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Why Vetrimaaran is the most interesting director in Tamil films today

Vetrimaaran is arguably among the most interesting filmmaker working in the Tamil film industry. Here’s documenting his rise and what it takes to be a talent like him.

regional movies Updated: Nov 02, 2016 20:05 IST
Vetrimaaran has directed four feature films and is a winner of four National Film Awards.
Vetrimaaran has directed four feature films and is a winner of four National Film Awards.(Photos: By special arrangement)

His production house’s name, Grass Root Film Company, is a clear pointer to Vetrimaaran’s worldview. This Deepavali’s biggest release in Tamil Nadu is, arguably, Kodi (Flag), a political thriller he has produced that stars Dhanush in his first double role, as twin brothers. The twins may be identical but their natures are mutually exclusive. Refreshingly, Kodi casts Trisha as a feisty woman politico, giving Dhanush’s eponymous hero a run for his money.

“For a hero movie, it’s pretty decently written,” pronounces Baradwaj Rangan, film critic and associate editor at The Hindu. “There’s a conflict, there are surprises and even within a commercial film, it’s properly written and directed. It’s not some random moments strung together to get people whistling.”

A great working chemistry -- actor Dhanush with Vetrimaaran. (Photos: By special arrangement)

The film’s premise is how politics and political interests shape communities and the quality of their life. In this case, it involves skullduggery surrounding a factory emitting toxic effluents. It could be happening not too far away from our backyards.

At the Oscars

Vetrimaaran himself, however, was conspicuous by his absence during Kodi’s promos. He has a bigger task on hand. Visaaranai (Interrogation), the part-docudrama, part-crime thriller he directed, is India’s official entry to the 89th Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category. So he is in the US persuading jurors take note of his film, which has some truly hairy torture scenes. The last Tamil film that made it to the Oscars was 16 years back: Hey Ram starring Kamal Haasan.

Usually, the choice of any film to represent the country at the Oscars polarises critics, but Visaaranai remains largely unchallenged. Rangan agrees. “Visaaranai was a fantastic film.”

It tells the story of innocent migrant labourers picked up and tortured by the police to extract a false confession for a fatal robbery at an influential man’s house. How the film, shot in 42 days on a Rs 2-crore budget and eventually wining three National Film Awards, got made is interesting. After his Aadukalam in 2011, Vetrimaaran had busied himself with his production ventures, Udhayam NH4, Poriyaalan and Kaaka Muttai. When he was prepared to shoot his next, the script he picked was Soodhadi, a story on gambling, proposing Dhanush in the lead role. However, the actor had to take time off to work in Balki’s Shamitabh, being shot in Mumbai.

Vetrimaaran was mooting a book adaptation when director Balu Mahendra’s assistant serendipitously presented him with Lock Up, a riveting, partly autobiographical book written by M Chandrakumar, a former autorickshaw driver. The book, which took five years to write and another four to publish, narrates his harrowing experience while in jail in (then) Andhra Pradesh.

Vetrimaaran's Visaaranai is based on a book called Lock Up by Coimbatore-based autorickshaw driver Chandra Kumar.

“When I pitched the story to Dhanush, who later produced the film, I said I can only guarantee you a three-day weekend run at the box office. But it’s a low-budget venture; you’ll get your investment back,” Vetrimaaran laughs. “Dhanush was amused, but agreed to fund the project. [I thought] it’s the kind of film that would not bring in repeat audiences. I was proved wrong and it got a good three-week run.”

The author, Chandrakumar, was incarcerated for a fortnight way back in 1983. “Yet his experiences are relevant even today,” points out Vetrimaaran. “Visaaranai reflects a stark reality from which you cannot shut yourself out: that is its success. It was challenging to find the right kind of actors and locations. We employed real stuntmen who could exercise restraint while beating up the actors.”

“What was unique was that there were a lot of first-time actors in the film; that added rawness to it,” says K Hariharan, filmmaker and critic. “Actors like Samuthirakkani and Kishore were entirely on the sidelines. That made it an interesting watch.”

Astutely, the team decided to send it to international film fests right away, confident it would work with foreign audiences. Visaaranai premiered at the Orrizonti section of the 72nd Venice Film Festival, a first for a Tamil film, and won the Amnesty International Italia Award. Crucially, the European audience was exposed to a hitherto unexplored form of Tamil cinema that dealt with grim reality in a non-dramatic but powerful way.

“Europeans have a different policing system. They found my narrative a bit harsh, though they were moved,” explains Vetrimaaran.

A rooted voice

It is Vetrimaaran’s preoccupation with sometimes gritty, sometimes heartwarming reality that makes this 41-year-old one of the best filmmakers of our times.

“The best thing about the regional filmmakers is that they bring in a very ‘native’ feel,” says Rangan. “Like if I watch Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat for instance, I find [elements] that remind me of Vetrimaaran. But that’s more because these filmmakers do these ‘rooted’ things very well. They give you the sense of the atmosphere, the rhythms of life in that particular environment, they take care to bring them alive.”

His critically acclaimed debut venture, Polladhavan (Ruthless Man) in 2007, followed a lower middle-class young man’s search for his stolen bike, an exercise that takes him through the seamy underworld. Four years later came Aadukalam (Arena), a Pongal release that raked in six National Film Awards. The cockfight arena was where love, ego, honour, friendship and betrayal were played out in the rustic backdrop of Madurai.

Says Manimaran, long-time friend and assistant, “Vetri used to like watching cockfights in the neighbourhood in our hometown. So he thought we could develop a story around them.”

There was no doubt about who would play the lead. “I wrote Aadukalam keeping Dhanush in mind,” says Vetrimaaran. “As an actor, he delivers exactly what I need and sometimes more. As a producer, he offers me complete freedom and does not interfere at all. He trusts me completely.”

Rangan explains the Vetrimaaran touch, “There is a world of difference in the way he uses the song and dance elements in Polladhavan and Aadukalam. They have become more organic and rooted; they’re not fantasy elements.”

“I personally prefer Aadukalam to Visaaranai, but it’s like comparing apples and oranges,” says Hariharan. “Aadukalam had a certain kind of warmth and spontaneity. Visaaranai, to me, looked rather staged.”

He explains, “Visaaranai’s [appeal across the world] is that for the first time in Tamil cinema, you see this kind of brute reality without the director taking recourse to a love story or family drama. It’s also interesting that a country like India allowed such a strongly critical film on the system. There’s no doubt that Vetrimaaran is a bold filmmaker.”

Vetrimaaran’s productive chemistry with Dhanush has paid rich dividends. The two went on to produce Kaaka Muttai (Crow’s Egg) in 2015, a subversive film poking fun at what is regarded as cool - pizzas, in this case. This little gem, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, tracks two brothers from a Chennai slum dying to taste a pizza. Directed by M Manikandan with wit, not once is the children’s dignity compromised. Their family struggles in a heartless and corrupt city and soon we find ourselves cheering for our little heroes. Kaaka Muttai pocketed two National Film Awards.

“There is a stamp of quality that people have begun to associate with Vetrimaaran, because even the films he produces are pretty decent,” says Rangan, adding that he looks for, and gets, that certain quality.

Vetrimaaran’s genius lies in shining a light on people we would not even glance at in our rat race. His films show us that ordinary people often lead extraordinary lives if only we stop to talk to them.

Smitten by cinema

Born in Cuddalore near Puducherry and raised in Ranipet, a suburban town in Vellore district, two and a half hours from Chennai, Vetrimaaran was smitten by cinema even as a child. His mother, a writer, ran a school in the area, while his father was a veterinarian. Friends remember him as a film buff who watched every movie that came to town.

“He would bunk classes and watch them, each three or four times. Then he would come to the school ground where we used to hang out until 7:30 in the evening and would retell the whole story to us. My friends and I have actually walked out of the theatre at times because the film was nowhere as good as his narration. He still has that quality,” says Manimaran, his assistant.

Vetrimaaran was in his second year of Masters in English Literature in 1999 when the now-deceased filmmaker Balu Mahendra was invited to judge a short film contest at the Loyola College, Chennai. Shortly afterwards, he attended a seminar conducted by the director and was inspired enough to assist him in Julie Ganapathy, Athu Oru Kanaa Kaalam and the television series Kadhai Neram.

Athu Oru Kanaa Kaalam cemented his friendship with the lead actor, Dhanush, whom he describes as his best friend. While still assisting Balu Mahendra, Vetrimaaran pitched the story of Desiya Nedunchalai, and the actor readily agreed to play the lead.

Recalls Manimaran, “Producers were not hard to come by because we had Dhanush. But a few had misgivings about how Vetri would handle the project as a newcomer. So we tossed aside that script, which I later made into Udhayam NH4.”

The initial years proved to be rough. “I was pitching different scripts to different people for three years and it was the sixth producer who okayed Polladhavan,” says Vetrimaaran on his directorial debut.

Adds Manimaran, who assisted him in the project, “After the film was edited, we were really scared to show it to the producer. We kept stalling the screening telling him it may not have come out as he expected. Finally, when he saw it, he was satisfied. We were relieved and gradually grew confident.”

Pushing for excellence

When Manimaran himself forayed into direction with Udhayam NH4 in 2013, Vetrimaaran returned the favour by stepping in as producer under his banner, Grass Root Film Company. As he puts it, “I want my production house to be a platform for good, interesting ideas. I can find a producer for my films, but others, who may be first-time filmmakers, might have innovative scripts that mainstream producers might not understand. Like Kaaka Muttai for instance.

“I produce films in partnership as I may not be able to afford the entire budget. Dhanush ends up co-producing some of them as our tastes are similar. None of my producers ever ask me for the budget. I always make sure it is within their means and I can give the desired returns.”

For someone who has been successful both commercially as critically, Vetrimaaran has directed only three films in nine years. “For me, every film is a learning process. After each, I take time to unlearn. Then I find new content, learn it completely and then execute it.”

Manimaran describes his working process thus, “Many directors make changes to the script on the spot. But Vetrimaaran is different because he pays attention to detail. He puts in a lot of effort, so there may be last-minute adjustments with lighting and locations. Unlike working with other directors, you need to be available 24 hours.”

Outside of work, the father of two, who met his wife Aarthi while at college, likes to race pigeons, pretty much like the characters he portrays. His rootedness has also led him to voice the germ of an idea: setting up an organic farm eventually.

Rangan describes grit as the definitive quality of Vetrimaaran’s films, and praises his skill in animating the atmosphere in terms of the integrity of the characters, the plot, and the texture. “The way he shapes the characters and writes them, you feel that these are not [just] individual people; you get a sense of where they come from, where they belong. [They’re] not just some random characters floating around.”

His fans are already talking about his fourth film, Vada Chennai (North Chennai), an ambitious gangster trilogy he has been planning since 2003. After undergoing several changes of scripts and stars, Dhanush, Vijay Sethupathi, Amala Paul and Samuthirakkani are among those confirmed on the project that is currently under way. Slated for release next year, Vada Chennai is also bound to have the by-now classic Vetrimaaran stamp.

(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media.)