Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Crouched around a campfire storyteller”

Posted on November 4, 2011


Two minutes with the director of ‘Pushpak’ and ‘Aboorva Sagotharargal’, and you see why his movies are filled with such irrepressible humour.

At 80, Singeetham Srinivasa Rao bears the mien of a puckish woodland sprite. Were it not for his years, it’s easy to imagine him slapping a “Kick Me” label on the back of an unsuspecting passerby, and were he not human, he might have been one of those enchanted beings in Shakespeare’s comedies, sprinkling fairy dust on lovesick men and women and delighting in the ensuing confusion. Rao has directed a number of Telugu films, and Tamil audiences know him, primarily, as the man who worked his magic on some of Kamal Haasan’s best-regarded films – Rajapaarvai, Aboorva Sagotharargal, Pushpak and Michael Madana Kamarajan. Rao wears his laurels very lightly. I ran into him at the Hindu’s Lit for Life festival the day before he was scheduled to appear in a panel discussion about screenwriting. I said I was a big fan. He smiled and said mischievously, “That’s because you haven’t seen my bad movies.”

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The next day, during the discussion – anchored by K Hariharan, and also featuring Balu Mahendra and Anjum Rajabali – Rao spoke playfully and passionately about his many, many years in the film industry. He recalled being an assistant director on Maya Bazaar. He explained why songs work in our films. He said that he vibes well with Kamal Haasan because they both like to laugh at themselves. He confessed that he disliked Chandralekha when he first saw it, and realised that it was a classic only after 25 years, “a fact that the audiences realised in just two minutes.” He remembered, while shooting in Bangalore, running into “a man who looked very familiar.” It was David Lean, scouting for locations for A Passage to India. The two lit up a conversation when an inflamed Rao ran up and admitted to being a great admirer. Lean was having trouble with the screenplay. Rao said, “But you made such a great movie out of Great Expectations. Why is this adaptation any different?” Lean said, “That’s because Charles Dickens was a great screenwriter.” Every anecdote is accompanied by its own rimshot.

After the session, some of us repaired for lunch, and we saw the filmmaker preparing to seat himself at a nearby table, with his family. Waving in his direction like shameless groupies looking to catch their idol’s eye, we asked him to join us, and, after hesitating for a second, he did. (Later, we apologised for monopolising his company, keeping him away from his family. He said, without missing a beat, “That’s okay. I speak to them every day.” Rimshot!) He held court with more anecdotes, crowned with the story about the Sundari neeyum song sequence from Michael Madana Kamarajan. His original vision was to feature background dancers dressed like widows who resembled the kleptomaniac so devilishly played by SN Lakshmi – hence the original tune along the lines of the devotional chant Samba Sadashiva. But he walked into Ilayaraja’s studio the next day and found that the maestro had spiked the last syllable of each line with a frisson, a sharper hue, and he had to abandon fantasies of waltzing widows. A single note changed, and he had to imagine the song anew. This revelation was tinged not with the regret of wasted effort but with the humility and wonder that mere men experience when confronted with the mysterious processes of creation.

When someone asked him when he’d make another movie like Michael Madana Kamarajan, he said, rather philosophically, that a great many things have to come together for a film to work, and it’s difficult to repeat a success – films, sometimes, just happen. Even earlier, in the panel discussion, he acknowledged his smallness in the scheme of things. He said that sometimes you realise that the film is not working when you’re ten days into shooting, and sometimes only after shooting has wrapped. The solution? Don’t look back. Soldier on. As Rao guided us through the tracks and trails of the cinematic jungles he knows so well, we had begun to resemble boy scouts around a campfire – such remarkable stories, such a remarkable life. There was a sense of travesty that these nuggets were being excavated from the vault so that a bare handful of us could be dazzled, and it came as a relief when he said he was writing his autobiography. But even that revelation arrived with a side of mischief. He is structuring his story like a screenplay, the key directive being “CUT TO,” so that he can “skip over the boring bits.” Listening to him, none of us believed for a minute that his life contained any boring bits.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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