Tamil Directors Roundtable 2021: Well-directed Films Are All About Good Decision Making, Film Companion

Tamil Cinema in 2021 enjoyed a mix of everything, right from star biggies, surprise hits and hard-hitting stories. At the start of a new year, celebrated filmmakers Venkat Prabhu, Vijay, Sudha Kongara, Vignesh Shivn, Nelson Dilipkumar, and Arun Matheswaran come together to discuss the art of movie-making with Baradwaj Rangan.

Edited Excerpts Below.

Baradwaj Rangan: When you talk about a song, we say it is good because of the tune. Similarly, you look at an image and say the cinematography is good. It is also possible to say that even with writing. How do you define a well-directed movie?

Vijay: It is more of a management quality. It is the art of getting things done through others. When all departments have performed well in a film, you could call it well-directed.

Nelson: From my point of view, a film is well-directed, if its ideas are communicated visually, without relying too much on the dialogues.

Venkat Prabhu: It’s easy to narrate a story. You can impress someone with a narration. But what matters is how clearly the writing is visually communicated to the audience. Are we communicating correctly? Is it interesting? If it works out, it’s good direction. For instance, Michael Bay makes larger-than-life films that communicate visually. He’s a good director too. People like Martin Scorsese might have more conversations in their films. As Nelson says, visually, you have to say the story in an amazing way.

The director should take a call on how every department should work, whether it be music, cinematography, editing, art or costumes. The director has to take the call about how a certain shot should look like and what actors must do. When we are writing, we will have an idea of how to begin a scene. But the moment you reach the location, it will change. During such times, it’s the director who has to make these calls. If people enjoy it, then it’s good direction.

Sudha Kongara: I think you shouldn’t be able to notice the 24 crafts that go into making a film. That’s it. That’s a brilliantly directed film. You just get sucked into the emotion of it. For that, I think only the directors are responsible. When we talk about the scene where Suriya asks his wife for money in Soorarai Pottru (2020), the essence of it was there in the writing. But where to pause, where Suriya should hesitate and what he should do while hesitating, the kind of music to use, whether to use music or not— that decision making makes good direction.

Vignesh Shivn: You have to make the right call each time, any number of times. It starts with the selection of the story, the treatment, mood and deciding on the cast—that decision-making is important. Even in life, we order what we want at a restaurant. Similarly, you have to make decisions at the shooting spot.

It’s putting everything together by selecting the right things. It’s a very enjoyable process. You have to pick the right team and keep up the morale. If we can enjoy the process and come out with something enjoyable for the audience too, if we can recreate the enjoyment we had.

Arun Matheswaran: Like what Sudha said, all crafts should come together without disturbing the core idea. Every director has their own distinct film language. I think it depends on the viewer. Not everyone is going to like all films. Overall, we consider a film as being well-directed if it’s engaging.

Of all the four episodes in Paava Kadhaigal, when I saw yours (Vignesh Shivan), I was really in the zone. Your subject was honour killing. It wasn’t funny-funny but you decided to not deal with the subject very seriously. There was a very distinct vision in that. Similarly, Nelson, you made comedies out of mother’s cancer and human trafficking. When you create such things, is there the fear that someone might take offence?

Vignesh Shivn: It’s about how you treat the subject differently. You get confidence from similar films that have worked out in the past. Take Venkat Prabhu sir’s Saroja—when a character looks at his wife’s photo, the guy next to him asks ‘who is she?’. When I was watching it in Thiagaraja theatre, I realised we could make a joke even in such a situation.

When you see films like Saroja and Chennai-28 do well, that’s where your mindset changes. You realise you can have jokes in a thriller too and you get the confidence to try it out in a film. I experimented with that. In Naanum Rowdy, a father character has just passed away. There are a lot of problems around the characters and even then there’s a song called ‘Thangamey’. Because it worked once, I wanted to try something similar with the idea of honour killing.

You see only Nelson in Nelson’s films. It’s like how it’s in Dasavatharam. Everyone is Nelson. It’s the same with me. We take a bit from real life. When we face tough situations in life, we feel the humour in it and move on. Maybe our films are also like that.

Venkat Prabhu: I really like humour. I like to present all genres humorously. We wanted to troll ourselves before viewers and reviewers. I had started it with Chennai-28. We said during an interview that ‘no one could sue us claiming the film’s story is theirs because it didn’t actually have one’. It started there and I still try to convey serious topics humorously. Like Nelson or Vignesh, I’m also not a very serious filmmaker. We try to say our things in a very light-hearted way.

Nelson: As Vicky said, it started with Chennai-28 and Saroja. People enjoyed it a lot. I like to break cliches and even comedy films have to have a certain discipline. So, I try to keep up a filmmaking discipline— it will be there from the writing. I try to balance it as much as I can.

How do you bring the average OTT viewer to theatres? What kind of film should you take?

Sudha Kongara: It has to be the tentpole films, that’s what is going to get the crowds. Over the years, it is evident. Soorarai Pottru is a tentpole film, there is a huge star and there is action. I was listening to Radio Mirchi one day and I heard an ordinary woman say that Soorarai Pottru should have been released in theatres. So watching it in theatre is an experience of a huge emotion. The big films will always get the eyeballs and it is going to be tougher for the small films.

Vijay: I think what Sudha says is right. It is going to be tough. Recently, so much hype was created for Kadaseela Biriyani but unfortunately, the theatre pull wasn’t there. If it had had a big star, it would have had a big opening.

Venkat Prabhu: The audience should get a new experience in theatres, beyond what they get at home or on their phones. They should feel the need to watch a film in a theatre to experience it. This comes automatically with the presence of the big hero. 

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