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A second wind

latha srinivasan | Updated on October 31, 2014 Published on October 31, 2014

Dream debut: Hit Kannada thriller Lucia, produced through crowdfunding, veers nail-bitingly between nightmare and reality.

anjalimenon

karthicksubburaj

balajimohan

pawankumar

A new crop of directors is making offbeat films in Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil and capturing audiences who don’t speak the language

“All I crave is to sleep, brother,” says Nicky, a theatre usher who’s suffering from insomnia.

“Just before you go to bed, take one these of these every night,” says the drug dealer, smirking as he hands over a bottle of red pills named Lucia.

From here on, Nicky’s dreams and nightmares blur unrecognisably into reality, and the psychological thriller Lucia keeps you guessing with its many twists and turns. The end is mind-blowing!

Veering away from the three-song-two-fight-revenge-seeking formula, a group of young, new-age directors in south India are out to prove that the clichéd is passé. Along the way, they are also blurring the linguistic lines that have traditionally segregated audiences south of the Vindhyas.

Lucia (Kannada), Jigarthanda and Kadhalil Sodhapuvadu Eppadi (Tamil), and Bangalore Days (Malayalam) are box office hits in towns that speak their language and others nationally, even globally. Meet their directors Pawan Kumar, Karthik Subbaraj, Balaji Mohan and Anjali Menon, respectively.

The Tamil film industry has a global presence and has favoured big-budget commercial mass-entertainers with larger-than-life heroes. In contrast, Malayalam cinema works with smaller budgets and realistic stories marked by strong content. The Kannada film industry again does not boast big budgets, but prefers commercial films and has a limited market.

Today, the three industries are at a point of convergence, producing small-budget films that a cross-cultural, cross-border audience is lapping up (with subtitles, of course) for their innovative treatment and powerful content. Delivering repeated hits, these directors have proved they are not just a flash in the pan.

“I took up direction because there was a lack of acting opportunities,” says 32-year-old Pawan Kumar. Karthik Subbaraj and Balaji Mohan, on the other hand, were writing plays in school and college and always desired to work in films. “I saw how some directors like Mani Ratnam, Gautham Menon and Selvaraghavan inspire the audience to come to the theatre, and decided to take up direction,” says Mohan.

In the highly competitive southern industry, the newcomers yearned to do out-of-the-box work. Deciding to consciously work on scripts that were fresh, engaging and appealing to today’s audience, they made the kind of films they would enjoy watching themselves. Menon, who won the National Award for Ustad Hotel’s screenplay in 2012, strongly believes that content is king. The desire to connect with the audience at an emotional level has seen them plumb for simple stories that people can relate to. KSY, for instance, delineates how one guy messed up his love life.

Since this content resonates widely with movie-goers, many of these movies are being remade in other languages, including Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.

In many ways, this new crop of directors is also a product of our times. Unlike previous generations of filmmakers, they have experimented with short films and documentaries before venturing into feature films. Short film competitions organised by film companies and TV channels also helped showcase their talent. Subbaraj sent in his short film Parallax to the Naalaya Iyakkunar (tomorrow’s directors) show on the Tamil channel Kalaignar TV and gained his entry into the local film industry. Menon had worked in television and made documentaries before the film-writing bug bit her.

Social media, too, played a vital supporting role. Subbaraj and Mohan uploaded their short films on YouTube and soon had producers backing them. Pawan Kumar blogged about his struggle to find a producer for Lucia and the rest, as they say, is crowdfunding history. “It changed the way Lucia was perceived and how I was perceived. Social media will become the true voice and valid source of an individual,” the Kannada director predicts. But Mohan sees a downside — social media today is flooded with content. “There’s so much competition now — between amateurs and professionals — on YouTube that it becomes difficult to filter content. But it’s still definitely the best way to reach out and get noticed if you’re a newcomer,” he says.

Now that they have been noticed, Subbaraj, Pawan Kumar and Mohan are itching to try different things. Romance is a genre that Subbaraj hasn’t attempted so far, so he wants to do that for his third feature film. Kumar says he needs to have a reason other than money to make a film, “Maybe that’s why I haven’t made anything since Lucia.”

But they are all aware that commercial viability is the bedrock of the film world and any investing producer usually has his say in the script. Will this not dilute the kind of cinema they wish to make? Subbaraj believes commercial viability is important in a script, as also entertainment (not necessarily comedy) value. “The movie has to be gripping for the audience, whether it’s a thriller or an action film,” he says.

Pawan Kumar is once again banking on crowdfunding to make a film the way he wants to. “We’re looking at a crowdfunding model that’s within our legal framework. The more the people who invest, the less the individual losses,” he explains.

In the coming days, it would be interesting to watch how these small-budget stars translate their vision and success to bigger budgets and top stars.

(Latha Srinivasan is a Chennai-based journalist)

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Published on October 31, 2014
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