Lenin Bharathi, who wrote the story of Suseenthiran’s Aadhalal Kadhal Seiveer, has now turned director with Merku Thodarchi Malai that has Antony and Gayathri Krishna (of Joker fame) in the lead. The film, which talks about the landless labour class living on the borders of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, has music by Ilaiyaraaja and premiered at the 17th annual New York Indian Film Festival.
The filmmaker wanted his film to be an authentic record of the lives of cardamom farmers in the Western Ghats. “Though Merku Thodarchi... has done well at film festivals, the film really is for the common people. I’ve decoded the bond between men and nature following the effects of globalisation,” he says. “I wanted to keep the film real, so I made my actors work as daily wage workers for some time, so they could absorb the milieu of their characters.
I insisted that they live with the locals for a year, but they didn’t know we were there for a film. Antony, in fact, spent time climbing mountains like the natives of the place and Gayathri worked in a cardamom estate for `120 per day,” he says.
Lenin spent four years on the pre-production work with the crew alongside the Western Ghats. “This was to have an understanding of how things were. We trekked a lot to fix our locations, shots, and rooms. We never had hotels, but rented rooms and stayed among the people who worked on the farms. I’ve used many locals for the film. We had only three or four professional artistes and the supporting roles were done by the villagers,” he says.
The main challenge for him was to make them shed their inhibitions while in front of the camera. “But eventually, we developed a bond with them. It wasn’t like we were filming. As for the making, I just had to cut down on the close-ups. I’ve given a lot of importance to the ambience,” he smiles.
Lenin didn’t want his actors to act. “I wanted them to simply behave, react and respond to situations. We shot for about 45 days. We purchased new costumes and exchanged them with the locals for old ones. They were intrigued by this. I wanted even the costumes to look real,” he adds.
Lenin’s parents once worked in the cardamom farms near Kerala and that’s how he got familiar with the people and area. They used to visit him only during weekends, and on vacations, he used to go and stay with them on the farm they had worked. “The characters in the film are inspired by real life people I knew. I moved to Chennai when I was in class five. The contrasting life experience that I had helped me write the script better,” he adds.
Merku Thodarchi Malai is produced by Vijay Sethupathi, and interestingly, when he himself asked Lenin if he could play a role in the film, the director refused. “Vijay and I were friends from my Vennila Kabadi Kuzhu days. I narrated a line from the script and asked him to put me on to small-time producers. He instantly liked it and assured he’d support me financially. And when he asked me if he could play one of the characters, I wasn’t okay with it because I didn’t want people to associate my film with the star tag,” he says. The decision to reject the star meant that the director had to wait for two more years. “As a producer, he was great and didn’t interfere with anything. In fact, when we got ready with the festival version, he trusted me and said he’d watch the film in theatres!”
The film’s biggest strength, he says, is Ilaiyaraaja. “Raja sir and my father were school mates and his village is close to mine. He’s had first-hand experience of the subject we’re dealing with. When he and I were discussing music, he got so involved that he wrote a song,” he says.
He wants the film to reach the grassroots, and suddenly, turns emotional. “The festival crowd is elite and I am not concerned much about them. Yaarkukkaga padam edutheno, avunga idha paarkanum!” Up next, Lenin will be working on a city-based subject which will deal with the struggles he encountered after moving to Chennai. “Enna baadhikkadha yedhayum naan cinema-va edukka maaten,” he signs off.