After Rajinikanth-starrers Kabali and Kaala, Pa. Ranjith’s next as director, Sarpatta Parambarai, starring Arya, is releasing on Amazon Prime Video on July 22. In this interview with Baradwaj Rangan, the director talks about how the audience and industry have evolved in the last ten years since he made his debut with Attakathi, the kind of research he did for Sarpatta Parambarai, and about his next film Natchathiram Nagargirathu. Edited Excerpts…
In the last ten years, as a political mainstream filmmaker, has our audience and industry changed? Are you able to communicate your ideas more directly?
The good thing is that people no longer believe that films talking about Dalit issues don’t work commercially. Previously, you could only make arthouse films on these subjects. People showed them stereotypically as starting off and ending up as oppressed and exploited. The last ten years have changed stereotypes. When I first made films, I was told that I couldn’t show a picture of Ambedkar. That phase is over now.
If the cinema is good, it will interest and connect with people. Some people might be perplexed that such films are doing well commercially. But even they understand that there’s a big audience for them. New and important ideas are being created and there’s a chance that beyond making political statements, good art can also come out of it. We need films that talk about their life, not just their struggle and revolution but also their lifestyle, customs, rituals and culture. I feel today’s cinema has space for that.
There’s a song in Madras where it says carrom board, football and boxing are our sports. And you’ve made a film about boxing with Sarpatta Parambarai. The trailer mentions that Vettiperumal thatha learnt boxing from the British and even defeated one of them. Was it based on a real person?
No, I heard many stories and combined them into the story of Sarpatta. Black Town [in Chennai] was the most important place for boxing. It was called ‘Perum Paraicheri’ back then and the people there were close to the British. Sports and other habits and practices were exchanged between them. That dialogue in the trailer was based on that and not a specific person.
The film isn’t really about caste politics. It’s a film about empowerment where caste is one of the obstacles but not the only one. Class is an important idea in the film. Developing cities like Chennai have problems like rowdyism, alcoholism, poverty and these influence people. Caste wasn’t as prominent in Chennai though everyone knew the group everyone else belonged to; it was only a backdrop.
Caste was dealt with in a modern way because people had to unite and work. In spite of caste differences, class united them as they worked together in the same places. I wouldn’t say there were never any problems. Binny mill and Puliyanthope riots were caste-based. Even in boxing there have been problems. But the important aspect of the film is how someone from the working class has to struggle for his success. Success doesn’t come easy for him.
You did two big star films before Sarpatta Parambarai. Looking back, do those films feel like Ranjith films or Rajini films or is it a mixture?
Kabali felt like a mix. But in Kaala I was able to discuss my ideas strongly and I had Rajini sir’s support for that. Both during writing and filming, the film gave me a lot of satisfaction.
I think it’s an important film. Rajini sir’s support was phenomenal. It wouldn’t have been possible without him. He was a big influencer.
Kaala and Kabali are set outside the state. Was it a relief to come back to make a film in the city?
There was more pressure in Sarpatta Parambarai. It’s difficult to make a film look authentic. A sports movie has to look right. Boxers get tired in a few rounds of fighting but I have to shoot the whole day. Also, physical contact during the fight has to look impactful. We were also shooting during the pandemic. So, it was a difficult film and I was under pressure.
When you want to make something feel more real, it goes beyond whether it’s good or bad. You need to break cinematic language. Also if it’s a period film, it shouldn’t be too obvious. The viewer should connect to it only visually. Attakathi is a period film set in 1995 but I don’t even mention it through dialogue or captions. I show it in the dresses, cycles, tickets, the boot cut, but none of it sticks out. That’s what I had done in Madras too.
What is your next film? Is it Birsa Munda?
I’m going to shoot soon for a film called Natchathiram Nagargiradhu. It’s a love story that will discuss multiple layers of love.