Edited excerpts from an interview conducted by Anupama Chopra and Baradwaj Rangan before the release of Amazon Prime Video’s five-part anthology titled Putham Pudhu Kaalai, directed by Sudha Kongara, Karthik Subbaraj, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Rajiv Menon and Suhasini Mani Ratnam.
Anupama: We’re here to discuss a series of shorts all of you have made, which look at finding hope in the midst of a pandemic, during the lockdown. Sudha, I want to start with you. You said what drew you to the project was the nature of the project. Can you explain that a bit more?
Sudha: So when Amazon came to us during the lockdown, it was when section 144 was being enforced. It was in May and they wanted us to shoot within a month and we knew these restrictions would continue. So, five people as cast and crew. They said they didn’t mind even if we shot it on an iPhone, as long as it was in HD quality. They also said we could be our own cameraman, our own sound guy…whatever… but that the theme had to be about hope. I think the underlying statement they wanted to make was that, “Even during such a pandemic, creativity cannot be killed.” And I fell in love with that thought. The second thing, as and when we started putting in these guidelines in the room, it started becoming very challenging. I can’t have a cameraman, I can’t have a lightman, I cannot have a focus puller. Various things like these. And my cameraman said, “Without lights, how do we shoot?” For me, it was about shooting a dance portion without a dance master and I wanted a song in my film. So it was crazy, but it was so much fun. It was like going back to our student days. We had to take up the challenge and go about making the film.
Baradwaj: So did everyone have to shoot with these restrictions? How was it?
Rajiv: I think, some amount of restrictions are good. I think everyone who has watched Iranian cinema has felt that they are somehow able to get through to human emotions stronger than the others. At the same time, man and woman are not allowed to touch each other. All those restrictions have not stopped them from making very emotional films. Sometimes, when all restrictions are lifted, you end up doing the most obvious things and you don’t really push the envelope in terms of the writing or creativity. Restrictions make you work within a certain thing and your concentration is heightened, because you can’t rely on someone else to do something. You learn to just work with yourself and there’s a greater sense of authorship and the inner voice comes out stronger.
Baradwaj: What was the minimum number of people you had on the sets?
Sudha: Maximum 10. Six on set, four off it.
Suhasini: They told me, only six.
Baradwaj: Does that include the cast?
Suhasini: Yes, six including the actors.
Gautham: All these films will look like we had 80 to 100 people on the sets, I can assure you that. I had about 14 people on the sets, even though they asked me to restrict it to 10. I went to shoot with PC (Sreeram) sir, so there was a lot of planning that went into the shoot. So we had to allow for some lighting to come in, because it is completely inside a space. It had to look slightly different from the conditions we were used to. Given that, he pulled it off really well and there’s a lot of technique that has gone into every shot. It might look really simple and easy at the same time. But in terms of cast, it was minimal. We didn’t have a caravan waiting, and they didn’t have multiple people waiting on them. Right down to post, we worked with a minimal crew with most departments down to just one person. It can be done, it just makes things that much more difficult.
Baradwaj: Did working on Karthik Dial Seydha Enn help you during this process?
Gautham: Not at all. That was shot on the iPHone and it would pale in comparison to this. This was proper work that went in, given the restrictions. If you look at any of the films that went in, it would look like it was all properly shot without any limitations. That was just something I had which I had to put together, and I needed three people on board.
Karthik: Yes initially, they said it should be five, including the cast and crew. Later, it was increased to 10. At one stage, I needed somewhere around 15 people.
Baradwaj: Karthik, when you have a movie like Jagame Thanthiram waiting for release, knowing there’s so much uncertainty around it, does it stress you out or are you just putting it on the backshelf saying, “Let me focus on other things at the moment”?
Karthik: When the lockdown actually started, I hadn’t completed the final cut of Jagame Thanthiram. I immediately called my editor, and quickly asked him to come to my home, bringing all his equipment. We set it up here and we spent most of the time during the lockdown, editing Jagame. This came up only once the edit had gotten over. It was like a huge relief for me.