Among the pioneers of Malayalam cinema, Shaji Neelakantan Karun is one of those rare Indian filmmakers who can confidently say he’s achieved mostly everything that he set out to do when he started with his debut film, Piravi in 1988. It got him the prestigious Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival a year later, and he’s since then also won the National Award.
Hindustan Times caught up with Karun on the sidelines of the ongoing 45th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa for an exclusive chat where the director-cinematographer opens up on a range of issues close to this heart, from cinema’s symbiotic relationship with society, his struggles as a filmmaker, and even the charisma of Malayalam superstars Mohanlal and Mammootty.
You said at the press conference that the film is for future while the audience is in present. What is the point of equilibrium between the two then?
One of the beauties of the image is your memory. Cinema is a tool to identify that nostalgia. You watch a film with your friends, your loved ones and later you recollect that nostalgia.
Why does grief always make the central theme of your films?
Look at any type of aesthetics. They gave birth to pain. Look at the Bible, the Quran, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, you will see the pain that leads to aesthetics.
So, you reject the idea of being happy and creating something new?
No, I will define it in a different way. For example, take your own birth. Your mother goes through a lot of pain. Your grammar starts there. It’s not like I am showing pain but the characters express their minds very delicately and generally it brings out what a good human being is made of.
You also believe that the length of the film should be decided by the filmmaker, but I think the audience should also have a say in it because they are the ones who are spending their precious time.
It’s like the spectrum of white light, VIBGYOR. You choose which colour to look at. Here also is a matter of choice. I don’t cater popular music to a classical singer, so we have different-different types of audiences. There are so many types of paintings, modern painting, oil painting, story depiction; similarly we have the audience which is strong enough to understand my aesthetics. Cinema these days is as per the popcorn culture, but I have made choice. It’s not like I made a mistake, I committed a mistake.
But, isn’t it like making your film unavailable for a bigger audience?
Some of my films reached very few venues, now it has reached more people, so we make films not only for the current period. The timeline of a film is infinite, but it’s a slow process. That is how it is.
Was this idea concrete in your head when you began making films?
I went to FTII, saw the masters’ works and realised what cinema could contribute to the society. It’s my humble way of looking at cinema. I was a successful cinematographer but I refused to delve into the realms of commercial cinema. I got the National Award at the age of 24, people asked me to join them but there were other people to do that work.
I wonder how you convince stars like Mohanlal and Mammootty then?
They are also tired of doing existing roles. They also want to do different films. They have done stereotypical roles and thus they also want to face new challenges, projects which are not their cup of tea.