Tracing the culture of anthologies in Tamil cinema, from Penn to Paava Kathaigal
Back-to-back anthologies in Tamil on major OTT platforms trigger nostalgia for where it all began, on Doordarshan and the early days of satellite television.
There is so much talk about Tamil anthologies in the past few weeks. One of them, Putham Pudhu Kaalai, dropped on Amazon Prime Video recently, and the scene is set for Netflix’s Paava Kathaigal. But, this change has been in the air for long. In the theatrical release space, Karthik Subbaraj (who directed a segment in Putham Pudhu Kaalai) attempted Bench Talkies in 2015, bringing together six shorts by as many directors, and in 2016, he gave us Aviyal, which marked the coming together of five directors, including Alphonse Putharen and Lokesh Kanagaraj.
Then, there’s director Vasanth’s multiple-award winning Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum, which is awaiting theatrical release, and Halitha Shameem’s Sillu Karupatti (2019), which was just that, slivers of sweetness on the tongue. It was also a commercial success.
But, decades before all of this, in 1991, the Tamil audience was introduced to a new format of storytelling, a new kind of story, on Doordarshan. This was the year of Penn, directed by Suhasini Mani Ratnam, and the first episode ‘Hemavukku Kalyanam’, starring Revathy as the daughter and the lovely, late Srividya as the mother. Many of us in our 40s now were in a similar phase of our lives then — teenage rebellion, and angst over parental love and control. The eight episodes of Penn, which can be called an anthology mini-series, threw open the doors for a different kind of viewing experience.
Almost a decade later, in the year 2000, two directorial greats — K Balachander and Balu Mahendra — launched Chinnathirai and Kadhai Neram, respectively. Going by today’s definition, they were anthologies too.
The Tamil viewer was introduced to great fare, drawn from novels and short stories, and these series usually starred popular actors, or those with prodigious talent. Mounika shone in Kadhai Neram, and Suhasini’s Penn introduced us to newer facets of popular actors. Vetri Maaran was assisting Balu Mahendra then, and in an earlier interview to Silverscreenindia.com, he mentioned how he would read numerous stories every week and shortlist some for the director to finalise. “Sir taught me the technique, craft and skill to determine what to leave out from written work when filming it. When you’re trying to adapt something from a written work, what you should ignore is very important,” he said. He is part of the Netflix anthology, and his short stars Sai Pallavi.
For many filmmakers, shooting during the pandemic meant paring down to the basics, as it were, working with minimal cast and crew. It also meant writing for possibly 1/4th or 1/5th the time of a feature film.
Sudha Kongara, who is part of both the Netflix and Amazon anthologies, still recalls how she was blown away by Penn when she first watched it. “For me, that was what an anthology meant. There have been so many attempts after that, but anthologies are still rare. In that sense, it is a new exploration for me as director. To work with peers whom I respect a lot, that drew me to both anthologies. Additionally, I’ve started watching creations in the short format and they appealed to me,” says Sudha.
The director of the forthcoming Amazon movie Soorarai Pottru, starring Suriya and Aparana Balamurali, says that for her, a shorter format of film is not any different from a feature in terms of the interest value. “A short is not about a small thought stretched like a javvumittai (sticky sweetmeat). I work on it like I work on a feature. I love challenges and this challenged me, because I have not done this before. In 30 minutes, I had to put together a huge story and not make it boring. I had to tell a lifetime’s story. Yes, there is the fear of failure, but that drives a creator,” she adds.
Suhasini, before she took up the Amazon anthology, was working on her short film series, including one shot on an iPhone, during the COVID-19 lockdown, with a familiar cast and crew. One of them stars her mother, who was also a part of Putham Pudhu Kaalai.
“I have done this before with Penn, and even directed one episode of Chinna Chinna Aasai that was spearheaded by Revathy. I worked with Suchitra Krishnamoorthy, Rajiv Menon, Fathima Babu and Raviprakash for that. KB Sir did something similar for the big screen with Oru Veedu Iru Vaasal. It was very new for the audience. There was something for Doordarshan, where we chose six litterateurs and shot a film from their stories. I chose Ki Rajanarayanan’s Kaicha Maram, and did it chapter-wise. We narrated it through an elderly couple forced to move from one child’s house to another. Later, for Manobala, Revathy and I co-directed Thozhigal. And when the Amazon offer came, I was quite taken aback,” she says.
Suhasini says the buzz around Putham Pudhu Kaalai is also because of its unique theme — hope during the pandemic. “If anthologies have a unique factor, I am certain they will do well. I hear of one being made, which speaks of the stories in a particular hotel room. As a creative person, this is interesting. As a viewer too, I prefer shows where there is not too much linkage between episodes. That said, if we five directors had an opportunity to meet up before shooting, we probably might have blended our stories in, narrated our stories to each other and received feedback.”
Suhasini speaks of how she also managed to bring in a bit of the real into the story, with the character played by Shruti Haasan. “She was in Mumbai, because she felt it meant more creative freedom than Chennai, and I wrote that into the script, about her creative search and why she liked being outside,” she says.
Director Vasanth has a lot of hope in anthologies. “Cinema is more than a 100 years old now, and we have gone through the gamut from three-hour-long films with two intervals to two-hour films and one interval. Every format will change, because we seek newness. I believe the short duration of the anthology format gets people to commit to it. I think this will bring about welcome change, and give more freedom to real filmmakers. This format allows you to do something other than just entertain. Otherwise, you’re caught in the web of songs and action scenes,” he said.
Does an anthology call for a different kind of skill set for a director? Not really, says Sudha. “I shoot even a feature like an indie; that’s something I have picked up from Mani [Mani Ratnam] Sir. I impose a lot of constraints regarding time and budget on myself. I work with the economics firmly in my head,” she says.
Anthologies usually trigger interest based on the names involved. That way, both Amazon and Netflix have managed a coup of sorts, both with the directors (Rajiv Menon, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Vignesh Shivan) and actors (Jayaram, Urvashi, MS Bhaskar, Kalyani Priyadarshan, Ritu Varma, Bobby Simhaa, Kalki Koechlin, Simran, Prakash Raj). But, keeping the momentum going will depend completely on content. “Right now, the audience does not have any other avenue than television and OTT. But, once theatres start functioning, we need to explore this format better so it sustains itself,” says Sudha.
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