Interview: Selvaraghavan

Posted on July 2, 2009

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THE BARD OF THE BRUTES

Selvaraghavan spouts eloquent about dancing on a knife, about death being the biggest orgasm, about living life in the midst of rainfall, and, oh, about his forthcoming film.

JUL 03, 2009 – SELVARAGHAVAN IS A COMPACT MAN in a casual T-shirt, and as he seats himself opposite me, in an office that’s as sparely appointed as he is, he extracts a cigarette from a slender carton. Esse Lights. The question he directs to me isn’t whether I’d mind but whether I smoked. There’s either something about my face that gives off guilty fumes of a former addiction, or he’s simply the kind of guy who does exactly what he wants – if he stumbles into company, that’s fine, otherwise he’ll soldier on alone and regardless. Perhaps the numerous struggles in his past have strengthened his resolve to treasure his freedoms in the present day. He speaks of these struggles very easily, and with very little prompting. He speaks of his childhood in T Nagar, in a lower-middle-class family that couldn’t afford to send him to a convent school.

It was not a very pleasant childhood, he remembers. His father, the filmmaker Kasturi Raja, was struggling to make ends meet, and these frustrations would find their way to the children. It was not a family from an advertisement, he says, where everyone smiled all the time. They’d get beaten up for the smallest of things. The only time they’d have fun is when they went out to play, though afterwards, the children were scared to return home. After some years, his family shifted to a colony in KK Nagar, and these experiences informed the happenings in 7G Rainbow Colony. And as he spent a lot of time near Saidapet, he absorbed the life and the lingo of gangsters, and these exposures helped shape Pudhupettai. These revelations come in response to my remark about how intensely personal his films seem. It’s inevitable, he says.

But now, he says, he’s tired and bored. He doesn’t feel love inside him anymore and he cannot teach others how to be romantic. He’d rather make movies about characters that are larger than life, like the lean-and-mean Jason Bourne films that our filmmakers shy away from making. These aren’t future plans – they’ve already been set in motion. In the forthcoming Aayirathil Oruvan, Andrea Jeremiah plays a larger-than-life archeologist and Reema Sen is the larger-than-life head of an archeology department. He nods when I ask if the copy of Thamizh Panpaattu Varalaaru (A Cultural History of the Tamils) behind me contributed to the making of the film. There’s no father in Aayirathil Oruvan, no mother, no sister, no love – only adventure. It’s such a relief, he says, sitting in on the rerecording and not having to listen to sentimental music.

Hacking your way through the path less trodden comes with its own problems, like going overbudget and being unable to ask your producer for more money and having to put in eight crores of your own. He says he’s emotionally drained (after a colossal two-year shoot) and mentally scared (whether audiences will take to the film) – and yet, deep inside, he says he’s satisfied. There’s no thrill, he says in a purple burst of macho poetry, like dancing on a knife. But at the same time, he insists there’s no room for such heroism in his film. It’s more an instance of heroine-ism, he laughs, delighted at coining an instant neologism. The character played by Karthi is very down-to-earth, a coolie, a guide. It’s Reema who controls the film, the story, the structure, and therefore she controls his future, he says.

He chose Reema because she has the kind of face that doesn’t instantly advertise its owner as good or bad, angel or demon. It’s an unusual face, he says, and he needed her because Aayirathil Oruvan is an unusual film – another step in his striving to make that Perfect Film. He says his idea of a perfect film is Giuseppe Tornatore’s The Legend of 1900, which he saw recently, presumably in the very room this conversation is unfolding, on the big screen that looms over the neat stacks of DVDs covering a side of a wall. He doesn’t like anything he’s made so far. He says his films are full of flaws. He says Aadhi, the ostensible protagonist of Kaadhal Kondain is a fake, because there’s nobody in real life who’s so good and so pure and so free of negative shades.

The character played by Sonia Agarwal in Pudhupettai is also fake, he says. An educated woman wouldn’t marry a guy like that, even if she’s forced. She’d probably pull off her thaali and stay away, or she might run away, but she will not fall for someone like that and will not let him touch her. Sex, I remark at this juicy juncture, is an important aspect of his films. In return, he jests about a screenwriting tool that says when you have a girl talking on the phone, put her in a bathtub. He says lust is inside everyone, and given a chance, anyone could do anything – though he himself didn’t do anything till he was 22, which is when he first made love to a woman, a year after the release of Thulluvadho Ilamai.

Having revealed this much, he says he doesn’t think it’s necessary to hide anything, and that a man is at his 100 per cent when he is making love. And these private moments, if used in the right way, can be powerful on screen. Kissing or lovemaking is no big deal in Hindi films today and it’s not uncommon here and people should get used to it. I ask him about death, that other very prominent participant in his scenarios. He says that shooting death is extremely interesting. It’s a nice feeling that you’re going to kill someone in a way that hasn’t been seen before. It gives you power over the audience, because you can whip them up into a hysterical lather. That’s a thrill for the filmmaker.

Personally too, it’s a thrill. In the second flash of purple poetry of the evening, he declares that death is the biggest orgasm a man can have. He says he isn’t afraid of death, not even if he drops dead right now, because he’s seen everything in life and he’s curious about what happens in the afterlife. Is there a heaven? A hell? Is there someone who passes judgment? He doesn’t know and he’d really love to find out. I ask if these notions are behind the Christian imagery in his films, the missionary setting in Kaadhal Kondain or the Pietà pose in 7G Rainbow Colony. He says it’s most likely something he imbibed from Hollywood, but he also adds that his neighbours, while he was growing up, were Christians, and he’d go to church with them on Sundays.

This is one religion where pain is portrayed very easily. Even their god is depicted in pain, on a crucifix. And they believe in angels, which is what the heroine of 7G Rainbow Colony becomes, a guiding guardian angel. I point out that, over the course of the conversation, he has sounded less a filmmaker than a philosopher, and he says that the older he’s gotten – he’s a ripe 33 now – the more philosophical he’s become. Even Aayirathil Oruvan is based on philosophy, he says, though exactly how he doesn’t reveal. In a sentiment that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Tamil film lyric, he says that when it rains, you delight for a few seconds, and then the practical side of you takes over, worrying about getting wet and catching a cold. He says he’s trying to live his life in those few seconds.

Expounding this philosophy, he says there’s no point if you get scared. You do what you want to do, and as long as you like what you’re doing, people will relate to it. He has no patience for the theory that Tamil audiences are conservative in their moviegoing tastes. He says they’ve been underestimated, and because they lap up what you serve them doesn’t mean that that’s the only thing they’ll eat. In any case, he’s got to believe in that theory if he’s going to keep making movies his way, with the conviction that no one wants to see perfect people on screen anymore because every human being is a composite of two opposing forces, angels and demons.

I tell him that the difference between, say, Karthik in Mouna Raagam and the Selvaraghavan antihero is that the former, despite the inherent grey shades of the character, comes off as lovable and charming (in short, an all-white angel) whereas Selvaraghavan’s demonic angels (or angelic demons) make you shrink back in disgust. That, he says, is a reflection of the filmmakers. Mani Ratnam is a lovable, charming man, he says, whereas he is violently unlovable and the last thing from charming. He’s the kind of kid who stole money to buy a Hero pen, and when he got scared that he’d be found out and beaten up by his father, he boarded a train to Guwahati (without a ticket, naturally). The adult he’s become, he says, isn’t very far from the child he was.

Even the loner he is today is but a grownup version of the loner he was as a child. Afflicted with Retinoblastoma, a cancer of the retina, an eye had to be removed so the cancer wouldn’t spread. He was three-and-a-half years old when he began to endure taunts for being the only kid in the neighbourhood with a gaping socket in the face. He later bought himself a glass eye, but by then he’d learned to keep his distance from people. Now that he’s got a BMW purring in his garage, he’s finally going to be able to splurge on a cosmetic procedure that will gradually reconstruct his face and his eye. He says he’ll never be able to see from his left eye, but perhaps that isn’t really the point, which may be just to prove to himself that, at least in some respect, he’s left his past behind.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil