Suhasini Maniratnam: I cannot think of direction as my day job
The actor-filmmaker, who is making her comeback as a director with Amazon Prime Video's first Tamil anthology, talks about shooting during lockdown
The first question I had asked Suhasini Mani Ratnam when meeting her for an interview two years back was, “Why aren't you directing more?” She had laughed and said it would be a matter of time. And now, two years later, 25 years after her directorial debut, Suhasini has worn the director hat again for Amazon Prime Video's first Tamil Anthology, Putham Pudhu Kaalai. “I began writing short stories in 2009 after taking a course. These were not published but worthy enough to be so. I have kept them to myself, but perhaps OTT is a good place for them.”
In this freewheeling chat, the actor-director talks about her return to filmmaking and what it’s like to work with her own family.
It’s an interesting time to make a comeback as a director, what with the pandemic and restrictions.
Something needs to push me. I was in cinematography for a year before I turned actor. I was an actor for nine years before I stepped into direction. I don't how these four filmmakers (in the anthology) direct every day. I can act every day, but I don't think I can make films as my day job. Maybe that's why it took me so long to come back. This pandemic pushed me into direction again. Direction is a passion for me—a tough hobby.
We know you began writing this story ten years back. What was the starting point, and when did you decide to cast your family?
My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary nine years ago, and the entire family had come together from all corners of the world to celebrate. It was a happy occasion. But I wondered what if this meeting had happened on account of an issue. That seemed like a fascinating premise. Ten years later, the idea of three daughters coming back to see their aging parents made even more sense, especially during a pandemic. We are all anxious about the safety of our family. We are reminded that life is uncertain.
Considering that the story was based on my family, I thought why not cast them? I felt it was easier and a safer option during the pandemic: Anu lives right across my house, and we got Shruthi Haasan communicating digitally. Infection-a carry panradha irundha family kullaye panikkalame nu (laughs).
Anu Haasan, the protagonist in Indira, is part of your short film, Coffee Anyone?, as well.
Glycerin podaamale azhuvaa (laughs)! It was a boon, as glycerin could turn out to be a source of infection. Everyone tells me that I am South India's dhukka puthri. Director Bharathan used to tell me that few people look good when they smile, but that I look good when I cry. However, Anu is a natural. And she never forgets her lines. She will remember her lines even after a year. It was comfortable as I know her potential and strengths.
How was it like to act and direct simultaneously?
I wish you hadn't asked me this question! (laughs) It was so hard. Let me tell you how it goes. I apply glycerine, give the calls to get ready and start the camera, check sound and say, “Scene, action!”, and then move into my part for the scene. It was so difficult that I was cursing myself for being an actor. But it was easy to decide camera shots and positions. Communication was also easier with lesser people involved. But I don't know how people like Bhagyaraj sir or Kamal did it. Kovil than kattanum!
Your sensibilities as a cinematographer must have helped you as well.
You might not know when you see it, but in the film, there are moments which I call 'miracle moments'. I wanted a bright streak of light for such moments. I got crystals, crushed balls of foil, pasted small mirrors on thermal and used other hacks. It was advantageous to this film that I am a cinematography student. It enables me to think from multiple perspectives. But of course, if the story isn't good, nothing will work.
In 25 years, how would you say the direction scene has changed? Also, how have you evolved?
For both projects, I have had strong cameramen: Santhosh Sivan for Indira, and Selvakumar (Mehendi Circus, Dharala Prabhu) for this short. But I had to do so much research to make a film for this generation. I studied a lot about hand-held cameras, steady-cams, gimbals. I read about the different types of shots I could explore. In fact, Mani joked, “Life-la nee ivlo kashtapattu naa paathathe illaye.” I don't know it was necessary, but I did it for my satisfaction.
What was Mani Ratnam’s contribution to this project?
Both of us wrote this script together, so he is familiar with it. As for casting and location, it was all me. This was supposed to be a 20-minute short, but I had 40 minutes of material. Mani and editor Sreekar Prasad brought it down to 20 minutes. Mani also helped me with a lot of ideas, the sort that are different from what you see in a Mani Ratnam film.
Given that Mani Ratnam's films are a universe unto themselves, was it hard to create synergy between your vision and his?
Mani and I have had several creative disagreements, but our sensibilities are the same. I have written for several films of his and we have a good understanding when it comes to emotions. But sometimes, he rejects some of my good dialogues saying it sounds too manufactured. I would be like, “Enakku eppodhaadhu nalla idea varum.” (laughs) But that's something he keeps telling me. The film shouldn't be in your face. In the end though, it comes down to my decisions and choices.