Arun Karthick: Tamil cinema is missing out on small town stories
Indie filmmaker Arun Karthick, whose second venture, Nasir, is the winner of NETPAC and a nominee at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, discusses the indie film space and challenges
The effects of the Coronavirus pandemic are being felt across fields and levels, including cinema. Many, many films have been halted, many others finding it hard to get a release. An indie film made in Coimbatore by a young filmmaker, Arun Karthick, is among them.
Arun, with just two films, has already made his presence felt in the indie space. While his debut, Sivapuranam (2016), an abstract story of a loner, is all set to stream on MUBI India from April 26, his second and latest venture, Nasir, is doing the rounds at festivals. It was selected as one of the ten nominees in the International Film Festival Rotterdam (2020) for the Tiger award, and is the winner of the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (NETPAC) award for the Best Asian Film. The film was also chosen to be screened at the 49th Edition of New Directors/ New Films, North America's biggest film festival organised by the Museum of Modern Arts. It has also won a grant of €50,000 as part of the Netherlands Film Fund (NFF) and Hubert Bals Fund (HBF) Co-production Scheme, which makes this film the first Indo-Dutch co-production venture.
Excerpts from a conversation with the filmmaker:
There is little precedence in the Tamil indie cinema circuit. How did you begin your journey?
I come from a film society background. There was one called Konangal in Coimbatore. It was exhibiting world cinema for more than 10 years. When in Class 11, I chanced upon an Italian film called 8 1/2. Though I couldn't understand anything, the images stuck with me for weeks and created unfathomable feelings. That experience led me to watch more such movies, and I was fascinated by the vastness of it all. This was the starting point.
We don't ask mainstream filmmakers whether they watch parallel cinema, but indie filmmakers face this question always.
I don't follow mainstream cinema much, but I look out for the good ones. In my opinion, we don't have many good mainstream films as such. I am not saying cinema should only be in a certain way. Epdi venaa irukalaam, but the filmmakers should stop taking the audience for a ride. Mainstream films are still about the stars, and the range of stories they can do. Attempts to break the wheel are very few in number. I recently watched the Malayalam film, Ayyappanum Koshiyum, and found it thoroughly engaging. In Tamil, we don't get to see such stories.
But surely, you wouldn't want cinema to be constricted to a type, right?
It is a fascist notion to say cinema should only be in a certain way. I am not saying Tamil cinema should have only abstract films or artistic ones. There is no problem with melodrama or making something entertaining. Abstraction and melodrama are just techniques to convey a story. I am saying that with such a good film watching culture, we are still not making a lot of good movies. However, many independent filmmakers have now started to make such attempts.
Why did you choose your hometown in Coimbatore to be your place of work?
Chennai, Madurai, and sometimes, Coimbatore... Other than such places, stories from other districts or places don't make it to Tamil cinema at all. It is not necessary to be in Chennai to make films. There are many small-town stories -- like the clash between the traditions and modernism in such places. Also, all the towns now look like cities. This representation is missing in the mainstream. That's the reason I chose to remain here. Although it can be argued that there are more opportunities in Chennai, working from the place you belong to or familiar with, gives you a perspective. I at least know what I am talking about.
Have you ever thought of making a film in the mainstream?
I don't make such decisions -- like deciding I am going to do this film for this set of audience. For me, the story takes over everything. And the story that I am going to choose depends on my engagement with life at that point in time. It would be a story I want to express and not something I do just because a hero or a producer is offering me an opportunity. My next film is going to be about an incident that happened in my home town. The cast and the demands will be based on what the story wants.
How do you go about choosing technicians?
I generally need to work with people I look up to... they have to add value to my films. Even during my short-film phase, I only collaborated with technicians who are senior to me. For Sivapuranam, I worked with an editor called Arghya Basu, one of my favorite documentary filmmakers from India. He used to be an editing faculty at FTII, Pune. I chose such people for Sivapuranam because I knew the film was going to be complex and I needed people who knew how cinematography and editing patterns could construct the meaning of a film.
You have never worked with any technicians from Tamil cinema...
There are technicians who are good at working with the logics and working patterns of Tamil mainstream cinema. The same can be said about sound. But I usually meet other technicians at film festivals and look out for the best talents out there. That is how we collaborate. Most of them I have worked with come from an academic background and they are experienced. They add value to your work and bring in new perspectives. They also charge a lot. For Nasir, we went one step further and mixed the film and did colour correction in Amsterdam.
So, do you think filmmaking needs academic qualification?
So, I am just a Class 12 standard pass-out-- uneducated in the eyes of society. But indha edathula naan kekkarathu, 'What is education?' For cinema, education can be obtained from watching films and reading about cinema. Also, this is a field where you have to practise a lot. If you are asking about a degree or a certificate for filmmaking, no, those were never necessary for making films. In my opinion, if one has to make a cinema, they should learn all the aspects... the nuts and bolts of the trade. That holds true for any field in the world.
The mainstream notion of cinema is entertainment and business, and a layman might wonder what's the purpose of making a film that doesn't release or make money...
At the end of the day, cinema is business; I am not denying that. These indie films always had a market though, and we are realising it only now. There are platforms where they can be exhibited and there is an audience for such work. You learn about such things as you start making films in this space.