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Dindigul I Leoni: Debate shows on news channels are just another form of pattimandram- Cinema express

Dindigul I Leoni: Debate shows on news channels are just another form of pattimandram 

The veteran orator speaks about making his acting comeback after 25 years with the recently released Panni Kutty​ 

Published: 07th July 2022

Tamil festivals might mean a slew of big releases for cinephiles across the state, but for those who enjoy the holiday at home with their loved ones, special television programs have become a staple and pattimandrams are an integral part of it. Though many names have been attached to the social-debate shows now, the most famous ones are Dindigul I Leoni and Solomon Pappaiah. Interestingly, both of them have had a tryst with Tamil cinema and have starred in two films each. For Leoni, who made his acting debut with Ganga Gowri (1997), it took him 25 years to return to the silver screen. 

Excerpts from the conversation:

A lot of filmmakers might have approached you after Ganga Gowri...

I did get a few chances and I even starred in Kathir sir's Kadhalar Dhinam as a debate judge. I shot for 11 days in Bangalore with 2000 students in attendance. Kaloori kadhal sugam anadha, sumai anadhanu dhaan thalaipu. Kunal will support the topic while Chinni Jayanth would talk against it. Sonali Bendre's character listening to that and falling in love with Kunal's was the original scene.

I was in Toronto, Canada for a show and found time to watch this film. But I was surprised to see that the scene never made the cut (laughs). I later spoke to Kathir sir who said it had to be spliced because of length issues. The film had a lot of comedians and probably this sequence might have toned those scenes down. Similarly, I got the chance to play a role in Rajinikanth sir's Sivaji. They had asked for six months of my time but I couldn't get permission from the school I was working at. Pattimandram Raja played the role later. But I'm glad that Panni Kutty happened and I have also completed a film named Aalambana which is once again a full-length character. 

What about Panni Kutty got you intrigued?

I particularly enjoyed Anucharan's Kirumi. I got his contact and congratulated him. He said he would meet me soon and he later called to talk about this role in his upcoming film. He said it was a character that says similar things to what I would do in my debate shows and it was written keeping me in mind. 

I also considered cinema to be a mass media and a message I would tell my students in school would reach an exponentially large audience if I said that in a film, even if it's a small character. I was convinced with the character and I gave my nod. I play a godman who instils confidence in others. At the same time, people would expect a lot of humour, body language and voice modulation from me and the character was designed to have all of that. I also had a great time working with actors like Karunakaran, Ramar and Thangadurai. 

Despite playing such a role, you are someone who has often spoken about communism and supported left-wing politics. How was it to play a character with contrasting ideologies?

I was inspired by MR Radha's acting when I tried to get into the skin of this character. In a film, he too would have played a godman but would share a lot of progressive ideas. He would make fun of how people would gift offerings to the god but take it back with them when they go. A line of his would go "Kovil undiyal la kaasu podra satham mattum dhaan saami ku kekudhu, oru paisa saami kaila kudukurangalanu paaru" (laughs). My character too felt similar and even if I am playing a godman, I want to share good thoughts and ideas. Swami Vivekananda and Nithyananda are both godmen but Vivekananda's principles changed the world while Nithyananda's changes were something else. 

Right from the black and white era, we have had comedians who have made us both laugh and think. Do you think that has changed now?

Yes, comedy in films has now become a collection of jokes and one-liners. Messages have almost become non-existent in comedy sequences. Moreover, after Vadivelu's innings, gone are the days when there were separate tracks for humour. Now the comedians are pushed to play side characters like that of the lead's friend. I believe we can bring back tracks and people will enjoy it. I also want to write those tracks and scripts under that genre. 

Despite not acting in films, you haven't been far from the industry. Even your son recently starred in Maamanithan. How do you think our films have evolved over time?

Tamil cinema has seen a humongous change over the years. Instead of relying on heroes, we now have films that are story-oriented and exhibit the actual vision of the filmmaker. People have now started watching films for the technical prowess of aspects like music and cinematography and this has improved the quality of films. That said, Tamil films haven't become content-rich when compared to Malayalam or Korean films. I wish Tamil films get to a level where the subtitled or dubbed version of our products succeeds in other states and countries. 

That said, we have started making more films on politics and social awareness. There was a time filmmakers thought people wouldn't welcome such films but they are the ones that are bringing us worldwide recognition. Films like Jai Bhim, Karnan and Asuran carried a powerful message which is equivalent to books written by professors. Dalit cinema is a much-needed voice. I can feel the aftereffects of Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali reverberating now. 

Speaking about evolution, do you think pattimandrams have also changed?

They have become a common form now. Now, each district has at least 10 groups. Earlier there used to be just 5-6 judges - like me, Solomon Pappaiah, Suki Sivam and Gnanasambandam. Now, there are so many and that makes me happy as it's nice to see the art being relevant. All the debate shows on news channels are just another form of pattimandram. I'm glad that its form is still in trend. But the topics that are being discussed aren't as important as they used to be. I believe there should be no compromise when it comes to content in debates. We were keen on keeping the topics simpler so it reaches the masses. We stuck to topics like whether it's right or wrong to consider a wife as a mother figure or if it's alright to desire everything in life. I remember seeing an OTT platform hosting a pattimandram and there couldn't be a bigger boost for this form as it means the audience can get on the internet and see it whenever they want. It's unlike our earlier shows that would come on television just for one day and the people didn't have the option to visit that episode again. Now, they are available on YouTube and if 10,000 people are seeing the show on television, that video is garnering a million views online.  

What's the future of the debate form?

The problems of people have also updated over the year. We have newer issues thanks to changes like social media, relying on mobile phones and online classes. We never expected these changes to happen a few decades ago. Earlier, if one had to withdraw money, they had to stand in a queue and get it from a money teller, but now those transactions have become far easier. Similarly, we have updated the topics we would like to discuss too. A topic such as between vegetarian and meat, which is a better diet for humans, might sound simple. But when we deliver non-stop content for two hours, it will be a revelation for many. We are evolving too!

Favourite Five

Song: 'Vazhkkai Ennum Odam' - Poompuhar (1964)

Singer: SP Balasubrahmanyam

Lyricist: Kannadasan

Director: Bharathiraaja

Comedian: NS Krishnan

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