`To me, there's only good and bad cinema'
Intense, passionate, angry... With Bharatiraaja, what you see is what you get. A trendsetter in his own right, he mesmerised a whole generation of cine buffs with films in diverse themes such as "Padhinaaru Vayadhinilae", "Kizhakae Pogum Rayil", "Sigappu Rojakkal", "Mudhal Mariyadhai", "Vedham Pudhidhu" and "Karutthamma". Never tired of freezing vignettes from villages on celluloid, Bharatiraaja's eyes trail the verdure by the poolside at Taj Coromandel for the photo shoot. His partner for Take Two is his admirer, cinematographer Ravi Varman, who has just wrapped up work for "Anniyan." So what happens when a veteran with 35 years experience chats with a 31-year-old international award winner? As the conversation progresses in stream-of-consciousness mode, T. Krithika Reddy discovers that it's as stimulating as the espresso at Matchpoint. And for once, there's no "En Inniya Tamizh Makkalae" for starters.
Bharatiraaja: You know Ravi, why I instantly agreed to this Take Two with you? Because, like me, you too come from an ordinary background.
Ravi: Sir, I came to Chennai hoping to become an actor. But soon realised that because of my height, it would remain a dream. (Laughter)
Bharatiraaja: I wished to become so many things writer, politician, painter and ultimately, an actor. When I landed here, I realised that most actors had a tomato-like complexion and that no amount of make up would help me. (Laughter) Direction was the next best thing to do.
Ravi: You always try to be different. You were the first to shoot outdoors...
Bharatiraaja: Yes, I was put off by the paint smell and the artificiality of the sets. Psychologically too, claustrophobic sets affect me. So when I made my debut as director with "Padhinaaru Vayadhinilae", I decided to shoot outdoors. Kamal Hassan who was on the threshold of stardom agreed to play Chappani. He is always open to experiments. I used to have only Rs.15 in my pocket. I remember reserving it to buy a tender coconut each for the hero and the heroine. One day, there were no rolls to shoot. Afraid that Kamal might leave, we pretended that everything was okay and shot. A screeching sound from the camera was a giveaway. Kamal was annoyed and I had to explain my predicament.
Ravi: Your works spurred a whole generation of filmmakers. Who inspired you?
Bharatiraaja: I've watched Shantaram's films and also followed the works of Malayalam and Bengali filmmakers. Realism attracted me. I thought Tamil cinema was becoming loud and flashy. I wanted to experiment. Luckily, my vernacular idiom clicked.
Ravi: But now, Malayalam films have changed. Once famed for their realism, they too are now swayed by commercial compulsions...
Bharatiraaja: Change is inevitable. Look at the way different cultures have invaded our homes through the satellite channels. Now we don't go in search of cultures. Those days, joint families were a rich reservoir of stories. Big families meant so many intricacies in relationships. Now even if a relationship breaks, there's no one to console or convince. Survival is the predominant aspect of our lives today. Look at the way people are just running on the roads as if their clothes are on fire. The busiest days of the past were like today's Sundays!
Ravi: See T. Nagar. Everyday looks like a festival.
Bharatiraaja: I grew up reading so many novels. Novels taught us the lessons of life. Today, SMS and television have become major preoccupations. As for filmmakers, they are no longer creators. Most of them are just manipulators. Not many are seeing life and making films. They are seeing films and making films! In my time, even if we wanted to watch a film desperately, we had to wait sometimes even for a year till it arrived at a nearby theatre. Economics did not permit us to travel to watch films. That's perhaps why we created from the heart. Okay tell me, did you begin to think differently after you got a special mention for your work in "Santham" (Malayalam) at the International Film Festival in France?
Ravi: The award took me by surprise. But after recognition, you begin to plan and become more careful about your choices.
Bharatiraaja: If you had consciously worked towards an award, you wouldn't have got it. Filmmaking is creation, not a political strategy. An artiste is born when the feelings deep inside him surface. Kanakkupakiravan kalaignan illai (one who is calculative is not an artiste). If I had planned, I wouldn't have bagged seven national awards and been honoured with a Padmashree. All I did was portray our soil with its intrinsic flavour. There was no pretence. But unfortunately, now, we are moving away from our culture. In recent times, the only two films that echo our ethos are "Autograph" and "Kaadhal". I liked your camerawork in "Autograph". It was so natural.
Ravi: (Gushes) You were a direct influence for those village scenes. Sir, in fact, I wish to direct a film some day. But producers harp on commercial themes. Do you believe in these genres?
Bharatiraaja: To me, there is only good and bad cinema. If filmmakers are not able to fulfil their social responsibility, at least let's not influence society in a negative way. Okay tell me, don't most cinematographers turn directors?
Ravi: It's an urge. But haven't cinematographers succeeded as filmmakers?
Bharatiraaja: I appreciate it. But direction is highly demanding. Capturing emotions and capturing beautiful sets are different ball games. Very few such as Balu Mahendra can handle both simultaneously. How has it been working with Shankar? He's such a perfectionist.
Bharatiraaja: I came up the hard way, but never gave up my determination to achieve something. Ravi: True, I too have crossed so many hurdles. But tell me, haven't such experiences made you a good creator?
Bharatiraaja: Yes, there's a difference between an eeramana kalaignan and an arivupurvamana kalaignan! Where there's moisture, germination is certain. (Laughter till they fade out.)
PHOTO: S. R. RAGHUNATHAN
Send this article to Friends by