Vetri Maaran still remembers watching renowned German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God at a film society screening in his early days as a film buff and aspiring filmmaker. They kept talking about the film long after it got over, till 6 am the next day to be exact. Years later, he got to show Visaranai to Herzog at one of the Oscar campaign screenings. “I won’t be able to sleep tonight,” Herzog told him. Tables turned.
The ace Tamil filmmaker reminisced about the effort that was needed back then to access films in another language (international or national), how he read Japanese icon Akira Kurosawa’s (all of whose films he has seen, save one) scripts (Ikiru in Tamil translation) before getting to watch them on the big screen. He spoke at length on Kurosawa, and a lot more, in @thehinduweekend’s continuing lockdown series on Instagram Live called #DirectorsonDirectors. Maaran also looked back at how he shot in the same house that his mentor Balu Mahendra built for his film, Veedu, how his mother used to be a Rishi Kapoor fan, about a film he was planning with Irrfan Khan, on feudalism in Kurosawa’s cinema, influence of Latin American films on his own work, on the new wave Malayalam cinema, and more.
On the impact of Kurosawa
When I read the script of Rashomon, I realised it was possible to make such a film; one that is speculative in nature. A movie that does not state anything, it just lets you speculate… you are a part of the creative work…
What I like about him (Kurosawa) is the way he writes his scripts. There is no white or black, but so much of grey. [Then there is] his eye for things we comfortably ignore. Every time I watch his work, it excites me and makes me think more.
If I am getting caught in a mundane situation in terms of writing, unconsciously, I start wondering how Kurosawa would think about it. There is a way of understanding people’s humanness in him that is very special.
On the rootedness of Kurosawa seen in Vetri Maaran’s own work
When it comes to cinema, it is about crossing cultures and talking about our own lives and times, tradition and history… The more ethnic our films become, more the international appeal…
Anyone who is watching a film is trying to understand the world from where it comes.
I would call a filmmaker a reluctant historian. Or an unintentional historian…
On adapting stories across cultures
There is certain content that is relevant to any part of the world. I have also gone on to acquire a few international books to be made in Tamil or in Hindi. There are a few things that you would really want to fit into your world.
On Kurosawa-Yamamoto, Vetri-Balu Mahendra and the mentee-mentor relationship
My relationship with Balu Mahendra sir has been very personal. Six months after I started working with him, my father passed away. That was also the time when his son started working on his own and wasn’t around at home. During that period, none of his assistants could read the kind of books he was reading, or talk about certain things after watching a film, due to the language barrier. In that sense, we were able to connect well. He once told me after watching Aadukalam, “of all my assistants, only you can go international… because you have the skill of communication”. He strongly felt that communication is a major part of making films and going international.
He taught me everything. I believe I am his assistant even now… I always feel his presence on my shoulder when I am shooting. Whenever I get a good shot I tell everyone that “sir will like this scene”. But it is not just me, all his assistants feel that… You talk to him for six months, and you end up talking about him for the rest of your life.
Drawing the line when it comes to violence in films
As long as I don’t glorify violence I am fine with it… But what happens is that the world takes violence when it is glorified, or when it is not visceral. People were not able to deal with Visaranai’s violence, but they are fine with any superhero violence… Fear should be the natural response when seeing such things, not feeling happy beating up someone.
On Vada Chennai 2 and the Netflix anthology
I am almost done with the anthology… I just need two days to finish the final mix.
Vada Chennai 2 will take some more time. I am also thinking of exploring the possibility of pitching it as a limited series [two seasons].
On the recurring theme of betrayal in his films
I was surprised when I realised all my scripts have that. I did not notice it in my first two films and thought I was done with it after Visaranai…
I look at it (betrayal) as a tool to engage the viewer. There are certain primary emotions that relate to everybody. My films carry a sense of fear in them — you feel something ominous, that something bad is going to happen. Even if there is a happy scene you start thinking ‘Why is it all so happy? Why is it so mundane? Is something going to go wrong?’ … Fear and guilt are emotions associated with betrayal and revenge. When we deal with such primal emotions, at times, they reach epic proportions.
What Tamil and Hindi cinema can learn from each other…
Hindi cinema caters to an international audience. When I say international, I mean an audience that speaks different languages. Whereas Tamil cinema is region specific: it is meant for Tamils to watch. So we retain the identities. I would like to see Hindi cinema be more specific, and Tamil cinema could learn to diversify more.
Having said that, of late, in Hindi cinema, women play an important role. Both, off-screen and on-screen.
On the new wave of Malayalam cinema
They are coming up with new interesting ideas. Quite a few films have impressed me: Sudani from Nigeria, Ee.Ma.Yau, Jallikattu, Prathi Poovankozhi, Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25, Kumbalangi Nights. The directors are trying to explore new territories, and are doing so in mainstream cinema in a very convincing way.
The necessity of art during hard times
Being human means you have an ability to create art. You are incomplete without art. Whatever the situation is, the hardships we go through, art should happen… What we need to look at now is what kind of art we are going to make from now on… One is the logistical aspect: will we be able to make big budget films? Are we going to shoot with hundreds of people coming together? …
There are so many big films waiting to be released, and several are stuck in production. There is also going to be a debate on content… Are we going to talk of the lockdown? Or are we going to ignore it? There are boys who walked from Mumbai to Trichy during the first few days of the lockdown. Are we going to tell these stories? Are we going to ignore them? Are we going to question the system for not planning this properly? Or forget that this happened and move on? Are we going to question the system or the people who are making it region-specific, religion-specific, caste-specific?… These are serious questions we need to ask ourselves… Art is the conscience of Man… Art should happen.