In a world where Achcham Madam Naanam Payirppu (loosely translated into fear, innocence that borders on foolishness, coyness and chastity) are attributes still used to describe the ideal woman, Akshara Haasan‘s next, which bears the same name, is narrated from a teenage girl’s point of view. Director Raja Ramamurthy speaks to Meera Venugopal about the film that also stars singer Usha Uthup in a prominent role. Excerpts:
The film has an intriguing title…
The patriarchal idea of achcham, madam, naanam and payirppu to define the ideal Tamil girl has been there since the era of Sangam literature, and it is worrying that people still use it in popular culture. Even in Tamil movies, when they want to tame an ambitious woman, they say, “Nee elaam oru ponna? Unnaku achcham, madam, naanam, payirppu illaya?” (Are you a woman? Do you not have these traits?). That this is prevalent is worrying. The argument of my movie is about what makes a good woman. Are these the qualities? Or, is a woman who is honest with herself and her feelings the ideal woman?
As writer and director, what made you choose a female-centric topic for your debut?
I didn’t approach it like that. The first idea that came to my head was, “What makes a person or a girl good?” That’s how it started rolling. The idea was marinating in my head for a while, and filmmaking is a long process, from pre- to post-production. I knew this would keep me busy, and I’d be excited about this idea for the next one-and-a-half years. I’ve also not seen anything like this before in Tamil cinema.
Was the story written keeping Akshara Haasan in mind?
Not really. But once I was done with the synopsis, the first name that popped in my mind was Akshara. We had a meeting even before I wrote the script. I pitched the story to her, she read the synopsis and was onboard. She was involved in the process from the beginning.
The poster has Akshara in a Harry Potter-ish look, with a circular frame…
(laughs) No, it isn’t a fantasy like Harry Potter. An ideal Tamil woman or an innocent, nerdy woman in Indian cinema always wears glasses. When you’re trying to subvert a formula, it is important to include some of these things and then subvert the formula.
Usha Uthup has done very few films, but her roles like Kurisuveettil Mariamma (Pothan Vava) and Maggie Aunty (Saath Khoon Maaf) are still remembered. How did her casting come about?
Usha Uthup was the first choice for her role in my film. She plays a Carnatic singer, someone as legendary as ML Vasanthakumari. They are very similar in terms of their tone of singing and physicality, so I felt she’d be ideal. We held a phone meeting, she was very excited and immediately got on board when I told her she would be playing a Carnatic singer.
Her criterion for choosing a role is that it should not have anything to do with her real life persona. This character fits that requirement. In real life, Usha Uthup is full of life and has a rockstar persona, but here, she’s a sombre, respected matriarch.
What are your thoughts about being a first-time director who will not get to experience a theatrical release?
I am not too disappointed, because while making this film, I knew this would go up on an OTT platform. Even while writing the script, I knew this would work only on OTT.
Was the film custom-made for OTT?
Yes, completely. Because, that’s how we approached it, and we had the liberty to do a lot of things that we would not have, had it been a theatrical release.
From the editor and composer to cinematographer, it’s a female-dominant crew. Was this a conscious decision?
When I was done with the synopsis and the script, I was thinking of names for the editor and cinematographer. The first five names naturally happened to be female. It was not a conscious decision. Then, I felt this would work because our film is about the female gaze, and I thought it would be great if every important role was handled by women. It is very important that we have their perspective. Also, even if I got something wrong, I’d have someone on set to correct me and get the aspects right.
Do you remember a few instances where this helped?
The story is from a particular person’s point of view. There were certain parts where I’d wonder if a teenager would think this way. In those situations, I’d open that up to the cast and crew to know if we were getting the aspects right.
The pandemic has brought life to a standstill, and we have just begun adjusting to the new normal. What have you learnt and what would you tell upcoming artistes and directors?
Don’t lose hope. This has been a terrible year for everyone across the world, and we are trying and adjusting to the new normal. With respect to cinema, I think we need to learn to coexist from now on. Make movies for OTT platforms — don’t make them for a theatrical release and then try for an OTT release. OTTs have more freedom, but don’t abuse that freedom. Use it to tell fresh stories, show new perspectives.
It is time for us to grow in terms of narratives and filmmaking. If your film is on Netflix and Amazon, remember that they also have films from Turkey, China and Japan and we have to match up. So, don’t lose hope. This is your time.