Saravana Rajendran’s directorial debut Mehandi Circus is set in the 1990s, a decade where sweet-sounding Ilaiyaraaja melodies rent the air and caste tensions lurk around the corner. Released on April 19, the Tamil movie has been written by Rajendran’s brother and filmmaker Raju Murugan (Cuckoo, Joker), has cinematography by Selvakumar SK, and music by Sean Rolden. The cast includes Shweta Tripathi, Madhampatty Rangaraj, Vela Ramamoorthy, RJ Vigneshkanth and Ankur Vikal.

Caste is one of the biggest obstacles facing young lovers Mehandi (Tripathi), who is part of a knife-throwing act at a circus, and music shop owner Jeeva (Rangaraj). The self-enclosed world of the circus, with its gallery of outliers, unconventional social norms, and endless supply of colour and flavour, becomes a refuge of sorts for the couple – it is a “metaphor for life” itself, Rajendran told Excerpts from an interview.

“As a child growing up in Thiruvarur, I remember hearing announcements for circuses. We were not usually allowed by our parents to watch the shows. Many children used to peek inside the tents without buying tickets. Many scenes in the movie are from memories like these.”

Mehandi Circus (2019).

“The circus is a metaphor for life. In life, we experience a range of emotions and travel the extremes between highs and lows. That is the essence of the circus life too. Like Vela Ramamoorthy says in the movie, everyone has a knife hanging above their heads, like in a circus. That is why we chose the backdrop.”

Mehandi Circus. Courtesy Studio Green.

“Raju Murugan had travelled to North India and saw a troupe like the one in the film. At that time, I also had an idea about the story of a man in a music shop. We then decided to write a story about a circus and bring in the story about the knife-throwing act. The circus was at its peak in the 1990s. Also thriving at the time were music shops that made mix tapes. We wanted to merge both those elements.”

Mehandi Circus. Courtesy Studio Green.

“We did not want to take references from films like Apoorva Sagodharargal because the circus used in such films were big-budget ones with show animals. The different forms of the circus include street performers, grand acts with animals and humans performing acts. I wanted to focus on humans. AK Lohithadas’s circus set-up in his Malayalam film Joker was very realistic. That was the only reference I had in mind.”

Mehandi Circus. Courtesy Studio Green.

“The troupe used in the film is Kamala Circus, which is based in Gujarat. They were performing in different states during the shoot. When they were setting up their act in Kerala, they had a few days free because of heavy rains there. We then got them transfer their equipment and with their help, we put up a set around Poombarai, which is around three hours from Kodaikanal. Except Mehandi’s dad and the knife thrower, the entire troupe is a part of Kamala Circus.”

The cast of Mehandi Circus. Courtesy Studio Green.

“We were looking for a hilltop background for the film, as it would fit in with Ilaiyaraaja’s music and romance. We started looking for places that retain an old-world charm in Tamil Nadu. Poombarai in Kodaikanal was perfect.

We shot during the Ockhi storm [in 2017], so there was a lot of rain. Sometimes, we had to wait for the rains to subside. We were also looking for a plot of land on which to put up the set. We shot for around 12 days at the circus, and 40 more days across Satara, Mumbai, Karnataka, Hampi and Pune.”

Saravana Rajendran on the sets of Mehandi Circus. Courtesy Studio Green.

“Authenticity was very important. We wanted to make sure of two things in the film. The chairs in the ’90s were usually made of iron, unlike plastic today. The second thing is the musical centre. The poster and colours used in the film were very important. The team spent almost one month just on this part of the research.”

Mehandi Circus. Courtesy Studio Green.

“We were looking at many actresses for the part of Mehandi. I suddenly remembered watching Masaan, and I watched it again. I then knew that Shweta would be perfect for the role. She acts brilliantly and often, with just her eyes. She also suited the character. We gave her a translation of the script, and she loved it. We had a one-week workshop with Shweta and Ranga.”

Shweta Tripathi and Madhampatty Rangaraj in Mehandi Circus. Courtesy Studio Green.

“The knife-throwing scenes in the film are real, and Shweta actually stood for each of them. Raja from Chinnamanur is one of the few remaining knife throwers in Tamil Nadu, and we got him to do the stunts in the movie. Mehandi stands with a smile on her face during the act. We wanted to capture that with Shweta, and she did it.”

Shweta Tripathi in Mehandi Circus. Courtesy Studio Green.

“Music was important for the movie. A romance set in a hill station naturally calls for good music. Ilaiyaraaja was huge in the ’90s, and we wanted to capture his flavour in the music as well. Sean Rolden put in a lot of effort into the songs.”

Kodi Aruvi, Mehandi Circus (2019).

“Most of our filmmakers have grown up in the ’90s. That stayed with us. The ’90s also saw directors such as Fazil, Mani Ratnam sir, Bharatiraja sir making completely different movies. We saw a new and modern world evolve through these movies. A part of this remains in most filmmakers, and they want to express it.

Caste-based violence was also blatant in the ’90s. Casteism thrives even today in different forms, including on social media. That is why I wanted to bring in caste. The hero’s father is a person whose pride overtakes his love for his son.”

(As told to Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.)