Young Rathindran Prasad made futile attempts at dancing like Michael Jackson, the hottest celebrity in the world at the time. Dejected that he was getting no better at dance, he got around to watching a video cassette on the making of Thriller, when he spotted filmmaker John Landis barking instructions to Michael Jackson himself. It was at that moment—astonished by the authority of a filmmaker—that Rathindran, who has had two releases over the last month (Inmai in Navarasa, and now, the Aishwarya Rajesh-starrer Boomika), decided to become one himself. “I spent much of my teen years using homemade dough to make my friends look scary. At the time, I didn’t realise I was dabbling in my version of prosthetic makeup,” he says, laughing.
How fascinating then that both his films so far should belong to the horror genre. While Inmai from Navarasa explores the roots of fear, Boomika, while overtly seeming like a haunted house film, turns the tables on the very understanding of what constitutes horror. Curiously enough, Rathindran says that horror is not a genre he particularly cares for. “Had I been given a choice, I would have chosen any emotion but fear in Navarasa,” he says, laughing, and quickly adds, “Okay, maybe not love either.” And yet, he remembers having been preoccupied with thoughts on fear. “Philosopher J Krishnamurti famously said that fear is the journey from certainty to uncertainty. The Rumi quote we used at the beginning of Inmai communicates a similar idea too. I also remember a Japanese filmmaker—whose name eludes me—saying that fear of a supernatural entity is often the projection of our own subconscious,” says Rathindran. “Me? I’m fearful of nature. I love it, and at once, I’m terrified too. Boomika is my attempt at communicating this personal terror.”
For those of us Tamil cinema viewers, who have been over-exposed to horror and the limited interpretations of the genre in our cinema, some tropes of Boomika—youngsters in a haunted house and a flashback death to name two—are now standard fare. Rathindran bemoans the delay in Boomika turning from script to cinema and shares that Boomika’s script was ready at least a decade ago, a time when Vijay Sethupathi was known as ‘that actor who was in Thenmerku Paruvakatru’. “Pizza hadn’t come out yet. The horror hits at the time were Yavarum Nalam and Eeram,” recalls Rathindran. He remembers discussing this film with Vijay Sethupathi, who he credits as being instrumental in this project coming to fruition now, a decade later. “He saw some photos of plants growing through buildings and said they reminded him of my script.” I offer that the script must have registered a strong impression on the actor for him to remember it after all these years… “—and after all the stories and narrations he must have heard,” completes Rathindran. “He helped us bring in Aishwarya Rajesh. He also put us on to Karthik Subbaraj’s Stone Bench Creations.”
A striking image in Boomika, one that Pavel Navageethan’s character seems entranced by, is of plants growing through concrete. “Give the planet a bit of time and you will see what it can do. The lockdown, for instance, saw a massive proliferation of animal and plant life. The planet can protect itself. Boomika, the character, does pretty much the same in the film .
She protects her environment, and punishes those who invade and pollute her space,” says the filmmaker, who often likes to take a walk among trees when plagued by some self-doubt. “I took such a walk in the hill station where we were shooting Boomika, and as I was returning to the sets, I was pained to note that we were, with all our generators and caravans and resultant smoke, doing to the environment exactly what our film stood against.” His conscience ruffled, Rathindran made sure that there was a strict ban on littering. “I like to leave shooting locations in the same condition as they were, before our arrival.” I point out that film crews are notorious for polluting locations, and the immediacy of Rathindran’s agreement comes as a surprise. “It’s true. I have seen the arrogance of many filmmakers who say that any damage caused by the crew can be rectified with money. For me, it’s about being responsible in the first place. It’s about having a conscience.” That way Boomika won’t have to kill you? He laughs: “Absolutely.”
Many years ago, Rathindran, bothered by a guilty conscience over his advertising work, decided to “quit it all” and move away from the city to Auroville, away from all the plastic and concrete. “I travelled around the state and slowly realised that running away from the problem was not the solution. My father reminded me that I had cinema, a powerful medium, to communicate my thoughts. I returned, but this time, I felt that my ideologies had become more balanced. I find that it’s easier to shift from one extreme to another, but harder to temper extremism. I think I have managed that on account of my travels.”
His transformation was partly caused by a chance encounter he had with a villager, who was irked that the former was taking photographs, unmindful of the spaces he was in. “Indha bhoomi namma kitta pesudhu,” he said, according to Rathindran, who explains, “I thought it was a deep truth. Civilisation and urban life has stopped us from listening to nature. We used to have children who were unafraid of nature, who lived and played with animals. Today, our children are addicted to digital light.”
Having experienced this awakening, Rathindran returned to cinema and took his short film, Swayer Corporations (a film on corporations treating third world countries as dumpyards), to the Cannes. There, he met a new ecosystem of filmmakers, likeminded international professionals with whom he formed what he calls a “band”. “We decided that no matter who got to make a film next, we would all unite to make it. A Brazilian friend from that group has assisted me with the direction for Boomika, while the person with whom I forged the strongest bond, Roberto Zazzara, an Italian, has done the cinematography,” he shares, gleeful that their plan has come to fruition.
Boomika is also Rathindran’s takedown of what he terms ‘human-centrism’. “We wrongly believe we are the centre of all existence. We allow only those plants and animals that are useful for us. There’s a beautiful dialogue in Inglourious Basterds that asks why we differentiate between rats and squirrels though both are rodents.” While on squirrels, the film showcases a colourful squirrel, seemingly designed by CG work. “It’s called a Nilgiris squirrel and it’s a real creature. People seem to think we made up an animal; we didn’t!”
The idea that earth is a self-sustaining organism is propagated in this film through a popular, reasonably accepted scientific theory called Gaia Hypothesis. But Rathindran shares that it isn’t his intention to discuss scientific credibility of the said theory. “That’s the job of scientists. My job as a filmmaker is to be interested in its metaphorical significance,” he says. “I’m just happy that I put out the idea that when we say we want to save the planet, we actually mean saving ourselves. The earth has been fine without us and will be fine without us too. We must, however, ask ourselves if we will be able to survive, when the planet takes measures to heal itself.”