‘Now that I have made my first film, I’m ready to die’
Three directors who made strong debuts this year—P Virumandi, RDM, and Desingh Periyasamy—come together for this special year-end conversation, as they discuss struggles, inspirations, & future plans
As the thousands who pour into Chennai every year with directorial aspirations can attest, making your first film can be quite an ordeal. It’s harder still in the present, when theatres are not fully open, when a raging, ever-evolving pandemic continues to stunt the economy. And yet, as Dumbledore said in Harry Potter, “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” In 2020, a year quite detrimental to cinema, there is still the delightful footnote of first-time directors delivering some impressive work, including films like Dharala Prabhu, Andhaghaaram, Sethum Aayiram Pon, and Oh My Kadavule. For this special year-end session, we managed to bring together three of the many impressive debutants this year, P Virumandi (Ka Pae Ranasingham), RDM (Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban), and Desingh Periyasamy (Kannum Kannum Kollaiyadithaal), in conversation.
What did you all think of each other’s films?
P Virumandi: I caught Kannum Kannum at a night show, and while I’m hardly one to stay awake past 9 pm, I was totally involved with this film. Sorry brother (glances at director RDM), I couldn’t catch your film. I look forward to it. I think it’s great that we are all together in conversation here. I offer my gratitude to nature for making this happen, despite the tough year we have all encountered.
Desingh Periyasamy: I was quite impressed with how Virumandi made such a striking feature film from the sort of idea most producers will be reluctant to take on. About Kaavalthurai Ungal Nanban, I’m frightened of police brutality and so, haven’t mustered up the courage to catch the film. I love the sarcasm behind the title (Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban) though.
RDM: Thank you. I floated the idea of this film and was astonished at how many people had bad things to say about their experience with the police department. About the other two films, I enjoyed watching Kannum Kannum… at Albert. I found the messaging in Ka Pae to be really fresh; it was an educative experience for me.
And what a year to make your debut films in!
Virumandi: I was a co-director in Aramm and helped shoot portions in Airaa as well. My debut film has been coming for many years, and I wish it had come out in theatres because the message might have reached rural people who need to understand these issues. I might also have had the joy of watching my friends and relatives in Madurai enjoy the theatre experience and be proud of me. But it’s all right. My mom saw this film and hugged me and cried. I cried too. Adhu podhum.
Desingh: I signed Kannum Kannum… in 2015. It has been a long wait, but I’m delighted with the reception for this film.
RDM: I worked on another film from 2013 to 2018, but it ran into problems. My hero in Kavalthurai… and I borrowed about 50 lakhs on interest and began making this film. We had to seek another producer’s help to finish it. It was to come out last Deepavali but then, there was another delay. And then, the coronavirus happened. Director Vetrimaaran saw the film and stepped in to aid its release, and now, finally it’s out in theatres.
A striking feature in all your films is how unusual the protagonist is. In Ka Pae… it’s a woman trying to fight the system to retrieve the body of her husband. In Kannum Kannum… it is a group of thieves. In Kavalthurai… it’s an everyday man, helpless in his fight against the powers that be.
RDM: I wanted to show the perspective of a commoner. Also, I wanted to depict the police station as a haunted house that people are frightened of stepping into.
Virumandi: The objective was always to show a real place, real people, real struggles. When I heard a friend tell me about how village families wait for months to get back the body of a loved one, I was shocked. I put in months of research and would hang out by the cargo vessel each day to see bodies coming down in dozens and sobbing relatives accept them. Stories are all the better when writers and filmmakers spend time to understand the realities of the world.
I thought I sensed a certain frustration with the system from each of your protagonists.
RDM: Some even told me that they wished that my protagonist beat up that power-hungry cop many more times. They wanted me to destroy that police station as well.
Virumandi: This adequately answers the question, I think.
RDM: (Smiles) Some others said I could have been more subtle in my critique of such people.
Virumandi: Nonsense! You keep going, brother. You make your voice felt and remember never to soften your blows.
Any concerns about censor trouble?
Virumandi: I stepped into their office with fear and asked them if they liked my film. Someone retorted that I shouldn’t be asking such questions. I was asked just to mute two or three dialogues, especially the one in the climax (not muted in the OTT version). But I was fine with these changes.
RDM: They helped me, infact. Even with those dialogues they felt were troublesome, they suggested alternatives.
I liked that all your films showed an evident concern for the lives of women.
Virumandi: In Madurai and beyond, from what I have seen, if you hit a woman, she will hit you back. They are seen as equals. I wanted to show this in my film. Vijay Sethupathi heard the story and told me that I needed to change nothing. I believe that women are braver and stronger than men. More than my friends and brothers, it is my wife and mother who stuck with me through thick and thin. I wanted to show all these women in Ariyanaachi (Aishwarya Rajesh’s character in Ka Pae…).
Desingh: I had no preconceived ideas on how I should show women. I had four central characters (two men, two women) who were all important to the film. I did, however, feel the need to try and justify why these women were stealing, why they were weaponising society’s horrible gaze of them.
RDM: I wanted to show that women are frightened of the police station and are shocked when a male family member has anything to do with the place. I wanted also to briefly dig into this idea of how a woman is discouraged from being anywhere near a police station.
Virumandi and Desingh, both your films are well over the 2 hour-30 minutes mark. Any concerns that in today’s world with reducing attention spans, people may be put off by the length?
Desingh: The producer told me that he would like my film to run for not more than 2 hours and 10 minutes (laughs). I stuck to my guns though and believed in the story.
Virumandi: I might have faced similar issues had my film come out in the theatres, but as we decided to go with an OTT release, I was allowed the freedom to tell the story the way I wanted to. Director Cheran said he loved the ‘commercial’ touches even though my film had such a realistic premise. I was clear from the beginning that as I was taking a sword into a battlefield, I would remember to swing it, and not sit by the wayside. It didn’t matter whether or not it would affect my prospects as a filmmaker. I have made my first film as I wanted to; I’m prepared to die now.
RDM: I approached my film similarly. Some in the police department have not taken kindly to my film, as you can imagine. I have been receiving lots of messages on social media. But it doesn’t matter. I wanted to bring out an emotion everybody was already feeling. I think I have done that.
Where do you go from here?
Virumandi: I hope to make a film more hardhitting than Ranasingham, a film that also speaks about a real problem. I would view that to be progress.
Desingh: I hope to retain the goodwill I got with Kannum Kannum...
RDM: I hope to explore more stories from the perspective of a commoner. I don’t necessarily want them to be message-y. Desingh’s film reminds me of the power of entertainment too.
Thank you for accepting my invitation to take part in this conversation. And thank you for the films.
Virumandi: Thank you. I wish that the virus eases up, that theatres become safe again, that more filmmakers like us can make their arrival felt.
RDM and Desingh: Hear, hear.