There is no bigger struggle than toiling to get by in life.
Yet for many, says Athiyan Athirai, an operose journey in life is no guarantee of climbing the ladder of social upliftment.
“Compared to them, the hardships that people like me in the film industry endure is nothing. It is one reason why I do not prefer to talk about how I have struggled for opportunities,” says Athiyan, 36, the director of Pa Ranjith’s second production venture, Irandam Ulaga Porin Kadaisi Gundu, scheduled for release in November.
Born in Siruvalayam village, Villupuram district, Athiyan (his last name is his partner’s first name) — a post graduate in Tamil language — followed his dream of making it in Tamil cinema and landed in Chennai nearly 10 years ago.
He recollects that he spent five months chasing filmmakers for opportunities. When he did get one, he managed to get himself fired in under 15 hours.
“I learnt that we observe people in cinema from a distance, and that is why they appear different. Up close, when you learn their pluses and minuses, there will be problems,” Athiyan says, revealing the reason why he was let go.
“I called the director thozhar (comrade). He was aghast that I did not call him ‘Ji’ instead. He told me ‘You’re a leftist. I cannot get any work done out of you’ and fired me,” he adds.
War and politics
Though his film’s trailer may have given us all the impression of a “serious film”, Athiyan clarifies that Gundu fits into the black comedy genre.
“You will be laughing from beginning to end. It is a film about the working class and, yes, it does speak politics. But it is also a travel movie, and it has a message that will resonate anywhere in the world… be it Kerala, Karnataka or Colombia,” he says.
A distaste for subjects as plain as vanilla was what made Athiyan despise the inner workings of Tamil cinema. That said, discussing politics in mainstream films too has not gone over well with the ruling class. Athiyan does not mince words when asked on the calls to rinse cinema clean of politics.
“Nothing in this world is clear of politics. There is politics in not wanting politics to be discussed in films. The ruling class uses the courts, police and military for safekeeping the laws that benefit them, which is then used to protect its interests and estate. It is natural, then, for them to fear contrarian views. For centuries and across civilisations, the ruling elite have lived off the blood and sweat of others. But change is important. And unless you change with the society, you will be thrown out in favour of a new social hierarchy. We have already witnessed this in our history,” he says.
Gundu has Attakathi Dinesh and Anandhi in the lead alongside Riythvika, Ramesh Thilak and Munishkanth among others.
Quiz Athiyan about its interesting premise (that of what happens in the lives of exploited workers at a scrap dealer’s shop when they discover a World War era bomb), and he says, “The effects of war is felt across centuries. It is not just destruction but also ugly men that it leaves behind; it manufactures greed and poverty, and destroys the human bond. We all saw it in Hiroshima-Nagasaki, and we see it happen today in Iraq and Syria. I draw my story from these incidents, and tell it through the eyes of a common man working in India. I tell it as his life story.”
Weaving a story out of a scrap shop is an unconventional idea. Athiyan has his reasons for doing so because it was in one such place (a scrap shop on Giriappa Road in Teynampet, he says) where he rebuilt his life after becoming disillusioned with cinema.
- Athiyan singles out Dinesh for praise. He was not the actor he had in mind while scripting but having seen his work up, close and personal, the debut director feels there is noone else who could have played the protagonist’s role with as much conviction. “He gave me a lot more than what I asked for,” he says.
- He recalls an incident as proof of Dinesh’s workmanship, one which put the actor in an awkward position with a troop of armed police battalion.
- “We were shooting a sequence where Dinesh’s lorry is stolen by five people, and he had to try and prevent the robbery. We could not stop the traffic on the highway. He (Dinesh) had to evade three lanes of onrushing vehicles, and board the lorry while it was moving… without any safety harness. We had placed the camera inside the lorry. Dinesh climbed the vehicle with the stunt master holding his torso inside; the rest of his body was dangling outside. That is when a van carrying armed guards, who were crossing the area, noticed this and thought something bad was going on. They overtook the lorry and blocked it. I was following the lorry with our cinematographer, and by the time we could get to them, the guards had already pulled their loaded rifles on Dinesh and others. Thankfully for us, a young member in the force recognised Dinesh, and so a situation was averted,” adds Athiyan.
“When I left cinema, I worked as a 2D compositor but I was frustrated and bored. I felt restricted working in an office… having to shave everyday, iron my clothes and wear shoes. It felt like torture. A scrap shop did not have fixed timings or a dress code. I liked it, and the people who worked with me were kind,” he says.
But Ranjith would entice him back into the world of cinema. Athiyan became friends with art director Ramalingam from his time as a 2D compositor. Ramalingam and Ranjith were friends from college and worked together in Attakathi.
“That is how I gain the acquaintance of Ranjith,” Athiyan says, adding that though he was offered a chance to assist him in Attakathi, he turned it down as he was apprehensive. “By the time the film released, I was already following his (Ranjith) speeches. I was impressed. I felt that he was an important scholar. So, I called him and asked for an opportunity to work with him in his next film,” he adds.
Shooting Gundu was no mean feat as a travel movie requires filming on the road, and, for which, obtaining permit means beating red tape. “We were given permit to shoot after midnight on the highway near Villupuram,” says Athiyan.
But there was a problem. The buses that depart for southern districts in Tamil Nadu from Chennai between nine and 10pm reach Villupuram a little after midnight.
“And that was when we were shooting. It would take 45 minutes between each shot because of the volume of vehicles passing through. If we stop the buses, the vehicles would pile up in five minutes. I had to get an uninterrupted shot while at the same time protect the artistes’ life, and ensure the safety of our expensive equipment,” he adds.
Despite the extent to which he went to film his pet project, the filmmaker firmly believes that Gundu is just an experiment. “I’ve shot the film with a train of thought… my thoughts. I need to see how the viewers receive and respond to it. It will help me refine my thought process for the next film,” he says, adding in conclusion, “But Ranjith said he was his happiest self after a long time, when he watched the film. He told me that he had taught me well.”