The Tamil Indie Directors Roundtable: Leena Manimekalai On Independent Filmmaking As A Conscious Choice And Arun Karthick On The Tamil Indie Film Tradition

In this roundtable, independent filmmakers Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan (Mosquito Philosophy), Balaji Vembu Chelli (Nilanadukkam), Arun Karthick (Nasir), Leena Manimekalai (Maadhathy), and Manoj Leonel Jahson and Shyam Sunder (Kuthiraivaal) have a spirited discussion with Baradwaj Rangan about whether independent films as a category even exists in Tamil and whether it’s possible for these films to get a theatrical release beyond the festival circuit. Excerpts…

How would you define independent cinema in the Tamil context?

Shyam Sunder: I don’t really think that there exists a category called independent cinema in Tamil. But you could also argue that it does. All of us are working to find our space. In addition to our efforts, we need funding. In India, how you release a film is the same for both commercial and independent films. In several other countries, the government agencies come to the producers with funds. Producers play a bigger role in such films because they’re instrumental in designing it. 

But in India, though we have the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation), they only support films now without directly funding them through a production wing. So, I’m not sure what independent cinema is in this context.

Leena Manimekalai: For me being an independent filmmaker is a very conscious decision—politically, aesthetically, and existentially. I exist as an independent filmmaker because I do not know how to exist otherwise. I want to express what I want without being dictated by market forces. So, whatever I’ve done has mostly been using my own money, crowdfunding, or small producers who believed in my vision. Independent films aren’t made for a market. Independent films exist in the world to question hegemony—market, narratives, and the even process of filmmaking.

Arun Karthick: I think something called independent films exists and I was quite aware of it when I made my first film Sivapuranam. Even though sparse, independent cinema exists in Tamil too. It’s difficult to define it generally but you can point to specific films like: B. Lenin’s Oorukku Naalu Per, Knockout, Naanum, Leena Manimekalai’s documentariesI knew one could make a story into a film without compromises. 

You don’t start off thinking about the market, but during the process you figure it out. The film ends up in the market, in a way, with festivals or film markets. What independent films are is up to one’s own perception and politics to figure it out. But you can see the difference in the films’ intention, expression, and even in the way it’s produced and distributed. 

Let’s say someone wants to make an independent film. What do you think is a ballpark estimate of the cost?

Arun Karthick: I’ve done a feature for 15 lacs without too many compromises. It’s a reasonably good amount. 

Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan: Mosquito Philosophy only cost me one lac. So, it depends on the story. 

Do you think of a theatrical release beyond film festivals when you make your films?

Balaji Vembu Chelli: I didn’t think of that when I was making Nilanadukkam. A smaller film with a shorter runtime would find it difficult to find it’s way into the exhibition ecosystem. So I decided not to do it as a theatrical release even though the film had tendencies that could fit into that model. We thought we’d send the film to festivals and once it gained visibility, get it on to streaming platforms. 

Leena Manimekalai: I made both my films for theatrical distribution. I wasn’t able to do it in India (for political reasons) but did it with about 100 screens outside India. Especially in Maadathy, I spent time in post-production because I had a theatrical release in mind. 

I didn’t go to film school. I went to film festivals. The collective experience of watching films in theatres was what really drove me crazy to make films. I go to film festivals because they project your film so meticulously: the colors, the sound. I go to festivals to watch my films with people who love to watch films. 

Manoj Leonel Jahson: We all want our films to be seen in theatres. But there’s no tradition of independent films here. You can map these things with the political history of each state: Kerala, West Bengal etc. the state plays a role, and here we see neoliberal structures playing out.

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