Between Reviews: Meeting Mysskin

Posted on September 11, 2010



A few weeks ago, I was part of a panel discussion organised by LV Prasad Film and TV Academy. The topic was ‘Locating South Indian Cinema in an International Context,’ and I had the opportunity to speak to fellow panelist and filmmaker Mysskin. He graciously invited me to a screening, at his office, of ‘Nandalala,’ which has been awaiting release for a long time now. We spoke for a while after the film, and here’s the conversation.

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SEP 12, 2010Congratulations on a truly unique film, with a visual and narrative grammar quite new to Tamil cinema. How did Nandalala come about?

After Chitiram Pesuthadi, and before writing Anjaathey, I wanted to write a very sincere movie. I wanted to narrate a story from my personal life. I thought I’d imagine what would happen if a mentally challenged man, someone almost like a child, and another kid went on a journey in search of their mothers. A lot of people think they’re doing the right thing, the good thing, when they entrust their mentally challenged kids to asylums. But that’s not always the case. I also wanted to talk about that. Gradually, it became a road movie.

The obvious question, of course, is whether you were influenced by Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro.

I had seen Kikujiro a long time ago, even before I made Chitiram Pesuthadi. It reminded me of something from my life. I have impressions from Kikujiro, and a few scenes are an homage to Kitano. But I wrote Nandalala very individually. I was inspired mainly by an image from my life from when I was very young. Perhaps I made the kid in my movie a six-year-old because I witnessed this image when I was six. Nandalala is a very personal movie, and after finishing it, I felt very composed. I do not think of it as a failure even though it hasn’t been released for so long.

When did you complete Nandalala?

I wrote it after the release of Chitiram Pesuthadi. I waited for a while, but when no one was interested, I wrote Anjaathey. I finished that film and returned to Nandalala, with myself in the lead because no one else wanted to do it. Ilayaraja finished the background score, and the next day he began work on Naan Kadavul. So it was finished perhaps a year-and-a-half ago? But as I said, I don’t think of it as a failure. Movies like Nandalala give meaning to life.

There’s a self-conscious and yet enormously affecting monologue, from a prostitute, who talks about losing count of the number of men who fell on top of her, and about the man who saw the mole on her breast and was reminded of his mother. Did you worry that your choices might put off the regular mainstream audience?

I knew that this monologue was like walking on a dagger. I know it’s a risk, but I want to take that risk. Even with Chitiram Pesuthadi, I wanted to do something different. Boy meets girl, and by interval, her father has agreed to this match. So what could be the conflict now? I thought it would be interesting if such a nice father, such a beautiful human being, visits a prostitute’s house. That’s a shade of him, that’s a necessity for him. Many producers refused to touch the film, saying that the audiences wouldn’t accept this idea. Then they said the audience wouldn’t accept the paedophile villain of Anjaathey. But both films were big hits, and after that I stopped caring. I think movies should give satisfaction, and if you make a sincere project, I think it will go to the people.

I have a kuthu paattu in Yudham Sei, my film currently in postproduction. I know people will like it. But beyond that, there has to be a bigger picture. I want to walk on that tightrope, otherwise it’s not interesting for me as a filmmaker. I should respect the movie. That dialogue you mentioned, I worked on it for a month. That scene with the old woman and the flowers in Anjaathey, I wept while writing it. Even Mani Sir asked me how I wrote it. I don’t know. All I can say is that I go deeply into the unconscious and then try to work my way out. I don’t write a scene outline. I don’t know what my next scene is going to be. That way, I can explore my unconscious more with greater freedom, and my characters behave in ways that surprise me. I think this is most sincere way to write.

You have these traditionally modelled heroes like Naren’s cop in Anjaathey, and yet they’re filled with flaws. You seem like to like imperfect characters.

I have never seen a noble character in real life. If you lock Mike Tyson up in a room and throw a snake in, he will shit his pants. So at that moment, you cannot call him a brave fighter. The character changes according to the situation. You cannot define a character the way people do in real life, where we meet someone and instantly say he’s such a nice guy. After five years, we may discover that he’s a rapist or a paedophile. On the other hand, even within a rapist, there may be deep reserves of humanity. Fixing characters with specific traits makes them boring. I like to push my characters into extremes.

So do you fix your characters and loop your narrative around them, or do you have a story idea that then gives rise to the characters? It’s probably a mix of both.

Like any assistant director trying to make his first film – I assisted Vincent Selva on Youth and Jithan – I wanted to reassure my producer with Chitiram Pesuthadi. So I made a love story. Anjaathey came about because I have a friend who’s a cop, an honest cop. Before becoming a cop, he led a very casual life, and I thought it would be interesting to show how he gets to understand his duty. Nandalala, as I said, is developed from events in my own life. As for Yudham Sei, I was chased by an image for nearly ten days, that of an old woman waiting at court for a verdict. And I decided to go in reverse, to discover why she was there.

I read someplace that only in the third act should I stumble upon my premise or theme. I should say, “Oh this is what I meant to write!” The core of Nandalala is the scene with Nasser [who plays a lorry driver who, asleep at his wheel, brings about some sort of deux ex machina]. If a man can do so much good while sleeping, imagine how much good one can do while awake. After writing that scene, I finally felt I understood Nandalala.

Another accidental discovery occurred while I was shooting the scene with the girl on a tractor. I told my cinematographer to compose the shot with the tree in the frame, and I kept walking into the field, talking on the phone. After a while, I suddenly came across the sight of weeds in water, and I knew at once that this would be the title image of my movie. [It appears during the opening credits.] There are a lot of things not there in the movie, like the shot of a bunch of flowers floating in a stream. That’s a journey too, like the journey of my protagonists, and I wanted to shoot it. And those shots of the millipede and the python – again, creatures making their way through their own journey. It’s beautiful to make movies this way, probably because I read a lot of haiku.

But surely your entire filmmaking cannot be based on the hope of accidental discoveries at the shooting spot.

Of course I have a basic structure. I work on it for two or three months. For instance, in Nandalala, two people set out to see their mothers. So the midpoint, the interval point, automatically establishes itself when the first mother is revealed to us. The question now is simply what happens in the second half, about the second mother. Like Joseph Campbell says, any story has within it an inherent mythical structure. [Appropriately, the places where the mothers reside are named Annaivayal and Thaaivaasal.] The hero goes through a journey, he meets some bad people, he meets some good people, he goes into the belly of the whale, and he comes out transformed. What is this transformation? What did he learn in this process? That’s the basic structure.

You mentioned haikus earlier. Your office walls are filled with Japanese art, and there’s that photograph of Kurosawa as well. What is your interest in Japanese culture?

First of all, I learn from Kurosawa and Kitano. I don’t say “learnt” because it’s not just in the past tense – it’s an everyday process. I didn’t learn from the director I worked under. And I learnt from haiku that the most important thing in the movie medium is the pause – in between a shot, in between action, in between dialogue delivery or performance. Those three lines of the haiku have so many pauses, which add up to so much meaning. They don’t complete the haiku. They just leave it to us to complete it. You find that in Japanese films too. I like that.

My characters won’t complete their dialogues. They’ll just speak a little and leave the rest to interpretation. There should always be some suspense before they act. Even after I finish the shot, I don’t cut immediately. After finishing the shooting script of Anjaathey, I asked my assistant how many dissolves there were. He said there was only one. That’s when I knew how violent the film was. A lot of Japanese culture is based on Buddhism, which came from here. So it belongs to me too. That root is mine. I believe that the world is chaotic and the writer has to give order. Without hope, there is no meaning. Earlier, I was doing work without meaning. Now, I think what I’m doing is very meaningful.

How did you find the experience of being on the other side of the camera in Nandalala?

I think I’m a good actor, but I didn’t want to be perfect. For all shots, I asked my assistants to say “action” and “cut.” Even if I was wrong, I kept the shot. I didn’t look at the monitor and correct it. As a director, I can tell another actor if he is wrong. I can ask him to correct it. But when I’m directing myself, I cannot do that. If I tried to correct myself, I’d become self-conscious. I did some research in mental asylums. I observed the speech patterns of the inmates and so on. I found that everyone was different in the way they spoke, the way they walked, the way they behaved – so I decided not to go with any reference. The way I held my clothes is itself a shade to the character. [His character wears loose pants without a belt, and his hands are always holding up the pants, bunched up at the waist.]

In most cases, I don’t believe an actor can help a movie. Otherwise there’s nothing in the characters. That’s why I took Naren for my first film. I didn’t believe I needed a big professional actor. The day I need such an actor, I may use a Kamal Sir. That’s the other thing. When it comes to playing mentally challenged characters, he’s given us terrific references. I didn’t want to go that way. I abhor close-ups because they are narrative shots and you can make out that someone is “acting.” It’s a very boring device to tell a story through close-ups. It’s like looking through a microscope. With the long shot, there’s action within the frame, and I don’t have to necessarily depend on dialogue.

Is that why there are so many wide shots and top-angle shots in your films? Practically every other scene appears to be a God’s-eye-view shot.

Yes, it is God’s-eye-view. I’m very careful, and yet the top-angle shot creeps in. I usually storyboard my films – action, dialogue scenes – but with Nandalala, I didn’t want to do that. There was a storyboarded part – about 45 minutes (some 250 shots), with another climax, but it’s now cut from the film.

Tell me a little about how you got into films. At the panel discussion the other day, you mentioned that you’d been in 72 jobs. Is that right?

I got my engineering diploma in electronics from Chettinad College of Engineering and Technology. After that, I got into marketing. Yes, there were literally 72 jobs, over some seven years. I designed a water level indicator and sold it to a big firm and installed it. I made food and sold it to office-goers. I sold T-shirts. I sold transformers, motors and switch gears. One day, I was relaxing at home, looking up at the ceiling, at the empty white space. That gave me the spark of coming to cinema.

I never liked films. I was always very choosy and I haven’t seen many films. I liked films like Mahanadhi or Guna, but I’d never discuss them. And I knew nothing about world cinema. I was, however, a voracious reader. When I said I wanted to get into cinema, no one took me seriously. I realised I had to get myself some preliminary education. I’d seen the cinema rack at Landmark. I went and joined there as an employee, making entries of books at the back office. Whenever cinema books arrived, I’d keep them aside. I got permission and started taking notes. I did this very sincerely for a year. Among the books that greatly influenced me were David Mamet’s On Directing Film, the Hitchcock/Truffaut book of interviews, any book on Kurosawa, and, of course, Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

With all these varied interests, how is it working in Tamil cinema, with star-driven power structures and the difficulty, sometimes, of getting a good product out to people? Case in point being your own Nandalala.

I’ve always been a rebel. Before I gave two big hits, everyone discouraged me. Even today, they say the films ran because of the songs, but that’s not the case. I believe everyone comes to the theatre to see something different. I’m dragging them to a huge dark box and switching on a light, and they have to forget they’re watching a film. Yudham Sei is different from my earlier films. It’s a tight vigilante thriller. I’m sure those who liked Anjaathey will like this too.

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