interview : murali nair
Why did you choose the path of filmmaking?
After finishing off my Masters in Geology and working as a geologist for a while, I found that it is not for me. Quite monotonous work and no contact with people. Then I slowly came into filmmaking, and now that it the only work I know!
Your first film Maranasimhasanam is one of the most outstanding films made in India during the last decade. What were the main factors / considerations that worked in your mind as you chose a subject like that?
I live in the present day society and most of the issues concerning them are my subjects. But I decided to tell it in my own way. That is all what I have done in this film. I clearly see the fate of poor Krishnans all over India.
You used mostly non (professional) actors, which gave the film a na´ve feeling. How did you manage them?
The story I was telling was mainly about normal people, and it would have felt superficial if I used actors to play that role. I particularly wanted those faces and emotions and that is why I chose them. It was easy to make them understand and I was very comfortable with the experience.
How was Maranasimhasanam received in Kerala with its strong political lineage?
There was a mixed reaction. Many people hated the film, while many more liked it. The Kerala intelligentsia is mainly left-oriented and they had problems in taking the film as a film or art form.
And how were the responses in rest of the country?
It was very good. Wherever it was shown, people liked the film. Of course there were some drastic reactions, but you expect it anyway. If you are making a social film, it is part of it.
Having won the coveted Camera d'Or at Cannes, Maranasimhasanam never received the media attention it deserved. Why do you think this happened?
It is purely because I was making the film in a minority language: Malayalam, that too I made the mistake of criticising (they thought) communism. What else can one expect? If the film was made in Hindi language, you would have seen the alleluyahs! It is a shame that we, Malayalees are letting this happen, rather than making use of this opportunity to generate growth for our industry, (which would have happened anywhere else). But for me none of these really matter. I made the film I really wanted to make. Outside India, the film and the award are still recognised. I am not fussy about media attention etc.
Do you feel that there were attempts to 'blanket' your film by the leftist groups in Kerala?
There were all that. That is the price you pay when you question an establishment! It is a shame that most of the discussion about the film was political, rather than creative! But I think that most people who wanted to see the film must have seen it either in festivals or through pirated videos.
When we look at the film now, one of the core areas it dealt with is globalisation / Americanisation. The same being the leftist agenda, why was there so much of an attack on the film?
That is the irony of our leftism! Look at the fact that the same government has granted permission to start a Coke company in Kerala (and protesting on the other hand!!)
As a media person working in the global scenario, how do you compare the effects of globalisation in India with other third world nations?
It is all pretty much the same. The polarisation is getting more and more strong. Governments are getting more and more commercial. More and more new laws curbing individual's freedom are introduced.
The new crop of Indian English films is now seen replacing the serious cinema of India. These films are also widely accepted by the Indian audience. Doesn't this bliss on the Indian viewer's face resemble that of Krishnan's smile on the death throne?
That is the failure of our art house movie sector- we never had a success amongst the audience and on top of that we are being made to believe that these are serious cinema.
Now to your second film A Dog's Day. We feel that this film did not create enough discussion among film critics and audience in Kerala and in India as much as your first film. Many of the film enthusiasts in India never got a chance to see the film anywhere (except for the Kerala Film Festival), why do you think this happened?
It is obvious, as the first film won a major award the immediate reaction would be to compare the filmmaker and his work with the award winning work. The film was screened at festivals in India, I suppose. The festival administration etc. were handled by my sales agent and their main priority would have been to screen the film where there is a market for these type of films. It is true with many films from outside as well. That is one of the reasons why our film festivals fail to attract a lot of good films from outside the country!
This film again has a similar theme as your earlier film, but this time the dog has been given by the ruler to his honest servant Koran as a gift, along with the declaration of democracy, is this a continuation of the earlier film? Like a next step to capitalism making its entry as a gift?
This film happened because the emotions that ruled me to make the film, continued. So it was necessary for me to get it out of my system, and hence the second film. There is a continuity, and as such we are witnessing it now!
Maranasimhasanam had a rawness to its visual treatment which was new and worked well with the film's essence, but in A Dog's Day the images look much more carefully composed, treated and so very beautiful, how did you work on both the visual treatments differently? And why?
I think it has to be different. The basic thing is film is an art form. Have you ever seen any artist/ painter doing the same picture again? Even if the same emotions are ruling you, the canvas can be different.
The way you used characters, they got a caricature feel to them than a real life one, we feel this work very strongly to remind the audience constantly about the characters as what they represent than as what they appear on the screen.
Yes, it was treated like a caricature. I wanted to give more importance to the situation we are in rather than the act. If you see, the emotions were treated in a very different way than the other film.
If we simplify your work, as a warning to the audience about the current happenings in the world by showing an example from their familiar feudal past, will that do justice to you? Do you think that the politically literate Kerala audience needs such examples?
I don't know what is the reason for this simplification! I am only trying to understand the time we are living in and the social situations we are in. In order to do that, it is very much necessary to have an understanding of the past. When you try to understand the past, you will notice that there is a huge amount of control of power (you call feudalism) even in our politically literate Kerala. Even the politics, which we were very proud of, has become a family business! But for me, I have the freedom to use it as my canvas and it helps me to draw the parallels between social systems. This is only possible in situations where the normal growth of the societies has been allowed to flourish (a situation very rare to find in many parts of the world).
With your third film Arimpara, we see a complete shift in your approach towards cinema, by using a literary work as a source and also the use of popular actor in lead roles. What tempted you for this change in approach?
For this film, I felt it needed a very good actor, Nedumudi Venu is just brilliant. He is the best actor we have had in India. He has done a very good job in this film. It has been very well appreciated by good critics in many festivals. For me, it is clear, some films need actors, some films need non-actors. It varies from subject to subject.
When literary works are adapted to cinema, here a work by the legendary O V Vijayan who has created a deep impact in Malayalee minds, the audience watch the film with a pre-notion and often get disappointed. How would you face this situation?
It is always difficult to do films based on a literary work. It is pretty difficult to make the audience believe that the film is a different medium. You just can't compare.
All your films deal with political subjects, especially Maranasimhasanam in a much more direct way. But when people (mostly political party members) criticise the film for its politics, you answer them stating that your film should be taken as an art form. Isn't it important to answer such political criticisms since you are making political statements through your films?
The politicians or party members see only the politics in the film. They see nothing else, where as for me politics forms only a part of it, or the driving force, which leads me to make the film. The film (the final product), is a creation, inspired by politicism, society etc. but by itself is not politics and hence I am not very much interested in political conversation (most of the time) in that context. It is well and good, if it raises a conversation. But I find most of the time the criticisms that come from politicians are pre-determined notions and not criticisms as such.
You have made all your films in Malayalam. Being an NRI what makes you to stick with Malayalam when in reality there are no takers for such films, whereas the Indian English films have a growing market in India?
I am comfortable with what I am doing. I also believe that my upbringing in Kerala has brought a unique root in me and I am very proud of that. I feel there are many stories to be told from that culture. It is not all about market!
What were the practical problems in reaching / showing your films?
It had always been there. Not only films made in Malayalam, but in any other regional language, is a problem for a national release. It becomes complicated, if you are not using a saleable actor etc. I haven't seen any distributor dealing with these types of art house films in India. So how do you expect public to watch these types of films! You just give up.
As an alternative, did you try showing your film through film societies? Kerala has the highest number of film societies in India (more than 80), and how did the film society circuit help you to reach to their audience?
I didn't try with film societies. For my films I never had any problems of having to look for the audience. So I didn't try to offer the film to film societies. I am aware that some societies have got hold of the tape and shown the film around. I have no problem with that. I don't see film societies as an alternative distribution system. After all film is a commercial art form and the filmmaker has to get his returns back in order to make the next film. We don't yet have this system in India.
The factor of commerce in cinema being a reality, how do you see a young Indian filmmaker making his films without falling into the traps of commerce? What do you think is a viable / alternative model for these kind of filmmaking to survive?
Nationally we need to have a distribution network for this type of films. I don't have much faith in that, this will be inspired by the governments. Their responsibility ends when the awards are given away. More than that it is commercial industry, which brings more income to the governments. I don't see how it is going to happen. May be with the multiplexes needing more films to show there is a good chance that something might happen. There are a lot of educated young people who have had enough of watching bum shaking films. So either our cinema might evolve and these types of films will find a viable distribution within India or we will be made as a colony of foreign film watchers! The good alternative is what the French Government is doing for the last 35 years. The basic is that they don't hand over the money films generate just to the government. Instead, through a central body, they administer it for the development of the industry and the medium.
Without an alternative, aren't the primary audience (Malayalees) being distanced from these kind of films? How far filmmaking can be complete without reaching to its audience? You insist on making your films in Malayalam and the Malayalee audience hardly is able to see them. Isn't there a contradiction?
I agree, it is a contradiction. But it is not the responsibility of the filmmaker to do distribution. His main responsibility is to make films. There are dedicated organisations (paid by tax payers) in Kerala committed to these aims. You should ask these organisations, what they have done to improve the situation of distribution. After alcohol, cinema is the next commodity, which brings money to the government. They should at least put some money back!!
Finally, for you what is good cinema? How important is the art of cinema for the society from which it is generated?
A good film is which comes from the need of expression from a director. The art of cinema should be important for the society from which it is created. But unfortunately, for most of the films made in lesser-developed worlds, this is not the case and we are not doing much to change that also. (How many of us can buy Satyajith Ray's films on cassettes in India?) If we have to see our pricey art forms, we have to travel to the museum abroad! There is a serious gap in understanding art forms within our country and say, Western countries. I think this is mainly caused by the attitude of our own people. (At my first screening of Arimpara at Cannes, the Information minister was chattering away in his cell phone very loudly to the embarrassment of many in the audience!) We just don't respect our own artists, but we are very good at appreciating it, especially if it comes from the West! Unless all these changes, I don't think the art of cinema will be of any good to the society.