Thamizh Talkies: When the pen isn’t thought to be mighty
The writer is a former journalist who has worked in the film industry for several years and is passionate about movies, music and everything related to entertainment
Lalgudi Karuppaiah Gandhi from the recent blockbuster LKG will go down in the history of Tamil cinema as one of the most memorable characters, second only to Amavasai of Amaidhi Padai. Sathyaraj lent his trademark villainy to one of his iconic roles ever, while, in LKG, RJ Balaji lends his trademark humour. It’s not just humour that Balaji straddles with ease; it’s also his mettle in the serious scenes. The writing in LKG (credited to Balaji and friends) ensures we are invested in the protagonist’s journey: his good, bad, ugly and beautiful moments and in that of the other characters who are in this journey with him. LKG is an example of what good writing does to a film — it makes us invest our time and attention, and of course, our money.
But ask around to find out how much writers are being paid in Tamil films and you’ll be surprised with the low numbers. There is also huge pressure on directors to have the writing and direction credits. From the cinema of 60s till now, only good writers have made it big as directors. I can give you a whole list of names and you will know why these twin art forms of writing and direction got bunched up as one big prerequisite to judge the quality of a filmmaker. Till the end of the 50s, films in Tamil and Telugu were primarily drawn from mythologies and big studios like Vijaya Vauhini, Gemini and Prasad would engage a team of writers to come up with the story, screenplay, and dialogues and have someone else direct it. With time, when our cinema became hero-centric, it also became director-centric. The first director who hired a separate dialogue writer for the films he wrote was perhaps CV Sridhar who himself was a talented writer. The writer who became famous was Chitralaya Gopu, whose name became synonymous with Sridhar’s production banner that churned out one superhit after another.
Cut to the arrival of K Balachander in the late 60s and 70s, who redefined screenwriting and had a big list of credits to his name including story, screenplay, dialogue, and direction. He was ably followed by Bharathiraja with his signature-style village films and then came his protégé, K Bhagyaraj. In the 80s there was also Mahendran and Balu Mahendra and then came Mani Ratnam, who made an effort again to engage with writers for the dialogues. A writer whose stories and screenplays were a big hit long before he turned director is Kamal Haasan. The films produced in his Raajkamal Films International bear testimony to his association with dialogue writers like Crazy Mohan and Sujatha (Rangarajan). Writing fiction is no easy task. But unlike with the cinema of Europe or the West, Tamil films do not engage with writers with as much importance as they should.
It’s almost a loss of credibility for a director if the writing credit is not added to his or her name. Why? Producers think they are paying one person for the job of two but when the job itself requires two heads to work on it, why not give it more focus? Writing is the blueprint for the main construction; only when it works will the film work. If it’s not on paper, rest assured that it will never ever find it’s way on to the shooting floor. The script is the single most important document a film will have and the person penning it must be treated so as well. It doesn’t matter if the director is not the writer of the film. What’s important is how a director is able to ‘treat’ the writing and bring a certain magic to what’s being filmed.
Being able to write a scene with staging, the action points, the dialogues and the endpoint which connects one scene to the other, is a crucial talent but one which often gets hidden under other key talents involved in the making of a film. Those other talents are written here in order of importance or market value in Tamil cinema, namely, the hero, the director, and producer. If the director and writer are the same person, it’s a bonus, yes, but the two jobs must be evaluated individually.
The day a producer decides to invest in a writer and a script ahead of paying advance to a star-hero is the day Tamil cinema will see a high like Malayalam films (the recent Kumbalangi Nights is a great example) or Hindi cinema in the last 15 years. Though this happens in part in Tamil, it’s not yet the norm.