Directing Sexy Durga – An Interview with Sanal Kumar Sasidharan

Sanal Kumar Sasidharan is back in India after his glorious win of The Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam 2017 for his latest film Sexy Durga. The director of Oraalppokkam and Ozhivudivasathe Kali takes time to interact with us at The Cinema Resource Centre (TCRC).

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PC: Sanal Kumar Sasidharan FB page

Firstly, congratulations on this wonderful win! Was this kind of international recognition something that you had expected for Sexy Durga?

Thank you. I never expect anything except a good movie, while making it. But once it is made in the way I want to make it, I don’t hesitate to dream about its success. For me, film is not a local art. It has universal readability, so I naturally dream of international success. A dream is an expectation too.

How important are film festivals and these recognitions for an independent film maker?

Independent film makers are really very fragile in many respects. We have no stars, no money, no market and no popularity gimmicks. We have only a few openings through which we hope to reach audiences. One of the most important openings is film festivals. Film festivals play a great roles in bringing art house movies and indie film makers to the limelight. They are also important as they serve as forums for serious discussions about such films.

Tell us more about Sexy Durga and the team behind it.

Sexy Durga is an art-house movie that has many layers to it. It is very simple, yet complex. There is no ‘story’ in it. But you can attribute one to it though your experience of the movie.

Prathap Joseph, the cameraman did a good job with the many difficult camera movements the movie demanded. Murukan was the Art director, Harikumar Madhavan Nair was the sound recordist, and music was by Basil CJ.  Editing was done by me. Murukan and Basil CJ have been working with me since my first film.

For the role of ‘Durga’  I wanted an actress who was fearless about using her body and was comfortable with her physicality. Rajshree Deshpande seemed the perfect fit for the part., and was sold on our idea of her character and thus, became part of the movie.

All other artistes are mostly new faces or non-established actors. The main artists are Kannan Nayar, Vedh, Bilas Nair, Arunsol, Sujeesh KS. Byju Neto and Nistar Ahammed, who acted in Ozhivudivasathe Kali, also essayed roles in the movie.

sexy-durga

PC: Sexy Durga FB page

How is Sexy Durga similar to and /or different from your earlier films?

Sexy Durga is totally different in approach and the making from my earlier films. But all the films are socially rooted in the Malayali psyche.

Sexy Durga had no storyline or script. Most of the portions of the film were shot in midnight, in available light. The tough decisions involved in the making of the film gives it a unique feel.

From a lawyer to a film maker. How did this journey and the discovery happen?

I really only wanted to become a film maker since my childhood. But my family had a problem with my dream of becoming a film maker. My father was dead against my desire to apply to a film institute. So I was thinking about ways to infiltrate the film industry through the back doors. I approached several directors to take me on as an assistant director. Nobody was willing because I had no one to recommend me. Then I thought that if I had a professional degree and the kind of dignity that comes from it, people may accept my passion. But I was wrong. After my Law degree, I was forced to remain a lawyer. But I dropped the profession and escaped. I formed a film society named Kazhcha Film Forum and started making short films. In between, I worked other jobs, some of which I don’t even remember properly. In 2013, I made my first feature Oraalppokkam, produced by Kazhcha Film Forum, and that was the turning point

What is your typical pre-production process for your films?

Actually my films are simple for me. I don’t like much production set-ups, technical extravaganza and too many big artists in my film. I always wanted to keep the freedom and possibility to evolve even at a later stage of making. I don’t even like a concrete scripting process. The main part of my pre-production is dreaming and meditation. I think about the making pattern a lot. I rethink and rethink and keep all the options open. It may have its own drawbacks but I love it. Identifying location is the most important thing for me. Once I find a comfortable location, I feel relaxed. Finding actors is the next important step for me. If both are properly and satisfactorily done, I am sure that my film is done.

How much do you depend on your actors to take a scene forward and to decide the pace of the film?

I depend upon my actors a lot. Actually, I love to play with them. I put them in the location and let them freely do something. I only casually explain to them, so they may not even get a clear idea of what I have told them. In fact, I don’t even ask if they understand properly. But I make sure that they clearly know the situation and the political emotion behind the scene they are about to enact. Then I retreat and become a spectator. I get ideas as I see them acting out the given situation. I just shape it with gentle suggestions. It is like watching the movie while making it. I have a feeling that without my actors actively and freely engaged in the making, I can’t make a film properly

What are the release plan for Sexy Durga, or is it too early to talk about it? You and your team behind Kazhcha Film Forum took independent cinema to the masses with the concept of Cinema Vandi. You think Sexy Durga will also soon travel in the Cinema Vandi?

Sexy Durga is travelling all around the world now. It has just started leaving its footprints. Let it travel and come back. We will talk about the Indian release only after the censor board approves it without much harm. I want to release ‘my’ film, not the censor board’s film.

cinema-vandi

Cinema Vandi at a venue at Kottayam, Kerala. PC: Kazhcha Film Forum FB page

What is your take on independent cinema in India?

Indian independent cinema is establishing its presence very fast. The world has started recognizing it. As more and more people started thinking about this alternative space, more and more films will start coming out  soon. I hope that we have a bright future.

Thank you for talking with TCRC. Before we sign off please let us know your opinion about the importance of preserving and archiving cinema heritage.

Cinema is history. It has importance not only in terms of art or commercial product. It has cultural importance also. It is very important to preserve our pathways to see how long we travelled and how difficult it was. It is very important that one look back to where  one came from. Thank you

Filmy Ripples : Movie Studios (Part 2)

By P.V.Gopalakrishnan

I have seen from the Kodambakkam High Road side, the mammoth sets put up within Gemini Studios, about the same place where today Park Hotel stands, for ‘Bhama Vijayam’. It was a two-story ‘building’ where the story unfolded. Similarly I have seen, from outside, a large Big Top of a Circus being put up in AVM for ‘Parakkum Paavai’.

All these studios were virtual dreamlands where the celluloid industry made its ware. There was an element of fascination & grandeur about them. The studios were products of necessity as films could be made only in controlled & capsuled spaces, where only production was technically possible. In the black-and-white era of those days when the film ran at slow speed requiring abundant light, the Director and Cinematographer had to exercise extraordinary judgment & vivid imagination.

A busy film studio was a beehive of activities as technicians, set property guys, lighting equipment handlers all moving about in feverish activity, even as the artistes applied grease to their face in preparation for their day’s shoot in humble green rooms, there being no private Caravans owned by any big star then.

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Image from Cine Art Review Magazine 1937. PC: From the archives of TCRC

In the humble recording theatres in these studios, dating back to pre-stereo era, many a musician huddled up in small recording rooms, amidst running power & audio cables, to produce the ever charming film music that we adore to date. Veteran Music Directors such as Emani Sankara Sastry, Parthasarathy, C.R.Subburaman, S.M.Subbiah Naidu, T.G.Lingappa, Sudarshanam, G.Ramanathan, T.R.Pappa, S.V.Venkataraman, S.Rajeswara Rao, Parur Sundaram Iyer,  K.V.Mahadevan, MSV-TKR, S.Dakshinamurthy & Pandurangan swayed their baton in these Studios in collaboration with legendary lyricists like Papanasam Sivan, Kothamangalam Subbu, Thanjai Ramaiahdas, and Ku.Ma.Balasubramanyam.

While recording ‘Engey Nimmathi’ song for Puthiya Paravai, MSV-TKR team had to accommodate the large number of spill over musicians on to the outside lawns. In this song the Music Directors used huge musical ensemble comprising instruments such as Harp, Violins, Cello, Bass, Vibrofone, Bongos, Kettle Drums, Flutes, Castanet, Trumpets, Tuba, Trombone, Clarinet & Mandolin.

The early films of Black & White era too had brief spells of outdoor shoots. But sets were more predominant as a rule owing to limitations.

Gradually the trend was increasingly towards outdoor shoots, away from the confines of the mighty studios, as evidenced by Kathalikka Neramillai (1964). Most of the outdoor locales of this iconic wholesome comedy were shot at Azhiyar Reservoir Dam, some sixty five kilo meters away from Coimbatore, located in the picturesque foothills of Valparai, in the Anamalai Hills of the Western Ghats.

Similarly, Karnan was notably the first Tamil film to be shot extensively in locales at Jaipur & Kurukshetra. The Art Director Ganga of Karnan got huge chariots made in Chennai and shipped them to Kurukshetra, where the war sequences were filmed in out door. With Central Government’s permission, real cavalry and infantry men from the Indian Army were deployed in the battles scenes at Kurukshetra.

Lobby Card of Karnan (1964) .Image courtesy The Cinema Resource Centre.

A lobby card  from the film Karnan featuring the chariot PC: From the archives of TCRC

The cameras have since become smarter and often airborne on drones. The Information Era has changed the very way films are made. Today, most of these mighty shooting spots called Studios have disappeared one by one, as Technology has made a paradigm shift in film making, which tendered  those mammoth sized studios redundant. The sophisticated equipment and availability of alternative resources enable film makers to shoot at any place of their choice. Thus the brick ‘n’ mortar studios of huge sizes lost their popularity.

In contrast, today the films are made about everywhere, ranging from the rural hamlets to urban slums, from deserts to highways, from cricket pitches to Pizzeria.

Several film studios in Chennai have downed their shutters and their vast areas have turned over to real-estate development. Many got transformed into hospitals, hotels, multiplexes, colleges, wedding halls and the like.

Similarly, the Bombay’s landmark studios such as RK, Mehboob, Filmistan & Famous too have lost their sheen.

In fact, by 1970s that filmmakers slowly ventured out of the studios of Kodambakkam, to shoot in outdoors and actual locales, abandoning the sets. The bougainvillea creepers, the ceiling dropped pigeons, ornate fountains of the make-believe sets were gone, with ‘as-a-matter-of-fact’ outdoor shoots setting in. A huge tribe of set making carpenters, painters, decorators, prop suppliers were all gone with the sets. These were the very people who feasted cine-goers with the celebrated visuals of the black & white era with their enormous sets. They made us relish the clever make over to the mythology and historical subjects of films. Who could forget the sets of Chandralekha or Avvaiyar? Even much later, the sets of Veera Pandiya Kattabomman, Karnan and the like provided us the much of visual enchantment.

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A photograph from the film Avvaiyar. PC: From the archives of TCRC

The Gemini twins, in their ‘langoti’s, blowing the bugle at the corner entrance of erstwhile Gemini Studios still haunt us, by their sheer absence there anymore.

But change is unchangeable!

Kaasethaan Kadavulada: From Stage To Celluloid

By Karthik Bhatt

Chitralaya Gopu is one of Tamil cinema’s most well-known humour writers. His association with his classmate and close friend from school, the legendary director CV Sridhar and his unit Chitralaya has been responsible for some of Tamil cinema’s most memorable movies such as Then Nilavu, Nenjil Or Alayam, Policekaran Magal and the evergreen Kadhalikka Neramillai.

Unlike many of his colleagues from the film world who came from a theatre background, Gopu’s association with stage came about quite by chance.  “It was the time of the Chinese aggression. The Tamil Nadu Government requested Sivaji Ganesan and Sridhar to arrange for an entertainment programme involving all the top stars of that time that could be staged across all the major districts of the State for fund raising. I was asked by Sridhar to write short plays for the programme. I wrote two pieces, one a ten minute skit involving Gemini Ganesan and Savitri titled Naveena Dushyanthan Sakunthalai and the other, a multi-starrer 45 min play about a man and his attempts to get his four daughters married. This was Galatta Kalyanam, which was later made into a movie by the same name. It was my first proper attempt at stage plays”, says Gopu.

“It was around this time that an amateur theatre troupe called the Unity Club was functioning in Triplicane”, he continues. “Primarily comprising members who were lawyers or employed with various offices, its star attraction was Major Sundararajan. Following his exit, the troupe was on the lookout for a suitable replacement, who could help their cause with obtaining performance opportunities. Thanks to my film connections, I was roped into the troupe by my cousin who was its secretary. I managed to get Manorama to act in a script written by Ananthu, who was part of K Balachander’s unit. Since I had approached her to be part of the troupe, I was given a role in the play too. It was probably a way of ensuring that I was committed to be present at all times”, chuckles Gopu, who soon started writing full-fledged plays. The troupe continued its journey continued with fairly successful plays such as Sreemathy and Dhikku theriyadha veetil. Its biggest hit was however Kaasedhaan Kadavulada”.

The story of Kaasedhaan Kadavulada revolved around the matriarch, the boss of a wealthy family. The second wife of a henpecked husband, her miserly ways cause great consternation with the son of the first wife and his cousin, who forever look for ways to make her part with the wealth. Taking advantage of an opportunity that arises with the news of the arrival of a Swamiji to their home, they enlist the services of a petty thief turned tea shop owner, a childhood friend to impersonate him and steal the money. The hilarious sequence of events that follow his arrival form the crux of the story.

“By this time, we had managed to rope in the likes of Muthuraman, Venniradai Moorthy and V Gopalakrishnan to act in our plays. The first three were part of Kaasedhaan Kadavulada. Muthuraman played the role of the son, while Venniradai Moorthy played his father. The role that was the biggest hit was however that of the Swamiji. It was essayed by Ramani, a popular mimicry artiste who was a colleague of K Balachander at AGS office and also a part of Ragini Recreations. Manorama played Muthuraman’s love interest”, remembers Gopu.

The play was a resounding success. AV Meiyappa Chettiar and his wife enjoyed it immensely and their sons watched it in succeeding shows. “Manorama told me that it was sure to be made into a movie, as the entire family had witnessed the play. Sure enough, I was soon called to AVM Studios. AV Meiyappa Chettiar was particular that I direct the movie. It marked my debut as a director. Muthuraman and Venniradai Moorthy reprised their onstage roles. As Manorama was not a regular heroine artiste, she was made the matriarch of the family, while Lakshmi was brought in to play Muthuraman’s love interest. For the pivotal role of the Swamiji, the name of Thengai Srinivasan was suggested, to which I readily agreed. The onstage success of the character was replicated on celluloid. A huge hoarding of Thengai Srinivasan was put up by AVM at Pilot theatre, where the film was running to packed houses”, recollects Gopu.

One of the highlights of Thengai Srinivasan’s performance was the gibberish he speaks in an effort to pass it off as Sanskrit.In the video clip below, you can see him even uttering the names of all the actors in the scene as he enters!

An interesting anecdote revolving around the play which was written about in the media was the death of a man who had come to watch one of the shows. His hearty laughter apparently caused him seizures due to which he had to be hospitalised, only to pass away shortly after!

That the movie attracts a great fan following and continues to be regularly shown on television channels to this date is perhaps the greatest tribute to the genial Chitralaya Gopu and his brand of clean humour.

The play has been recently revived by YG Mahendra’s UAA, with a few modifications by Gopu’s son, Chitralaya Sriram.

(Special thanks to Chitralaya Gopu for his inputs and to his son Chitralaya Sriram for having facilitated the interview).

 

Thaneer Thaneer – From Stage to Celluloid

By Karthik Bhatt

Komal Swaminathan was one of Tamil stage’s most powerful contemporary playwrights. Born in 1935, he came to Madras in 1957 and joined the Seva Stage Kalvi Nilayam, the drama school that had been established by S.V.Sahasranamam. It was here that he learnt the various aspects of drama. He had a particular interest in writing scripts, having already written a few skits during his intermediate course at the Madura College.

Having completed the drama course Swaminathan joined Seva Stage as an apprentice to S.V.Sahasranamam, learning the production aspects of staging plays. He wrote his first play, “Puthiya Paathai” in 1960, which was staged by the Gujarati Young Men Association. Thus began a journey that saw the scaling of many heights in the course of the next three decades.

Swaminathan forayed into movies in 1963. He worked as an assistant and script writer to noted director K.S.Gopalakrishnan for the next seven years. This period saw him being associated with successful movies such as Karpagam, Pesum Deivam and Kai Kodutha Deivam. He started Stage Friends in 1971, a troupe primarily comprising of members from his mentor S.V.Sahasranamam’s Seva Stage. The troupe’s first play was Sannadhi Theru, which dealt with the stigma attached to lady artistes and the neglect drama troupes faced. The Kalki magazine review of the play termed it a first rate production, with special mention to Surya Prabha, the actress who played the lead role. The success of Sannadhi Theru was followed by several other productions such as Nawab Naarkaali (which was also later made into a movie), Yuddha Kandam and Chekku Maadugal. His best known and most celebrated play however is the subject of this piece, Thaneer Thaneer.

Thaneer Thaneer dealt with a topic that remains very contemporary, that of water scarcity. The story was set in a drought hit village which suffers as much from official apathy as it does from the failure of rains. With powerful dialogues which were well aimed barbs at the establishment, it was inevitable that it would raise eyebrows at some level. Sure enough, the hurdle came in the form of getting the clearance from the Police before staging the play.

The Madras Dramatic Performances Act, 1954 required that the Police Commissioner had to approve a script before it could be staged. This law had been brought about as a means of censorship to ensure that the popularity of the medium was not misused to propagate ideas that had the potential to create law and order problems. It was under this law that objections were being raised to Thaneer Thaneer. That the play apart from highlighting official apathy was also viewed as being sympathetic to an ideological movement, which probably raised a red flag leading to the withholding of permission. Hectic parleying ensued, with Cho Ramaswamy coming out in support of Komal Swaminathan. The permission came through about an hour before the inauguration on the 10th of October 1980 at the Mylapore Fine Arts Club auditorium.

The play was a stupendous success. The legendary director K.Balachander who watched the play was immediately taken in by the idea and wanted to make it into a movie. Komal Swaminathan agreed, with a request that the stage artistes be used in the film too. Balachander acceded to the request and artistes such as Raj Madan, Vaadhyar Raman acted in the movie too. It was produced by Kalakendra Movies. Certain changes were made to suit the commercial medium. Saritha, Rajesh and Radha Ravi played important roles in the movie, which was both a commercial success and a critically acclaimed one. K.Balachander won the award for the best screenplay and the movie won the Best Tamil Feature Film award at the National Film Awards for 1981.

More recently in 2012, the play was staged in English as Water by the Madras Players. Thaneer Thaneer was revived in 2013 through Stage Friends which made a comeback to stage thanks to the efforts of Komal Swaminathan’s daughter Ms.Lalitha Dharini.

(This author gratefully acknowledges the inputs given by Ms.Lalitha Dharini for this piece).

 

 

The Tamil connect at The Venice International Film Festival

The 72nd Venice International Film Festival, organized by La Biennale di Venezia has some interesting line up of films. But two films have caught our special attention.

The first is Visaranai (Interrogation) directed by Vetrimaran and produced by actor Danush’s company Wunderbar Films has been selected in the Orizzonti section which is an international competition dedicated to films that represent the latest aesthetic and expressive trends in international cinema. In the history of the festival Visaranai will be the first Tamil feature film to participate in the competitive category. The director of the film, Vetrimaran has earlier made critically acclaimed films like Polladhavan and Aadukalam and was the co producer of the internationally acclaimed Tamil film  Kaaka Muttai (Crow’s egg).

The second film that caught our attention is Rinku Kalsy’s documentary  “For the love of a man” which has been selected in the Venice classics section where a selection of restored classics and documentaries on cinema will be showcased. Rinku’s film explores the phenomenal fan for Superstar Rajnikanth.

Besides the Tamil connect between Visaranai and ” For the love of a man” there is another interesting connection. Danush, the producer for Visaranai is the son in law of Rajnikanth on whom ” For the love of man” is centered around.

Watch the trailer of the two films here:

 

Sabapathy: From stage to celluloid

By Karthik Bhatt

The next in our series from ‘stage to celluloid’ we discuss one of Tamil cinema’s earliest full length comedies, Sabapathy.

The film, which was released in 1941 was produced by A.V.Meiyappa Chettiar and directed by A.T.Krishnaswamy. The plot was based on Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar’s play by the same name.

In his autobiography Naadaga Medai Ninaivugal, Sambandha Mudaliar says that Sabapathy was the first farce that he wrote. The story, which revolved around a young, rich (and not so intelligent) zamindar and his foolish servant (both named Sabapathy) was first written in 1906. Sambandha Mudaliar writes that the inspiration for the servant was derived from observing the man Fridays of a few friends. In particular, he credits Narasimhan, the personal assistant of his close friend V.V.Srinivasa Iyengar, the noted lawyer for having served as the base to building the character! He also acknowledges the influence of Handy Andy, the famous book written by Samuel Lover where the character could do nothing right.

The story was written in eight parts, each of which was capable of being staged as a separate stage play. Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar himself played the role of the zamindar, while many of his troupe members donned the role of the servant. So popular was the play that it continued to be staged even after the movie had released and had become a huge success. Pammal Sambandha Mudaliar writes of an interesting incident in 1944, where he, aged 71 years at that time had to appear in the role of zamindar for a scene during a staging to raise funds for the Thondaimandala Thuluva Vellalar School on Mint Street.

The movie had T.R.Ramachandran and Kali N.Ratnam (both of them from stage backgrounds) playing the roles of the zamindar and the servant respectively. Having zeroed in on the choice of T.R.Ramachandran to play the role of zamindar, A.V.Meiyappa Chettiar brought him to Sambandha Mudaliar for his approval, which was given after a brief test of his capability to do justice to the role. Kali N.Ratnam was a well-known actor and vaadhyar who served with the Madurai Original Boys Company, earning the prefix of Kali thanks to his portrayal of the Goddess in a play about Kannagi. Amongst those who trained under him were P.U.Chinnappa and M.G.Ramachandran. The female lead was played by R.Padma (a Lux soap model!) while C.T.Rajakantham was paired opposite Kali N.Ratnam. The Kali N.Ratnam-Rajakantham partnership was a successful one and featured in several movies. C.T.Rajakantham was alive until the 1990s and even acted in the popular Marmadesam (Vidaadha Karuppu) serial.

The movie is a delight to watch even a good seven decades after its release thanks to the simple comedy and great characterisation of the actors.

Randor Guy’s article on the movie can be accessed here

Here is a popular 9 minute segment from the film.

Indie Film Screenings by Indiearth in association with TCRC in Chennai

Indiearth

 

Indiearth and TCRC brings an Evening of Short Films:
A collection of freshly picked award winning films from the Films Division that speak of the various interesting nuances of short film making and documentary cinema; generating profound interest in captive audiences who are either new or seasoned non-mainstream film buffs.

Also included are 2 latest shorts by upcoming filmmakers of today. The screening will be followed up by a discussion led by IndiEarth on “Why short films and documentaries are important; to be made and screened to audiences”.

THROUGH A LENS STARKLY
Kuldeep Sinha
Genre: Arts, Cinema
Year: 1992
Duration: 33 minutes
Language: English

During the 100 years of cinema in India, the documentary films have acheived a tremendous growth and Film Division has played a major role in the movement of documentary films in India. The film details the systematic growth of documentary filmmaking.

YES WE MAKE THEM SHORT
Baba Mazgavkar
Genre: Mass Communication Media, Cinema
Year: 1990
Duration: 13 minutes
Language: English

A film emphasising the importance of short films which generallyare not seen by the general audience. Short films can also beinterestingly made. It is through short films that cinema has undergone various innovations and experiments.

INDIA THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
Siddharth Kak
Genre: Arts, Cinema
Year: 1990
Duration: 33 minutes
Language: English

Here is a history of the Indian documentary film – from thecoming of cinema to India at the turn of the century to its present development. Excerpts of numerous documentaries areincluded. This is was the opening film at the Bombay International Film Festival

ALFIYA
Satyarth Shaurya Singh
Genre: Shorts, Social Awareness
Year: 2014
Duration: 15 minutes
Language: English, Hindi (English Subtitles)

This is a film that explores a single day in the life of it’s protagonist, Alfiya. The film follows an indefinite progression: an oscillation between the social world and the inner life. Alfiya, a young girl in her twenties, grapples with blurred lines of perception which as likely stem from a ‘ delusional disorder’, or a phobia, to an unshakable dream state.

SILENT NIGHT
Rajdip Ray
Genre: Short, Social Awareness
Year: 2014
Duration: 3 minutes
Language: English

Christmas is the season of joy and giving. But amidst all the happiness and brightly coloured lights are the hidden pangs faced by more than 11 million street children in the largest democracy of the world. Silent Night takes the viewer on a trip around the streets of Calcutta, with one such child, on Christmas eve.