I Used to Write Stories in Fourth Standard and Ask People to Give Those to Shankar Sir – Halitha Shameem

“I think the books I read and the films I watched helped me find my unique voice”, says the director.

Halitha Shameem is a screenwriter and director who made her debut with Poovarasam Peepee in 2014. With a series of critically acclaimed films like Sillu Karupatti and Aelay, she is known for her unique voice in the industry. In this interview with Baradwaj Rangan, she talks about working with Mysskin and Pushkar-Gayathri, picking up filmmaking as a career and how she found her voice.

Edited Excerpts Below:

What was the first film you watched in the theatre?

Anjali. I was very reluctant to watch a movie before that, so they talked me into going out to buy some school badges but instead took me to the theatre. They took me there because I looked like Anjali, with similar hair and I was also of the same age. They thought I might like to see someone similar on-screen. I saw that film when I was around four or five years old and they told me I cried.

Before that, I hadn’t watched many films. Even if someone played the television, I would feel like it is too much sound and switch it off. I am not sure why. Maybe, because as babies we would be attention-seeking and I might have thought that if everyone was watching television, then I will be left alone. I am just assuming that it might be the reason.

You assisted Mysskin and Pushkar-Gayathri, both of them have different sensibilities. So what were your learnings from each one of them?

Even before them, I tried for about one and a half years to get into the industry. I got rightly placed with Pushkar sir and Gayathri ma’am. Only after I got there and worked with them, did I gain the confidence that I can survive here. Before that, I have broken down many times, I wanted to be here but didn’t know the right people and many other things stirred fear in me.

When I approached them, they said things like, “We will be shooting in summer, so buy sunscreen and always stay hydrated.” When they said such things, I felt like ‘Okay…I am here now, they will take care of me.’ After that, I started to give more. What I learnt from them is that a director should be involved in all crafts of the film. They coordinate and give inputs to art directors, costume designers and control how a film looks. I learnt how much effort directors put in. Working with Mysskin was totally different. He is more into shot division and characters. He says the costumes will be set up, all that he focuses on is the mood of the characters and how to deliver the film.

You said you were searching for almost one and a half years. So at what age did you decide filmmaking was your career?

It was very early, I decided to make a career in films when I was in the eighth standard. My family used to watch a lot of films. I was a little reluctant initially, but slowly I also started watching. They will watch all types of movies, mainly Bharathiraja sir and Bhagyaraj sir films. But whenever I went to the theatre, it happened so that I have always watched Mani sir’s films.

After watching Dil Se.., I decided I want to go there. It was a very alienating thing to me and I wasn’t aware of what goes behind films but it occurred to me that I want to be here. I was initially studying in a boarding school in Kodaikanal. But I moved to Chennai for my XI and XII so that I can try for films. Once I completed my twelfth grade, I started trying to become an assistant director.

Didn’t they say anything at home?

They know that I have had the same interest since childhood. I used to write stories back when I was in fourth and fifth standards. I would tell them, “Since you are going to Chennai, give these stories to Shankar sir and he will direct it as a film.” So their mindset was to wait until I became a little mature and let me pursue my dreams. So they were okay with me trying to become an assistant director.

Pushkar-Gayathri is in a separate spectrum and Mysskin is in a different spectrum. With all their voices mixed together, how did you find your very unique voice?

We can only learn their craft from them. My voice is what I read and how I look at stuff, that’s the way I see it. I have seen a lot of films, I used to even watch movies at film festivals. I think the aesthetics and my voice was something that was created as I watched more and more films.

There are two kinds of filmmakers. One, they see what the audiences watch and accept, and make a film accordingly. But the voice, for me, is something different. It is somebody who says, ‘These are the films I want to do, that doesn’t mean I am leaving out the audience, but I want to make a film that I like and that should also reach the audience.’ I think you are the second kind. So how does that work?

Yes. Something that I found fascinating was when Oram Po was made, many people said the script was very raw, but the theatre response was fantastic. They said it was raw in the sense that the audience might not understand it easily, but people enjoyed and watched it.

I felt that if someone genuinely believes and makes a film with conviction, it will reach the audience. Since I have seen that happening, I gained a lot of confidence. From the time I wrote Poovarasam Peepee, I have always told things that I wanted to say and those that were true to the story. If we do something like that, it will reach the audience. I am saying that from experience, I have seen it happen even with my films.

When you wanted to complete the internship period and do your film Poovarasam Peepee, where did you get the idea from?

I wrote Aelay, before Poovarasam Peepee. I also wrote another script. But if producers liked it, then actors did not, and vice versa. It was the time when there was the 5D revolution. It was trending that everyone can make a film with 5D. So I thought I will make a film on my own.

I wanted to make a children’s story I like the most. I wrote a script and bought a camera. When I was in search of buying lights and other properties, I got introduced to Manoj. He heard the story and he also wanted to invest in it. We thought we would do it independently and started it, how I arrived at the script for the film is a different story.

Right, how did you arrive at the story for the film?

I had just bought a 5D and I was fascinated by it. So I went around the village side, clicking pictures. At that time, I saw school kids coming out after the last day and splashing ink on each other and enjoying it. I was clicking those pictures along the riverside and I liked it a lot.

After two days, there was news that a girl was raped near the Amaravati River. When I heard such depressing news, I was reminded of those children who were roaming around in the same place. Those children who roam around freely, when they witness such societal violence, the impact would be huge and will rob their childhood. That disturbed me and that knot led me to write Poovarasam Peepee.

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"Baradwaj Rangan: Baradwaj Rangan is a National Award-winning film critic. He has authored Conversations with Mani Ratnam and Dispatches From the Wall Corner. His long-form story on Vikram was featured in The Caravan Book of Profiles, as one of their “twelve definitive profiles.” His short story, The Call, was published in The Indian Quarterly. He has written screenplays and works for theatre. He teaches a course on cinema at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.."
  
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