Housed atop a small building in Chennai’s Valasaravakkam neighbourhood, the Koogai library is no ordinary book room. Literature and cinema come together under one roof here, with the library doubling up as a meeting spot for aspiring directors, camera operators and actors.

Founded by Tamil filmmaker Pa Ranjith (Madras, 2014, Kabali, 2016 and Kaala, 2018), Koogai (meaning owl in Tamil) has a collection of 6,000 crowd-sourced books in various languages and genres ranging from world cinema, art and culture to politics. Ranjith and four other filmmakers – Athiyan Athirai, Pariyerum Perumal director Mari Selvaraj, Kavin Antony and Murugan Manthiram – manage the space.

Koogai was set up to introduce filmmakers to cinema-related literature, Manthiran told “Assistant directors usually do not have the money to buy and read books,” he said. “Access is also a problem. We wanted to create a space for assistant directors to learn more and interact with their peers. We started this through our own funding.”

Most of the collection has been donated by directors and technicians from the Tamil film industry including Rohini, Rajiv Menon, Samuthirakani, Chezhiyan, Balaji Sakthivel, Pushkar- Gayatri and Meera Kathiravan. The books cannot be taken home, but visitors are welcome to browse through them till closing time at 9.30 pm. The library does not charge a membership fee.

The cinema section at Koogai library. Photo credit Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.

The library has had about 50 visitors daily since it was opened to to the public in October. The location was strategically chosen – Valsaravakkam and the nearby Kodambakkam area are home to many film studios.

Koogai’s founders hope to create a space for healthy debates on cinema, art and culture, which could lead to more diverse representation in Tamil cinema. “Gender inequality and religion are some of the significant issues in the current times, which often get depicted in films,” Manthiran observed. “Filmmakers have grown up watching movies with regressive viewpoints. We wanted future filmmakers to depict progressive thoughts through positive discussions. There are a lot of Tamil films that depict caste pride, women suppression etc. We wanted to dissect such problematic themes.”

The library is part of Ranjith’s Koogai Thiraippada Iyakkam initiative, which seeks to bring filmmakers, editors, actors, cinematographers and screenwriters together to make movies that reflect contemporary social concerns. Koogai Thiraippada Iyakkam, which too was launched in October, has 114 members who pay a membership fee that will be used to fund independent movies, web series and documentaries, Manthiran said.

Beyond books

At the library, Ranjith and team host regular film and photography workshops and movie screenings, where filmmakers and technicians discuss their work. “The assistant filmmakers in particular get a lot of clarity as they get to ask many technical questions to the directors,” Manthiran said. “We dissect films along with their flaws in front of the directors. We pick films that depict something different. It can be a commercial film or a small independent movie.”

Ranjith, Antony, Mathiran and Selvaraj look at the events as a way for members of the Tamil industry to give upcoming artists the support that they wished they had received. “In our days we used to often gather at street-side tea shops and discuss movies for hours,” recalled Antony, who has worked as an assistant director to Tamil cinema veteran Bala. “We wanted this to be an alternative. Libraries are usually expensive. But we wanted to create something free of cost. It’s a place for these people to voice their opinions about movies, personal experiences and more.”

Koogai library. Photo credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.

Murali Sridhar is one such aspiring cinematographer. He visits Koogai regularly to read the monthly magazine American Cinematographer. “We don’t get that book here easily, and even if we subscribe to it, it costs around Rs 5,000,” Sridhar said.

Manikandan, 28, said that his regular visits to the library had made him start looking at cinema differently. “There might be many books, but here we are suggested ways of reading and drawing references in a effective way,” Manikandan said. “I have no support from my family as well. So these Koogai workshops that are free of charge are really helpful for people like me.”

For those wishing to join the Tamil film industry, Koogai has become a learning forum, networking opportunity and a support system rolled into one. “There are many libraries in Chennai, but this is the only place that helps us expand our network,” Shanmuga Sundar said. “My dream is to see one of us [from the library] make it big in the industry.”

Koogai library. Photo credit: Sruthi Ganapathy Raman.