Ridiculed a few years ago for claiming that the story of Kaththi, Vijay's blockbuster film with AR Murugadoss, actually belonged to him, Gopi Nainar today has come out of the shadows and how.
The 49-year-old filmmaker's Aramm, with Nayanthara in the lead role, has opened to rave reviews and good word of mouth.
But if circumstances had been different, Gopi's debut would have taken place a long time ago. 30 years to be precise.
The teenager who impressed Ilaiyarajaa
At 19, the young filmmaker who grew up in Kattur, the village represented in Aramm, had managed to impress maestro Ilaiyarajaa so much with a story that the latter had agreed to compose music for his film. That had been the only condition laid down by the producer - "If you can convince Ilaiyarajaa, I don't have to listen to the story, I will produce the film."
The film was about a woman in a capitalist society who marries a man much older to her. With Ilaiyarajaa's nod, a budget of 13 lakhs was sanctioned. Khushbu was supposed to be the heroine and Chokkalinga Bhagavathar the hero.
But it was not to be.
An incident that took place soon after Gopi's decision to make his first film, influenced him so much that he gave up his dream.
When Gopi went to Vaniyambadi to visit his friend, he stayed the night and went to a tea shop in the morning. At the tea shop, he was asked in whose home he'd stayed - an intrusive question aimed at identifying his caste. An irritated Gopi refused to answer, leading to a verbal duel. At one point, a man caught him by his shirt collar.
The tea shop, Gopi says, had a system where Dalits were not allowed to sit on the benches. The coins they paid went into a basin with water. The notes had to be dipped in water, too.
"I had already experienced caste atrocities as young as Class 6 because I come from the Depressed Classes (Dalit) myself. But I hadn't seen anything so severe," he says.
Shaken by the incident, a disillusioned Gopi decided he didn't want to make films when society was still stuck in the dark ages. He borrowed 100 rupees from his friend and took the first bus back home. Though people tried to convince him not to let go of a golden opportunity to make his first film, Gopi would not budge from his decision.
He went on to work in different social justice organisations for 20 years.
"I don't know if I did the right thing then. Maybe not. But that's how I felt back then," he says.
Growing up in Kattur
Gopi was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) and grew up in the maximum city till he was about 10 years old. When he was in Class 6, the family moved to Kattur because of his father's illness.
Even as a child, Gopi was obsessed with films. Recounting his boyhood days, Gopi says, "There would be only one panchayat TV for about a thousand people and we had to go 3 kms to watch it. I loved watching Oliyum Olliyum and on Sundays, they'd play a film at 7.30 pm, so I would go and sit before the TV at 3 pm, in the afternoon heat, so that I could see everything properly when the film came on."
His father passed away when Gopi was in Class 8.
Gopi recalls how one of his relatives, a communist, would hold discussions with his comrades at Gopi's home. These conversations introduced Gopi to ideas of social justice. One of the books the communists gave him to read was Thaai, the Tamil translation of Maxim Gorky's Mother.
"I finished reading that book by Class 8 or 9," says Gopi. "It had a big impact on me."
"When we used to go to Chennai, we would get down in Moor Market. That's where I picked up more books on similar themes," recalls Gopi.
Gopi was soon hooked to the profoundly moving and political literature that came out of the Soviet Union. He devoured the Tamil translation of writers like Gorky, Chekov (the short story Ward No.6 is another work Gopi cites as an influence), Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and others by the dozen and later turned to thinkers like Camus (The Stranger) and Kafka.
It was then that his interest turned to Tamil writers, especially the writings of Daniel Selvaraj, and Dalit literature.
He also started watching films from other states and countries.
All in Kattur?
"Yes, all in Kattur. That's where I've always been," he says, laughing.
Gopi would rent a TV and video cassettes (later DVDs) of films and watch them intently at home. He'd also go to the theatre whenever he could.
It was J Mahendran's Nandu which first made Gopi decide that he would one day make his own films, too.
"I was very disturbed by that film. It was very different from what I'd watched all along. I couldn't sleep that night. It was that film which made me decide I'd get into cinema. That's when I learnt what it was to be a director. I was only in Class 8 then," he shares.
Gopi went on to watch many more of Mahendran's films and says that he was especially impacted by Mullum Malarum. From Tamil films, Gopi went on to watch Hindi and later Bengali cinema by stalwarts like Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, and Ritwik Ghatak.
His exposure to international cinema would make him fall in love with the films of Akira Kurosawa. A filmmaker, Gopi says, whose works he'd watch repeatedly.
Discussing his love for cinema, Gopi says, "Take two films, Thulabharam and The Bicycle Thieves. Both have the concept of social justice. Thulabharam, even though it was about a worker's problems, it was about the individual's struggle. But the second film is about the society in which the story takes place. I learnt from that film how an individual's pain can be shown as the society's. It's the second film which appeals to me more."
Didn't his mother object to his interest in cinema and the money spent on it?
Gopi laughs and says, "Since my father had passed away, only my mom was there. My elder sister got married and left. So it was just my mom, my younger sister and I. I was the oldest. I was irresponsible and nobody could control me."
Making it in Kollywood
Though Gopi had abandoned his dream of making films at the age of 19, he would never be free of its allure. At the age of 40, he decided to come back to the field.
Speaking about how films are made today, Gopi says, "The films that are made today are a result of the capitalist society. Not just Tamil films but world-over. Making a mark in cinema is considered to be a matter of luck. Here, there is no knowledge about the artistic techniques that are needed to make a film and ensure that it reaches the people. That education does not happen."
He further adds: "It's also not necessary for filmmakers to work as assistant directors for 10-15 years to make their own films. This is what has been happening in the 60-70 years of cinema that we have. It's wrong. I haven't worked under anyone. There was one film where I worked for 21 days but even there, I was put under the art director as his assistant. Watching how that film was being made, I said this is not how you do it. But when I had to make my own film, I too ended up doing some of those things."
Gopi says that the world of cinema is still rooted in feudal ideas and that every prejudice and superstition you see in society, is alive within it too. From caste practices to believing in numerology.This, he says, is because it's a business involving big money.
"There is no intellect behind how we make films," Gopi asserts. "You cannot make cinema as pure business. It's an art form."
But how else does one learn the craft of cinema?
"By watching cinema!" Gopi quips.
Other than Kaththi, Gopi had been embroiled in a controversy surrounding Pa Ranjith, one of Tamil cinema's most articulate voices on politics and social justice. The producer of Karuppar Nagaram, for which Gopi had written the story, had alleged that the story of Pa Ranjith's Madras had been lifted from the former.
Gopi, however, is not keen to revisit the past. "Whatever has happened has happened. I issued a statement asking people, including my well-wishers, not to write about Ranjith and me. It's not necessary and I don't wish to cause pain to anyone," he says.
Gopi had narrated the story of an episode from the life of a District Collector to many producers and stars but nobody was willing to come forward and do the film.
The reason why Gopi zeroed in on the Collector's part is because he knew the film would be critical of the government machinery.
"If someone from outside the system says it, it won't be as effective. It has to be someone from within, a government representative, who points out the flaws," he explains. "More than the people saying we have nothing, it should be the government that admits they have nothing - that's when it becomes a bigger truth."
"I didn't think of the gender of the District Collector when I wrote the story. But yes, nobody was willing to do the film. I don't want to mention their names now," he says.
Asked if it was difficult to work with child stars, Gopi says that it's a breeze to make children perform in films. Calling Mahalakshmi (Dhanshika in the film) around whom the plot revolves, the easiest person to direct in the entire film, Gopi says, "If you ask a child to say a dialogue, they will just say it. It's adult actors who will wonder if they should say it like Rajini, Kamal or Sivaji."
While Aramm certainly makes for a difficult watch, can such cinema really create any kind of meaningful change on ground? Or does it merely stop with making privileged people shed a few tears and move on?
"People didn't vote for MGR after seeing his first film. They kept watching his films and voted for him," says Gopi. "It's about the politics of his films."
However, Gopi is realistic about the impact of cinema.
"Cinema in itself can't cause any change. But it can be an inspiration. Like any other art form, be it poetry or a novel or whatever else. If there is social change, art will be among the fundamental reasons for it," he says.
In the film, District Collector Madhi decides to enter politics after resigning from her post. There has been a fair amount of criticism about this ending, with some pointing out that democracy suffers when one person is pitted as the saviour of the masses.
Gopi sees it differently.
"It is not democracy when we say only one person can make a change. But it is the beginning of democracy when one person leads that change. The whole of society doesn't start a revolution. It is a single person or a small minority that does it. If it is these few people who continue to do this, then that is not democracy," he concludes.
What will Aramm 2, the sequel, be about?
"Aramm was about a child who falls into a pit and how she is brought out. Aramm 2 will be about how society itself has fallen into a pit and needs to be brought out," he says.