Halitha Shameem deconstructs her short Loners on Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidyaadhaa: 'Writing it was therapeutic, healing'
Halitha Shameem on cracking the ‘code’ of a good anthology movie: “I think I try and fit the space I am in. I like to stay true to the narrative I choose'
There’s a scene in Loners, one of the five segments in Amazon Prime Video’s Tamil anthology Putham Pudhu Kaalai Vidyaadhaa (Will there not be a new dawn?), where Dheeran (Arjun Das) speaks to Nalla (Lijomol Jose) about truncated grieving, where his hot, angry, salty tears have not found an outlet. At that moment, Dheeran represented all of us out there who could not attend the last journey of loved ones, who bid goodbye to friends via the live video of a funeral, where the tears settled as an irukkam (a tightening) in the chest, a lump in the throat.
This short by director Halitha Shameem encapsulated all that the pandemic has meant to so many people — everyone’s been reduced to tiny boxes on laptop screens, a sari is hurriedly draped over a t-shirt, a smile hastily pasted on and everyone pretends to lead a normal life. But what happens once the group call ends? This is what Halitha wanted to explore in Loners.
“We were all united by a sense of loss during the second wave. It so happened I wrote this during that period too, and so it is reflective of what many of us experienced,” she says.
Many have remarked that Halitha is among the handful of directors who have cracked the ‘code’ of a good anthology movie. What’s her take on that?
“I think I try and fit the space I am in. I like to stay true to the narrative I choose. This was a short story and I chose to write it in a particular manner. I might have approached it differently had it been a web series. If this had to be a feature, I would have seen it as ‘the first 30 minutes’, the ‘interval block’, and more,” she explains.
But Halitha reached this level of equanimity, the ability to go with the flow, after much thought. She also learnt to let her films breathe, despite many telling her that a brisk pace works better. “In real life, I am someone who cannot sit still for a minute. I need to keep doing something. I am the kind of person who will sit at the edge of a seat. But when it comes to movies, I like them to flow gently. Since I usually edit my films too, I know when to hold and when to let go. I see the script visually. As a viewer too, I prefer movies that allow you to soak in their world.”
Loners is full of references to things we’ve experienced during the pandemic — job loss, online weddings, truncated grief, pouring one’s heart to a random stranger — and that’s because Halitha is a keen people watcher. “Everything is in the now, in the moment, in the film. Probably, if I’d written this film now, it would have been a recalling of a time that we lived in. I think this is the biggest challenge humanity has seen in the recent past. We lost our sense of clarity, because nothing made sense anymore. And there was the grief — of losing family, friends… the deaths of Vivekh sir, KV Anand Sir and director Arunraja Kamaraj’s wife, especially shook me.”
In the initial wave of the pandemic, when many creators turned towards binge-watching on OTT or writing their own scripts, Halitha was hurting. “I could not write a word. I was drained seeing people suffer. That way, writing Loners was therapeutic, healing, because I’ve written what I saw and heard and felt.”
The film has interesting casting choices — in the form of Lijomol, who wowed all as Sengeni in Jai Bhim, and Arjun Das, who had everyone at ‘hello’ in his deep baritone. “Many of my filmmaker friends wanted me to work with Lijomol. They told me she was extremely sincere. As for Arjun, I loved his presence and what he did in Andhaghaaram. And I did not consciously try to break moulds. I wanted them to play the characters I wrote — they should be regular folk who walk, talk, chop vegetables, sweat — in short, be real. In fact, during shooting I even forgot Arjun’s name. I would always tell him, ‘Sir, shot ready’. For me, he was just Dheeran. Yes, there was the fear of his lovely voice overtaking everything else, but I realised that there’s a slight tonal difference in his sync sound voice and dubbing voice. The former is softer, more gentle. I wanted that. In fact, I thought of him when I wrote the film and even read the lines in his voice to see it would work.”
Lijo, on her part, recorded her portions and sent them to Halitha to ask if she got the spirit of the character right. There’s this scene right at the beginning that could have swung either way, become an object of ridicule or convey Nalla’s broken heart — when Nalla receives a food parcel sent by mistake by her former partner. She hate-eats the food, in anger and acceptance of the break-up. “I wanted that effect. We went in for a wide shot, and I wanted to show what a break-up does to someone, when technology has still not accepted she’s moved on. I did not want that scene to turn into a comedy, or a tragedy. It had to be matter of fact. And I don't think anyone but her could have pulled it off,” says Halitha, who is next working on a feature. There’s the long-in-the-making Minmini shoot too — Halitha was waiting for the kids to grow up so the grown-up portions look real.
The rise of OTT has seen Halitha’s film reach new audiences, and the feedback has been tangible — she’s received hand-made crafts inspired by Sillu Karupatti, for instance, and had friends tell her that couples going through strife learn to communicate better after watching Hey Ammu. “Two years ago, I would have told you, I’ll only work on features and make movies for a theatrical audience. Now, I realise we have to work in our current reality. The medium keeps changing to suit a changing world. And, if art has to live on, we will learn to work within our current reality.”
But how easy is it to delve deep to stay real? “Not very easy. I have to absorb every experience so I can write better, but this is an expensive process. We need to observe the world like a child, without prejudice, without a sense of time or place. This costs money. And so, I hope to make some money and go back to my roots, live among my people and tell better stories.”
Subha J Rao is a consultant writer and editor based out of Mangaluru, Karnataka. There, she keeps alive her love for cinema across languages. You can find her on Twitter @subhajrao.
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