In conversation with Chezhiyan

22 min read

இந்தக் நேர்காணலை இங்கே தமிழில் படிக்கலாம்.

Ra. Chezhiyan is an Indian film director, cinematographer, writer and poet. He started his journey as a cinematographer after completing his Bachelors’ degree in Civil Engineering. He won the Best Cinematographer award for the Tamil movie Paradesi at the London Film Festival 2013. His directorial debut film, To Let has won 29 international awards, including a National Film Award from the government of India. Additionally, he has authored three books in Tamil on world cinema. His other titles include Pesum Padam (Talking Films) and Mugangalin Thiraippadam (The Cinema of Faces). He has also written a collection of ten Tamil books on western music.

Ram spoke to Chezhiyan, as part of an interaction organised by the Singapore Writers’ Festival in November 2018. Following this session, Chezhiyan answered some questions from our readers as well, via email. This interview is a compilation of all questions and answers. It touches on a wide range of topics—world cinema, realism in cinema, independent cinema, current trends in Tamil cinema, Chezhiyan’s approach to cinematography.

On Chezhiyan’s work and approach

In the Tamil film industry, a broad majority of films either depict an alternate (wishful) reality, or want to instruct audiences on important topics. What place do you wish to occupy as a film director in such an environment?

I think my place is empty. I feel like I am travelling all alone on a long, empty highway. There is no one behind me nor in front of me. Independent cinema is very much like venturing alone into a dark forest.

The Tamil films that we claim to be alternate cinema have songs in them. Songs are not a characteristic of good cinema. When I travelled to Sri Lanka to scout for locations to film Paradesi, I came across many types of tea ranked as first grade, second grade and third grade in quality. And finally, there was dust tea. The best quality tea was being exported. This is in fact the state of Tamil Cinema today. Remarkable work is being done overseas. In India, we are still drinking dust tea.

The truth is that cinema is not just grandeur. On looking closely, reality in fact appears to be rather simple. If we were to watch a few Iranian films, we can easily understand how simple cinema actually is. However, when we look deeper, we will also notice the difficulties within that simplicity. A film’s theme can be taken from your day-to-day life. A lost notebook became Where is the Friend’s Home? A lost bicycle became Bicycle Thieves. A lost slipper became Children of Heaven. All of these films are based on real events that took place in people’s lives, and so is To Let. I wish to continue working on such real films.

As a cinematographer who is also a director, how do you reconcile your vision with the director’s? Is there a compromise?

A director’s vision is the vision of the film’s screenplay, which is an accurate map of his or her vision. Once the screenplay is ready, it will, on its own, guide the team, including the director and cinematographer.

But this does not happen overnight. It is for this reason that rigorous discussions happen before we begin shooting. When discussions lead to agreement, we reach a point of clarity on how to develop the film. All I have to do then is to put in my share of the work.

If you have the time to argue and placate each other during filming, it implies that your screenplay has been unsuccessful in uniting the team.

When you have a choice between naturalistic camera angles and impossible camera angles (such as the ones in Fincher’s films), which would you prefer and why?

I do not decide on anything in advance. I digest the screenplay and its tone in entirety. I feel it within me. That’s it. There has never been a moment during filming when I stopped to think about the camera angle or lighting. Once I know which scene is going to be shot, I am ready the next instant. My instinct instructs me and I keep filming.

You handled the cinematography for the Tamil film Joker, which can be split into two distinct parts. The present-day sequences of the protagonist, Mannar Mannan, were satirical, while the flashback was filled with realistic scenes. How did you tackle these contrasting tones in the film’s cinematography?

A cinematographer’s job is to transform a film’s screenplay from a piece of paper to visuals on screen. That is the director’s job as well. How are we going to visualise both the strong and lighter moments of a film’s story? Just like layering jam between two pieces of bread, the director needs to decide where to position the film’s interesting and important moments. The cinematographer has to help the director differentiate such important scenes through his visuals.

There is a scene in Joker that shows a group of people being transported to a public meeting in a lorry. In reality there is hardly any light when this happens. How do I capture such visuals without any light? It was this scene that lured me to work on this film as the cinematographer.

How do you express a film’s essence through your cinematography and the use of lighting and colour tone?

This question reminds me of a conversation I had with Ilaiyaraaja sir. I asked him how he conceptualises a film’s music. After some thought, he replied, “This is how I interpret your question. When I look at a banyan tree, I am instantly reminded of its seed. The seed may be tiny but a huge banyan tree grew out of it. While composing music, I need to contemplate on the seed that gave birth to the film.”

For instance, consider the theme music of Nayakan. How does Ilaiyaraaja transform the film’s disposition and emotions into a capsule? He does it by determining how the violins and flute should be used in the film’s score.

Upon hearing this answer, I questioned myself. If this is the approach of a maestro, then how should I determine my cinematography? What impacts me the most when I listen to a film’s story? I worked as the cinematographer for Thenmerku Paruvakaatru. When I first listened to its story, the only word that came to mind was “landscape.” Landscape was the film’s crux. Similarly, the central theme of Paradesi was displacement. This way, I digest a 200-page script and take a single word from it. My cinematography and lighting revolve around that word. What can that word transform into, what are all the things it can do? This perspective simplifies cinematography. In this regard, I consider Raja sir to be my guru [teacher].

“I digest a 200-page script and take a single word from it. What can that word transform into, what are all the things it can do?”

How do you derive the confidence to make a successful film out of a germ of an idea? What motivates you to brush aside hesitations in the beginning stages and leap into action?

Your question is interesting precisely because there are some miracles that can never be explained. A story comes to my mind. How did I think of it? I do not know. I feel like writing it down. Why do I feel so? I do not know. Once I am done, it occurs to me that what I have written will turn into a good film. How? No idea.

When we do something with honesty, motivation comes to us naturally. When I completed the pre-production work for my film To Let, there was one month left for its planned shoot to begin. That is when demonetization happened and some Indian currency notes became invalid. My friend, who was supposed to produce the film, backed out. My wife Prema suggested that we could produce it on our own.

We started shooting despite being short on budget. Things happened at their own pace. We had spent everything we had by the time we ended filming. How did we complete the film? How did we send the film to so many festivals? All of it happened of its own accord. There is a saying: A poem chooses a poet and writes itself. A good film works the same way.

Your films (as a cinematographer) generally start with a bright, wonderful mood and move towards a dark, emotional mood. Did this happen naturally or was it an intentional choice?

Good films typically work through the moods you just mentioned. A happy ending is not something I get to decide in the films that I work on. It is coincidental that I happened to work as the cinematographer for the type of films you pointed out.

I have read that you were very shy as a young person. Was it necessary for you to change this characteristic in order to work in the film industry? How did you manage to overcome your shyness?

I excelled in public speaking at a young age. My father trained me to get rid of my shyness. Despite that, I felt awkward to have conversations with guests at home. I would hide in my room. I did not usually like to talk in front of others, which was why I first chose cinematography, when I entered cinema with the ambition of becoming a film director.

When I first entered the Tamil film industry, I was unaware of its nuances. Even before I could think of doing something on set, somebody else would do it. It was torturous to be on set without having any work to do. During those early days, when I stood perplexed on set, I used to feel like everyone’s eyes were glued on me.

Once I got used to the job, the hesitations vanished. Just like my father who taught me how to speak on stage, my teacher PC Sreeram taught me how to behave during shoots. My father and my teacher taught me with tough love. Their treatment is effective when the need arises. On other occasions, I prefer to withdraw into my shell and stay quiet.

What do you consider to be the fundamentals of writing a screenplay?

You need to have a firm grasp of ‘film time’ before writing a screenplay. I think that is the most basic requirement. I believe that watching many movies or practising writing are not enough to give you this understanding.

You need to know the intricacies of film editing. You need to know how to move your story forward with scenes. You need to see a scene’s beginning and end, not with words, but as visuals. A screenplay grows organically. It becomes complete only if it takes the necessary time to breathe and grow, like a growing child.

Once you write 70 scenes in 100 pages, you may claim that it is a screenplay. But written words become a screenplay only when they bear the pulse of film time. I think among all forms of writing, the screenplay is the strangest. You cannot define a poem, likewise you cannot define a screenplay. I am a beginner as far as screenplay writing goes. After writing at least ten more screenplays, I believe I shall be better disposed to answer your question.

What is the most cherished recognition or accolade that you received unexpectedly?

Asghar Farhadi had come to Yerevan, the capital city of Armenia, as a judge at a film festival. I was happy that he was going to watch my film To Let, which was in competition. I met him after the festival and told him that I like his films. He asked me, “You are…?”

“My name is Chezhiyan. I am the director of To Let.”

As soon as I said this, he clasped my hands and said he had wanted to meet me. He spoke at length about the things he liked in my film. He appreciated the film’s cinematography, screenplay and acting. When I asked him if he could say a few words for me on video, he gladly obliged. He gave me his contact information and asked me to keep in touch. This was an unexpected recognition for me.

I have an interest in photography and I am learning it through Youtube. I am unsure if my photographs have turned out well. How do I gauge their quality?

There is a popular saying in photography, “The first 10,000 photos that you take are all useless!” I do not know how many photos you have taken so far. You may be better able to judge how your photos have turned out after clicking 10,000 of them. Henri CartierBresson is known as the father of photojournalism, and he always used only a 50mm lens. When asked if he uses zoom lenses, he answered, “My legs are my zoom lens.” It is very important that you always move closer to anything that you want to photograph.

Bresson also speaks of a “decisive moment.” There comes a special moment when something different happens, that did not happen before or after it. You need to capture that moment. “A photographer should be like a hunting dog,” he says. A hunting dog waits for the right moment to pounce on its prey. You need rigorous practice to capture moments. In addition to watching Youtube videos, you need to practise capturing more and more photos.

You need to choose one particular object and repeatedly photograph it. I began my career in fashion photography. Studying faces is one of my favourite pastimes. There was a time when I repeatedly took photos of faces. If any of my friends came home I would take photos of their faces for two hours or more. I repeatedly photographed faces until I reached a point when I decided not to do it anymore. This happens once you begin to realise the subtleties in the process. Taking photographs without a goal will not help you. Pick a specific object. For instance, take 10,000 photographs of flowers alone.

In order to become a great photographer, the camera should become a part of your body, like your arms and legs. Do you have your camera with you now? (The person who asked the question shakes his head.) Then how? (Chezhiyan smiles)

Tamil and Indian Cinema

Which is your favourite Tamil film that did not receive widespread recognition?

Many of the films that are close to my heart are the ones I watched in cinema halls. Mullum Malarum, Veedu, Uthiripookkal, Aval Appadithaan – there are many such films. Nemai Ghosh’s Paadhai Theriyudhu Paar, Jeyakanthan’s Yaarukkaga Azhudhaan and John Abraham’s Agraharathil Kazhudhai—if such uncompromising initiatives had received recognition at the time of their release, an alternate cinema movement may have taken root in Tamil cinema, like it did in Malayalam and Bengali cinema.

Which screenplay writer do you like in Tamil and why?

I like the films of CV Sridhar. His film Kadhalikka Neramillai had the perfect formula for commercial cinema. I also like Thevar Magan.

Tamil Nadu is a non-art film state, unlike Kerala or West Bengal. Even the films we consider quality films (say, Uthiripookkal) have elements of mainstream drama, which means this is the tone the audience is used to. Do you wish for a more naturalistic kind of cinema, and if so, how would you balance this wish with what the audience will accept?

If you make good films then people will definitely accept it. It is not true that they will not accept it or appreciate it. Today, India is an exporter of vests. India also exports pickles. But we don’t export cinema. Why? We are able to produce a world-class inner garment but we are unable to make a world-class film. Why? Because we have not even tried. To make a naturalistic film you do not just fix a camera on a tripod and say to someone, “Alright! Now walk in slowly from a distance and sit down.” It does not work that way.

The language of cinema is constantly evolving in various countries in different ways. The Spanish film, A Fantastic Woman, won the Oscar in 2018 for Best Foreign Language film. What filmmaking techniques did its director use? The Hungarian film On Body and Soul competed with this film at the Oscars. How did it make use of film language? After comprehending all of this, how am I going to express my reality through cinema?

Uthiripookkal is a classic in Tamil cinema. No doubt. But how long do we keep harping on it? We need something new… Kapil Dev was a great cricketer once upon a time. Did no great players emerge after him? Should this not happen in cinema too? At any village carnival you can see a father place his son on his shoulders. His son has a vantage point he doesn’t. Viewers must be able to learn from your films. Your cinema must elevate them. That is growth. This is the duty of a film director. Through my films, I wish to say, “I have made a film. Now you make a better one!”

What is your take on film criticism in Tamil?

Finding faults with the story, complimenting the acting, saying the cinematography is pleasing to the eyes, digging out the original source from which a film has been copied—these do not constitute film criticism. In the beginning, I read reviews with enthusiasm for films that my friends and I worked on. Then I stopped reading reviews. I simply lost interest.

Film criticism is not just talking about the pros and cons of a film. By analysing the best moments in a film, you need to elevate the film appreciation of your reader. Visual language has several layers. In Charulata, the wife uses binoculars to watch the street through the window. Later she uses the same binoculars to observe her husband. This visual conveys to us without any dialogue the distance between them.

The musician in The Pianist looks at a piano with longing. If he is heard playing, he risks being captured by the Nazis. Watch the film to find out what happens. This is the film’s best moment. Film criticism is the detailed analysis of such moments and layers.

When I was young, SV Rajadurai was the editor of a Tamil magazine named Ini [Hereafter]. It contained detailed analysis of Bharathiraja’s films. Deep Focus is a film magazine that contains many constructive critical essays. Rotten Tomatoes has a lot of good film criticism. Have you read Baradwaj Rangan’s book on Mani Ratnam (Conversations with Mani Ratnam)? We need to have such in-depth discussions on the films of every commercially successful Tamil film director like Mahendran, Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra, CV Sridhar.

Today, hundreds of colleges in Tamil Nadu offer courses in visual communication. Students need to analyse films scene by scene. You can find many such analyses of Tarkovsky‘s films online. Teachers from relevant departments must provide guidance and ensure such an environment is fostered.

If a film is not good, rather than mocking it and moving on, a student needs to understand through discussion why it is not good. Then he or she can gauge the next film with more ease. We need to impart this skill to students.

You can make out if a film is good or bad by looking at its poster. Through a poster, the director chooses to reveal a single visual, for viewers to get a sense of the film. We need to be trained to comprehend such visuals. This training will help refine our sensibilities. Once our tastes change, everything else will change too.

Without knowing the difference between a storyteller and an artist, Tamil filmmakers continue to merely provide alternate stories in the name of alternate cinema. When will Tamil filmmakers stop being storytellers and comprehend the medium of cinema and its potential?

We must give up hero worship. Cinema is generally perceived to be a mode of entertainment in Tamil Nadu. But we need to have enough experience to distinguish good quality entertainment from bad. This will come with practice. Regular viewing of good cinema and regular reading of good literature elevates our tastes. The phrase Ullathanaiya Uyarvu [Your greatness is as deep as your mind] in the 595th verse of Thirukkural says the same. Once our tastes are elevated, our perception of music, paintings, drama and cinema will change.

Satyajit Ray and Adoor Gopalakrishnan are the Indian directors who are frequently mentioned as great filmmakers. Are there other Indian filmmakers from states other than Kerala and West Bengal whom you admire?

Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli, Assamese filmmaker Jahnu Barua, Hindi filmmaker Mani Kaul and if I may… Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen from West Bengal and Aravindan from Kerala. There are many more.

Visuals are the soul of cinema. Is there any indelible visual from Tamil cinema in your mind?

When I think about it, there is no such visual from Tamil cinema that has stayed with me.

Do you think there is a possibility that a centralized company or organization may be formed to provide public access to filmmaking equipment in Tamil Nadu, instead of them being monopolized by a few private companies?

What do you think will change if we provide public access to filmmaking equipment? Public libraries are everywhere. How many of us actively use them? Equipment and technology do not determine the quality of a film. It does not matter which pen wrote the poem, what matters is whether it really is a poem. Smartphones are sufficient to make good films.

“It does not matter which pen wrote the poem, what matters is whether it really is a poem. Smartphones are sufficient to make good films.”

Have special effects diluted the art of cinematography?

Special effects are a big boon for cinematography. Special effects made Avatar, Coco and countless other animation films possible. When utilized the right way, special effects can be a strength.

[In another article in this issue, Konstantinos makes a similar case for special effects.]

Is there greater emphasis on technology rather than storytelling in Tamil cinema today?

We cannot generalize it as such. A film uses technology to narrate its story. However, when you watch the film, you do not realise its presence. It is good if you cannot sense the technology at work.

For a good filmmaker who wants to tell an honest story, technology is second or third priority. Emotions are first priority. Technology can never manufacture those emotions. More than the devices and machines, what matters are the people who operate them and what’s in their hearts.

Has the new generation gotten bored of the drama genre? Is that why we see many new mainstream filmmakers venturing only into thrillers and horrors?

The thriller is not a new genre in Tamil. Many thrillers like Adhey Kangal and Andha Naal were made a long time ago. The youth of today seem to like the resurgence of such films.

The biggest challenge for film directors today is the arrival of Netflix and Amazon Prime. People have begun to watch numerous web series. They have now experienced all kinds of scares and thrills. It is not easy to scare them anymore. So we need to keep changing our storytelling techniques.

Balu Mahendra’s Azhiyadha Kolangal was released towards the end of the 1970s. Not only was it a realistic film, it also met with commercial success. Despite this, why did we not see more such films in the next decade?

I have this question too. We are responsible for this in some way. If we decide not to watch commercial cinema for a year, more films like Azhiyadha Kolangal will automatically be produced.

Could you talk about Tamil cinema’s presence in the international arena?

The truth is that Tamil cinema is yet to enter the global arena. At the recent Kolkata International Film Festival I ran into a filmmaker from Iceland who remarked, “Oh! Do you really make films in Tamil? I have never seen any of your films in international festivals.” We make films with our eyes on the opening weekend and box office collections of the subsequent week. We do not make films for reasons beyond that. The global audience will be amazed if we make films on the wealth of culture, literature, traditions and cuisines that we have.

A couple and their child are the main characters of To Let. “Can a family be so happy amidst so many troubles? Is there such a family in India?” A viewer in Armenia asked me this question. We have not made any Tamil films on the institution of the family. That era came to an end with KS Gopalakrishnan. We depict a different kind of family in television serials today. We do not depict realistic families on screen.

Ek Din Pratidin is a film directed by Mrinal Sen. A working woman comes home at 6 PM everyday. One day she does not. Her neighbours berate her. The film ends when she returns home at 6 AM the next morning. Where did she go? What did she do? The film tells us nothing. Nobody will utter a word if the same happens to a man. Mrinal Sen won an award for this film. When he returned home after the award ceremony, he asked his wife to make him a cup of tea. That is when it suddenly dawned on him, “I have been a vociferous opponent of the subjugation of women. My wife was with me all day long. But now I am sitting down, asking her to make tea. Is this not subjugation too?” This way of examining things and events around us will lead to many good creations.

“Can a family be so happy amidst so many troubles? Is there such a family in India?”

You mentioned that you did research on imagery in Tamil short stories and analysed short stories that have been adapted to screen. Where can we read your analysis?

The title of my research project was Imagery in Tamil short stories. Through my research, I explored the point when a word or a sequence of words bloom into a visual. Electricity is produced when two points with opposite charges are connected. Likewise when two phrases meet, a visual is produced. This felt like magic to me. My interest in haikus and photography motivated me to pursue this line of thought.

When I embarked on my film training, as a student of cinematography, the biggest challenge in front of me was to transform a screenplay into the right set of visuals. This research project was one of the initiatives I undertook to train myself.

I received the central government’s Junior Research Fellowship to pursue my research for two years. I worked as an assistant cinematographer at the time, and researched on the side. I tend to move on once I complete something. So I do not have a copy of my thesis with me. I need to obtain copies of it from the government and publish it as a book soon.

Realism, world cinema, independent cinema

You mentioned that world cinema has long since moved from the domain of stories to poetry. What would be a good example of this point?

Bresson, Bergman, Tarkovsky, and more recently Kiarostami—all of them told stories. But they did not narrate them as stories. They did not make the films with vivid descriptions that are typical of stories. Their films had a poetic expression.

A story moves forward by giving direct descriptions. But poetry does not work that way. It is an enigma, almost like a voice that whispers inside your heart. It does not have any sort of melodrama. The nature of world cinema is to tell stories through poetic expression.

I believe that poetry is the most sublime linguistic form. Leaping from one point to another, avoiding direct conversation, in possession of a certain musical quality—these make poems beautiful. When these qualities of poetry mingle with visuals and transform into a film, a new cinematic language is born.

There are many examples of such films. One of them is Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War.

How important is storyboarding for independent cinema? Could you talk about the storyboarding process for your film To Let? How did it differ from the process you followed for other films you did the camerawork for?

Storyboarding is a method of precise planning. Many moments happen organically during the shoots of realistic films, which make up their unique style. So you cannot say that storyboarding will always be beneficial to such films.

Storyboarding is possible only if you are trained in pre-visualisation. If your film has dialogue, then it will convey the story. Storyboarding becomes essential when you have passages in your film without dialogues. For example, storyboarding is immensely helpful for huge set pieces and action sequences.

I never used storyboarding for any of the feature films that I did the cinematography for. But I used storyboarding for every ad film that I made.

I drew some sketches for a few scenes towards the climax of To Let. The climax only had a few words of dialogue. There was no music. I only had visuals to tell my story. I could not afford to have a single extra shot. I firmly believe that you do not have to say something in four words if you can say it in three. As I wanted to have clarity on the flow of the shots and how I wanted to intercut them, I drew some sketches before filming these scenes. A book on the making of To Let will come out soon. My sketches and a detailed essay on them will be featured in it.

When does reality blossom into art? As you mentioned earlier, if you record with a camera a man walking from a long distance you are simply capturing reality. When does it become art?

When reality touches us, it becomes art. With technological advancements, we do not have to meet each other in person today. Why do I have to come to the Writers’ Festival in Singapore? You could simply watch a video of me talking, on your smartphone. Meeting a person, shaking hands, hugging, touching—all of these are an exchange of affection, of emotions. The cinema you watch must touch you, it should grip your hands tight, it should hug you, it should make your eyes moist, it should make you smile. That is cinema.

People watch a film for 15 minutes regardless of how boring it is, in order to find out what it has to say. I need to make my film’s theme clear to them within the first 15 minutes. I need to tell them within the first 15 minutes of To Let that it is a film about home. But there is no 15-minute deadline in reality. You need to do this when you compress real life into a one and a half hour slot. That makes cinema closer to your heart.

What is the first step to create an alternate cinema movement?

I came to the Writers’ Festival to emphasise that making a film is very easy. Director Makhmalbaf once told me, “The total budget of Iranian films is just 7 lakhs. We make films with handicams. There are about five to seven people at the shooting spot, including the actors. One of the actors cooks for the crew. Another actor doubles up as the driver. The director is also the clapper loader. Nobody wears a crown on their head. We work together as equals to make a film.”

If you wish to create alternate cinema in Singapore, about a dozen of you can get together and make a film through crowdfunding. If I like your film’s idea I am ready to work as the cinematographer or the director. It is necessary for us to move towards good cinema.

Why is there a constant emphasis on good cinema? My young son said after watching The Wages of Fear, “Dad! After watching this film every other film seems ordinary to me.” We give our children good food but we do not give them good taste. The food you eat might trouble your system for two days at most. But a bad visual that you see at the age of two or five might change the course of your life. Kurosawa was once asked, “Which is the moment in your life that affected you the most?” He replied, “I went out on a walk with my grandfather when I was four years old. We saw a puppy attempting to cross a railway track. It was severed into two when a speeding train hit it. I cannot forget this moment, although I am more than 60 years old today. That visual keeps resurfacing in my mind.”

We talk at length about environmental pollution and holes in the ozone layer. But nobody seems to realise the extent to which we are visually polluted. One television in a household is enough to wipe out an entire generation.

Realistic cinema is said to target an elite audience. We get to see such cinema only at film festivals. Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s films are yet to reach the common man. What is the obstacle for this?

I disagree. Organic food is more popular these days. Some years ago porridge was the staple of poor people. But today it is the so-called elite who eat porridge. To Let is ‘organic’ cinema. People want to see good films. When I screened Children of Heaven at my native village, an auto driver clasped my hands and broke into tears. He said he had never seen such a film in his life. I told him that I was not the film’s director.

“That’s alright!” he said, “Where can I see such fantastic films hereafter?”

We have kept a certain kind of cinema hidden from their sight. Nobody can completely destroy commercial cinema. There is commercial cinema in Iran too. We must build a cinema movement for ourselves just like building a house to suit our needs. We must build an audience for it as well. If twenty realistic Tamil films are made back to back, then your question will vanish, since everyone will begin to watch them.

“We must build a cinema movement for ourselves just like building a house to suit our needs.”

What feels real to me may not be real to someone else. How then do you define realism?

There is a popular Birbal story about a room full of plastic roses. Only one of them is a real rose. All of the roses look identical. Birbal’s task is to find the real one. Birbal simply opens the window. A bee flies in and settles down on the real rose. You need to explore and discover realism yourself. If you consistently watch good films, you will automatically know what realism is.

Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami made a Japanese film Like Someone in Love. When we make a film about an unfamiliar culture or country, how real can it be?

A poem by Subramanya Bharati answers your question best.

“When the flame of truth lights up your mind, then your words shall shine too!”

If you have truth in your heart, everything you do is truthful, everything you make is a masterpiece. You need to embark on a journey for several years in order to arrive at that truth. You must be able to say “I have not made any compromises. At least I have been honest to myself.” When you reach this state of mind, your cinema will also be truthful, and the audience will love it.


We would like to thank: Kavitha Karuum from the National Arts Council and the Singapore Writers’ Festival for making the interaction session with Chezhiyan possible; Ashwinii Selvaraj for helping with the translation; Kishor, Suresh, Uma Kathir, Priya Puratchimani, MK Kumar, Baradwaj Rangan, Bavaneedha Loganathan, Pradheep Balu, Shilpa Krishnan, Pranav Khumar Radee, K Balamurugan, and GG Malathi for their questions.

Did you like what you read? Support us as we explore film cultures from around the world; experience cinema in new ways with us. Let us keep The World of Apu free for all!

Become a Patron!