In Netflix anthology Paava Kadhaigal, Sudha Kongara’s segment throws the spotlight on an issue rarely treated with empathy on screen. In a conversation with Baradwaj Rangan, she speaks about how she goes about making movies, and how she learnt her craft. Excerpts.
What are your thoughts about being called a female filmmaker?
Insulted, completely insulted. Because, who does it suit to slot me in a particular category? Is it the other gentleman making or producing films or a gentleman consuming films? I don’t know. I find it extremely derogatory, because nobody is giving me a handicap for making films.
Why hasn’t the reverse happened that much? Farah Khan made Main Hoon Na and Om Shanthi Om, and she became the poster girl for a certain kind of woman director, because literally nobody before her did those kinds of films. Why do you find so few women going into the hero-oriented phase?
Actually this is a male-centric film, and I don’t know if it’s something women haven’t gone and made. I think it’s each one’s comfort level, and this is a male-centric film because this is Captain Gopinath’s story. The man just fascinated me and I wrote something, and the woman fascinated me equally, so both of them became the protagonists of the film. So, I think it’s his or her own and, maybe, most women directors haven’t gone there, because nothing excited them there.
I was speaking to some people, and Thiagarajan Kumararaja had something to say about you from a conversation long ago. He said when he was speaking to you a long time ago, you told him you wanted to make movies like Perarasu. That you want to reach the masses and talk to everyone in the theatre. Is that right?
Yeah, yeah. I don’t know why Perarasu, but then my guru [Mani Ratnam] made films that reached a huge number of people, and I’m a huge fan of mainstream filmmakers. And Tamil cinema is such that the mainstream cinema is so sensible. I’m the biggest fan of Tamil filmmakers. I’ve grown up watching Mahendra sir, Bharathiraja sir, Mani sir, Sridhar sir… so many of them, and it excites me to be able to want to reach people. It doesn’t really make sense that I make a film and only a few people watch it.
So, what zone were you in while making the Paava Kadhaigal episode, or Putham Pudhu Kaalai?
I think Amazon liked that so many people reached out to me and they felt very energised in those times, and it was specifically made for those times. I wouldn’t have made it otherwise. And when you come to Paava Kadhaigal, it touched me as a story. It was not about one particular subject, it was like a movie. If you’ve seen the film, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’ve applied every tool, learning that I got while making films into that. So, everybody should see that as well.
When you look at your apprenticeship period, there is Bala and there’s Mani Ratnam. Two people in the mainstream space but with different sensibilities. What did you pick up from each one of them?
So, I didn’t really work with Bala sir, I was only with Mani sir for six-and-a-half years, and I made my own film and then I was writing Irudhi Suttru. At that point of time, I visited Bala sir, who calls me his younger sister, on Deepavali, and he said he was going to make a film in 40 days this time. I said I would be his first AD. I was kidding. By the time I was going home, he called saying, let’s do this. We did not shoot in 40 days, though — we took 90 days!
I’ve never seen Mani Sir perform. He elicits those performances by talking to actors, and that’s the method I use too. Bala sir acts out every little nuance, and he’s a brilliant actor. He’d relentlessly push for 25-30 takes or more. I still remember the first shot with Vedhika in Paradesi — she had to pull the rope in the well and he wanted her left hand to be above her [face] and her right hand to be below. She was getting it wrong each time … there was something he saw that I didn’t see, the actor definitely didn’t see, but by the 24th take, you saw that magic. I went back and checked the previous takes. Perhaps, he wanted one eye to be exposed first and the other to be seen a little later.
With Mani sir, I see two or six takes at the maximum and if you don’t get that, you don’t get that. That’s the philosophy I’ve lived with for the longest time, I still follow that, but between the two of them this is what I saw. What was exciting for me in Bala sir’s world is the rural world. It was very loud, and so real.
So did you ask him [Bala] about the left hand, right hand thing later?
I did. He said, this felt dreamy and the other one felt more purposeful, like she knew she was supposed to be dreamy, and she’s thinking about Atharvaa at that point. He was just telling her what she needed to do to achieve that effect.
Are you a Mani-style elicitor or a Bala-style enactor?
I wouldn’t act, ever. In fact I told Suriya and Madhavan to not ask me to enact a scene, because it’ll be woman-like. Also, something that Mani sir did not have extensively is readings. I was very extensive in my pre-production process. So, I think we got it all there at that time, and I would just elicit the performance after that, talk them through that scene, at the most tell them what the character is feeling, especially with Rithika, she was a novice. She prepped for the film for four years. She had all her lines in her Ipod, put on her earphones and learnt her dialogues both in Hindi and Tamil. She knows the North Chennai dialect now, and Aparna [Balamurali] worked for six months on the Madurai dialect. So I think it’s the prep, and that’s where I push them. I don’t even tell them to give me more or give me less. Those are not there in our transactions, I just say it’s not working. So, they never ask me “What do I do more?” and I rarely take more than two takes. Because, all our prep weeds out the wrong notes.
How do you direct the silent scenes?
I’ve been dreaming of this day where I can shoot with five cameras like Kurosawa. Where I just put my actors in that spot and I tell them, live that moment throughout. So there are no cuts. If there is a seven-page scene, they’re walking through it — he’s actually talking to his wife and asking for money and the girl is having vada, she’s happy and she’s peaceful and she realises he’s asking for money and he has so many issues asking for it. So I think the silences and reactions have to be felt. What happens is when Aparna is doing her part of the scene, Suriya is giving cues with the same intensity. I didn’t use two cameras, may be, for the next film. And it’s the same with Aparna and Urvashi Maam — they’d give cues with expression. It helps that it doesn’t go beyond one or takes. I think, in the silent shots, they feel and react.
Given that there are no male and female filmmakers, but given Kollywood and the structure of the industry, there is definitely a certain patriarchy in terms of the mindset, because there are so few filmmakers like you said. Is there, after Soorarai Pottru, a sense of having a seat at the boys’ table?
I don’t know if I’m actually looking for any seats at any table. But I think the fact that actors wanted to work with me post Irudhi Suttru itself was a bonus. Post Soorarai Pottru, it’s the same. I think, somehow, they’re comfortable that despite being female, I don’t show them in a bad light. Maybe, they’re comfortable with how I show men in my films, so I think I’m there making films with men and women.