The positive reception of Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu (VTK) and Ponniyin Selvan I (PS I) has put two writers in the spotlight: the late Kalki Krishnamurthy, who wrote the Ponniyin Selvan novel, and Jeyamohan, who wrote the story for VTK and the dialogues for PS I. This is an unusual scenario for Tamil cinema because it has, for whatever reasons, distanced itself from the world of literature.
Adaptations of books, including popular pulp fiction, are far and few between. And, most films are written and directed by the same person. There are a few exceptions. Mani Ratnam and Shankar, for instance, have sought writer Sujatha’s services in some of their most notable films. Vetrimaaran’s last two outings were adaptations of novels. Gautham Vasudev Menon has worked with other writers. But compared to Malayalam cinema, which has a long list of celebrated screenwriters, Tamil cinema seldom collaborates with writers.
In the recent past, however, there has been an increasing interest in Tamil cinema to make literary adaptations and work with writers. “It is a very good beginning,” says filmmaker Vasanth S Sai, who is another advocate of including literature in cinema. His latest film, Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum, was based on short stories of Ashokamitran, Adhavan, and Jeyamohan. His upcoming works, too, will be based on literary works. He has the rights for several Tamil stories, including the acclaimed Thanneer by Ashokamitran.
“We will see more literary adaptations in Tamil cinema,” says Vasanth from the sidelines of the fifth Innovative International Film Festival in Bengaluru. “We also need to understand the importance of working with writers. [In Tamil cinema], one person usually takes care of the story, screenplay, dialogues, and direction. But it is better to have an additional brain that is working for you. You see this in Malayalam cinema, where you have people like MT Vasudevan Nair, who is celebrated for his screenplays. We, too, should value our writers.”
Portrayal of women
Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum was lauded for its realistic portrayal of strong female protagonists. In addition to the three National Awards it fetched (for Best Feature Film in Tamil, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Editing), it also won the Best Film Award at the 28th Fukuoka International Film Festival.
The awards apart, Vasanth also got 500 pages of feedback collated by his assistant from social media. “It was difficult to make the film during the pandemic. And, more difficult to sell it [Vasanth produced the film as well] because the only well-known names associated with the film were Ilaiyaraaja, Parvathy Thiruvothu, and me. I have asked myself if it is worth all the effort to make a film. But when I read the comments from that 500-page book, it felt wonderful. It is like giving birth — it is an arduous process but once you see the baby’s smile, it makes you feel that all the pain was worth it.”
Vasanth adds the positive response from men was unexpected. “It seems like the film struck a chord with them. They felt guilty [for not treating the women in their lives equally]. A friend of mine told me he made his wife dosas the day he watched the film. I don’t know if he continues to do that (laughs) but at least the film made him realise something about himself. A film, at best, can make you think about your actions and examine them. And, I believe that is enough; that is the beginning of change.”
The new generation of writers and directors, he reckons, are more responsible in the way they represent women. “I recently read a story by a young writer about a couple, where the husband does all the household work. I found that beautiful because it is just a minor detail in the story — it is not treated as a big deal. Instead of writing a scene where the husband is reading the newspaper, it is nice if you say the husband is washing clothes, no?”
“Of course, there is a lot more scope for improvement in how we portray women in our cinema. But we can be happy that things are improving.”