Tamil cinema

What Kollywood needs to do better: ‘Don’t release six films on the same day, create more heroes’

G Dhananjayan, author of ‘The Art and Business of Cinema’, has some insights into the highs and lows of the Tamil film industry.

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.”

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Mersal (2017).

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.

Sivaji Ganesan in Parasakthi (1952).
Sivaji Ganesan in Parasakthi (1952).

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.

Dhananjayan Govind.
Dhananjayan Govind.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.