Balancing box office formula with substance

How do you make films within the commercial format and yet try to stand out?

I want my film to cater to everyone, reach a wide audience. When the budget reaches 20 crores; you can’t make a ‘genre’ film. Everybody gets stuck within the formula, which even masters such as Mani Ratnam and Shankar are unable to shake of.

At the same time, I don’t want my films to be mocked. Thanks to my stint as a journalist, I have approached commercial cinema with some purpose. All my movies have a certain contemporary issue

Kanaa Kanden talks about water desalination plants. KO was about political corruption, Ayan is about smuggling. For Ayan, I spoke to a lot of custom officers to understand the modus operandi of smuggling. For KO, I made sure I went to the Deccan Herald to understand the relationship between photographers and sub-editors.

My films could have scenes which people don’t like and simple plotlines, but I try to make sure that there is nothing outrageous for the audience to mock at it. My plotlines could be simple, even banal. But I make sure it has enough substance to not come across as a lazily made film. Big budget Tamil film cannot stick to just one genre. I am an advertising student, so I make movies for a specific target audience.

Can you tell us about Anegan?

Anegan is a realistic film. The film is about a couple and delves into what pulls a couple apart. Dhanush appears in four different looks. The film chronicles life of a couple from younger self to older. I am basically a ‘mokkai’ when it comes to love. While all my films also had a romantic track on the side, Anegan’s central conflict is about love: what makes the couple part ways is the plot.

Tell us about Dhanush. What is his contribution to the film?

After Kamal Haasan, nobody has been as good as him while doing romance on screen. His collaborations with his brother, Selvaragahavan has resulted in great films and performances. Romance is Dhanush’s strong point. He is capable of something that even experienced actors struggle with: he can blur out the camera while he is acting. It is the stuff that great actors are made of. He can pan his eyes over the lens without noticing the camera. He is that good. I have noticed this with Mohanlal. He plays four different characters in the film. He has changed his voice and looks.

Dhanush is not someone who does a lot of homework. Suriya believes in working on his character. He acts out in front of the mirror in his spare time. Dhanush does none of that. I don’t know if he prepares himself from within. He just performs on the go. Dhanush was not the first choice for the film. This script was actually written for Vijay. He was busy with films and it didn’t happen. In fact, it was Vijay who suggested that I must do the film with Dhanush.

You have been associated with big movies. Many in the industry say that K.V. Anand’s approach to filmmaking mirrors that of Shankar. Is the observation valid?

I worked with Priyadarshan, Shankar, Rajkumar Santhoshi and many other stalwarts. I have learned from all of them. I worked with really great directors and I learnt their different approaches to filmmaker.

Shankar is focussed and doesn’t let his guard down at any time. What I like about him is that he would give space to other technicians and collaborates with them. While working in Shivaji, he would always ask for my inputs as a cinematographer while designing a set. He doesn’t have to do it, frankly. He could have just decided the colours and ask me to work with that. He makes you own the film. When you work with Shankar, I can go out and say that ‘the film is working because of me.’ He makes sure we all contribute to the film. I learnt that aspect from him.

On the quickly changing landscape of Tamil cinema:

Tamil cinema has undergone massive changes in the last few years. Fantastic filmmakers and actors have emerged. It has produced two very different actors: Vijay Sethupathy and Sivakarthikeyan. There is great variety in the films that have come out. To make movies like them, one needs to move with that crowd, you need to watch movies with young people. If they are your target audience, you need to improvise.

Today, in Tamil cinema, there is a short supply of writers and the film industry is rampant with plagiarism. What’s the way forward?

It happens everywhere. Pickpockets are there everywhere. The only way forward is to be aware of the ways to protect our intellectual property. Not only do we have filmmakers stealing from foreign films, sometimes certain scenes are also lifted. Sometimes we discard ideas while discussing a film. But you suddenly see those ideas used in other films. Will that be considered as stealing? Therefore, our conception of what is plagiarism needs to change. Registering scripts is so easy these days. Thinking up a story is so easy. But writing down a coherent script on a piece of paper is something else.

Have you always wanted to do commercial cinema?

Our films are not realistic films. There is no precedent for a big budget film which has reached so many people. It is more a business than art. When the budget exceeds 20 crores; you need to provide something for everybody. The narrative becomes polluted with songs and comedy. But then, when the budget is small, it doesn’t reach a large section of the audience. As a filmmaker, that’s more important to me.

Can you give me an example of reasonable approach to commercial cinema?

I was a member of Campus, a film appreciation group. As a member, I used to watch a number of critically acclaimed films. I was a fan of filmmakers like Satyajit Ray. So, I don’t particularly like forcing songs into the narrative. I am not averse to songs that lend itself to the film. But I hate the fact that we are forced to induct 5 songs into the film. The audience like it. They want it.

People criticise me for having a song whenever a character dies. The reason is because I am preparing the audience for the next plot point in the film. In fact, I make sure the song ends on a slightly peppy note. I do not know if it’s my weakness but I consciously do it. People want songs in the film.

For all my films, I try to lead the narrative into the song. For example, I would rather keep a song in a club than in a wine shop. The reason being, nobody dances in a wine shop, but people dance in a club. So, it is more believable to have a song in a club. I like songs over a montage. Narratives and conventions of commercial have changed over time.

Can you elaborate on difference between working in a big budget film as cinematographer vs directing a big budget film?

After Nayak, I didn’t work with Shankar for a long time. I joined hands with him for Shivaji. As a cameraman, Rajini should look good. Shankar’s film must look grand. So, one must understand what the target audience wants. However, rubbish on screen must look like rubbish.

When I am directing, I always make sure that I worked with my friends or my assistants. If you actually see, there is no work for the director except saying start camera and cut. A director is someone who sees the film in all its totality. The fact that I am a cinematographer helps me in imagining my entire film through the perspective lens.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 8:00:54 AM |

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