The animated whisperings and long queue leading to the emergency ward at the Dr Cherian Frontier Hospital in Chennai is the only giveaway that a film shooting is in progress. There’s no din, no hollering and certainly no visible tension as the film crew go about their jobs precisely, with the director watching the scene unfold via a computer monitor and being just about audible when he says, “cut”. Elsewhere, when the hero wonders if he should execute the scene more realistically, by doing a somersault, the director worries that the torch the hero is carrying might break. At another shoot, the hero asks why the funny dialogues do not elicit laughs from the director.
Mostly unflappable, sometimes stoic, these are young pragmatic filmmakers, who are emerging game changers in the south, signalling the arrival of a new wave. The directors seem to possess in their arsenal similar weaponry— a savvy approach to filmmaking, radical themes, new presentation styles and reliance on new fangled technology.
In the last 15 months, of the 176 films that the Malyalam industry has churned out, as many as 85 were debut offerings of young directors. Some sank without a trace, but a dozen odd had the cash registers ringing in the box office.
In Bollywood, where a movie made on a shoestring budget would translate to Rs 8 crore in production costs, the new southern directors have redefined budgets to keep costs between Rs 1 and 3 crore, sometimes even less. Tamil comedy thriller Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom, made by newcomer Balaji Tharaneetharan for Rs 80 lakh in 2012, brought in Rs 6 crore from the box-office.
Fellow Tamil director Karthik Subbaraj made horror flick Pizza with Rs 1.5 crore, and laughed all the way to the bank when the movie grossed Rs 8 crore.
A by-product of this new wave has been the introduction of budding talent and fresh new faces. Kollywood’s Balaji Shaktivel delights in introducing new actors. Newcomers like actresses Sandhya and Tamannah delivered brilliant performances in his films Kaadhal (2004) and Kalloori (2007), respectively.
From obscurity, these talented directors have propelled their finds into stardom and popularity. Vijay Sethupati, hero of last year’s two hits Pizza and Naduva Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom, is touted as Kollywood’s rising star. Besides acting, his directors trust his instincts where analysing scripts are concerned. And Sethupati, seems to repay the compliment when he says that both Tharaneetharan and Subbaraj are a combination of calm and cool, giving total freedom to the actors.
Kannada director Chaitanya (39) of Aa Dingalu fame, who recently hit the screen with the comedy Parari, says a director acts like a super manager. “As a director, one has to deal with an actor or a cinematographer who are also creative like you. One has to channelise all their creativity towards the vision I have. If you are too imposing, then they may feel they are contributing nothing. The situation is dangerous when they resist whatever you tell them. Otherwise, they will listen and continue to do what they want to do. For me, it is always team work. I make them feel that it is their product, their film. And, that has been my style of working on the sets.”
But perhaps what really set these directors apart are the themes they explore and how. Vinay Govind was barely 24 when he began making his Bangalore to Goa road movie Kili Poyi, which traces the journey of two ad executives who, fed up with the tantrums of their boss, embark on a trip to Goa. Another Mollywood director, Sugeeth, made a film called Ordinary, and many expected it to be just that. But the script that follows the adventures of a state road transport corporation bus touched a chord with the audience. N Shankar’s Jai Bolo Telengana, based on the statehood movement, was not expected to be a box-office hit, but became just that.
One of the single biggest contributors for the success of young directors has been their use of latest technology, mainly digital cinematography.
“Digital filmmaking, success of small and medium films and decline in the selling power of star-based movies helped young directors. New producers have entered the industry as they can recover a fairly good amount through various sources including satellite rights. Mollywood has grown into a Rs 300 crore-plus market as the average film costs Rs 1 crore to make,” says Milan Jaleel, president of Kerala Film Producers’ Association.
Ad-man-turned-director Prasanth Murali (34) agrees. Shooting his second film Paisa Paisa under a scorching sun at Kalamassery, 12 kilometres from Kochi, Murali says, “The shift of technology to digital has given me more confidence to make a film,” as he okays a take. Because of the cheaper economics of filmmaking, he has been able to shoot in actual locations in Kochi and Chennai where the story, in which actor Indrajith plays the lead, is set.
Gireesh (32), who made Ni Ko Nja Cha, is a new generation Mollywood director who succeeded in leveraging the ethos of changing times and did not have to struggle for a box office hit. When he discussed the idea of his first film, about AIDS, two years ago, not many were convinced about its marketability. But he persisted and made the film with an unconventional name which was an abbreviation of Ninnem Kollum Njanum Chakum (I will kill you after killing myself) which released in January and enjoyed a decent run.
“I could realise the theme only because of the new environment in the industry. However, the major challenge was in finding actors as we wanted fresh faces. There was only a month to start shooting. In the end, we did the casting from among our acquaintances. We did an audition for a character through Skype as she was in the UK,” says Gireesh, who assisted a few front-line directors before donning the mantle himself, as well as penning the script. “He wanted to go in for a casual treatment of a serious subject. He succeeded, even while retaining depth in characterisation,” says Manoj, the editor of Ni Ko Nja Cha.
Among the youngest of the new breed is Vinay Govind who emerged as a director with Kili Poyi. The mantle fell on him quite accidentally, as his mentor and noted director V K Prakash was busy with other projects. Termed the first stoner film (the use of cannabis is a main theme and inspires the plot) in Malayalam, at 84 minutes, it is also one of the shortest Malayalam films. Needless to say, the producers are happy with their return on investments.
“We did not want to stretch the film beyond a level by including comic scenes or songs,” says Govind. Though the liberal use of four-letter words in the script was criticised, Govind defends himself: “The dialogues were meant for a particular situation. It is a story of two guys working in an advertising agency in Bangalore. So it was natural we followed their style of communication.” Incidentally, Kili Poyi has a literal meaning: the bird has gone, but it is usually used in the context of someone going mad.
The crew members, like the director, were all in their twenties. The location shoots were in Bangalore, Chennai and Goa. “Thanks to our friends, we were able to get the locations easily. The only trouble was with the oldest crew member — a 1970 model Impala car,” says Govind with a smile.
Another believer in offbeat themes is Puri Jagannadh, one of the top commercial directors in Tollywood, who admits to not watching movies, other than his own. Currently busy editing his latest Telugu movie Iddarammayilatho, Jagannadh says he always wanted to make offbeat cinema. The man who directed A-list Tollywood actors like Mahesh Babu, Ravi Teja and Pawan Kalyan, among others, says promotion and unusual story lines hold the key. “There is a growing market and audience for offbeat cinema. People are demanding cinema beyond formula stories. Film driven by content will find its audience, despite the industry being dominated by biggies,” he points out.
But more importantly, the right marketing could take an offbeat film a long way. “Every film should be backed with a campaign that is integral to the film to try and tap into an audience as early as possible,” he says.
Yet others, like script writer, director and producer Allani Sreedhar, who made Komaram Bheem, based on the life of the freedom fighter who fought against the Nizams says, “There is hardly any market for art stories in Tollywood. Commercial movies are good, but I feel that movie-making should have a social purpose. There have been a few movies in the recent past, like Ee Rojullo or Oka Romantic Crime Katha, where the subject was not meant to generate commercial value, but they were big hits.”
So what makes filmmakers leave aside formulaic concepts and embrace novel ideas, skillfully averting both the commercial and art film tag and tasting box office success as well? Balaji Shaktivel (49), the first of the trendsetters and who made Tamil film Kaadhal all those years ago, says he loves to reflect on society, focusing mainly on contemporary issues. Another Tamil director, Vasantha Balan (40), on the other hand, loves to explore different genres. “Veyyil was the biography of a failed man, Angadi Theru about romance in a shopping mall while Aravaan, inspired by a novel, depicted centuries ago Tamil culture,” he says.
While creativity is a given, the younger directors are a savvy bunch. Karthik Subbaraj (30), who decided to make an indie film, thought it would be cost effective to shoot in a single location and zeroed in on the thriller genre for Pizza, getting the nod from a producer when he improvised with added horror elements. Balaji Tharaneetharan (32) wanted to make a film with just 3-4 characters, not involving again too many locations and decided to borrow the story idea from one of his own life experiences or as it transpired, his friend’s. The events that took place in Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom, did in fact happen in his friend and cameraman’s (Prem Kumar) life, who incidentally handled the film’s cinematography.
While unusual themes are a favourite of young directors, some like Tollywood’s YVS Chowdhary believes in the power of good old masala. Shooting his latest flick Rey, Chowdhary says Rey is a “musical film” in which the hero, based in the Caribbean, fights his way up. In the film, Sai Dharam Tej and Saiyami Kher will be seen as professional dancers and Shraddha Das will play a pop diva. “The right chemistry with an actor can be more important than the script,” says the director adding, “My favorite actors are people who are hard working, honest and pleasant to work with because they come in with great knowledge. They know what they are doing.”
On the sets, Chiranjeevi’s nephew Sai Dharam Tej shoots a sequence with 50 other dancers. There is no music playing at all, and actors dance to the beat of music playing in their minds. The shooting of this particular song has been going on for the last one month to get that one perfect shot.
Explaining the sequence, Chowdhary says, “The scene is being shot with 200 junior artistes and 50 or so dancers. We have designed an eight-minute song mixed with content and emotions for the climax. The song will take place in the backdrop of a competition between top pop stars in America. How the hero’s batch wins is going to be interesting.”
The song is being shot on a set worth Rs 1.5 crore. Dismissing offbeat cinema as a genre, Chowdhary says, “There is nothing called offbeat cinema. If a movie does well, it’s commercial cinema and if it doesn’t, it’s offbeat.”“We can tell offbeat stories successfully and also make them commercially viable,” he says, adding, “Big commercial films and offbeat films use separate marketing strategies. But, ultimately it is all up to the audience.”His musical love story, which has been in the making for a couple of years, is all done except for the climax song. The film has been extensively shot in America, Caribbean and Bangkok.
PERSISTENCE AND PROMOTION
Unlike YVS, director N Shankar believes his films are realistic. His cast and crew have fun. He tries to keep it light on sets, but expects his audience to be disturbed. His last film Jai Bolo Telangana, based on the separate state issue, wasn’t a mass masala entertainer but nevertheless did well. His success lies in his casting and out-of-the-box thinking. “The industry is running after big stars but offbeat cinema still has its own audience. If proper promotion is done, it will work,” he opines.
“Even if you manage to find funds to make your film the way you want it, you still have to fight with the exhibitors to find a decent slot. These days it is relatively easier to find funding. The struggle begins when you plan to market and release the film,” he adds. Mollywood’s Lijo Jose Pellissery would agree. The son of an actor, Lijo began his career with Nayakan in 2010 and City of God in 2011. Though they were critically-acclaimed and rated as pioneering efforts, both bombed at the box office. Not one to give up, Lijo went on to make Amen and it is still running to packed houses —a box office hit for a director who refused to give up his conviction about making films the new way.
“I did not look down or spoon-feed the viewers by making a run-of-the-mill film,” says Lijo (32) a management graduate. “I made this film because I was convinced of its worth. My films will make the viewers grow positively. The ideas for my films will be from what I read in books, see in other movies and gained from meeting people,” he adds. But he had to convince some doubting Thomases about some scenes in his latest film, which began with a prelude that included a fight over a pack of excreta. “There were many who were skeptical about some scenes,” he says. “But I insisted on retaining all the frames as they were essential.”
Now, each movie seems to ignite the latent creativity in another new director, egging them on to do better. Veteran Balu Mahendra is all appreciation when he talks of the newer lot. But he makes a telling statement when he says, “This change is not something new. It happened before and it is happening now and I am happy that I am alive to see it and hope to be around when it happens again as well”.
Experts in the industry, meanwhile, cite various reasons for the influx of new directors. “The canvas has widened in recent times as new themes are being filmed. Any kind of plot can be used to make a film; they demand speedy execution. Hence new directors get a chance,” says Mahesh Narayanan, an editor who has worked on films like Kamal Hassan’s Viswaroopam.