Manikandan talks about his next film, Kadaisi Vivasayi (The Last Farmer), and why Rajinikanth would be great for the lead role. He talks about how he uses realism as a tool, and how a director needs time to confirm his talents. He says you shouldn’t make issues too strong, and you shouldn’t have only entertainment, without any message. He says not everyone will get the layers in a movie. He says a director can create engagement value through image, sound, a melody. In a visual medium, he says you have to think of images rather than dialogue. He says he won’t allow anyone to affect the core story, not even the producer. He says a lot of films don’t need background music, and talks about the Indian tradition of using music right when the emotion begins, not just to underline it. He talks about lensing and colour palettes. He analyses why he is considered uncompromising. He talks about keeping a hero’s image in mind, about the use of film festivals. He says doors open more easily for commercial filmmakers.
I am not an activist or documentary maker or journalist. I am a filmmaker.
Someone who reads an article in a magazine is different from someone who shells out Rs. 500 to watch a movie.
If someone does not have the sensibility, then they won’t get the layers in a movie.
Most people do not get the politics behind it, or how we use pizza as a metaphor.
You can create that engagement value through image, sound, a melody… That depends on the director.
If I try to force broad humour into a film like Kutrame Thandanai, the core audience for the film will not like it.
My tool is realism.
When everything is fictional, you have to show the people as real.
My films have no duets, fight, comedy, or villains. So I need layers.
A man may do bad things all his life, but in his last years he’ll do many good things and our opinion of him will change.
This is a visual medium. You have to think of images rather than dialogue.
I won’t allow anyone to affect the core story, not even the producer.
A lot of films don’t need background music.
You participate in Kaaka Muttai. You observe Aandavan Kattalai.
Once Vijay Sethupathi was fixed, I removed the scene where the hero gets beaten up.
Doors open more easily for commercial filmmakers.
I got the idea for Kadaisi Vivasayi after finishing Kaaka Muttai.
Among the three main characters, we asked Yogi Babu to play one. And Vijay Sethupathi for another. These are characters people will like a lot.
The main lead in Kadaisi Vivasayi is about 75 years old. He is hearing-impaired.
If not Rajinikanth, then we can only cast a real-life farmer. There’s a certain build, skin tone… other actors don’t have that.
Here is the full transcript of the interview:
I was reading your older interviews. One thing you said was interesting. You said you’d find what kind of director you are only after making a few more films. Aren’t three films enough to find that out?
You can find that out even with one film. But with more films, you get more experience. You find out what you can do, what you cannot. What you like, what you don’t.
So now you know?
I knew that even from the first film. I’m talking about confirmation.Let’s say you’re doing some craft work. The first thing you do may come out beautifully. Only when you get the same finish in the next work do you get confirmation.Because I had no clue. I went straight into a film after school and short films. That’s a big jump. Like others, I didn’t really study cinema.
If you see issue-based films, they come in two styles. One, the kind Samuthirakani makes. They are angry films. The other kind feels like an older person giving good advice. Like Vedham Pudhidhu. It lays out its thesis at the start: The elements have no use for Vedas, so why does man need them? So the audience is primed that “this is the message.” But you opt for a third method, saying what you want to say with a lot of humour.
Is this a commercial decision or is that your philosophy?
It’s a commercial decision. You should make the issue too strong. And you shouldn’t have only entertainment, without any message. So this is a middle path. But finally, if someone is putting in their money, the film has to have a certain commercial viability. I am not an activist or documentary filmmaker or journalist. I am a filmmaker. So I have to go beyond them and think of the presentation. Someone who reads an article in a magazine is different from someone who shells out Rs. 500 to watch a movie. If you want to talk about issues strongly, there are many other mediums.
If I were to sum up your approach, it’s like the song ‘Vaazhkai oru ottagam’ in Aandavan Kattalai. There’s depth in the meaning, but it’s a very jolly song to listen to. But is there a danger in this approach? Is there the danger that someone might just enjoy the song/movie without getting the real meaning?
That’s not a danger. That’s nature. If someone does not have the sensibility to get the layers, then they won’t get it. They will just see it like a song. The film should not affect those who cannot sense the issues or those who hold a different stand on those issues. Because they have come to see a film. It’s like going to a coffee shop. The discussion happens only later. If the two people aren’t comfortable with a topic, the discussion won’t go there. A film is like that. We call people for a small chat. We have to see what we want to talk about, what not… How strongly do we say this. All this needs to be thought out. But it’s a danger. Those who don’t get it won’t get it. And it’s not necessary either.
We cannot say they are the right audience only if they get it.
Take Kaaka Muttai. Your subtext is the effect of globalisation, how ads affect people. But the audience laughs at the grandmother trying to make a pizza. So you’re saying the film stands even if they don’t get this sub-layer.
Yes. Actually, many people did not see the globalisation layer. Most people do not get the politics behind it, or how we use pizza as a metaphor. That is the majority of the audience. But the feelings are the same, whether people get it or not. They will receive it in their subconscious. But they won’t know these key words, like ‘globalisation’. But they’ll get the fact that the film is talking about things we don’t really need in life. They’ll say they like three or four scenes. It’s the overall feeling they are left with the next day that makes them realise how the film is. We cannot analyse that. It changes from person to person. Final thread will be the same for all.
There is no tradition of pure art cinema in Tamil. It’s all about various levels of artistry that the director brings into the mainstream. So if you want to make a different kind of film, will it work only if you add mainstream elements like humour?Take Kirumi, which you co-wrote. Or Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu, which your assistant made. They didn’t do well. Is it because they didn’t have those mainstream elements?
If it’s a commercial film, people won’t think too much about it. But people analyse artistic films – about the story, characters, climax. My second film, Kutrame Thandanai, was intended for a small audience. They will be satisfied, but others will find it lacking.
But even that film moves like a thriller.
That is the engagement value. You can create that engagement value through image, sound, a melody… That depends on the director.
Are you saying there was no engagement value in Kirumi?
No I’m saying maybe you didn’t feel it. It’s not about just Kirumi. Take my first two films, Kaaka Muttai and Kutrame Thandanai. The engagement value in the second film is less. It depends on how much you want to give the audience. Because if I try to force broad humour into a film like Kutrame Thandanai, the core audience for the film will not like it. I took up that genre for that fineness.
The engagement value varies from director to director. Each one uses a different tool.
What is your tool, to engage audiences?
My tool… I lean towards realism. I try to reflect life around us. When everything is fictional, you have to show the people as real. It can even be a commercial film. But we have to show our people, our streets, our neighbours, their faces… If you bring this on screen, the audience is more engaged. I feel like the film we make should reflect us.
There’s a lot of difference between your original vision for Kaaka Muttai and the final film. Earlier, the mother was a prostitute. The boys were thieves. How did that change.
It changed when we went to the location. After writing the film, I went to the slum. It was like a village. The people, their feelings… So I felt I had to change my perspective. I rewrote the script. Even so, I could not reflect the real slum. Because the film was about the kids and pizza, we could not touch issues around the slum.
Kaaka Muttai has a journalistic approach. Like you went and did research and then formed a film. It’s the opposite in Kutrame Thandanai, which feels like the story comes first. Is there a difference in the approaches.
It’s the same. The people you meet for research are different, that’s all.
So every film, you do this research…
You have to. Without that…
I mean, what about using only your imagination?
That’s impossible. And it should not be done. You can collect details and then use the imagination. You collect details for Kaaka Muttai. You can set the story in a village or a town near Madurai. But a slum in the midst of a city fit the story well. So we chose that.
Vijay Sethupathi is the manager of a theatre company in Aandavan Kattalai. Later, this thread is used to show him acting in front of a judge. Similarly, in Kutrame Thandanai, the hero’s tunnel vision becomes the audience’s vision. They see only what he sees. How did you learnt to write these layers?
It was necessity. My films have no duets, fight, comedy, or villains. If you take off the villain, there’s no opposite pole. So it’s like standing on one leg on a stool. So right from my short film days, I tried to compensate for this by writing more layers.
By the time I made Kaaka Muttai, I had to work more along these lines. The audience likes to see a hero and heroine, and that’s not there in this film. So we need more layers. Filmmakers like me, cannot afford to make a mistake. In a commercial film, people won’t question that much. But with us, people will ask questions if there’s a small mistake.
I was going to ask this later, but since you brought it up… There are no villains in your films. Circumstance is the villain. Is that your philosophy?
Absolutely. We cannot isolate anyone as a villain. A man may do bad things all his life, but in his last years he’ll do many good things and our opinion of him will change. Even if there is a villain in the screenplay, we have to lay out the circumstances that made him one. We can’t say he is a villain from birth. Or use his appearance to suggest this.
If I make a commercial film, I can do all this. I have the space. No one will question. But in my films, if I suddenly show one character slapping another, the audience will question me. Because they are watching it with that level of detail.
There’s a scene in Kaaka Muttai, where the boy has a ten-rupee note with holes. That is the information the scene needs to give, and you’ve already given it. But you go beyond and stage the scene. You show the boy holding up the note to the sky and show sunlight pass through the holes. Do these visual touches come about because you are a cinematographer? Is it because you’re thinking like a director. Or is this the work of a writer?
It’s the writer in me. Instead of thinking in terms of dialogues or story, I think in images. You have to think in terms of the medium you work in, and this is a visual medium. So any content you get for the story, you are able to place it in the right place because you receive the information as visuals. You stage the scene in your mind, and when I write, it has all details including the lensing, what’s the sound.
So when you go to the set, is it just a matter of executing all this detail?
No, that’s just a reference. On the set, it goes up by 30 per cent. The content won’t change, but maybe the choreography will….
So can you can you explain with the example of this scene with the boy and the note?
After finishing the film, we had a lot of information, details. An MNC cola bottle. Cycle. The props in the house. A national flag. So on the spot, all this was there. And we empty our mind and we go and improvise…
Like improve it..
Yes, that’s the word. You have improve it. You cannot always do it, but…
Are you a dictator or collaborator on the sets?
Collaborator. If I am a dictator, it’s only with the main source.I won’t allow anyone to affect that, not even the producer. This is the basic story, these are the characters, this is the dynamic range of their actions… This I cannot change for anyone. It’s not even that I fix it. The story fixes these things. It’s not about my likes and dislikes. But after that, it’s all collaboration.
Kaaka Muttai was reminiscent of Satyajit Ray, especially Pather Panchali. Who are your influences?
No one in particular. If you take classic films, each one is like a big book. You learn from it all.
Your writing is so delicate that with Kaaka Muttai and Kutrame Thandanai, I felt the music is a little too much. What is your philosophy on background music?
It’s not easy to say this, but a lot of films don’t need music. In a lot of films, you have to reduce music. People don’t understand that here. A lot of classic films are without music and we don’t even realise that. So we can make films like that. But the circumstances here are different. GV Prakash Kumar did the music for my first film, and we decided on a western approach.
There was a lot of discussion. Why do we need western music for this story, especially when there is so much good music that comes from these slums? But because we were going the festival route, there was a lot of insecurity. How will this film reach them? So we used western music. For Kutrame Thandanai, there was no plan of using music. Silence was a big part of the film. So we needed a music director to create those layers, and we went to Ilaiyaraaja. That was a good experience. It depends on the platform. Compared to foreign films, Indian films have a lot of music. We use music right when the emotion begins, not just to underline it. Our tradition is to combine sound and music.
So I began to allow music into my films. K worked on Aandavan Kattalai. We used a lot of acoustic instruments, a retro feel, there’s minimal scoring in the second half, folk instruments, fusion… With all three films, I took what the music directors gave and edited it according to what I know. Because I don’t know music, I cannot give them as much input as I give other technicians. Like everyone, I listen to songs, but I can’t say things like “I need this scale here…” And that depends on the music director.
Kaaka Muttai has a hand-held, improvised feel. Aandavan Kattalai feels more formally staged. Is this also part of your script?
Yes, right from the choice of lens. In Kaaka Muttai, we didn’t use a zoom for close-ups. All the images are prime images. Close-ups are in 35mm. When two people are sitting close, there’s need for a wide angle. In Kutrame Thandanai, there is a lensing plan, a colour plan. But the difference between Kaaka Muttai and Aandavan Kattalai is that you participate in the former, you stand back and observe the latter. You have to decide this in the writing.
Can you give an example using Kutrame Thandanai? Any colours you did not want?
Yes. We have reduced all high-saturation colours. We focused on the blue end of the spectrum. There’s a lot of detail in the blacks. As it’s a low-contrast film, you’ll see details. We avoided greens in Kaaka Muttai. We killed it in post-production. We leaned towards brown. We fix the palette and give it to the costume designer, the set designer. They have to stick to that colour range.
What is the emotional logic?
All colours are associated with emotions. Which layers are you exploring in this film? Which ones are you omitting? So we need to avoid those films. There are many pre-set palettes. There are many movies where you can understand the tone using the colours. We cannot reach the quality level of foreign films. The gap is too great. We cannot compare. But we can take a step in that direction. In my three films, you cannot call it very fine colour-correction work, but given the budget the work was decent and well planned out.
Kutrame Thandanai features an Osho book. Do you follow his philosophy?
If you are natural, there’s no need to follow any philosophy. All philosophies come under a few basic theories. Only the details and the approach varies. At that time, there were no theories, so we thought it was a big deal, but today it all comes under science. But I have read Osho’s books and the book fit in the story.
A few days back, there was this news that your producers find you uncompromising. Do you know why?
I’ll tell you an incident. Even while writing the story, I told the producer that there are no fights. This is Aandavan Kattalai. The producer liked the film. He liked it, but he asked for a song. 26.17 A song where the male and female leads dance. I said we can have a song, but not with them dancing. He said okay and we did not have the song. Every film has something like this. If I go into this in detail, it will be as if I did things defying my producers. But it’s not like that. It’s a conversation. We have to make them understand. It’s not personal. It’s about the film. Kaaka Muttai cannot have a fight, and even if we do have it, it is unnecessary expense. We are trying to give a new flavour. And that flavour comes about without these concessions.
These discussions have been going on from the first film itself. I think this reputation is because I have been uncompromising from my first film, but I have had no problems with any producer. I have said no to things. I have also added things they wanted. Out of four things, I’ll give in and do two. I don’t know how this news gets conveyed to the outside world, maybe that’s why I have this reputation. These films come out after a lot of changes I have made. On the third day, the producer saw Aandavan Kattalai and said the song was actually not needed. It’s just that conversation. I am not that rigid. Even in commercial films, you cannot change certain things. If a hero comes with a certain quality, you cannot change that. But if I cannot change something, then there is no use making the film with compromises. I won’t let that film happen.
Realism is a strong flavour in your films. Give that you have so much humour even in these serious films, are you interested in making a pukka commercial entertainer?
I am interested. Also, all my films were written a while ago. The stories I wrote during Kaaka Muttai are the ones I am doing now. Even Kadaisi Vivasayi. But there are many good commercial films coming out. I wonder if I should do one just to say ‘I can do this too.’ But I would like to do a full-length comedy or action film.
If it’s a film with a big hero, you have to do things to suit his star persona. Can you do that without compromising your individuality?
I have to do that. There is no question. In the first version of Aandavan Kattalai, there is a scene where the lead gets beaten up. But once Vijay Sethupathi was fixed as the hero, I removed the scene. I looked at whether the scene is really necessary. It wasn’t. So I removed it. Finally, we make films for the audience. What’s the use of having something they don’t like? If it’s just a festival film, then we can do these things. But for a commercial release, we have to make these compromises.
Some people make on version for the festival, and another for…
I can’t do that. It’s hard enough to complete one version of the film within the specified shooting days.
Let’s say a film gets praised in a foreign festival. That praise reaches only a few people here.
Yes, that doesn’t really help.
So does it really help the film at the box office if you advertise it saying ‘audience award at Toronto, etc.?
There should be a positive vibe about the film before the film’s release. People should feel like watching the movie. We should give them that feeling through some means, whether festivals or whatever. A festival award means the film gets written about, news spreads. Anyway, it’s the audience that decides, looking at the poster or trailer. This is just a vibe, like knocking on a door.
A bit of interest.
Yes, to create interest. Beyond that, there’s nothing. Even if the film gets a big award.
Is the Tamil film scene looking positive for filmmakers like you?
What do you mean ‘filmmakers like me’?
I mean those that strive for some individuality within the mainstream…
Yes. I’d say we are not being embraced, exactly, but no one is stopping us either. We can make films. But the priority is commercial films, because the investment, interest rates are high. So we can get crushed in the process. It’s a huge machine. In the midst of seven releases every week, it’s difficult for a parallel filmmaker to get his film out. Doors open more easily for commercial filmmakers. There’s a big hero, a big producer – things happen quickly. We get asked to wait. They say ‘Let that film release.’ But the positive thing is that no one stops us. There are no major obstacles. If we have a good screenplay, we can get the film going pretty easily. Many big producers have supported filmmakers like me. We have that freedom. But the overall situation isn’t positive. The people are supportive. But the machine is old. It has been tuned for commercial cinema. So that’s a problem.
Kaaka Muttai came in 2015. You had two films in 2016, Kutrame Thandanai and Aandavan Kattalai. Now, there’s news you are making Kadaisi Vivasayi with Rajinikanth.
I got the idea for Kadaisi Vivasayi after finishing Kaaka Muttai. I had producers even then, but I wanted to make a few more films. Because it’s a dense subject. We’ve spoken about this topic sixty years ago, that villages are the heart of the country. But how has the growth been in villages? Why? When I researched this, I got a lot of detail. I collected all of it, linked it, wove it into a story… When you are researching for other films, you get an appointment, you speak for a day or two and it’s over. But if a farmer has to give water to his goat, that’s his first priority. You can’t say ‘This is more important. It is expensive work.’
Black-soil farmers are a separate category altogether. That’s the kind of farmer this story is about, someone who keeps looking at the sky, waiting for rain. Except for three characters, it’s all newcomers. People from villages, who don’t know much about cinema. Among the three main characters, we asked Yogi Babu to play one. And Vijay Sethupathi for another. These are characters people will like a lot. The main lead is about 75 years old. He is hearing-impaired. He is not updated with the present. He hasn’t heard of the technology revolution. You can do a lot with this conflict. You can talk a lot about farmers and farming. People around this village have given up farming, because there is no water. This man continues to farm, because he doesn’t know anything else.
We don’t want to just talk about the problems. Journalists do that well. But we can put that problem in the story and offer a solution. About seven-eight months ago, I got the idea to cast Super Star Rajinikanth. The issues come in small dialogues, small philosophies. So we need someone who can say it in a way that reaches the audience. I was thinking of someone with that kind of energy, and I thought of Rajinikanth. We had made all preparations without him in mind, but this was something that came up in the last six-seven months. Before approaching him, we collected more detail and fine-tuned the script and then went to him. But as you know, he’s gotten busy with other things…
So what’s the situation now?
When we couldn’t meet him, we went back to our regular plan. The rumour was that he called and gave me a chance, but that’s not true.
But you wanted him…
More than my wish, he was the right fit. This is a story that needs to reach crores of people. It’s not a story written specifically for him. If not him, then we can only cast a real-life farmer. There’s a certain build, skin tone… other actors don’t have that. But he is on a different track now, and when we couldn’t meet him, we continued on our own track. We should begin production in a couple of months.
All the best for the film.