The film won the National Award for the Best Film in the Tamil category, and is based on the practice of involuntary euthanasia of the unwell elderly in Tamil Nadu.

How Priya Krishnaswamy made Baaram National Award winning film on killing elderlyFacebook/Priya Krishnaswamy
Flix Interview Monday, August 12, 2019 - 13:19

When it was named Best Tamil Film 2018 at the National Film Awards, Baaram, directed by Priya Krishnaswamy, received the same reaction that its predecessor Chezhian’s To Let did. Few knew about the film or what it was about. But, those who had watched it in film festivals applauded that a searing take on senicide, something spoken about hush-hush, was celebrated at the national level.

It’s difficult to shake off Karuppusamy, his smile, his life or the practice of thalaikoothal (involuntary euthanasia of unwell senior citizens by family) long after the end-credits roll. Priya, who is Tamil, has been a resident of Mumbai for three decades. The FTII student has been quietly making and editing films (Bombay Boys, Bhopal Express and her own film Gangoobai, among others) while raising her two children.

Not many know that her documentary The Eye of the Fish - the Kalaris of Kerala, made for Films Division, won the National Award for Best Arts/Cultural Film in 2003. She also served as jury member at the National Film Awards in 2014, 2017 and 2018. She’s now working out a strategy to release Baaram theatrically, and is also giving life to a film on a female Kalari warrior, a dream she’s been harbouring for 19 years!

In an interview, she speaks about Baaram, how she decided on the subject, the pitch-perfect cast and the organic way in which the film got made. Excerpts below:

Suddenly, everyone is speaking about Baaram, and wondering why they’ve not heard of it before…

Yes, there’s a great deal of curiosity, because the National Award is a huge honour, and Baaram was the only Tamil film to win one this year. I want people to watch the film, and this will arouse their curiosity. This is a film made for the audience. There’s nothing arty or abstract about it. It is hard-hitting and realistic, but that treatment was dictated by the subject.

I really believe in the audience. I’ve been one, and I enjoy watching movies. I believe the audience is a very smart entity. It can download or stream all kinds of cinema today and has learnt to make discerning, strong choices. The film has some terrific actors and technical crew and they and their work deserve to be seen.

You’re a filmmaker from Mumbai. But, seeing the film, the bond you share with the cast and your indepth knowledge of what is happening on the ground, shines through. Did it take time to gain trust?

It’s funny, but the bond was immediate. We all bonded over the miscarriage of justice that we felt had happened. How I cast the film is interesting. I was in Puducherry, and got to watch a play in Cuddalore directed by Prabhath Bhaskaran, a teacher in the Department of Performing Arts at Pondicherry University. The actors were world-class. I was blown away.

After I wrote the script of Baaram, I realised I needed a huge cast - about 85 actors - and each one had to be authentic, or the film wouldn't work. My daughter Ardra Swaroop, who's produced the film with me, remembered that play, and suggested I go back to Puducherry to find the actors. I met Dr R Raju from the Department of Performing Arts, and there was an instant connect. I cast him within five minutes of meeting him, without a single audition. I needed someone the audience would immediately empathise with, so the tragedy would hit home. I knew that Raju was my guy, there was no artifice. Later, I came to know he had studied at NSD, knew stagecraft, was a student of Ebrahim Alkazi and a batchmate of Raghubir Yadav. His body language was perfect. (Incidentally, during the actors’ roundtable with Rajeev Masand, Pankaj Tripathi mentioned Raju’s performance in Baaram, and how he'd presumed he was a non-actor, and utterly natural, before he discovered otherwise).

We needed actors across varying ages, and finding Raju made things easier. He introduced me to his student, Sugumar Shanmugam, a PhD scholar in Pondicherry University, and suggested he be my casting director. We cast the main leads from Pondicherry University, as well as some theatre actors, but since we needed about 70 more performers, we went to the villages to find them. The casting actually went on till the last day of the shoot. Bremnath, my head of production, is an actor from Pondicherry University, and played Mani. Sugumar himself played Veera, one of the leads. 

Some parts of the film ring so true, with characters looking like they are speaking of their lived experiences…

Baaram is based on a true story. I began to research it years ago, in 2012. Then in 2015, I went to the location where the incident happened, and met the people involved, so I had a very clear idea of how the film should look, feel and sound.

We shot in Brem's village, and he identified people for various characters. What was sad was that so many of those people were living the story we were telling. For instance, the woman who plays Mariakka, the goatherd, was actually going through what I'd written, so I barely needed to direct her.

How long did the process of making Baaram take?

I'd written the script by May 2016. When traditional sources of film funding didn't happen, I began to gather funds from friends in August 2016, and we arrived in Pondicherry in December. We were there for 45 days. We spent 10 days location hunting, and then did a 15-day actor workshop. We workshopped every scene, even the ones without any dialogue; everyone knew what exactly they had to do.

We began to shoot in mid-January of 2017. The shoot lasted 18 days. We could pull it off in that short amount of time only because of the intense actor workshop we did.

The character of Karuppusamy experiences intense love from his sister’s family, and is devoid of acceptance in his own. How was it to write such a family without being judgmental about choices people make?

Karuppusamy is the same towards everyone; his goodness never changes even after an accident leaves him bedridden. His son Senthil’s circumstances dictate his relationship with his father. He’s almost helpless. In our culture, there’s an inbuilt resistance to a young woman taking care of an old man, and that’s why the daughter-in-law wonders who will clean him up. We are not apportioning blame here; merely showcasing the choices people exercise in given circumstances. The social structure is changing alarmingly fast, and this is a fallout. But, of course, everybody always has the choice to do the right thing.

This is actually your second National Award?

Yes, and it comes after 15 years. The documentary also provided the research for a feature film about Unniarcha, a 16th century female Kalari warrior from Kerala. I want to take her story from Kerala out into the world.

Your children seem to be a solid support system, working alongside you…

We have grown to become good friends. Raising my kids (now in their 20s) was a priority. Ardra was the first investor in Baaram, she put her life savings into the film, and kept the shoot running seamlessly even post-demonetisation. Kashyap is helping us to steer the direction the film must take now.

You were raised in a family that travelled a lot, and moved cities/countries. You’ve been in Mumbai for 32 years now. You travelled to interior Tamil Nadu for Baaram, and shot it like you’ve known those people forever. Where does this ability to zoom in on people and their lives come from?

My parents were studying for their PhDs in the US in Kansas, and I was raised by my maternal grandparents, and lived with my uncles, aunts and cousins in Hyderabad before I joined my parents. Then we came back to Ahmedabad, from where we went to Nigeria, and I finally returned to boarding school in India. So, I learnt my culture intimately - the food, the festivals, and the wit, humour and beauty of the Tamil language.

Growing up in an extended family sensitised me to the predicaments of all stages of human life. I’m a people watcher at heart. I'm interested in the human condition and had ample opportunity to indulge in that between so many cultures and educational systems.

Did the award come as a big surprise?

It did. I applied, and then focussed on taking the film to various festivals. After premiering in the Indian Panorama and being nominated for the prestigious ICFT-UNESCO Gandhi Medal at IFFI 2018, we've been invited to several domestic festivals, to an Indo-German film festival in Berlin, and we will be showing Baaram at the Singapore South Asian International Film Festival in September. Finally, now, I hope to release it.

The National Award is a huge fillip, the phone has not stopped ringing. When I got my first National Award, for my second film, it was a big deal, especially since I came from film school. But, those days, people would not really flaunt a National Award during the release of a feature film, because it meant that the film was possibly not commercial enough. Fingers crossed, this time around, the prestige of the National Award will actually draw the audiences in to see Baaram.

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