G Dhananjayan is a familiar name for those in the movie trade, especially in the Tamil and Malayalam film industries. As a producer, Dhananjayan’s credits include Sankat City (2009), Kanden Kadhalai (2009), Mugamoodi (2012), Anjaan (2014) and Irudhi Suttru (2016). He is equally known for dispensing wisdom on the movie business through his columns in Galatta Cinema, The Hindu Tamil and The Times of India. His writings cover a range of issues affecting the film industry, from writing good scripts to finding producers to understanding the film market, finances, upcoming trends and genres.
In December 2017, Dhananjayan decided to compile his writings into the book The Art and Business of Cinema after he realised that a number of his writings remain relevant to the film industry. Excerpts from an interview.
What went into your evolution from a producer into a columnist?
Every time I go through an experience or a problem, I write about it. I also think if I share my experiences, even my mistakes as producer, others may not make the same mistakes I made.
I meet so many newcomer producers who tell me about the difficulties they have faced, the money they have lost, script choices that have gone wrong. A lot of directors made their debut in 2017, for instance, but if you look at the numbers, out of 160, only seven succeeded – what happened to the remaining 153? Now, they won’t get another film.
In 2017, 160 films came from new producers. Only three succeeded. Cinema is the only industry where people enter the field without any knowledge or experience. People actually believe that that if they have money and they watch enough films, that’s qualification enough to become a producer.
In one of the essays in your book, you argue that in the Tamil film industry, directors have always been multi-taskers – they write dialogue and screenplays and direct, if not more.
Filmmaking is not seen as a creative collaboration at all. It generally comprises a one-man army. This is a Tamil-only syndrome. It started with directors like Bhagyaraj sir and K Balachander sir. Everybody wants to be Bhagyaraj sir or T Rajendran sir today. They want the entire credit to themselves. Someone like Mahendran sir would at least pick up the story from somewhere else and write a screenplay of his own.
But today, in the Tamil film industry, directors want to write their own story and lines apart from directing the film. Some even want to be cinematographers and editors of their film. When it becomes such a uni-dimensional product, you’re restricting the whole thought process. There are no naysayers to one’s ideas. Assistants are there, but they will only say “great sir, great sir.”
A star is not really bigger than a film, you argue. Is that true for the Tamil film industry?
Absolutely true. A star brings in the opening collections, then the film takes over. Up till the first show of an A-list film, I agree that the audience doesn’t come to the theatre because of the director helming the project – unless it is Shankar or AR Murugadoss. They all come for the star. The moment the first show is over, it is the film, its story and its merit that decides its future.
Yes, a script is sometimes tweaked for the hero. That’s fine. But the script has to be good in the first place. Tinkering with it to accommodate a hero’s image won’t affect the soul of the story if it is that good. You can’t write a script for a hero. That won’t work.
Vijay’s Mersal is an example. The three characters, the differentiation – people loved that. Vijay tried his best to make the three characters different too. Take a film like Kabali. It worked because Rajinikanth was playing his age – it connected with the audience and was realistic in its portrayal. A film will be successful only when there is a repeat audience.
The tendency to give a positive message has remained a consistent thread in Tamil cinema. Why is this so? You’ve even written an essay titled ‘An Angry Young Man, an evergreen genre in Kollywood’.
This tendency is born out of the inherent need of stars to stand above the people. When you’re a big star, you get an opportunity to communicate a set of values in a film. All the heroes, after they’ve achieved a particular status, feel they are in a position to advocate something. A lot of the present day actors are also politically ambitious.
The pioneer of the message film was MG Ramachandran. He started this trend of inserting a message in an entertaining film. MGR’s guru was NS Krishnan, who believed that cinema, being the most powerful medium there is, must convey good things to people and create an impact. For him, acting alone wasn’t the end goal. The end goal was to entertain and communicate.
MGR did it, so Rajinikanth also followed. And because Rajinikanth did it, now everyone follows the same. But this not just a Tamil phenomenon. A lot of Hindi cinema is message oriented. Take Aamir Khan, for example. .
The angry young man as a genre has remained relevant in Tamil cinema, since its inception in the 1950s for various reasons. Back in the 1950s, cinema reflected the suppression and anger in society. It was just after India got its independence and cinema felt the need to to talk about eradicating such issues as untouchability, child marriage and so on. Parasakthi, for instance, reflects this anger.
Let’s cut to today. There is a lot of political anger today. Many people feel Tamil Nadu politics, especially in the last one year has been in a bad shape. They feel that there is a need for new players to come into the field. The genre, therefore, remains relevant.
Why is the Tamil film industry so disorganised, especially, in terms of the release dates of films?
It is quite disorganised and there is no unity too. There is a lack of professionalism in the industry, unfortunately. Else, why will six films release on the same day here? Who is going to watch all of them? A film’s release date is set without understanding the market for it. Filmmakers and producers don’t seem to care about whether they will get theatres. And, they suffer. There is a 90 per cent flop rate in general, and among the smaller films, it is 95 per cent. The only reason for this is this lack of professionalism.
What is the scope of the Tamil film market today?
Today, Tamil cinema has reached more than 35 countries worldwide. It is the largest in that sense. But this reach is restricted to what I call the big artist film. A smaller film does not have that reach. They are making their way into the world through digital platforms such as Amazon Prime and Netflix.
Who are the upcoming actors and filmmakers you are keen on?
Among the present actors, Vijay, Ajith, Suriya, Sivakarthikeyan, Vikram, Karthi – they are all in the reckoning. A number of younger actors are doing well today like Atharva, Vikram Prabhu, Gautham Karthik, Arya, Vishal, Jayam Ravi.
But I’d say Tamil cinema needs more heroes. There is a dearth of saleable heroes in Tamil cinema. The existing lot is not enough. We need more. We need more films to come out with heroes.
Among the filmmakers, all the younger ones are doing a great job – whether it is Karthik Subbaraj or Nalan Kumaraswamy or Logesh Kanagaraj, Ravikumar or Pa Ranjith. They’ve brought in good cinema and I feel will continue to do so.
Is the Telugu-Tamil bilingual emerging as a formula applied to every production?
Not at all. A film like Spyder, for instance, didn’t work. So not all producers are thinking of making bilinguals. It started as an experiment but right now producers are realising that it is just a strain.
You talk about the biopic as a genre that is not explored much in Tamil. Why is that?
I think filmmakers are more keen on writing stories of their own. Almost every other industry has explored the biopic as a genre. In Tamil, we’ve come out with biopics, but it isn’t a regular feature. In my book, I’ve listed the names of personalities whose lives are worth exploring cinematically.
I’ve heard news of biopics on MGR and Jayalalithaa, for instance. But I’m not convinced about those projects. These are films that have to be done in a grand manner. I’m excited about the biopic of Savitri, though. The project features a good star cast.
You argue for flexi-ticket pricing. What do you mean by that?
I really feel flexi-ticket pricing must be implemented. Theatres could charge lower ticket prices for morning shows, weekends could be expensive, smaller films can have have smaller prices, bigger films can afford to charge higher prices – these are some of the ways to encourage different kinds of cinema, especially the smaller films.
You dedicate an essay to the problem of unsold films. What are the issues over satellite rights and sales?
Satellite networks are selective when it comes to buying films. Only films with big artists get sold. The smaller films are left out – they can be sold for some price, right? Many filmmakers are forced therefore to look at digital options.
There is also the problem of over reporting of box-office figures because theatres do not have computerised billing. What are the challenges there?
There are no challenges. There is just resistance from theatres to openly declare their collection figures. It’ll become difficult to hide figures, right? This will change soon, though. I’m sure of it.