Soorarai Pottru director Sudha Kongara opens up on making her voice heard in a male-dominated industry
'After my success at the box office, I saw a marked difference in people’s behavior. They started to treat me with a lot more respect. I felt it very strongly,' says Sudha Kongara.
Tamil film director Sudha Kongara is a fighter. When her first film, Drohi tanked, she picked herself up, and returned to the ring with the boxing drama, Irudhi Sutru (Saala Khadoos in Hindi), which was a huge success.
Four years later, Kongara is savouring sweet success as her OTT debut short is picking up rave reviews. Her upcoming film, the Suriya-starrer Soorarai Pottru (Praise the Brave), based on the life of the intrepid entrepreneur, Captain GR Gopinath, is also all set to release on Amazon Prime Video India. Kongara is striving to stay calm and "live for the moment" as expectations are running high on this film.
Captain Gopinath’s tale of 'grit and passion' had struck a deep chord in her, she says in an exclusive interview with Firstpost. “His life was an underdog’s race, and I was drawn to it. Also, I was tremendously inspired by this man who was flying the middle-class around for just Re 1,” admits Kongara, who empathised with the Air Deccan founder for daring to try something different.
In the ‘90s, Kongara, the daughter of a doctor-couple from a conventional middle-class family, too had stepped into unchartered territory when she chose to pursue a career in cinema. She had her share of struggles in a male-dominated industry, which largely had to do with overcoming deeply ingrained misogyny to get her voice heard on the film set. Unit members would laugh and refuse to take her seriously.
Kongara recalls, “I did not let that go. I made sure they understood I was the boss, and they could laugh however much they liked. But I got them to work for me with a lot of resistance.” When she set the box office cash registers ringing with R Madhavan-starrer Irudhi Sutru, everything changed. “Now, the same unit run to do my work without a quibble, even if I lose my temper,” she says.
Kongara is still swallowing this bitter pill. “I find it difficult to understand this because when I go on a set, I am focused on getting the perfect shot and meeting my production deadlines. I don’t see the gender of a person. I treat each one like a person who has to do an efficient job – if they have an attitude about my gender, it is their problem.
But after my success at the box office, I saw a marked difference in people’s behavior. They started to treat me with a lot more respect. I felt it very strongly.”
Ironically, today, Kongara is one of the few directors or the only woman director in Tamil cinema to work with male superstars. “They want to work for me because of my stories,” she explains, pointing out that both Madhavan and Suriya fell in love with her scripts and were obsessed with giving their best. Her stories also have a strong male protagonist, which needs a good actor and a bankable star to propel a big-budget film forward.
How was her experience of working with Suriya? “The beauty is that both Maddy and Suriya never gave a damn which sex I belonged to. They never cared, I was a director to them, and they just looked to me for direction. They are extraordinary actors, extremely focused and never questioned me. I shared a great rapport with both,” she says happily.
Suriya had poured all his energy into transforming himself to suit what the role demanded. He had even produced the film to avoid creative interference. Whether it is OTT or the big screen, or whether it is a female or male director, compelling content is driving the industry, says Kongara. “It is boom time for storytellers,” she says. And, in this scenario, “it is just a matter of time” before more women come out to create an impact in the industry.
Phenomenal passion, however, is required to survive in the film industry, she says. “It is only passion that will see you through a bad day. This industry is tough than most, and you will experience plenty of lows and highs. You have to tide over the lows. I never gave up – you push me against a wall with a failure, I will always pick myself up,” she says. It took her six years to get a producer to back her Saala Khadoos script. And 10 long years to track Gopinath’s life story.
Kongara first come across his story in 2010. “I studied his book Simply Fly like a Bible. I was reading everything about him, and after I had one success to my name, I met him to get the rights of his book,” she reveals.
Gopinath has been extremely receptive whenever she needed more details. But he never interfered, and has not seen the film. There was, however, one thing he told her to get across in the film: "I want you to tell the youth of this country to dream as big as they want until the dream becomes you and you become the dream. Then, you can achieve anything. You don’t have to be the son of some big shot. I was just a school teacher’s son. But I own an airline because I dreamt so hard."
The subject of her films has to resonate with her. Be it girls having to learn a bloody sport to get a government job in Saala Khadoos or on the horror of honour killing, which is the theme of her short in the Netflix anthology, which is also in the offing.
“Honour killing has not been the priority of my vision to be honest. I have been selfishly going about my life, and done nothing to go out and prevent or stop it. But when I got the opportunity, I did whatever I could,” says Kongara, who has many offers from production houses to sign her up for her next project.
Kongara has been in love with romantic stories for the longest time. Having worked as an assistant director for the master of romance, director Mani Ratnam, for six years, she has imbibed his style of handling romance scenes. “It was unique and beautiful,” says the director.
You can see the ‘Mani effect’ in her short film, Illamai Idho Idho (Here is youth), on Amazon Prime Video India. It is centered around an older couple in love, and captures all the subtle exchanges of love that make your heart sing.
Young actor Kalidas Jayaram, who has acted in her OTT films, says about Kongara: “She is full of energy and positivity. It is a fun set because she gives a lot of creative freedom to the actors. However, she has a clear vision of what she wants, and is unwilling to compromise.” To the extent, she had told Kalidas that if he does not get your father to agree to act in the Prime Video short, you will also not be in the film.
Well, now and then, you have to learn to flex your muscles in this macho land.
Soorarai Pottru will stream on Amazon Prime Video India from 12 November.
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