Known for his firebrand speeches and politically conscious films, 37-year-old Pa Ranjith's rise to fame in the Tamil film industry has been rapid.
A filmmaker who says he was least interested in cinema before his college days, Ranjith has managed to pull off two films with superstar Rajinikanth since his directorial debut in 2012.
While this has earned him his fair share of enemies in the Tamil film industry, which tends to be extremely territorial, it would be unfair to describe Ranjith as simply 'Rajinikanth's director'.
This is a filmmaker who knows his mind and is here to make films that bring subjects close to his heart to the mainstream. And he has not lost this thirst in the glamour and glitz that accompany the big budget projects he now helms.
Ranjith, the rationalist
Speaking to TNM, Ranjith recalls his days in the Government College of Arts in Chennai where he was a first year student.
"I never used to watch films before I entered college. But then I started watching political films, I developed an interest. That's also the time when I began reading Ambedkar, Periyar and other writers. I realised that cinema is a mass medium and when you speak through this frame, it becomes larger-than-life and reaches people. In Russia, the arts had influenced politics a lot. So, I thought, why not do this here," he says.
This is why Ranjith is convinced he must make mainstream films and not parallel cinema that he feels reaches the same kind of people with the same outlook.
Recounting how he became a film fan, Ranjith says, "I was enamoured by how cinema could make me feel what the characters on screen were feeling. How I could identify with them, emotionally and politically. As a first year student, I watched films as an ordinary person. I didn't even know English. I used to watch Iranian films with subtitles which I couldn't really understand but still, I could feel the pain and emotions of the characters. It was the visual language which spoke to me. So I decided that I must try and make such films in Tamil," he says.
He cites The Battle of Algiers, Life is Beautiful, Rashomon, and Battleship Potemkin among films which left a deep impact on him.
Ranjith's maternal grandfather was a Periyarist and as a child, he would conduct rationalist experiments like defying rituals to prove that there was no god.
"I would do things like eating the egg kept for snake worship. Doing things that believers would say would anger the gods just to see what happens," he says with a laugh.
However, it would be years before Ranjith would become the atheist that he is now. In between, the director turned to Christianity when he was in high school because of his uncle. But as his eyes opened to the social injustice he saw around him, Ranjith's early initiation to Periyar and the indifference he saw around him made him a staunch atheist.
"In college, I did a play called How to Kill God. It was received very well. I just decided to stop believing one day and see what happens. Nothing happened and so I stayed an atheist. I met my wife Anitha when we were in college. Ours was a love marriage. She is interested in politics, too, but she is a devout Christian. That's the only thing we fight about!" he quips.
The couple has a daughter and both are keen to bring her up as an artistic, socially and politically aware person.
On cinema, caste, and Rajinikanth
Ranjith has been vocal about his Dalit identity as well as the caste politics he sees in the film industry and society at large. At the time when the NEET exam was making headlines due to a student, Anitha's suicide, Ranjith had delivered a blistering speech calling out society's hypocrisy.
Speaking about attempts to silence him, Ranjith says, "It is foolishness to deny that we live in a casteist society. Even recently, a student called Prakash committed suicide because of caste prejudice. This is a truth and I'm not afraid to speak this truth anywhere. If because of it I face problems, I'm ready to confront it. Nobody can decide what I should speak or should not speak."
Further he adds, "Since the time of independence, all political parties only speak about caste as a reaction to an incident. Abolishing caste is not part of their ideology. It's only Dalit organisations which have abolishing caste as part of their ideology."
Even the Left, Ranjith says, which speaks of class politics and takes up social issues, has woken up very slowly to how intertwined caste and class are.
Noting that he's here to stay and succeed, Ranjith quotes Ambedkar who, he says, enthused the oppressed to succeed at such a scale that even their oppressors would be forced to acknowledge it.
"It is in that direction that I am moving," asserts Ranjith.
Ranjith, who says he's not satisfied with any film he has done so far ("All of them got mixed reviews only!"), is known for the rich subtext and symbolism of his cinema. Rajinikanth has become a vehicle for carrying these messages to the people but there is a contradiction here – Ranjith and Rajinikanth are poles apart when it comes to politics.
"We do discuss politics on the sets. In fact, I fight with him a lot about politics," Ranjith admits. "I disagree with many of his views and he disagrees with mine. We have that kind of rapport and we have healthy discussions always. And not just me, art director Ramalingam and Rajini discuss politics all the time. He asks people about their opinions on everything, including the lightmen."
Even though Ranjith is able to reach a wide audience through Rajinikanth films, he acknowledges that this comes with certain compromises.
"I don't have the same freedom as I did when I made Attakatthi. I was so free when I made that film. I haven't had that experience with the subsequent films that I've done," he says.
On Ashok Kumar's death
The turmoil within the film industry has come to the forefront once again after the suicide of producer Ashok Kumar. Ranjith says that the industry is controlled by the people who have money, the financiers.
"It's not just money that they invest, it is entire areas that are in their control. So without their cooperation, you cannot release films in different areas...Madurai, Coimbatore and so on," says Ranjith.
Ranjith says that you need money to make films and when people go to financiers for this, there is no process or regulation in place.
"The kandhu vatti system you see outside is what's there here, too. People go with trust but when this is breached and the person who has lent money starts creating problems, it becomes an issue. Many prominent producers today are sunk in debt," reveals Ranjith. "Since the whole thing is unorganised, people are unable to take legal recourse. But since it's come to light that people are being threatened and someone has committed suicide, the government and the cinema organisations should act on it. You can't make films without financiers, but the terms of the borrowing and lending should be regulated."
'Karuppu' power and gender
While Kabali spoke about "karuppu" politics (the power of the dark-skinned), Ranjith's films have had fair-skinned heroines. Shouldn't "karuppu" power go beyond gender?
"Yes, this is among the compromises I've had to make because it's a business. My wish is to cast dark-skinned people and make films. In Madras I couldn't avoid it because of pressure from the producer. I wish to speak about certain issues through cinema as a tool and to achieve that, I make some compromises – whether that's fair skin, heroism or unrealistic sequences. The situation is such that I can only make a film if I make these compromises," he says.
Ranjith places a lot of emphasis on how women can change society. Pointing out that men treat women like property ("as someone who can propagate his genes"), Ranjith says it's only when women become politically aware that they are able to influence their children.
"Even when I make films, my mother's words, her thoughts have influenced me...Whether it is caste or gender oppression, you will see that it's the women in the family who keep reiterating this within the house. It's the mother who tells the daughter to sit in a particular way, teaches her that the brother is better than her, tells her to worship her husband after marriage and so on. If a father is politically aware, it stops with him. But if the mother is aware of all these things, it really changes how the children are brought up. This is what can change society," he says.
On making 'uncomfortable' cinema
While he has had to make certain compromises, Ranjith is keen to keep pushing the boundaries. Kaala, which is about the oppressed, is likely to push the buttons, too.
"When we had a success party for Attakathi and some of our team members got into a cab after the party, the driver said he liked the film but wanted to know why it was made on "those people". That was the only criticism he had – why make a film on "those people". Caste is there everywhere we look, in the tiniest of things," he asserts.
Ranjith goes on to add, "Even with Kabali, I was very interested to see the different kinds of criticism that the film earned. I haven't made a film that has pleased everyone but I don't think I can. I might be able to add some elements that make the film more interesting, but more acceptable? I don't think so. The whole fight is about who will accept you and who will not, so I cannot be a good man to everyone. If it's a war, the enemy has to be fought."
Speaking of films that make privileged communities uncomfortable, Ranjith opens up about Aramm filmmaker Gopi Nainar and the claim that the story of Madras belonged to the latter.
"Gopi Nainar used to come to my college in those days but unlike what some people claim, I have never worked under him and neither was he a close friend. When I heard rumours about this issue, I called him and spoke to him. He said he was clear about it. Then we released a poster of Madras which showed football. On the basis of this, a case was filed. When they came to discuss the issue, I said that there was no connection between my story and his and that we will deal with this in court," he says.
Ranjith says that he submitted the DVD, screenplay, script and other evidences which were required to the court and that on examination, the court allowed the film to release, proving that he was in the clear. Ranjith believes that it is those who wish to pull him down who are deliberately stoking the flames once again.
Though his second film with Rajinikanth will release next year, Ranjith doesn't want to be confined by the pressures of big budget cinema.
"I do want to make smaller films. There's a film about boxing that I want to make and I have worked out the script. I want to set films in places outside the city...like my village in Karalapakkam. Manvasaanai (the smell of the earth) is not just what you get in Madurai.there are villages near Chennai also which have manvasaanai and I have the desire to tell stories about such places," he says.
Main image courtesy: Facebook/Pa.Ranjith Fans