Sarjun is that rare director to attain star status even before his first feature film hit the screens. Such has been the popularity/notoriety of his two short films, Lakshmi and Maa. After a forgettable debut film, he returns with Airaa a film he assures, is more sure-footed. Ahead of his first major release, a nervous Sarjun settles down. Edited excerpts from the interview:
You're one of the few Tamil directors to go back to making a short film (Maa) after making a feature debut (Echcharikai)? Did you ever look at that as a step down?
Not many people do it, but Maa was produced by Gautham Menon. If I had gone back to making a random short film, I may have felt that. But because it came from him, it was ok.
Can you explain the sequence of events? So you made Lakshmi first, Echacharikai after and then Maa?
Echcharikai released even after Maa but I made the film right after I completed shooting Lakshmi. But Echcharikai wasn't a film I got to make because I had made Lakshmi.
Echcharikai is not really your kind of film, is it?
No, it is not. I didn't want my first film to be a thriller. I'm more of a drama guy. Echcharikai is a film that changed hands and it is inspired by a British film called The Disappearance Of Alice Creed. The first producer wanted me to reproduce the exact film, frame by frame.
What do you have against thrillers?
In our industry, most people look at thrillers as an easy way to get in. The notion is that thrillers are meant for Hollywood-inspired first-timers because it is easy to remake. One can even borrow shots from those films. But I didn't want to do that. So I said I cannot make the exact film and I made changes. The film then got dropped before another producer took it up.
Did you do the film for the money then?
No no! I just needed to make a movie. I didn't make any money on that film. I had already worked as an assistant for seven years, on Kadal, OK Kanmani and Kaththi. I was just desperate to make a film.
People seem to identify your voice through your short films rather than your feature film. Why do you think it is so?
I know my strengths. If I do something that doesn't work for me, how can I expect the audience to like it? For instance, I can never make a comedy film.
Let's talk about your short films. Do you recall the days when they were going viral?
With Lakshmi, it happened after four or five days. The views were at 20,000 or 30,000. I remember I went to sleep and woke up to realise it had touched 2.5 million. I was shocked with all the sudden appreciation and brickbats. Life changed instantly.
What about Maa?
With Maa, I knew it was going to go viral. Lakshmi wasn't like that. I produced it for Rs. 75,000 myself. But it was released by Gautham Menon.
And what was the budget of Maa?
Rs. 2.5 lakh. That was again, a small budget for a film that's half an hour long. This means that with 10 lakh, I could have completed a full-length film.
Both your short films had strong female voices, written from their perspective. But let's begin with Lakshmi. How did you arrive at its plot?
Lakshmi is vaguely inspired from Paulo Coelho's 11 minutes. It had a sub-story about a librarian in Switzerland who lived a monotonous life. She is righteous and she loves her husband. But she gets stuck in a snowstorm one day and meets a man at the station. They hit it off and they end up making love. But her life just goes back to normal after that. She loves her husband but that does not mean she cannot be attracted to another man. This story was stuck in my head for days and I felt the theme was universal. So I replanted that to Tamil Nadu. The setting, the trains, Triplicane are all from my own life. But the romance now feels tacky to me.
What parts exactly?
The poetry, the artworks….all that. I'm a big fan of Satyajit Ray, so I somehow wanted to bring in black and white. But I flipped it. I didn't use it to show flashbacks. It even contributed to show the monotony of her life.
In one of the scenes, Lakshmi is shown answering a call on her husband's phone and it's another woman. Did you include that to justify her actions? To suggest he is cheating.
Correct. That was a very Tamil film thing to do that. But the deal is, he might not actually be cheating. He gets a call but that lady can even be a friend. He might just be trying to express himself to someone. He too is living a sad life. But the phone scene is more a trigger point to hint that she may have cheated on him before.
How is that?
It's with that scene that we reveal that the painter is not the first person she has had an affair with. "Grinder madhiri oru vazhkayile, ennakum tonichu," she says, after that phone call. It's almost like she understands what her husband is going through. And that's why she doesn't make such a big deal of the phone call. Any wife from such a family would have outraged.
Do you think the husband never realizes that his wife has cheated on him?
Exactly. She too would not ever tell anyone about it. I don't think she'd ever feel guilty either. She's not that kind of a woman.
What do you think was the reason for such polarized reactions to the film?
I think it bruised the male ego. They probably identified with the husband and felt guilty for not treating the wife properly. So when someone shows them such a film, they think their wives too have done something similar. A secure man would have not felt anything after watching Lakshmi. For some people, the takeaway was that if you behave badly to your wife, she will cheat on you.
What do you think would have been the case if you had flipped the gender roles, with the husband having the one-night stand?
Nobody would have reacted. It would have been just a normal movie; because that's what happens everywhere no? We have seen the guy sleeping around so many times, that it has only been glorified in our films.
Even her class was a factor. If Lakshmi was rich or upper class, the film would have looked very different.
Definitely! We have an inherent idea that this is what you expect from rich upper-class women. If we'd shown her to be rich, the reaction would just have been, 'so what?'. The outrage is partly because she is rooted. We see such women everywhere, in buses and in trains.
What was the reaction you were most offended by?
That I should not have used Bharathiyar in the film. I love his work just as much as anyone. It is my opinion and I have used it to express my idea…they are the ones who are associating a "wrong" meaning to it.
And then people say that I'm spoiling Tamil culture. In 1996, there was a three-hour film called Indian. But did it stop corruption? People don't change because of movies. Shankar sir's films alone would have been enough then.
Compared to Lakshmi, was Maa less controversial?
Yes, because it was a safer film. Maa is also closer to my heart. I wrote it with my friend Priyanka. We had decided earlier that if we made this film, we'd make sure we didn't judge anyone in it.
How did you do that? And did casting a girl who we've come to associate as a daughter-figure contribute to it?
We chose her for that reason. If I had cast a random girl, you might have felt she was wrong. But when you cast a girl who we think is "Ajith's daughter", you're willing to see her side after the initial shock. The casting really helped. Even Kani, the mother, was an important choice. I knew her because we had screen-tested her to play Lakshmi Manchu's role in Kadal. Even the boy's casting was difficult because we didn't want him to become the villain.
The father in Maa too is not a bad guy.
See it is a patriarchal society. When you make such a film, the men are invariably selfish here-and-there. If they are being shown as saints, then it becomes a fake film. He asks his daughter why she wears shorts but that doesn't make him a bad person. It's something every father in such a family says. Even the mother being scared of the father is normal. Aren't we all afraid to tell our father certain things? He is just an Indian father.
But in such a film, was it important that you show the father as someone who is rarely home? As though he is absent and that's why such a thing has happened to his daughter.
Actually, we had a voiceover in the original edit where we show neighbours blaming the absent father and the irresponsible mother. But I didn't want to spoon-feed. That was why the mother cries, worried about what the world will say. The daughter could still have become pregnant, even if the father was very much in town. But I admit that it was conveniently written.
In such scripts, when women have such strong roles, is there a need to show the men to be weak or weaker?
In short films, we have very little time so it's not always possible to balance every character and show both sides. But you will find equally strong characters in Airaa.
Does it help that you have a female co-writer?
It does. For instance, I had originally written the fight between the mother and daughter very differently. Priyanka is the one who changed that scene. My version would have been more violent and I would have treated the mother like he was a father. It would have been more about anger rather than a breakdown.
After these two hit short films, you've been branded the feminist filmmaker. So when they asked you to make a film, was it decided that it had to be a female-centric film?
It was more specific. The offer was to make a film for Nayanthara. The producer even asked me for a horror subject.
You dealt with two issues in these two films. Is there room for one more issue in Airra?
There is. The flashback in it, for instance, has room to address an issue. It also has a lot of template horror elements, even though it's not the obvious film people imagine it to be.
What are these templates?
There are two types of ghosts, for instance. Like Insidious where you're not worried about the ghost. You only care for the survivors. Then there's the other where we're made to associate with the ghost and see its reason. That will be followed by jump scares, an investigation and a conclusion. The latter, that is the template I have followed.
Making a film with a star like Nayanthara can get tricky. I can't think of another period in Tamil cinema where we've had a legit female star, much like the male superstars. What are the advantages to that?
The wide release, big opening and a big budget. You also get the best screens. But the challenge is the pressure. She has just delivered two big hits (Imaaika Nodigal and Kolamavu Kokila). People enjoy seeing her a certain way so I needed to add certain things for that effect. I was lucky I wrote a film with two characters for her. One is the Nayanthara everyone wants to see on screen, the other one being the one I could take a chance with.
Do you need to include a slow-motion hero-introduction scene for her now?
My film has one, but she doesn't want any of that. She doesn't want to be shown as a hero.
I find your situation quite complex because you need to define stardom without using themes and ideas you would usually associate with machismo or manliness. In Imaaika Nodigal and Kolamavu Kokila, her profession contributed to her power because she was a police officer in one and a drug mule in the other.
In Airaa, it's not like that at all. The "heroism" is just in the first 10 minutes. She is just being herself. She also has a lot of fun with the Yogi Babu character.
Oh so, is Yogi Babu, the funny, best friend character for the star?
Yeah, you can say that. A friend more than the best friend.
Also, for someone your age, it would have been natural to grow up wanting to make male-centric hero films. What was the difference in your case?
I think the difference is that I grew up watching Selvaraghavan films. Women are so strong in his films. They are flawed but they just as strong as men. Of course, Mani sir too has contributed because I know how he writes his characters. Even then, it's not that I had decided to only make women-centric films. But one thing is for sure. If I ever make a hero film, I will make sure the heroine is as strong as the hero.
Lastly, from growing up watching Tamil cinema, what irritates you most about the way women have been represented in our films?
Firstly, it is the "loosu ponnu". Aiyayo, adhu pudikkave pudikkathu. I don't understand why directors think their heroes become stronger with weaker female characters. But it is changing. New directors don't write such characters anymore. I think the loosu ponnu would have breathed her last in the next ten years.
Also, the mansplaining in our films; scenes where a man tells a woman how she should behave. I hate that too. I would have given you more examples a few years ago, but our directors know they need to write strong characters to survive. If they write women badly, they will only see failure.