Mysskin, Vetri Maaran, Lokesh Kanagaraj and Karthik Subbaraj to name a few, who draw quality work out of their artistes despite the restrictions,” he adds.

Quiz him on what constitutes good acting and he retorts: “Acting is being a character. I don’t know how you categorise talent though. What you consider as good acting itself is a conflict. Say, a mainstream actor whom you think doesn’t belong. You may think he is not the best actor out there but he may have been true to the character he plays, and the audience must have felt it. That is all that matters. There is no hard and fast rules to acting. It is not classical dance... for you to practice mudras in just the right way to convey the meaning lest you get it wrong,” he says.

His exploits in Baaram has brought him appreciation from filmmakers, most of whom were curious to figure out who he was, and what he brings to the table as an acting coach and a casting director.

“I’ve been booked for two films now as a casting director. I was already doing another film when Baaram released, where I play the second lead and am also the casting director. I’m doing a Kannada film but in the capacity of an acting coach. It is a satisfying feeling. I’m getting the recognition for the years spent on academic work,” he concludes.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 5:46:47 PM |

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