Thiagarajan Kumararaja Interview : The philosopher filmmaker

Director Thiagarajan Kumararaja, the showrunner of Modern Love Chennai, that’s streaming on Amazon Prime Video, opens up about his value system, film principles, and of course, his latest work
Thiagarajan Kumararaja Interview : The philosopher filmmaker

Certain films come out during a time of festival, but certain films are festivals for the film connoisseur—particularly when the filmmaker in question is rather reclusive and often leaves a tasty waiting period in between his films as well. We are, of course, talking about the irrepressible Thiagarajan Kumararaja, whose much-awaited third film—a featurette called Ninaivo Oru Paravai—is a part of the anthology, Modern Love Chennai (of which he’s also the showrunner). In this conversation, the filmmaker—while speaking of putting this project together and the nuances involved in making his own segment—bares his personality for perhaps the first ever time, as he speaks at length about diverse topics such as religion, romantic love, Ilaiyaraaja, Chennai, dialogue-writing…


Whoever thought Thiagarajan Kumararaja would make a film about romantic love, let alone be the showrunner of an anthology of six featurettes.

(Laughs) You are right. Rom-com is only slightly above horror when it comes to my least favourite genres…

And to what would you attribute your dislike for the romance genre?

The outcomes are limited in the genre. A couple either gets together or gets separated. Interestingly, that’s also why I chose to work on this genre because it seemed like an opportunity to explore new possibilities. For instance, Bharathiraja’s film, Paravai Kootil Vaazhum Maangal, feels more like a drama than a romance—and works for my sensibilities. Overall, we have succeeded in avoiding cliches associated with this genre.

In other Indian versions of Modern Love, there has been some criticism on how the ‘place’ has been incorporated into the stories. How has Modern Love Chennai tackled this?

We always say, ‘mannum, makkalum’. Our stories begin with the line, ‘Oru oorla, oru aal…’ So yes, location is integral to these stories. Every frame, after all, needs a background. The people who occupy the six films are also defined by the place they inhabit.

Your film, Ninaivo Oru Paravai, plays with notions of reality. It speaks of the shakiness of memory and presents unreliable snapshots from the past. It was hard not to think of Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Yes, in fact, I chose this idea because as you said, I could look to emulate Kaufman, both in terms of content and approach. This whole film can be thought of as my homage to him.

Typically, in our films, we either exoticise sex or pretend it doesn’t exist. However, each of your films has begun with a sex scene—and this film has probably the most gorgeously shot sex scene in our cinema.

Thank you. While capturing the mood of it, it was important for us not to make viewers ‘cringe’. My biggest problem with how we handle sex in our cinema or society is the hypocrisy of it all. Ellaa poonayum paal kudikkum, aana indha poonai kudikkuma-nu nadandhukaraanga (all cats drink milk, but somehow, they act like theirs doesn’t).

Given that Modern Love Chennai is an exploration of romantic love, what’s your favourite phase of love?

The first phase. It’s so rich with possibilities. Everything’s uncertain; everything’s possible.

Even in your refusal to decode your films in public, you speak of this idea of keeping alive all possibilities… of appreciating potential. Is that why you don’t succumb to the pressure to keep making films?

I think this pressure we all feel to keep going out there and do something… this guilt we feel about even when enjoying well-deserved idleness… it’s a social construct.

Since you come across as someone who has broken out of it, how did you manage it?

You know how when you’re in a bus stand and a crowded bus finally arrives, you’d rather not get in and choose to wait for another one. Life is a bit like that for me.

Everyone wants to break out of their sapping routines, but it’s easier wished for than accomplished.

It’s not impossible. All it takes is a moment to realise that they too can break out of their conditioning. It’s a bit like how the willpower of elephants gets systematically broken when they are young, and how even when they are adults and they have the strength to break out of their chains, they don’t believe they can...

All of this is part of why you have many admirers wondering what your average day must be like, especially during all the time you spend in between doing films.

Oh, it’s nothing really. I get up, fidget with my phone, chat with my ADs…

With no objective?

None whatsoever. We just roam around the city a bit, and once I spend a substantial time like this, I feel guilty…

So, you do feel that guilt?

(laughs) It’s mainly to sustain my idyllic life. I like to think of this as a hunter-gatherer way of life. Once my hunting is over, I can sit in my cave and sing songs.

There’s a line in your film that talks of how during the time of cavemen, there was no concept of marriage or god. Do you think that the cocoon of civilisation has come at the expense of the essential pleasures of life?

I do think so. It’s a bit like insurance, isn’t it? Imagine giving away everything for it. People believe that their children will take care of them, that their home loan today could come in handy many decades later at a time of need…

And you don’t worry about sickness or disease and saving up for a bad day?

No. If it does come some day, I’ll deal with it then.

Director Vetrimaaran said that once a person makes their first film, every experience, good or bad, they have from then on gets polluted by the intention to turn it into cinema. You strike me as someone fairly insulated from the ill-effects of having made a film.

Maybe because I have always been that way? When I see a beautiful building, I appreciate the architect for conceiving of such a shape. That’s my only thought then. Later, after perhaps months or years, when in need of a design for my film, I might remember the building.

To remember such detail, it’s important to retain a sense of wonder about our world and its details, no? All of us possess that as children but lose it with time.

Absolutely. Give a child a balloon and you’ll see how magical it is. Or do you remember what it was like to turn a switch on and experience the magic of light getting turned on? As adults, we have begun boxing these experiences. The trick is to remember the magical quality of these everyday experiences and not take it for granted.

While on magic, there’s a wonderful portion in Bharathiraaja’s segment in which Ilaiyaraaja’s En Iniya Pon Nilave gets used. Talk to me about the utility of using an old song for a film, since you have done that with your previous films as well.

There’s a beautiful sense of familiarity about a song we already love, isn’t there? When these songs are used, it helps that the filmmaker knows the ebbs and falls of a song; it helps to be guided by the song’s hand in designing visuals.

I found Ilaiyaraaja’s music in Modern Love Chennai to be wonderfully sophisticated. Given that his music has been a real inspiration in your life—and how they say that it’s a bad idea to meet your heroes—what was your experience like?

I think I like him even better now. He is misunderstood and I think it’s unfair. He’s a genius and perhaps the sharpest mind I have ever interacted with. They warned that he would be difficult to work with, but I have had the opposite experience. He dislikes the phony and the stupid, that’s all. In fact, I’d encourage every youngster to try and work with him. If you place a 100 feet pole as an obstacle, his music will cross that. Place a 10,000 feet barrier and his work will cross that. Ask for something the height of the moon and his talent will climb past that too. He is a medium for the flow of music, and it’s up to filmmakers on how they can channel his music.

Modern Love Chennai shows that legendary artists like Bharathiraja and Ilaiyaraaja can continue to hold their own today as well. What do you attribute this longevity to?

An irrepressible drive for life, I think. Even though Mr. Bharathiraaja could not relate to the content of the film, he has still done a fabulous job. These stalwarts are still eager and energetic to participate in the race. They have tremendous life force.

I enjoyed how your film shows great quality in its individual moments. What do you owe this relentless filmmaking excellence to? Is there a day when you’re not quite feeling up to it and decide to shoot a few passable portions?

Never. If I slack for an hour and shoot something, imagine the number of people who will watch it. Imagine the thousands of human hours that will have been spent in consuming it. Imagine that waste. The audience’s biggest currency is their time, and I cannot f*** around with that. So, I try to make sure every shot and every dialogue is the product of serious thought and effort.

Your films don’t forget to stand in solidarity with those at the receiving end of prejudice and backlash. The victims range from an abused transwoman to a hormonal teenager.

My predominant issue is with those who determine what others should/should not do. Without infringing on the liberty of another person, I believe that people should be free to do whatever they want. If anyone intervenes with that freedom, I’m duty-bound to oppose them—because tomorrow, these forces will come for you and me.

Your films, including this latest one, possess some critical commentary on god.

That’s because of the impact of this god idea on society and life. If god possesses all these divine attributes they speak of, I think the world would and should be a very different place. I don’t want a god who has no time to solve our horrors. Some say that the god idea gives them peace, but for me, a comedy channel is good enough.

What do you owe your outlook to? Literature, cinema…?

Life itself and what I’ve observed of it.

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