In festival-favourite Lens (2017), Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan made audiences sit right up and answer an existential yet relevant question: How does one measure morality? In Lens, the filmmaker answered this question in the midst of a striking drama that explored pornography, sexual trauma and voyeurism. Jayaprakash is back to present audiences with yet another moral dilemma in his upcoming film Thalaikoothal, a film which is based on the illegal practice of euthanasia among the elderly that is followed in many villages in Tamil Nadu.
Jayaprakash cannot pinpoint what exactly it is about morality that draws him to the theme, but agrees that he is excited to depict the truth on screen. “Everyone's morals are based on the story that they tell themselves. Truth is very fluid and I think I like to explore this in my films,” he says. Thalaikoothal, which explores the practice through the story of a father-son relationship (starring Kathir and Samuthirakani), is as much about love, as it is about death. Excerpts from the interview.
Can you tell us the origins of Thalaikoothal?
Lens was in competition at the Bangalore International Festival a few years back, when one person really liked it and suggested I make a film on Thalaikoothal. I don't even remember his name, but once I heard about it, I googled the term and it struck me. I asked myself what if I went through the same thing and whether I will do it to my father. The answer is obviously no, but the journey is very relative. The movie is an exploration of that — from the point of view of the son, who loves his father and doesn't want to give up. The conflict is the society. The father is comatose, but his mind is very active, so he listens to what everyone is talking and the story also moves parallelly from his point of view as well. His story comes out alive through his dreams about his love life. These two parallel stories are interwoven, and we get a story of love and death. So, when the father is dreaming of his romance, in reality, the people around him are discussing his death.
How did you go about researching the same?
I went through a lot of articles and documentaries on the internet. I then spoke to a professor in Madras University, who had done extensive research and submitted a paper about it. She claims there are 50 different ways of killing in euthanasia, without divulging details. I spoke to many villagers, who have also seen it happen. My co-director Ravi, who is from the southern part of Tamil Nadu, helped me with the dialect and dialogue.
You recently mentioned in an interview that you wanted to make the movie as visual as possible. I found that interesting in the context of a film that is about death. Could you elaborate?
The reality of the son is very dry because he is taking care of his father who is lying in faeces, and his wife is constantly troubled because of their lifestyle. But the man who is in the comatose stage has had a life that is the complete opposite of what his son is going through. His dreams are colourful. So, for the sound design and the visual presentation, there is a lot of surrealism and a bit of magical realism. This is because we are talking about his dreams, which are very lucid in nature.
All of your films have been quite visceral and explores ideas of morality. Lens did this with an mms scandal and Thalaikoothal does it with euthanasia. Tell us about that.
What you said is exactly the theme of Thalaikoothal. How long can you love someone? Is love limitless? It is not. Love is always based on give-and-take, which can be material or emotional. So, when that stream stops, how long can you continue loving another person?
If you still love them, you have to justify that love by telling yourself a story. For instance, if a wife loves a husband despite him hitting her, she might tell a story to herself that he is still a nice man and that he would change. You find a story and a purpose to stick on. But if she finds a better purpose, the story might change and she might give up on him.
Why do you think you are drawn to such themes?
What excites me is the truth. Truth and the idea of what is right and wrong are very relative. So, maybe that is why all my characters might say something good one second, and something immoral the next. I try to write my stories as truthfully as possible.
Lens came at a time when discourse on sex, trauma and scandals was still relatively new in Tamil cinema. How was it for you to make audiences face uncomfortable questions and look inward?
The starting point for Lens was in two places. I was talking to my acting teacher in Seattle over a Skype call one night, and I was like "What if I just told you that I was going to die because I was depressed. What would you do? Will you cut the call or convince me not to die?" He was startled when I asked him this, but I immediately told him that it was just a story idea. I wanted the story to be rooted in the space of internet when I came across the suicide of Amanda Todd (a Canadian victim of cyberbullying) who had taken her life not before revealing her suicide notes on YouTube. So, I connected these two threads.
And then I started asking myself questions about how Aravind (the protagonist in the film) would think. He will definitely not live a guilty life, so he would have justified his actions. Everyone's morals are based on the story they tell themselves.
How have your acting capabilities helped with your filmmaking?
Very much actually. I have to thank my acting teacher JD Coburn, who comes from the school of Sanford Meisner, an acting teacher of the likes of Marlon Brando. That experience transformed me, made me quit my job in the US, come back to India and pursue acting. As an actor what has helped me most in writing the screenplay is how I write the dialogue and create conflicts between characters when they speak.