'Short films offer limitless freedom': In conversation with Pa Ranjith and Venkat Prabhu
Producer-director Venkat Prabhu and Pa Ranjith discuss their contributions to the SonyLIV anthology, Victim, and speak of the value of the short film format
The recent SonyLIV anthology, Victim, may not have hit the mark, but it's still an interesting experiment. For one, the filmmakers, who are part of the project, form an unlikely coalition. You have the socially conscious Pa Ranjith, and the genre-hopping Venkat Prabhu presenting the opening and the closing films in this anthology, and in between, you get comedy specialists in Chimbudheven and Rajesh interpreting—even if rather unconvincingly—the idea of a ‘Victim’, in their unique ways. When director Venkat Prabhu and Pa Ranjith joined us for a conversation about this anthology, the title seemed like a good point to begin with:
What does the word ‘Victim’ mean to you?
Ranjith: That’s what I have tried to address with my short film. Originally, we were asked to work within the confines of the thriller genre. Later, when sir (Venkat Prabhu, who Ranjith was an assistant to) came up with the ‘Victim’ title, it felt relevant, and suited my story. My film speaks about how victims sometimes get treated as criminals…
Venkat Prabhu: I didn’t want to restrict filmmakers by making them work with similar ideas. I was the only one to know all the stories in the anthology… I knew that the filmmakers come from different schools of thought. I’m glad we were able to bring everyone’s films under one title. Also, these films were shot during the height of the lockdown, about two years ago.
Did you worry that now, with big-budget expansive films coming out, people may not be so forgiving of a group of ‘lockdown films’?
Venkat Prabhu: I guess we are fortunate that the contained locations of these films fit the stories. (laughs)
Ranjith, in your film, Dhammam, it’s fascinating that the oppressors aren’t painted with a single brush. One is violent, another is reluctant, another asks for sense to prevail…
Ranjith: Every individual has a unique, personal quality that disappears in the face of mass persuasion. The mass mentality creates violence and alters what’s good and bad. In any violent group, you will find at least one person feeling sympathy. And yet, they feel pressurised not to act on the good they feel.
That’s why individuality becomes important?
Ranjith: Absolutely. I call it ‘manidham’. It disappears under coercion and influence. It thrives in freedom.
While on freedom, do you find the short film format to be stifling or freeing?
Ranjith: Limitlessly freeing. If I hadn’t been guaranteed that, I might not have done this short film. In feature films, there are various factors that control what you can do.
Venkat Prabhu: You can do anything in this format, and most importantly, you can do it without dilution. With feature films, we worry about what might get cut…
I remember the early phase when our OTT content would contain sex scenes and abusive dialogues simply because they could get away with it…
Venkat Prabhu: Yeah, all of that felt rather forced in the beginning, no? I think we have come a long way from then. Now, I don’t think that’s the case.
In your short film, Confession, you show a woman (Amala Paul) undressing at home, smoking up and drinking, and having racy telephone conversations… I understand certain sections of the press are grilling you about it.
Venkat Prabhu: (Laughs) I knew even while shooting that such portrayal might be the subject of some conversation. My intention was only to show a girl for who she is and how she’s at home.
Do you think you have vilified that character in the film though?
Venkat Prabhu: I think it’s her own realisation, right or wrong, and one that happens under incredible pressure. Only when we get pushed into a corner do we begin to reflect on our mistakes…
Isn’t there the problem that when such a woman seems to confess to committing mistakes, all her other free choices as a woman get bracketed under wrongdoing as well?
Venkat Prabhu: I never say it’s wrong. I’m not even sure whether she truly thinks those choices were wrong. If any viewer thinks she’s wrong, it’s up to them. I think she’s under pressure in a life-or-death situation, and she thinks like anyone in her position will.
Your film brings a sniper to the party, while Ranjith’s film is rather grounded and speaks of an issue that rings more real. Did you worry that the tonality might dramatically differ from film to film?
Venkat Prabhu: That’s why all of us were clear that we wouldn’t compare our respective films. Let the audience do that. Our point was just to bring different stories and different filmmakers together, and let’s remember, at a time when filmmakers weren’t able to do much.
Ranjith, wasn’t it a problem for you that your film might co-exist with some others that may be at loggerheads with the politics you subscribe to?
Ranjith: Not really. I saw myself only as one of four voices. Just like four different films get played in a theatre and I can’t control what those films are about, four short films are part of the anthology here. Also, I don’t like to restrict other voices. We present four thoughts in the anthology, and one of them is mine.
Chimbutheven’s film in this anthology speaks of a writer trying to make ends meet during the pandemic. Do you both find it strange that we haven’t seen more films dealing with the many facets of the pandemic?
Venkat Prabhu: As you know, I lost my mother during that phase. So many have lost near and dear ones as well. I ask myself why I must translate that pain onto the screen. I think we will begin seeing more films about the pandemic sometime. For that to happen, we must first be sure that the pandemic has gone away.
Ranjith: I don’t think we have made peace with the pandemic yet. It needs to be digested by all of us. And that will take time.
Do you make any distinction between big-budget features and fairly small-budget work such as this?
Venkat Prabhu: I began my career with a small project called Chennai-600028 (both laugh).
Ranjith: And I began with Attakathi (continues laughing). When people would ask us what we were shooting, I remember saying we were making a serial. But look at how that turned out. I think we should see every project as artistic expression, regardless of the budget that has gone into its making.