Vetri Maaran: 'Tamil filmmakers have more freedom of expression (than Hindi filmmakers)'
In a conversation with contributing editor Anna MM Vetticad, Vetri Maaran discusses the impact of big studios on small film industries, censorship and the differing reactions to Udta Punjab and Visaranai.
Vetri Maaran is no stranger to accolades or global attention. His directorial ventures Aadukalam and Visaranai are multiple National Award winners, and Visaranai earned a trophy at the Venice Film Festival 2015. The writer-director-producer is now preparing for a larger stage with Visaranai’s selection as India’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars, unarguably the world’s most high-profile entertainment event. The film is a chilling yet beautiful saga of police brutality and a police-politician nexus in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
In a conversation with contributing editor Anna MM Vetticad, Maaran discusses the impact of big studios on small film industries, censorship and the differing reactions to the Punjabi-Hindi film Udta Punjab and the Tamil Visaranai. Excerpts from an occasionally volatile interview:
Congratulations on Visaranai being chosen as India’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category. Most Indian filmmakers so far have seen the selection as an end in itself. Will you take it further?
This is the first step in a new journey. We have to learn a lot in terms of promoting the film for the Oscars. It’s challenging. We don’t know how to do that. There are some who have done it already so we’re planning to get their inputs.
Who are these people?
Whoever has sent their film before us. It’s not some big secret.
But almost all those whose films have been sent so far from India to the Oscars have made little or no effort to market their films. Do you have anyone in mind who did otherwise?
No no, I’m telling you this is new and I’m going to learn, which means it’s going to take some time before I decide my plan of action.
When we spoke the day before Visaranai’s selection was announced, you sounded like you didn’t have much faith in the selection process. Do you still remain doubtful about it?
No no no no, any selection of any sort, not just the Oscars, depends on the jury. So we happened to have a jury that liked my film, that’s all. Very simple.
Do you doubt…
No, that’s the end of it. I had a jury that liked my film, that’s all.
So do you remain doubtful about the process? Or do you have faith in it?
[He raises his voice] No no no, don’t make me say things that I don’t intend to say.
Mr Maaran, I’m asking you questions, not making you say things.
No no, it’s not a question. I answered your question already. Every festival, every award function depends purely on the jury. This year’s jury liked my film. That’s all. That doesn’t mean the other films are lesser films.
Were you not expressing doubt about the selection process?
No, I don’t believe in any of these things and I don’t like the tone of this interview right now. So you have to skip this question and go to the next one.
Mr Maaran, I don’t understand your aggression.
No, let me finish, let me finish, let me finish. Don’t make me comment about a jury process where my film has been selected. It’s very simple. I’m trying to be diplomatic. I was trying to avoid this question.
You might be trying to avoid the question but please don’t get aggressive with a journalist who is being polite, and don’t suggest that I’m making you say things you have not said.
[He calms down] Yes yes yes, I’m telling you, I don’t want to answer this question.
[Note from interviewer: This back and forth went on for about four minutes]
Do you see a pattern in the only Indian films to have got Oscar nominations (Mother India, Salaam Bombay and Lagaan) since the Foreign Language category was instituted?
I don’t see a pattern. Salaam Bombay stands apart from the other two. I remember very less of Mother India because that was so long ago, but Lagaan and Salaam Bombay were marketed in the right way. For Lagaan, (actor-producer) Aamir Khan and Ashutosh (director Ashutosh Gowariker) went to Los Angeles and really tried to push the film. I read Aamir’s interviews where he said: we had to sit there, do promotions, make people come and watch.
All the stuff he was saying, we should do. But it’s expensive and some producers whose films are selected are unable to raise that kind of money for a film that has already had a theatrical run. Most of the time it would have done less at the box office, it would have been made on a shoestring budget, so to pump in big money is not possible. How can someone who made a film in Rs 50 lakh spend Rs 10 crore to promote it at the Oscars? We need something to bridge this.
Anyway, we are gearing up to do whatever is needed for Visaranai. We will sit there. I was to start my film Vada Chennai’s second shooting schedule in the coming month, but now I am postponing it. I will travel, find the best way to pitch Visaranai at the Oscars.
Why did you say Salaam Bombay stands apart from Mother India and Lagaan?
It’s what a Westerner thinks India is. Actually, so is Lagaan.
Visaranai too is not about upper or middle-class India. It is about poor men brutalised by the system. Thematically, isn’t Visaranai too about the kind of India the West wants to see?
I want to say no. As far as I’ve seen how the West reacts to it, they look at these events as exotic things, so maybe they’re happy that it’s not happening to them.
Not that there are no police atrocities in the West.
No no no no no, it’s not at all that. See, this film has an upper hand over other films that were submitted for the Oscars selection process in India because it is relevant throughout the world. Here (in Tamil Nadu) last week a convict was murdered in a jail and people said it’s so similar to Visaranai. So Visaranai has become a reference point for such incidents.
Are you saying this is why Visaranai was selected?
Could be one reason. Ya.
Every year when India sends an entry for the Oscars, some people ask: why do we care about the Oscars? Could you respond to that question?
Ya. Film festivals exist mainly to find funds or revenue-generating avenues for unconventional non-market films. But Oscars is for already released films. Of course it is the most reputed in terms of American and international viewership. They’ve established themselves as the biggest film award event. It has garnered glitz and helps you promote a film or pitch a filmmaker internationally.
For instance, Visaranai was the first Tamil film selected in a competitive category in 72 years of Venice history, but we had to go tell this fact to the world. But with Oscars, people came to us. This event has so much media reach, it pushes you to the next level.
When you say “people came to us”, you mean journalists?
Ya, press and film fraternity. When your film is at the Oscars, people want to talk about it because the common people know only about Oscars.
Now, when a government or a group representing a government sends a film, it will always reflect, or people fear it will reflect the policies of the system and that it can never have anything anti-establishment or anti-system. Those people are skeptical about this selection process and Oscars on the whole. So they say Oscars is not a big thing.
But the Film Federation of India, which selects India’s entry, is not a government body.
I know that. But it speaks for the country, no? When a film is going to represent the country, naturally a body is bound to do and not do certain things, whether that body is independent of the government or not.
But India has sent several anti-establishment films for the Oscars, including yours. So what creates this impression?
I don’t know. I only know that the impression exists.
Okay. You did not always intend to call your film Visaranai, did you?
We considered two titles: Kutravaalikal which means “convicted criminals” and Visaranai which means “interrogation”.
Why did you arrive at Visaranai?
Some of my teammates felt Kutravaalikal sounded more intense as a title but I thought Visaranai made more sense mainly because the Tamil translation of Kafka’s Trial is called Visaranai. This film has a lot of similarity to Kafka’s Trial where the protagonist is arrested and tried for a crime he is never informed about.
How did you extract such life-like performances from your actors?
The point is, I never try to make my actors act or try to fit into a role. I just choose someone who is closer to my character in real life in the way they talk and carry themselves. Then on the sets, I make them realise that you really don’t need to take any effort to perform before a camera.
In real life when you are trying to convince someone about something, you have to put in a little effort to state whatever you are saying in a strong or convincing way, but on screen you don’t need to stretch yourself because the camera can come closer to you, see you in larger-than-life size, read between lines and read your mind.
I make my actors realise this and just think the situation. I never force them to act. I did this especially with Visaranai where we didn’t have a script. I never wrote dialogues, I just asked my actors to say certain things the way I thought was appropriate in that situation. Most of the times I gave them the situation and asked them to talk. They spoke, and we shot this film.
Visaranai is based on the book Lock Up by M. Chandrakumar who is an autorickshaw driver from Coimbatore. How has the film’s success impacted his life?
He is an activist. He wrote the book after he was caught in prison, based on his own personal experiences. After he came out of prison, he joined the movement. He was in a Communist party. Now he’s an autorickshaw driver but still a social activist. He says this film has given him more visibility and more credibility to pursue his work.
Visaranai is an indictment of corrupt politicians and police. How did the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh police and governments react to it?
I got lot of calls from top officials from both states who wanted to show it to their people. Justice P.N. Prakash of Tamil Nadu organised a screening for his students, people who are studying to be magistrates. After they saw the film, he told them: magistrates are the ones directly in touch with the common man, so take a moment before you do something, look at the victim, whomever the case is against, and think before you write. That’s a big thing.
Some words in Visaranai are beeped out. What was your experience with the Censor Board?
I’ve never had any issues with the Censor Board. The only thing is, my language is filthy and foul. Profanity is my second name. In day-to-day conversations. I can’t start or finish a sentence without a “fuck”. That’s how I speak. So all my characters speak that way, and when I set my characters in the milieu I feel they will talk that way.
I write and shoot the words that way, but sometimes I feel certain words need not be heard by people. Just because Censors would mute it or I won’t be comfortable letting my 6-7-year-old daughter listen to it, there is no point in refining a character. Instead, I make the character talk the way he talks, then as a filmmaker I take a call on whether that word should be heard.
I usually mute the profanity myself before going to Censors. Censor had no issue with Visaranai.
This is a contrast to the experience of Udta Punjab which was released around the time of Visaranai. The Censor Board virtually tried to demolish Udta Punjab with cuts. This was widely seen as an effort by the Board at the behest of the Punjab government because the film highlighted the role of politicians and police in the drug menace in Punjab.
A sensible, responsible filmmaker is more responsible than any governing body. Because he knows what he is dealing with. When he makes a film on drug abuse he wants to show the slice of life without sugarcoating or hiding anything. But when the system feels that it doesn’t want to show the world its ugly face, it’s their problem, not the filmmaker’s or the film’s problem.
A filmmaker has a right to decide how his film should look and sound, and a right to be himself.
Why do you think Udta Punjab faced huge problems, while you say you got a positive reaction to Visaranai from the authorities?
What happened to Chandrakumar has been happening ever since the policing system came into existence. It starts with Jesus Christ, and it will not end with Visaranai. It will happen until the policing system exists, not just in Tamil Nadu, not just in India or pockets of Third World countries, it’s everywhere. An African-American youngster is shot because he is black. When power is given to someone it is misused, that is why everybody has connected with Visaranai.
There is a dialogue in this film, “Did I ask you to find the criminal? I asked you to finish the case.” That’s how the system works. Closing the case is more important than finding the culprit.
So what explains the difference in government reactions to Visaranai and Udta Punjab?
Visaranai deals with a minority, while Udta Punjab discussed something so prevalent that would directly affect the governing body. I think that is why they were so hard in defending themselves. I don’t know how people would have reacted if such a film was made here, but I feel that Tamil filmmakers have more freedom of expression. Comparatively.
How do you say that? The Censor Board’s examining committees in the south are known to be even more conservative than committees in the north. Is this not a correct impression?
Yes, it is correct. I find when interacting with college kids, more than half the girls drink, smoke and smoke up, but in a film about a college student, I can’t show a girl drinking at all or smoking – they will straightaway say you need to cut it.
Would you believe there is a blanket ban on over-the-counter contraceptive pills in Tamil Nadu? The committee that decided this said if girls do whatever they wish our culture would go lost. That is the kind of “conservative” people we get. Those in power can do anything in the name of culture and being conservative.
I just want to clarify one thing though. I’m not generalising, but most filmmakers who complain about their inability to show sex or a girl’s expression, usually their concern is to make a hot scene to enhance their film’s market viability more than their concern for the content. Such people have very less reason to complain. If you have a genuine concern it’s different.
But don’t Censors apply yardsticks of conservatism across the board to all filmmakers including those who portray women and sex with sensitivity?
But Censor conservatism is a smaller issue, there is a larger issue in the difference between Hindi and south Indian cinema. Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam cinema are focused primarily on people of their states, but Hindi cinema is trying to cross state borders. When you cross borders, you have the liberty to do certain things whereas when you make films for your own people within your own geographical landscape and in the milieu where it is set, you have restrictions.
It is like Hollywood trying to cater to the world, so they have to destroy their ethnic identity. Only when a film loses its ethnic identity can it try to connect with everybody.
Of course my principle on writing a script is different – I think the more ethnic it is the more international it becomes. But when you target a larger audience, big studios in the world tell you not to make it so ethnic-specific, to make it general. Even in Tamil Nadu or Kerala, when films are made with two or three language releases in mind, they even make the mother wear salwar to make her acceptable for the Hindi-speaking viewer also.
This is why Censor Board committees for Hindi films have more leverage. They can give slack because Hindi films are trying to cross borders.
Will films become increasingly less conservative if they seek audiences beyond their specific states and countries?
No, no, I feel it is a sad thing that in the near future we will not be able to make films for our own people from our own people. When you can’t do that, it shows that your films are dying. Big studios coming in and taking over smaller industries will ultimately result in them wanting to make our films the way they would like to watch.
I recently saw the film Pele. It was speaking English. If it had spoken the native language (of Brazil), it would have been a better film. It’s not about Censorship, it’s about freedom. Very soon, in various pretexts we will not want to make our films, we will be asked to make other films which our people are not concerned about. Then films will purely become opium, just to keep you sedated and free of the pain.
How does that explain the greater conservatism of Censor committees examining Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam compared to those examining Hindi films?
These committees cater to a small ethnic group. So they are more concerned and conservative because it is directly connected with everybody’s sensitivity and sensibility. “Concerned” might be a wrong word, they are confused so they stick to old practices, not looking into the real world, whereas Hindi films get some slack because they don’t cater only to their own people.
Hindi films are even made in a place out of their world – Bombay is not a Hindi-speaking world. So they are more open to many things because they cater to an international audience. By “international” I mean not just outside India but within India. Hindi films are sent to places like Tamil Nadu where we don’t know the language, to Assam, Orissa and Nagaland which are different worlds altogether.
It is not an advantage for a Hindi filmmaker that Hindi Censor members are a little liberal, because while catering to a larger audience and not their people, they’re losing something.
How will you guard against diluting your own filmmaking sensibilities while targeting global audiences?
[Laughs] I have to figure it out as I proceed in this journey. At least I am aware of where I’m heading and what I will say, so I’m happy.
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