Sudha Kongara: Women have to work twice as hard for half the credit
The filmmaker, who’s basking in the success of her Suriya film, Soorarai Pottru, offers much insight into her persona and her style of work in this exclusive post-release interview
When you talk with another for a reasonable length of time, no matter the topic under discussion, they always end up spilling insights about themselves. During an exclusive hour-long conversation with director Sudha Kongara about Soorarai Pottru, I learned quite a bit about her. For one, she’s—and it’s a relief for an interviewer—not one for diplomacy. Speaking about Drohi, her debut film from about a decade ago, I mention that it didn’t exactly get well-received. She laughs it off: “You don’t have to be sweet. Padam oothikichu.” This isn’t to suggest that she thinks it’s a bad film—not at all. The film had a bad release, she says, and that’s why she still doesn’t have a sense of closure about it. That’s why, even today, when someone approaches her with a compliment about later films (that she knows are good in an obvious way) like Irudhi Suttru or Soorarai Pottru, she can only muster a weak smile in response. But if you tell her that you love Drohi (like a stranger once did when she was eating chaat with her friend, director Thiagarajan Kumararaja), she gets elated. She likens her debut, Drohi, to a tennis player’s first serve. It’s raw, powerful and for that reason, prone to a fault. Ten years on, she thinks her films are now like second serves. They are smarter, more calculated, and consequently, come with more accuracy.
I learned that Sudha is quite relatable as a person who has had to endure many a difficulty before making it in the film industry, “taken many hits”, as she puts it. That’s why she told Suriya, who faces the insulating consequences of stardom, that should he seek inspiration on how to emote as an average person on the streets would, all he needed was to talk to her. She pours into her films quite a bit from her own life, she says. For instance, there’s a scene in Soorarai Pottru in which the protagonist Maaran’s father communicates wordlessly. It’s inspired by her father (who passed away during the making of this film and to whom there’s a dedication at the beginning), who kept calling out to her at the end, though he couldn’t speak.
I learned that her first hit film, Irudhi Suttru, was made on sets full of detractors: second-tier crew members who didn’t understand what she was doing. “It was all quite unpleasant,” she recalls and notes that she went on unperturbed not because she had a “thick skin but a primal desire for survival”. I point out that it’s a breakthrough here that a woman filmmaker has made a tentpole film like Soorarai Pottru armed with big-budget theatre moments. She talks about being a fan of filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Mani Ratnam (who she has assisted), and Ram Gopal Varma, and says she is influenced by them all. She’s naturally disappointed that this film didn’t come out in theatres. “But it’s okay. People are celebrating the film in a different way now.”
I learned that she likes her screenplays to be non-linear in structure (perhaps influenced by Mani Ratnam and his non-linear films like Alai Payuthey and Aaytha Ezhuthu?). In the case of Soorarai Pottru, the life of Captain Gopinath, on whom the film is based, is so extensive that she says a chronological approach would have left them with far too much to cover. That’s why she says the only question she focussed on was: Will this man realise his dream of making Indian passengers fly for Rs. 1? “Beginning the film with a pre-climax scene serves to throw the audience straight into the deep end. It liberates me as a writer and frees me to go on to observe multiple facets of life, like his romance or his relationship with parents.” She points out with some love that her first film, Drohi, had the same structure.
I learned that Sudha enjoys observing stories through the lens of reality. It’s why she needed Suriya to emote not like a star, but like an average citizen. “He’s a star who can turn cute, cheerful or sad on cue, but I needed him to feel every moment. We focussed on utilising his eyes as they are the windows to one’s soul. And what eyes Suriya has!” While another tentpole film would have transformed the protagonist’s anger towards a rigged system into over-the-top mass moments, Soorarai Pottru consistently refuses to do this. “I did not want this real story to become a jacka** of a film. The idea was to tell youngsters that no matter their background, if they dream a dream, it can be realised. If this idea had not resonated with them, then my three years working on this film would have been useless.” This is why she wrapped the business dynamics in this film with an emotional blanket.
I learned that Sudha isn’t a believer in superstitions. Her director credit flashes in Soorarai Pottru while a dead body is being carried away in procession, the music rising to a crescendo. “It’s fun!” she says. “Drohi’s title isn’t exactly auspicious either. Neither is Irudhi Suttru for that matter. I remember that Mani Ratnam wanted Iruvar to be named Irudhi Varai, but they said the title had negative connotations. For Soorarai Pottru, a positive title that was being suggested was Uchcha Kattam, but I preferred this.”
From films like Irudhi Suttru and Soorarai Pottru, we learned that Sudha is a believer in showing feminine strength, in standing up for gender equality. In this interview, she expands on this: “The male fantasy is to see the woman as a ‘loosu’; my fantasy is to see equality, which I believe to be a reality. There’s a scene in this film in which Maaran’s character is shown to borrow money from his wife, and many writers in my team suggested that we delete the scene, given that a star like Suriya was playing the role. I refused to remove that scene and pointed out that the writer’s room was being headed by a woman (herself).” It’s also to be noted that both Bommi and Madhi (Irudhi Suttru) are feisty women. “I guess that’s how I like women. Perhaps I’m feisty too. I don’t subscribe to ‘coy’. My writer, Shalini, is feisty as well. That’s why we write these women.”
I learned that even if she doesn’t shoot full-fledged song-and-dance routines, Sudha is an admirer of songs and the purpose they serve (she considers her short in the anthology, Putham Pudhu Kaalai, to be a musical). The freedom she’s accorded to make films today means that “nobody is putting a gun to the head and making demands about songs”. In Soorarai Pottru, while there are flourishes in how she shoots these songs and the characters do a bit of dancing, it’s all kept under a tight leash. “I like my songs to heighten an emotion or take a film forward. Veyyon Silli serves to take you three years of their life.” Given she loves songs as much, isn’t there a temptation to sink longer into them? “I love how Mani (Ratnam) shoots his songs. But no, I stop at this (the way they are shot in Soorarai Pottru). I like this.”
I learned that Sudha is unusual in how gracefully she accepts criticism. When a film is doing as well as Soorarai Pottru with everyone praising it to the skies, it can be unsettling when confronted with criticism—like some who suggest that the villain, Paresh, is too unidimensional. “I accept the criticism,” she says. “I worked as best as I could to bring out the corporate greed element through his character.” She explains that Paresh is a symbol of the privileged and their disgust for the under-privileged. “There’s a scene where I show how he struggles to make peace with his servant sleeping peacefully. I enjoyed trying to understand him, but yes, I accept the criticism and will remember to get better.” Her distaste for those who are snooty towards the under-privileged is evident. “Like that scene in which Suriya is begging for money in the airport and one guy comments, ‘Smelly!’” She says it might have been quite easy for Captain Gopinath to be snobbish about first-time flyers literally flooding the flight or walking into airports with goats (both real incidents). “But he was kind to them and even hired air hostesses who would speak the vernacular, so first-time flyers were made comfortable.”
I learned that Sudha has much love for the vernacular, even she admittedly is a writer who thinks in English. She credits Uriyadi Vijay Kumar for pouring in the soul of Tamil into this script. She harbours much love for Telugu too and speaks of the beauty of the coastal and Telangana dialects. “Converting English into the vernacular languages is difficult. I can easily write, “Don’t hurt me”, like that line from Pretty Woman, but I have no idea how to translate it into the local language. It’s exciting to collaborate with those adept in regional languages.”
Most relevantly to Soorarai Pottru, I learned that she models her underdog protagonists after herself. “This film isn’t specific about the struggle to form an airlines company. It symbolises the struggle of every person who’s trying to achieve a dream—people like me who battled to become a filmmaker. At the end of the film, when that old lady comes out of the flight, I always break down. There’s just so much oppression around, especially when you are a woman. You have to work twice as hard. When I was assisting Mani Ratnam, for no fault of his, I was eager to make sure that I was not being given lesser work, that I was not the receipient of any concessions, that nobody around me felt like I was getting off easy because I was a woman. In fact, I don’t believe I ever went on leave. It’s the oppression of an entire system, isn’t it, that women have to work twice as hard for half the credit? So, yes, I’m the underdog, and these are the stories I think I will always make.”