Balaji Tharaneetharan made a splash in the film industry with his very first film, Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom, starring Vijay Sethupathi. Seethakaathi, about a thespian and his spirit that lives on, received a mixed response from the audience. In a conversation with Baradwaj Rangan, he speaks about the commercial viability of a script, learnings from Seethakaathi, and more. Excerpts.
Many aspiring filmmakers step into the industry with a creative perception and knowledge. Most are oblivious to the business risks involved in cinema. Do they need to be aware of this?
In the current era, it's not tough to turn director. During this lockdown period, the primary source for recreation was cinema, TV shows and songs. The entertainment industry has been a requirement during any phase. There is never an uncertainty; we only need to be a little cautious. Things will change in the course of time and the situation will crawl back to normal.
There will always be a demand for good scripts. Even for my first film, the process turned out to be simple as the producer whom I first approached (VS Rajkumar of Leo Productions) okayed the script. I was shocked, since my understanding was that I had to approach a lot of production houses to get my script approved.
I realised the difficulty involved in releasing a film only after making it. I don't think aspiring young directors need to be worried a lot about these aspects. Don't write your scripts keeping budgetary factors in mind. Calculate and plan the budget after a bound script is prepared. Later, it's up to the director's skill on how to present the script. Also, never restrict thoughts while making a film, Directors are noticed for their uniqueness and they should not consider the film's fate during its making. It is the producer's job to worry about it.
You are a graduate from the MGR Government Film and Television Institute. What is the difference between a director who has gained knowledge through a film institute and a director who has gained it by making short films?
As a graduate from a film institute, I was able to learn the basic theoretical knowledge of filmmaking, which helped me quickly understand the skill. I specialised in editing during my graduation. We would edit film footage, have story discussions with colleagues from the direction department and participate in short film assignments.
This helped me garner a certain level of awareness in various aspects of filmmaking such as cinematography, editing, and sound design. No matter how much theoretical knowledge we gain, unless we break out of our shells and venture into making a film, that knowledge will be dormant. I gained an interest in direction when I made my first film. Directors who come from a 'short films' background learn the skill as they make the feature, for example Nalan Kumarasamy who emerged from Naalaya Iyakkunar gained good knowledge in the theory of filmmaking, because he studies parallelly while making movies.
The advantage that directors like Nalan and Karthik Subbaraj have is that their process of filmmaking is quick, due to their shortfilm-making skills. My advice is that theoretical knowledge is good as long as we try it on a practical level.
What was your assessment of the commercial viability of Seethakaathi. You got the seed of the plot while watching a drama playing to an almost-empty hall, right?
I was never in doubt since I knew I would not be showcasing the entire play as the movie. Rather, I was confident in the story that I wanted to tell, keeping the play as the background. My story was about the theatre fraternity and the demise of a veteran drama artiste, and keeping his spirit alive, So, We had a strong conviction about the story. The realisation that something did not work struck me while I noticed people exiting halfway through the movie during a matinee show at Udhayam theatre in Chennai.
Your first film NKPK was a success followed by Seethakaathi, which was not received well. Do you analyse your films post-release? Do you check if the creative thought process has been received well by the audience?
Yes we do, and we also analyse other films. The question of what went wrong comes up during discussions among our close circle of friends. Until the release of the film, we work with utmost faith in the script. There are few learnings I personally have about why the film didn't work. I don't accept the fact that the audience was not able to understand the plot. I feel I should have made the film with factors that would have been well received by the audience. Luckily, my first film was a success. Had Seethakaathi been my first venture, my initial foothold in filmmaking would have been shaky.