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Filmmaker Pa. Ranjith and producer Aditi Anand talk about Vettuvam, the poster of which is being launched at the Cannes Film Festival, what the label of being a ‘Dalit filmmaker’ means and at what stage his film on the freedom fighter Birsa Munda is.

I’m fascinated by the little brief I have about Vettuvam. It’s a film but it’s also a series united by the titular protagonist. The first film focuses on the last few days of this person’s life and then the series actually traces how he came to be here at that point, which sounds fascinating. Where did this idea come from?

Aditi Anand: I think what’s fascinating about working with Ranjith’s team is that there’s so much incredible research. That has not been my experience working in film at all. So every time he has any idea he bouncing around, there will be a room full of people who will only be researching that, which lasts between six months to three years. Sarpatta Parambarai took three years of research, which is why you have that depth in terms of the characters, in terms of the production design. Vettuvam was initially being developed as a film, but as we did the research, it became really interesting to see how this man became who he was. You see it from the point of view of all the other characters and you have this shifting perspective where you don’t always know whether this man is a hero or a villain so it’s Citizen Kane-esque. It’s like an incredible play. The poster depicts two tigers that balanced against the day and night, which represents how powerful people wage wars, but as soon as they take their eyes off the prize, it’s over. Power shifts instantly. There’s a lot of inequality in Tamil Nadu, especially the delta region, and a lot of caste inequality. There, one guy rose against not only power, but also the caste system. I got inspired by his life.

Ranjith had used a really nice analogy for me in the context of something else, saying that when somebody falls, they don’t worry about why they’ve fallen, they think about what other people around them are saying. I think that’s what happens in gangster films. They’re all films that you see from the point of view of people around the hero. In the case of Vettuvam, what’s going to happen is that you’re actually going to go into the heart and mind of the gangster. This is about his journey. So, there’s obviously a larger social narrative, but it’s also a really interesting study of a man. It’s a portrait.

You’re saying caste is a pivotal plot point. Your cinema has really helped to make the conversation about caste mainstream, but in your interviews, you always say: I don’t want to be known as a Dalit filmmaker. Is it a label that you don’t want?

Pa Ranjith: No, it’s not a problem if you call me a Dalit filmmaker but it’s also limiting. I love to announce that I am a Dalit filmmaker. It’s only a problem if you limit me to that category. Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote The Annihilation of Caste, not just for Dalits, he wrote it for Hindus of all castes, for all people. People think that Ambedkar only worked for the Dalits. It’s not right. I just want to tell the story of my Dalit life, but don’t want to limit it to that.

So you just don’t want to be put in a box.

Pa Ranjith: Yes, my cinema is not just for Dalits.

Aditi Anand: People are gravitating to stories that are being told by the people who lived them, that kind of authentic experience. That’s what Ranjith is doing. He’s telling his story, how he grew up, what he saw, what’s important to him. You can’t take that experience and use it pejoratively and say: Well, here’s the box we’re putting you in. This also happens with women filmmakers. Somebody makes a strong feminist film, they get labelled a ‘feminist filmmaker’. Somehow, that doesn’t happen with the people who have privilege. You’re not looking at a director from an upper caste and saying: You make upper-caste films. They’re just making regular love stories. To me, Ranjith is the defining voice of Indian cinema at the moment. There have been so many Dalit people who have walked the Cannes red carpet, but only Neeraj Ghaywan and Ranjith have come out and said: This is our experience. And I think that’s really powerful and it would be a great loss to cinema, and to the world, to limit the experience of the consumer to: Hey, you can’t consume this content until you understand the history of the Dalit movement. No, you can just experience this content, you can experience the story, you can experience his voice, because his craft is so strong. 

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Ranjith, where is Birsa Munda at? I know you finished research.

Pa Ranjith: Yeah, we did a lot of research and now we are writing, which will be completed this year. After that, it will go on the floors. It’s a dream project. Munda’s people believe in one idea of this person, outsiders believe another story. So I want to talk about the real Birsa. I don’t want to just make a biography. I want to make something in the creative space. It’s very interesting, very challenging work.

You are producing, you are directing, there’s a project with Kamal Haasan, there’s a project with Vikram. You set up a library, you’ve just announced an anthology. It’s incredible. How do you manage?

Pa Ranjith: My present is very important. I don’t want to live in the past. I don’t want to live in the future. At present, I have a lot of problems I just want to deal with. When I was an assistant director, I didn’t have access to a good library, which is why I wanted to set up a library. It’s a kind of duty. I’m not doing an act of service, I hate that word. I only believe in duty.

Aditi Anand: It’s exhausting being around him. I feel like it’s been about like 10 days since we got to Cannes, but it’s been three, because he doesn’t get tired. I don’t know what he’s been living on. I have to be like: Please, we must eat dinner now. But it isn’t just the movies, he’s got the Casteless Collective, he’s got a publishing house, he’s got the Vanama Arts Festival, the library. People should spend time in his office – first of all, anybody can enter because here’s nobody sitting at the door stopping anybody from coming in. I have seen so many people enter that room to just sit there. When you enter, there are no film posters, there’s a huge bookshelf  and there’s a photo of Ambedkar. The rule is that anybody can come in and talk to Ranjith. So all of these people who would’ve never had a chance, never have had a platform, have one. It isn’t just about the films but also about the larger mission of ensuring that cultural spaces are populated with people from communities who’ve never had that platform. If Ranjith thinks about starting a festival in January, it will have life by February. The mean age of everyone who works for Ranjith is 22. It’s the first office where I feel really old. He has an incredible trust in people. If someone has a desire to deliver, he will give them the wings to ensure that that happens.

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