What does the 21st century hold for cinema? Let’s view that question from different perspectives. Content, I feel, is going to be shaped by television series, or rather online streaming platforms (we’ll just call it television for now). For writers, these platforms are great—there is no restriction and so, there’s a lot of liberty. And, a number of big writers have proved that. I’m not talking about the Indian television scenario, but about the wider, global context; television series like Narcos or Game of Thrones. I just watched (Lana and Lilly) Wachowski’s Sense8. They are breaking all the taboos and crossing social boundaries so easily. And to be able to discuss something of that sort on television...of course I mean an internet platform like Netflix is very good. In India, I feel these sort of films will come when we sense a play to these platforms. I’m expecting it very soon though. Whatever we’ve seen on television in our part of the world is obsolete. It has to give way for new things to come.
Talking about technicality, movies are going to be more stereoscopic. It’s the big thing. Now, there is no differentiation between video and films. You can make a film on an iPhone and screen it on the big screen, it doesn’t make a difference. What it means is that the craft is going to improve immensely. We all know how to make a film and these days, the right question would be: what to make a film into? Earlier, it was the reverse. See, every 10-year-old kid has his parents’ mobile phone, takes a birthday party video and makes an edit on his own. So they are editors, filmmakers and scriptwriters themselves. They have the access and in terms of craft, it’s going to be very good.
"Today, you can make a film on an iPhone and screen it on the big screen. What it means is that the craft is going to improve immensely.”
But it’s also going to be a struggle for every national filmmaker—by national, I mean every ethnic filmmaker—to keep his identity intact. More and more global investors are coming into these small ethnic markets. So, your creative work will increasingly be determined by the investor. And, these small films would have to compete with direct Hollywood releases. More multiplexes mean more challenges for ethnic films—and here I mean films without a big star. The big star films will have an opportunity to survive alongside big Hollywood films, but these small films would not have a chance. It’s quite tricky. Look at it this way. A higher number of films and a higher number of screenings means less screen time for every film. You have very little time to sell your film—three days, not more than that. Content as well is suffering because of this. Most of us are very good at making films but sometimes we tend to pick up content that is not very original and that hurts small markets like ours.
Formula films, the so-called commercial films or masala films, will survive. It’s just habit and that will never change. And there’s nothing wrong in having those films as one part of the whole scheme of things. But things are changing. One trend that is coming in is that people are making films without songs. Earlier, it was the producers who insisted that we add songs in the film because audio was a big industry. It had a big market, where you could tap your money from, and it was a crowd-puller. Now, it has come to a stage where there is no business for audio as such. Music can only bring people to the movie. You know, a song will pull the viewer into the theatre, it’s come to that. Even one song will do that—what is called the promotional song. Even very big-budgeted films have very few songs. This is happening: we can start seeing films with one song or two songs and then in the long run, no more songs.
A still from Dhanush-starrer Aadukalam
It’s not a creative choice, it’s a choice of commerce. If there is no return, there is no point in investing and expecting money. Films too have started getting shorter, right? That’s again not just because of a creative requirement, but a factor of the fewer number of days films are being screened. A two-hour film can have five shows a day. Two hours and twenty minutes, and you have four shows a day. So, if you have less running time, you have an extra show...it makes money. That’s what is making people do smaller films. If you ask me, my preferred length would be 100 minutes, not more than that. The whole world has been making 90-minute films for ages. Only now are we doing it.
Does cinema continue to enthral audiences going to a theatre and being struck by awe at the grand spectacle? Yes, of course. Take The Jungle Book, the content was not new but it really excited us to watch the film.
I like to make films in a certain way, in a way I feel comfortable. I can’t do a film on things which I really don’t know about, so I try to get better knowledge before I start making a film. With Visaranai, I didn’t write the script. I just went ahead and shot the film. So, there was very little to plan about. We had it all improvised on the sets and I shot the film in two months, but it took a long time to edit and then pitch it to festivals and then release it. I started the film in August 2014 and we released in February 2016, so it did take a long time in the normal context. Aadukalam took me four years. I lived in Madurai for three years while writing the script. For me, writing is very intuitive and I don’t have a way of going about it. I feel that reading has given me the upper hand in understanding my characters. Like, I’m always ahead of my characters. Every book I’ve read has enriched me.
"The difference between when I was a kid and now is that the content we got to watch wasn’t as varied as what kids are watching today."
My influences in cinema? I personally like and feel I’m influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s work in terms of films. His work has been a very big inspiration.
The big difference between the time when I was a kid and now is that the content we got to watch wasn’t as varied as what young people are watching today. Our content was limited to only Tamil films. But now they get to watch so much and the world has become smaller for them—for everybody—and it’s helping a lot. There are a lot of filmmakers who are influenced by Korean films. In Tamil, all the short filmmakers who became feature filmmakers are highly influenced by Korean films. Remaking is not a bad thing as compared to plagiarism. I really appreciate Nalan (Kumarasamy) for buying the rights of a film and remaking it. Now, there are people who have become very conscious and aware—they are respecting the original creator and they even get rights from Hollywood studios to make films.
I think being arbitrary is the quality of any language. If it doesn’t get influenced, if it doesn’t pick up, doesn’t evolve, doesn’t change, doesn’t add from outside, then it’s a dead language. Then people can’t speak that language. If people are speaking a language, then it’s arbitrary. Everyday, a language adds and leaves out a few things, which have become obsolete. That’s what a language is. Filmmaking is also a language. And that language keeps changing and evolving. You can’t say there is a dead-end here or a corner. Content, of course, will never get obsolete. Everyday we have new issues, everyday we are dealing with them.
As told to Ajay Sukumaran
Know Your Auteur
National-award winning director Vetri Maaran, 41, began making Visaranai, the Tamil film which is India’s entry to the Oscars this year, as a quickie. The film, which takes a raw look at a police interrogation, has picked up three national awards—for best feature film in Tamil, best supporting actor and best editing—and has had a successful run at international film festivals too.
Visaranai, believe it or not, is only the third film Vetri Maaran has directed in a nearly two-decade-long career in films—the longish gaps between his movies, he once told an interviewer, were because it took him time to come out of one film and dive into a new one. But he’s been picking up awards on the trot. His 2011 film, Aadukalam, won him a best director award while its star Dhanush bagged a best actor award. The two have been collaborators for long—Dhanush acted in Vetri Maaran’s debut film Polladhavan (2007); together, they donned the role of producer for another national award-winning film, Kaaka Muttai (2015, directed by Manikandan), followed by Visaranai, again a Dhanush production. Currently, Vetri Maaran is filming Vada Chennai starring Dhanush.
Vetri Maaran grew up in Ranipet, a town around 110 km west of Chennai. In the late nineties, he joined veteran filmmaker Balu Mahendra as an assistant on a television series. Vetri Maaran is an avid reader—studying English literature in college, he says, has helped him take an analytical approach towards literary works—and a pigeon lover.