By Meenakshi Shedde
Kerala filmmaker Shaji Karun’s latest film Swapaanam (The Voiding Soul) got a rousing reception at its world premiere at this year’s Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), earlier this month.
Karun is one of Malayalam and Indian cinema’s brightest stars. His previous films Piravi, Swaham and Vanaprastham have all been screened at the Cannes film festival. His Kutty Srank won national award for best film in 2010.
His new film, Swapaanam, is about the tragic relationship between Unni (played by Malayalam star Jayaram)a chenda (percussion instrument) artist, and Nalini (played by Kadambari), a Mohiniattam dancer. Fuelled by the dance that brings them together, Unni and Nalini are passionately drawn to each, but it’s a love story that can have no happy ending. Nalini is forcibly married to someone else and she commits suicide, while Unni ends up in a lunatic asylum.
Karun spoke about Swapaanam in this interview.
Vanaprastham, which was about kathakali dancers, had also dealt with the dilemmas of a traditional artist. But Swapaanam seems as much a celebration of the traditional arts, as a lament. Is that why it ends in a grand tragedy?
Yes. In today’s world of modern communication, we do not recognize the real talents of our time if they are not on Facebook. So there is danger of misuse of information. Also, it is easy to tarnish a talented artist. Kadambari commits suicide as revenge against her brother, who forcibly got her married against her will.
You briefed Jayaram “to act like an elephant” for his portrayal of Unni. What did you mean?
The chenda is a huge percussion instrument, and the person who handles it must exude a lot of grace. I wanted him to adopt the elephant’s movements — in the hand gestures, in the leg movements — massive, but gentle.
Swampaanam also discusses the caste system of drums — the Brahmin edakka and the outcaste chenda. Why did you choose the chenda as hero?
That’s true. You can play very elaborate rhythms with the chenda. We recorded with 150 chenda artists to create the effect of a symphonic orchestra. Usually in Western orchestras, you have a maximum of 20 drummers. I wanted the West also to experience this Indian music. We recorded in “11.1 Aura 3D”, which greatly enhances the sound.
Why did you record the 150 chenda artists in an open paddy fields, rather than in a recording studio?
It is only when sound escapes into the atmosphere that you get quality sound. When you record in a studio, the four walls reflect the sound. So we went to a quiet place surrounded by paddy fields near Palakkad, to record the 150 chenda artists.
Indian films have been in the Cannes film festival’s official selection regularly, but it is about 19 years since we had a film in the Competition section. Your Swaham was among the last to make that cut, in 1994. Why is this so?
In the generation of Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy, the middle class grew up with culture. Today’s generation grows up with only money. Cannes looks for films rooted in Indian culture, not the same kind of films they make. Our films are imitating the West, they are not telling our own truths. Indian films are a lie, and Indian filmmakers are liars.
Q: Kadambari tells her lover Jayaram, “Before you leave, could you please hurt me?” Why is pain an important part of pleasure for you?
All aesthetic experience emerges from our understanding of human pain. We “save” our pain, because for us, the relationship is more important. Kadambari asked for pain because all memories are a blend of pain and happiness. That’s why, at the end, the film says, ‘It takes a moment to love, but a lifetime to forget.’
Meenakshi Shedde is India Consultant to the Berlin and Dubai Film Festivals, and Curator to festivals worldwide. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org