Celebrated filmmaker Shaji N Karun was recently in Delhi as part of the ongoing Indian Panorama Film Festival 2019, organised by Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF), where his latest film Olu was screened. A fantasy revolving around a gypsy girl who is raped and dumped into the backwaters, Olu (She) marks the seventh feature film of Karun’s career after making his debut with the 1998 film Piravi which went on to win the prestigious Caméra d'Or (Special Mention) at the 42nd Cannes Film Festival. His humanistic work has been applauded at the leading cinematic forums of the world. Interestingly, no Indian film has got nominated for Palme d’Or since Karun’s 1994 film Swaham.
Olu is about a rape victim but it’s essentially a fantasy. What is the vision behind it?
The underlying idea behind making Olu as a fantasy is that we need to dream. Cinema itself is a dream. Without dreams, cinema wouldn’t even have been invented. The idea that cinema propagates is that we shouldn’t lose our dreams. In Olu , the idea of the girl not losing innocence is fantasy for me. Yes, the film is about a girl who is raped but I am looking at the innocence of the girl and not on the violence part of the rape. The press and the people will talk about the violence part of it but for me the innocence part is more important as it allows a much deeper understanding the girl’s feelings and emotions.
Your films have always shown a very deep understanding of women and femininity in Indian society. What do you attribute this to?
From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, the idea of the mother in our country is deeply layered. Also their thoughts and feelings are different in their own ways. Silence has a lot of meaning in our life. Silence can also be attributed to violence. If you are a silent person you can be a violent person also, occasionally. Now the women in our society are mostly silent. Men often don’t fully understand them their feelings, their pain, and their fear. When it becomes very painful for women they cry a lot but very silently. When their tears come out even if they are silent their pain is evident. These are the human languages that reveal the innermost emotions, I think many of the classic film whether it’s Madhumati or Guru Dutt’s Kagaz Ke Phool are very strong in their depiction of the expression from the women’s side. After all, it is women who being the family together and it is important to capture their feelings and emotions. Kerala is a matriarchal society and now Sabarimala for that reason is a big fight for them. I believe the portrayal of women in Indian cinema still leaves a lot to be desired for. If the God hadn’t created man and woman, there would have been no story, no passion, no meaning, no cinema, and no poetry. That’s the reason why I make movies and through them I try to understand them in different ways.
In a career spanning over three decades you have made just about half a dozen feature films. What is the reason behind your relatively low productivity?
Yes, I haven’t made many films in my career. For me, films are all about my passion and my interpretations. You need money to make films and the kind of films that I like to make it is always a challenge to get the funding for them. It usually takes 3-4 years for me to conceive a story, based on my thoughts and interpretations, writings, and finding the people. To be honest, as a filmmaker, I could never get enough money like the kind you associate with big the budget films. Leading filmmakers across the world used to enjoy strong backing from the distribution side as well as from the press. In India that network is not very strong especially when it comes to the non-commercial films. To be honest the situation was much better when I made Piravi . Today, even the press has become a part of the consumerist society and is unable to properly address the cultural heritage.
Why has no Indian film made it to the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival in about 25 years despite the growth that our film industries have witnessed?
We are 1.3 billion people and yet we only have few Olympics medals to show for. A small country like South Korea or Japan for that matter performs far better. It is the idea of what we want to bring to our nation because that’s what creates history. If we lose our history we lose our soul. The amount of devotion that’s needed to excel will only come if we stop being content and strive endlessly for excellence, whether it’s science or art or any other area. If we look at cinema, we have some many indigenous stories to tell and yet we try to imitate the West. The urge for imitation is becoming the limitation of our film industry. The tourism has always been expressed through the past. The tourists come here to get their feel of the spiritualism. They have realised but we refuse to acknowledge the hidden treasures of our rich cultural heritage.
You are not only a celebrated filmmaker but also an award-winning cinematographer. You have shot films for legends of Malayalam cinema like G. Aravindan. How does the role of a cinematographer vary from that of a director?
Making a film for me is like a complete package. Like a human being, you think, you see, you have the taste of the food, you work, etc. But when I become a cinematographer, I merely become the eye of the director. I always look for the spirituality part of it. For me light is the most spiritual part of my whole life. Like some say that music is the language to reach the God. But if there is no light in front of the deities, they are practically non-existent and that’s why we use candles and other stuff to light them up. A cinematographer always has an ability to express the feel of cinema through spirituality. When you are a good cinematographer, you understand the use of light in spiritual terms. For, the morning light, noon light, evening light, moon light, everything has a different spirituality to it. I believe it is an important part of the spiritual language of cinema and the cinematographer decides what to show and what to hide from audience. You see I became more enlightened through Rembrandt’s paintings, Ravi Varma’s paintings, in particular the use of light in their works. As far as I am concerned the artist’s main responsibility is to enlighten the audience. Otherwise, there is no meaning in the idea of being called an artist.