Parallel & mainstream don’t have a clear demarkation in Tamil cinema
Selvamani Selvaraj is an independent Tamil filmmaker whose movie Nila is driven by personal experiences and anguish. A short film that then grew into a 100-minute film, this movie was in the Film Bazaar Recommends section at the recently concluded Film Bazaar 2015. Selvamani talks to us about his low-budget film dealing with love that is forbidden, his experience at Film Bazaar, Tamil cinema and more.
Tell us about Nila and its journey so far.
Nila is a 100 – minute long Tamil film that was in the Film Bazaar Recommends section. It’s partly crowdfunded and I was later able to get one of my seniors from BITS Pilani to fund it. Getting the funds was a little difficult but we knew that from the beginning because it is not a commercial film. It was a story that struck me as very compelling. A personal experience that I went through when I met somebody who intrigued me. With the varied inspirations that I had, I just felt that it had to be said and the film had to be made. Initially, in fact till we made the film, I was thinking that it was just cut out for film festivals. But now that people are watching, it seems to have connected to a lot more audience than I had expected it to.
How was the experience at the Bazaar?
The Bazaar is fantastic. Honestly I came here with a clean slate. I was fascinated to be able to network with so many people. The film was in the recommended section so a lot of people watched it and I got to know what they felt about it. I think its a huge platform for somebody like me who had no idea on how to promote it. All I thought of while making the film was to make a good film. I thought I’d deal with promotions and marketing later. And to be given such a platform, to meet so many people and to actually now believe that the film has a future is really important. The fact is that one year ago I didn’t know about this platform otherwise I would have timed myself better. I think it’s very important for independent filmmakers to know that there is something as big as the NFDC Film Bazaar and that they are not being sidelined by mainstream cinema. And if you have made a good film, there is a future for you.
So how did you come about picking up the subject?
It was fueled by personal experience and started with a question for me. There’s one line in the film that says “Is it possible to make love to someone who you truly love but the love is forbidden?” I was really intrigued by this question and the film was a way of trying to find the answer. It was very conducive for me to come up with something that was personal. I had read this somewhere, “The first film is what you make with your blood” and I can make many more films but this film is special because I gave it my all, since I had nothing to lose. The anguish, the dilemma, that comes out in the film is all personal. People who have watched the film have come and told me its a very beautiful film, it’s very personal. As I told you, it is just about that one line and needed 100 minutes to be told.
How does a Tamil-speaking audience look at Tamil cinema today?
The wonderful thing about Tamil cinema is that parallel cinema and mainstream cinema don’t have a clear demarkation. The off-beat small films sometimes get a much better and bigger release. The Tamil film industry is in good hands of the filmmakers and not ruled by actors or producers. People go to watch a good film. All they care for is two hours where they are entertained or engaged. If they are engaged with a good film, they are very happy. People in Tamil Nadu are very partial to films. Their day – to – day life is severely affected by watching films. So for people like that, I think it is very important that good films are made. This is something that is very unique about Tamil cinema.
Do you think it’s an advantage to make a Tamil film over a Hindi independent film?
I think Hindi cinema is also in a very good spot with independent filmmaking. In terms of exhibitions and distribution, I have very little knowledge about how many Hindi independent films find a release. I know that they are definitely being sidelined but in Tamil, it’s not like that at all. An exhibitor would be interested in knowing if your film is good more than anything. He’s of course interested in knowing if there is a star, which makes it easy for them, but if the content is strong, you can be guaranteed of word of mouth. The most important thing in Tamil cinema, more than the publicity, is word of mouth. If you have strong word of mouth then a theater that is filled 10 per cent in two days can become 80 per cent in the next four days. People are looking to see if good films are coming out and they watch good films and passionately exchange. In every tea shop, there’s a conversation about a good film in the week. Cinema is in their day – to – day life.
How did you go about with the casting?
I thought that Nila could be a short film so I was looking at working with my friend who was interested in acting. I had thought I’ll make him an actor but through the course of the meeting I really felt that the story had to be fleshed out so I went to a couple of mentors. When it reached a space where I knew that it would be an 80-100 minute film, I thought that I’ll take it a little more seriously. So I approached Sruthi Hariharan. ‘Nila’ means the moon. The film is about this taxi driver and his relationship with this girl whom he has known as a kid. He happens to meet her in Bombay after fifteen years. Being a taxi driver he meets her often and makes it a daily habit to see if he can pick her up from her work everyday.
What happens when he finds out something about her dark side is what the film is about. So though the film is shown through the eyes of the male protagonist, it’s the strength of the female protagonist that gives the film its depth. When Sruthi came on board, I realized I had a strong female protagonist so I needed a strong male to match up to her. I auditioned 200 guys and Vicky R was really promising. The male protagonist had to go through a lot of emotions from innocence to aggression and had to carry the film. And Vicky was able to pull that off. I was very confident that people would take notice of the acting and that’s one of the first feedbacks I got. People say its good cinematography, good acting and good music.
How did you choose your cinematographer for this film?
We used to work together in Oracle. It’s funny that he quit his job to do photography and I quit mine to write. We always thought that we would collaborate at one point and we did because he was a photographer. He was into lighting and I learned lighting. It’s his camera, 5D Mark III because the film was completely shot in the night. I am very confident about the look of the film. I’ve fallen in love with the usage of camera and a lot in the film has been expressed through the camera. With every frame and the lighting, you can understand the mental space that the actors are in.
What lights did you use for the film?
We just had a few lights we bought ourselves and made the entire film using them. We bought LED lights. We experimented with a lot of lights and were able to negate the disadvantages of LEDs. We did a lot of testing with colour-balancing and it was a lot of fun. Through all this I knew that by the end of the film, I would know if I want to do independent films or go commercial. But now I can strongly say that I would definitely come back to independent films.
-Transcription by Shivangi Lahoty