Entertainment

Flipping the script in South cinema

Ever since it released a week ago, Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe has been trending big, raking in over ₹1.42 crore in Chennai alone. The film, which the director says can’t be pinned down to a single genre, has multiple story lines running parallelly, with social commentary, dark humour, engaging characters and a riveting pace — a feat he achieved by jointly writing it with directors Mysskin, Nalan Kumarasamy (of Soodhu Kavvum fame), and Neelan K Sekar. In interviews, Kumararaja has shared how each of them didn’t know what the other was writing, making the “collaborative effort new and exciting”.

It is interesting to note that while the filmmaker’s 2011 neo-noir gangster film, Aaranya Kaandam, had flopped, Super Deluxe, his second venture, has found much success, despite similarities. An audience that has come of age is part of the reasoning. “Whether we like it or not, streaming platforms are influencing cinema and how it is being consumed. Because people are used to [films and serials] that explore various narrative styles and characterisation, they are also alright with watching films that move at a different pace. You can have multi-track narratives, a feverish pace, and the audience will be with you,” says Abhishek Chaubey, the writer-director behind films like Udta Punjab and Sonchiriya.

Storytelling audacity has always been part of cinema, but recent times has seen a surge. The template of cinema is changing. Oh wait, there is no template! While Bollywood has seen features like Udta Punjab (on the drug crisis in Punjab), Dum Laga Ke Haisha (that explores fat shaming), and Titli (about a boy who wants to leave his violent family business), down South, a new crop of writer-directors in Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu in particular are driving this changing narrative — navigating themes like prejudice and misogyny, writing true-to-life characters, and introducing unique plot lines. “Most filmmakers who are entering the industry now aren’t coming through traditional routes. They haven’t first worked as an assistant for 20 years. When you don’t know the rules, you are just expressing yourself; what flows is pure passion,” explains writer-director Vasan Bala, whose two-week-old release, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, has been winning praise for its quirky storyline and execution.

While earlier, directors turned writers out of sheer necessity, now it has everything to do with self-expression. “Cinema is getting more personal,” feels Chaubey. “Through a story, a filmmaker is trying to explore ideas that he or she feels passionately about. And when individuals have the voice and resources to explore and exert themselves, they will challenge the status quo. It is a very happy phase to be in.”

This week, speak with eight writer-directors to understand how they are moving away from the norm.

Venkatesh Maha

Venkatesh Maha

Writer-director, C/o Kancharapalem | Telugu

C/o Kancharapalem (2018) is the best thing to have happened to Telugu cinema in recent years. Moving away from star-driven spectacles, this independent film is a slice of life. But Maha says it was frustration — of watching the same clichés on screen — that drove him to write. “Since I was the writer, I had the freedom to do what I wanted,” he chuckles. “So I went to Kancharapalem, sat on the streets and wrote the screenplay. Whenever I got stuck, I’d talk to people, which would spark an idea.”

The film explores four parallel stories, with subtexts of religion, dignity of labour and gender sensitivity. Produced on a shoestring budget and shot in sync sound, it starred nearly 80 people, all non-actors from the locality in Visakhapatnam, and a few youngsters with a theatre background.

The first Telugu film to be showcased at the New York Indian Film Festival, it opened to good reviews back home. But instead of enjoying the accolades, the 30-year-old went to New York last September to do a course in advanced screenwriting with Gotham Writers. “I want to put Telugu cinema on the international map, and I wanted to know what was missing in our writing,” says Maha, who is now scripting his second film.

Ahammed Khabeer

Ahammed Khabeer

Director-co-writer, June | Malayalam

Towards the end of Khabeer’s film, June, the protagonist’s best friend points to three men in the frame and mouths “one, two, three” — numbers one and two are her exes, and number three is her husband. “Why should we judge [girls for their relationships]? It’s okay for guys to date however many times, then why should there be different rules for women?” asks the 29-year-old débutant director. With the film, he invites the audience to step into June’s (Rajisha Vijayan) shoes, handling the coming-of-age film with sensitivity and a large dollop of mischief. “Being in a relationship and having women as friends gave me insights,” he says. Without big names, June — which he scripted with friends Libin Varghese and Jeevan Baby Mathew — held its own despite releasing along with films like Kumbalangi Nights and Oru Adaar Love. “I took the film to 16 producers who, despite liking the story, were unsure about putting money into it because it is a different story,” he says. Vijay Babu (Friday Films), was the seventeenth. Khabeer looks up to Dileesh Pothan, Syam Pushkaran (“the king of scripting”), Vineeth Srinivasan and, of course, Alphonse Puthren. “Premam changed so many things about cinema,” he says, as comparisons with Puthren bring out the fanboy in him.

Zakariya

Zakariya

Writer-director, Sudani From Nigeria | Malayalam

Zakariya is considered the find of 2018, for his straight-from-the-heart Sudani from Nigeria. About a Nigerian football player in football crazy Malappuram, the film got him the Kerala State Award for best director (début) and the best actor award for Soubin Shahir, the film’s only big name. “We knew around 40% of the audience would like the film, but we never thought it would get so much love,” Zakariya exclaims. The layered narrative, written along with writer-director Muhsin Parari, brought to the big screen not only a story that blends the love of the game with issues like language, gender, religion and even the refugee crisis, but also nuances of Malappuram’s culture. “I’ve been greatly influenced by ‘home films’, made in Malappuram, which I saw as a kid in the late ’90s and early 2000s. There is no one influence per se, but rather many,” says the 30-year-old. The post graduate in mass communication is now working on his next script, but says it is too soon to talk about it.

Arunraja Kamaraj

Arunraja Kamaraj

Writer-director, Kanaa | Tamil

Kamaraj, 33, has many titles: singer (remember the ‘Ding Dong’ song from Jigarthanda?); lyricist (for films like Kaala, Kabali) and even actor (with cameos in films like Remo). But it wasn’t till late last year that he fulfilled his goal of becoming a director and screenwriter, with his female-centric sports drama, Kanaa, which opened to positive reviews. Starring Aishwarya Rajesh and Sathyaraj, it is a story about a female cricketer, and is inspired in part by his own past as a competitive university-level sportsman. Writing the script, he says, allowed him greater control of the narrative. It also helped him “stay prepared, and keep an eye on the budget. Otherwise, it would have cost a lot more”!

The film was a largely collaborative process, Kamaraj says, with constant feedback coming in from the community of fellow writers that he had amassed over the years. He rides on the heels of a relatively recent wave of Tamil cinema writer-directors like Karthik Subburaj, Nalan Kumarasamy and Balaji Tharaneetharan, and believes that they’ve paved the way for a new mould of stories (think irreverent comedy and less ‘star’ driven scripts) to come to life. His next is still in the writing stage.

C Prem Kumar

C Prem Kumar

Director-writer, 96 | Tamil

Kumar always wanted to become a writer, but photography came more naturally. So cinematography was his bread and butter for years, with writing being relegated to just a hobby. That is, until the 2015 Chennai floods confined him to his house for over two weeks. 96 was the result. The film, about two classmates reuniting, starring Vijay Sethupathy and Trisha, has won fans not only for its simple narrative but also its realistic, believable treatment. “As writers, the process should be inspired by our real lives. If, as a writer-director, you cannot bring out the ‘real life connect’ on screen, then there’s no point directing a film,” he says. “For instance, 96 could have ended differently, if I hadn’t had the conviction to execute what I thought would’ve happened had these characters been real people.” The 41-year-old débutant believes that every director must be a writer at heart to understand the different layers in a story. “I personally think digital programming has influenced modern-day screenwriting. Earlier, I used to visit film festivals to identify variety in presentation. Now, watching TV series like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Vikings inspired me when writing 96. It is not always possible to draw from childhood influences when writing, because these things erode from memory.”

Adivi Sesh

Adivi Sesh

Writer-actor, Goodachari | Telugu

Sesh took his time to find his feet in Telugu cinema. He débuted as an actor, writer and director with Karma in 2010. There were a few worthwhile roles and a few missteps until he got noticed in Baahubali: The Beginning. “Writing came out of necessity because, as an actor, I was trusted as an antagonist, but not as a protagonist,” he says. His breakthrough film was Kshanam (2014), a thriller he co-wrote with début director Ravikanth Perepu. The writing, “where we worked hard to give it context, and ensure all the smaller scenes were relevant to the big reveal”, was its biggest strength. Kshanam earned the boy from San Francisco street cred, which he was careful not to squander. Sesh co-wrote the spy thriller Goodachari (2018) with director Sashi Kiran Tikka, a New York Film Academy alumnus, Abburi Ravi, a seasoned dialogue writer, and screenplay writer Rahul Pakala. “The credibility I gained with Kshanam helped us get better budget for Goodachari. It was time to realise my dream of making good cinema and not indulge in hero-giri,” says the 33-year-old, who feels the audience in Telugu has been ready for more realistic films for 15 years; it’s the filmmakers who’ve failed to catch up. Goodachari will be a trilogy, and part two, in the works, is aiming for a 2020 release. “I’m also writing Major, a Telugu-Hindi bilingual inspired by the story of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan who lost his life during the 26/11 attacks.”

Lenin Bharathi

Lenin Bharathi

Director-writer, Merku Thodarchi Malai | Tamil

“Writing trends are changing with the entry of the newer generation. They hail from different backgrounds — some are short filmmakers, others are influenced by digital content — and they bring different visions,” says Bharathi, 42, adding, “A younger audience is also ready to accept experimental filmmaking because of their exposure to similar content on digital platforms.” After years of being an assistant director and co-director, writing and directing his first film — a tale about daily-wage labourers, politics and corruption (for which he did three years of pre-production work observing the people and their lifestyle) — was enriching. “When I wrote Merku Thodarchi Malai, I wanted to stay true to my perspective of how the lives of these characters should flow. I’d become tired of repeatedly watching the space given to concepts like revenge and love,” he says. Insistent that he never wants to write a film that is ‘inspired’ by watching another film, “a practice that exists in the industry, which is a bit like different people wearing the same lens”, he says that only the flow of the story should influence what shape the screenplay would take.

Jose Sebastian

Jose Sebastian

Director-co-writer, Ente Ummante Peru | Malayalam

Finding a producer for his debut film, Ente Ummante Peru, was the challenge for Sebastian. He searched for over a year for someone to bankroll his project. “In retrospect, it was not an easy film to make. I was pushing the envelope, taking a different route, telling a different story,” says the 31-year-old engineering graduate, who studied filmmaking at Sydney’s International Film School. There was no conscious decision to state anything in particular with the film, he says, and the story — of a young man’s search for his mother, a literal and metaphorical journey that leads him from Thalasserry (Kerala) to Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh), from being an orphan to understanding there is more to kinship than blood — “was an organic process”. “Writing and directing, I feel, are very connected. Scripting gives me a clear vision of how I want the film to be,” he says. It was the 15th draft that he co-wrote with Sarath R Nath, which finally became the film. Sebastian adds that assisting filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellissery, on ad films and the 2015 Double Barrel, gave him the confidence to write. Now working on his next script, a thriller-drama, he is not keen on the numbers game, but “if the stories and inspiration keep coming, why not!”

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