Ashwin Saravanan: I want people to understand that direction is a job by itself
The director discusses his films, the upcoming Game Over, his first, Maya, and of course, his long-delayed Iravaakalam and how it affected him
Just as our interview is about to begin, Ashwin Saravanan walks in, clutching a copy of Driven: The Virat Kohli Story. It’s a word that could well define Ashwin himself. He stepped into cinema, after quitting his software job. His first film Maya (2015) was a huge hit, and the trailer of his second film, Iravaakaalam, also sparked good responses. However, the delay in the film's release meant that every conversation with Ashwin inevitably veered to that subject. The filmmaker admits it was tough to come out of it. "Every filmmaker is a control freak. This is the worst situation for a filmmaker to be in," he says. In fact, he began isolating himself as repeated explanations became exhausting. "Imagine people seeing you pregnant, and then, one day, your baby vanishes. Everyone keeps asking what happened to it." However, he wouldn’t be stopped. "If a person under house arrest can make a film and premiere it in Cannes, what is to stop me? I will continue to tell stories no matter what." And he now returns with the Tamil-Telugu bilingual, Game Over, starring Taapsee Pannu, which is also releasing in Hindi (dubbed).
The spark for Game Over’s story came from the image of a woman in a wheelchair. Interestingly, the first shot in Maya also has a woman in a wheelchair...
The final shot is the same too! I didn't make the connection until people started asking me about it after the first look was released. It’s an interesting connection but it wasn't intentional. I don't know; there might be something to it. (smiles)
Both your films have female protagonists. While it wasn't intentional in Maya, you were particular that GO should have a woman lead. Any concerns they could stereotype you?
I don't mind it actually. There are two kinds of women-centric cinema: Ones that deal with problems faced by women, like Pink or Magalir Mattum (1994), and ones which have a female lead but doesn't deal with a women-centric theme. Game Over falls somewhere in the middle. While it is a genre film, there are a few themes in the film that a male protagonist could not have experienced. It doesn't directly address problems that women face, but the subtext caters to it. First and foremost though, it is a thriller.
In fact, I am looking forward to a day when the tag, ‘woman-centric’, becomes no longer needed. We should just have films, that have men and women participate in equal measure.
Your debut film, Maya, was one of Nayanthara's first solo hits. It may not be a stretch to say that it quite sparked off her wave of lead roles.
In Maya, I think we needed her more than she needed us. I am not sure that the film would have received the same amount of traction if it had featured another star. I think great films happen when good material finds a good actor, but it doesn't happen all the time. As a filmmaker, one needs to be lucky. The production's support also matters -- I didn't think I could approach a star like her. They were the ones who pushed me towards it. When unorthodox content meets a mainstream star, it acquires a different flavour and hits the sweet spot. I am grateful that she agreed to do it.
Our directors quite like the 'writer-director' credit. Game Over sees you sharing writing credits with Kaavya Ramkumar.
There's no denying that there is immense pride in saying 'written and directed by' for every filmmaker. I had that too. It got broken when I looked at people like Martin Scorcese and Spielberg who directed classics, being comfortable with just the 'director' tag. It got easier for me to let go of that high. It’s important to find the right co-writer though. There aren't many screenwriters who want to just write. I really liked Kaavya's short stories — she writes dark, unorthodox characters well. I felt that wackiness could really be useful in Game Over.
I really do want people to understand that direction is a job by itself. Writing and directing are two different disciplines. People should also never ask a director, “What have you done in this film, considering you haven't written it?”
Talking about directors being respected for what they do, does the industry encourage directors who just want to direct?
When starting out, it is almost impossible, unless you are a part of the industry or the son of someone powerful. When you are an outsider, it is always best to have your own material because then, you will have something to offer. If you approach a production house and say I want to just direct, they will ask, "Kadhai illama en vandhinga?" As this perspective exists, there is a compulsion that one needs to write to be taken seriously as a storyteller. I am not blaming anyone, but this conditions us to write our own material. I hope all this changes.
The scream that scared Ashwin
‘The way Taapsee screams in the film, I wasn't sure if she was acting or if she was actually hurt. When shooting sensitive stunt sequences, you want the actor to be all right. Taapsee screamed with such intensity that I got scared. I called 'cut' a few times thinking she was hurt.’
Did it make any difference that Taapsee didn't know the language?
It is a luxury to work with an actor who knows the language and can improvise with it. It doesn't happen all the time. But the beauty is when there is a crutch like this, they offer something else that you can't get from anyone. It all balances out in the end. In Taapsee's case, even though she will disagree, she owned the language in the minimal dialogues she has. She likes the challenge and since we were also shooting in Telugu, she had the emotional clarity and could grasp the pacing. I don't mind going through it again.
While I do agree that something gets lost in dubbing usually, Deepa Venkat has done a tremendous job for Game Over. She is a brilliant artist with whom I can relax as I know that she will deliver. In fact, she dubbed for Maya in just a day or two. It took me months to get Taapsee's original voice out of my head; I had cut the film with that voice. But Deepa's emotional intensity is something else. She has enhanced an already good performance more.