‘Dream Factory’, set in Kollywood of the 1980s, is the translation of ‘Kanavu Thozhirsalai’, a book by popular novelist and screenwriter Sujatha Rangarajan.

Madhavan Narayanan, translator of Dream FactoryHarperCollins
Features Book Interview Monday, June 06, 2022 - 12:55

Arun Vijay, a smug hero arrives in his Fiat, dashes into his residence without paying heed to his fans or top producers in the industry. Twenty-year-old Manonmani, a struggling actor, waits for hours in a studio for a role she was promised, only to find that she is going to play the background artist yet again. Aspiring songwriter Arumairajan, is forced to choose between chasing his dream job and saving his sick 20-days-old infant in the last moments before death.

Dream Factory, the English translation of late Tamil author Sujatha Rangarajan’s Kanavu Thozhirsalai by Madhavan Narayanan, in its first few chapters offers glimpses that reveal the lives of protagonists from the show business shorn of artifice, before the characters embark on a rollercoaster ride towards their destinies.

As Dream Factory traverses the reel and real world to track the fleeting journeys of its protagonists, it also offers a fascinating peep into the lives of a host of other characters. They include Premalatha, a top heroine, who is not quite free from the patriarchal forces that rule the industry; Arun Vijay’s childhood friend and sweetheart Kalyani; his fierce and loyal secretary Bhaskar; and Manikkam, an idealistic independent filmmaker. There is a drastic difference between what was once known as Kodambakkam’s film industry and Kollywood as we know it today, but the translator of the book, journalist Madhavan Narayanan points out that they also bear some resemblance.

“Thanks to the maturing of the audience, we have been witnessing a new wave in cinema. Many directors such as Balaji Mohan, Vetrimaaran, and Ranjith have a distinctive style of filmmaking. Financing too has slightly changed in the industry with OTT players like Netflix and Amazon becoming increasingly mainstream. But there are also similarities in terms of the kinds of directors, producers, and distribution channels that are predominant. We see women-centric scripts, but hero-centric films continue to remain the norm. Sexual exploitation was not as widely reported as it is post the me too era, but it is still a reality,” says Madhavan, an editor, writer and columnist, who has worked for several media organisations including Reuters, Economic Times, and Hindustan Times.

Book Cover of 'Dream Factory'

When asked how different Dream Factory would be, had it been written based on the present- day landscape of Tamil cinema, and whether it would capture the multiplicity of voices –  myriad writers, directors, lyricists, actors, producers, and artists working on film sets –, Madhavan quips, “Even in Kanavu Thozhirsalai, Sujatha typecasts the producers as either ones who invest in parallel films, or ones who bankroll B grade films and trick the censorship board, or mainstream directors like the ones that Premalatha acts in.” He feels that if one were to write about present-day Kollywood, it would have additional elements like involvement of women artists behind the scenes, the OTT and web series space, new wave romantic filmmakers, new sub-genres, or Madurai formula films.

Read: A love for words: Writer Poomani on his books, translation, and film adaptations

Insights from the translator

In the translator’s note, Madhavan explains how restoring and recreating the various elements in Kanavu Thozhirsalai such as the flavours of the language, its quirks, and cultural insights in English, was an arduous task. “The novel is not just about the film industry. It also marked Sujatha’s baby steps as a screenplay writer that he became a decade after the work was published. Some of the sentences are fragments — as if they were written as bits of screenplay for a seasoned director filming his story,” reads the translator’s note.

“Flash, flash, flash! Suddenly, a bank of lights blazed on the set and the camera started whirring from behind Manonmani. Arun placed one hand on her shoulder and touched her chin with the other as he spoke his lines. Mannikkam’s watchful eyes took in the scene. Arumairajan felt a sense of wonderment, and Mary, cringing in shame as she looked at her worn-out sari and dusty hair, hid in the shadows.”- Chapter 21

Speaking about translating the parts that were written like a screenplay Madhavan says that in the earlier parts of the book, especially where it describes film shoots or conversations between  Premalatha and Arun, one can see a scenarist at work. “We had to tone it down a bit. The editors and I decided to retain some of it,” says Madhavan.

“Cumulous clouds loomed overhead like rolls of cotton balls in the sky. The foothills afar were swathed in green. Cameras, generators and vans stood ready for action, The director, technicians and Arun were all looking at their watches. There were some people playing cards under nearby trees. Nude women were smiling on the decks they held in their hands.”- Chapter 28

Like Kanavu Thozhirsalai, the prose in Dream Factory is laced with vivid visual imagery and reads like a screenplay or a poem at times, to bring its characters and stories to life.

“Thanadham, thana dhana, thanandam,
‘Her laugh is such that you can’t capture in lines,’ a lyricist offered the first line of the song.”

“Arumairajan, standing in a corner of the room, spoke in a clear voice,
Her laugh is such you can’t capture in lines
My words stumble… Her smile glows like a sky filled with sunshine”- Chapter 22

“It was thoroughly finished, dear girl
Burnt across layers, dear girl
That fortress of stone, dear girl
Turned a fortress of coal, dear girl.”- Chapter 33

Kanavu Thozhirsalai was serialised in the Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatan. Dream Factory is prefaced by a moderated discussion between Sujatha, veteran Tamil actor Lakshmi and director Mahendran which was held after the first chapter appeared in Ananda Vikatan in 1979. In the conversation between the trio, writer Sujatha discusses how no matter how hard he tries, a part of him is always present in his writing. He also says it is quite similar to an extension of the actor’s personality being reflected in their on-screen roles.

Would readers find a bit of the translator in their work too? “There is a certain intelligence that Sujatha radiates in his writing. I have tried to be faithful to Sujatha, and not to myself. I had to respect English as a language, and take the likes of the English reader into consideration as well. My contribution lies in the fact that I am a multilingual person. I am a Tamilian brought up in north India. I think unlike a creative writer, a translator is also expected to think about the market and the target audience they are reaching out to,” says Madhavan

“The plot, set mostly in what was then Madras and yet called Chennai locally, is a difficult terrain in terms of language, with a mish-mash of Kannada, Telugu, Urdu, Hindi, Malayalam and English criss-crossing slang words and archaic terms.” - Translator’s Note

He adds that gaining more recognition for their works, would perhaps inspire more translators to enter the field. “There are several Tamil authors whose work deserves to be translated,” he says.

You can buy the book here

Also read: 

For every fan of Tamil: Eight literary names your bookshelf can’t do without

Translator of 'Chemmeen' on challenges of translating Thakazhi from Malayalam into English

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