Sethum Aayiram Pon director Anand Ravichandran: If we stopped fearing death, life would be better
Debutant director Anand Ravichandran talks about his Netflix film Sethum Aayiram Pon, which is receiving positive reviews
Watching Sethum Aayiram Pon and the depth and detail that has gone into the depiction of rural life, you would think director Anand Ravichandran grew up in a village. "I grew up in the city actually, and did a Masters in Business. Advertisements and theatre happened, and so did the transition to cinema," says Anand who thinks that the film’s release during the lockdown is actually working in its benefit.
An idea takes shape
‘To be honest, doing a film in such a rural backdrop was not the original plan. Through a friend, I got to know about Wishberry Films, a pioneer in the crowdfunding space. They wanted to do regional films, and I sent them a synopsis. I was surprised when they liked it and thus began the research.”
“We knew that with the budget in hand, we could not rope in stars, and so, we knew a theatrical release was out of the question too. While similar films like Kaaka Muttai or Sillu Karupatti had the backing of established production houses, we knew that with our film, even if it did the rounds at festivals, a theatrical release would not be guaranteed.
When we began shooting two years back, OTT platforms were more open to buying such indie films but by the time we finished work, even they began showing more interest in commercial films. They spend a fortune on buying films with bankable faces. Since they spend so much on such films, they hardly have any budget left for smaller films. In this situation, Netflix’s purchase of our film came as a huge surprise.”
Parallels across the world
“I was doing secondary research for another script when I got to know about dying art forms of different countries. I visited an Ethiopian restaurant in the US whose wall murals were of their traditional wear which seemed quite similar to ours. Their food is variations of our kambu dosa, paruppu, kootu, keerai... They also have ‘oppari’ and danced in their funerals. I figured out that similar customs exist in other rice-eating nations. Even South American countries follow a concept similar to ‘oppari’ and Asian countries such as Japan and China adorn the dead with makeup. As Tamil is the oldest language, I believe that we began these rituals.”
The search in research
“I also learned that ‘oppari’ is a dying art form and the makeup process for the dead is almost wiped out. It seemed like a good premise for our story. We spoke to ‘oppari’ singers in Madurai who complained that youngsters wanted no part in it. Their songs too have become more commercialised. Ippo adhu oru jaadhi saarndha vishayam aagiduchu. I did not want to make it seem like a documentary; so, as a parallel narrative, we brought in the make-up scene from the film industry, where local artists are still not treated with much respect.
I also realised how connected we are to the Western world. They talk about the deceased at their funeral, while we have the ‘oppari’. We dress up the dead in their favourite clothes like they do. It’s a beautiful custom that has unfortunately become thought of as a bad omen. I cannot listen to an ‘oppari’ in my house without my family objecting to it. The singers we use in the film are original ‘oppari’ singers. I gave them a description of the dead character and they sang immediately. They may not know how to write, but they have great command over the Tamil language.”
Coming up with the characters
“The protagonist, Meera, represents the agitated millenials. We conducted auditions and zeroed in on Nivedhithaa Sathish who I had earlier seen in Magalir Mattum. The toughest job was to find the grandmother character. I wanted someone who could adapt to the dialect and memorise songs, so we looked for dubbing artists. We got to know about Srilekha Rajendran ma'am, a veteran dubbing artist. She is the one who gave voice to Sornakka in Dhool. Many of the others were drama artistes from Madurai.”
Shooting in extreme conditions
“It was extremely hard to shoot this film. We shot in June in Ramanathapuram with temperatures averaging at around 43 degrees. A crew member bled from his nose. I needed such a harsh setting because the film is about the concept of death. The relationship between the protagonists is also dead; the art form is also dead.
The villages had almost no facilities for the cast and crew. Everyone was supportive despite the limitations. We shot in a village called Appanur where there is no water. I think the has a population of a few hundreds. Thankfully, the local people were accommodative. Yedho pasanga panraanganu, they helped us a lot (smiles).”
“Death, being inevitable, has to be celebrated. In the process of fearing death, we engage in many disagreeable acts. If we embraced death, life would be better. The idea was for the germination of a new beautiful thing from death: Here, it's the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter. Everything around the film signifies negativity -- be the relationship, artform or the backdrop. Something growing in such a dead place was the irony I wanted to bring in, apart from the parallels between how a makeup artist for the dead are revered while those in the film industry are disrespected. I was keen that I not do certain things -- such as touch the caste angle or portray that city life is bad or show how only village life is the best. Even after the climax, the story has an open end. It's up to the audience to decide whether Meera leaves to the city or remains in the village.”