JJ Fredrick's baby was only 10 days old when he left to shoot Ponmagal Vandhal in Ooty. The director's debut film stars Jyotika in the lead and is on a difficult subject -- the sexual assault and murder of children. Incidentally, in that time period, Ooty received the highest rainfall in close to 80 years, making Fredrick's task even more challenging.
Speaking to TNM, Fredrick says, "It would keep raining all through the day. The only time it would stop is when we were on a lunch break!" Laughing at his luck, Fredrick adds that since he had a very supportive and cooperative cast, he managed to overcome the hurdles. Jyotika shot in the pouring rain and even developed a high fever, but she continued with the shoot.
"My son Jaden was two months old by the time I saw him again," Fredrick says ruefully.
Since Ponmagal Vandhal is a thriller, Fredrick is tight-lipped about the film lest he gives away spoilers.
"I had 3-4 stories with me. All of those are things which have affected me as well as society at large. Even if you take a love story, there will be a kernel of something personal in that -- at least in my case. Much of Ponmagal Vandhal has things that you've witnessed and which you will be able to relate to. It's what you come across in everyday life," he says.
Fredrick is married to well-known costume designer Joy Crizildaa, who's worked with big stars like Vijay and Sivakarthikeyan. However, Fredrick himself comes from a family with no connections to the film world. He studied VisCom in Loyola College, Chennai, and wished to become a film editor. It was Fr Rajanayagam, considered to be one of the founding fathers of the course, who told Fredrick that he had "something" within him, at a time when the latter didn't think he was capable of telling stories.
"But after that, there was a short film competition which happened. I took part and I won the first prize. This was a competition which had around 40 teams participating from across the country. That's where my journey started. After that I made a short film called Abracadabra which was released by Vikatan and got national recognition. I also worked in the pre-production of Ahmed's Idhayam Murali. The film didn't take off though. I also worked on screenplays with friends from the industry," he says.
Jyotika plays a lawyer called Venba in Ponmagal Vandhal. Fredrick says that even at the scripting stage, he wrote the film keeping her in mind. "100% I had Jo Ma'am in mind. I wanted the person who's playing my protagonist to also be an inspiring person off the screen. I was very firm on this. She approved the script after listening to half of it but I told her that even if she had rejected it, I would have waited until she said yes to make the film. To what extent will a mother who loves her child go? This is very important in the film," he says.
Fredrick's decision to make his debut with a heroine-centric film was natural, he believes.
"There are no men-women in my story. All I care about is the protagonist. My protagonist is equal to 10 heroes who fight. This character requires that much effort. Beyond acting and dialogue delivery, there's a lot of mental preparation which is required for this role. I would have about 35 pages of dialogue with me every day. There are about 3-4 shots in the film which are single shots, located in a small court room with about 50 people in it. Ma'am would perform those scenes in proper Tamil. I wouldn't call 'Cut!' because even after she has performed, there would be some nuances in her face which I wanted to capture. As far as I'm concerned, my protagonist is a superhero," he says.
That's why the title Ponmagal Vandhal is appropriate, Fredrick explains. "People said it sounds like a soft title but it has a deep meaning. When you watch the film, you'll understand why."
Shooting with veterans from the industry like Bhagyaraj, Pandiraj, Prathap Pothen and Parthiban was wonderful, Fredrick says.
"They were not before me as these legends from the industry. They were there as actors and would do what was required perfectly. They would check with me at every stage if what they performed was fine," he says.
Portraying sexual violence and brutality against children is a tough ask. While such abuse is widely prevalent, the filmmaker has to be sensitive in depicting such potentially triggering material, without the film turning voyeuristic and exploitative. Fredrick is conscious of the responsibility, he says.
"I have not spoken to any NGOs who work in this field, but as part of my research, I did speak to people who have been affected by the issue," he reveals.
"The crux of any story lies in how it is presented. I think that's what you'll find to be unique in this film, the approach that we've taken. Words have a life of their own. That's why I took a lot of time over how each dialogue should be said, in what tone."
Many films on sexual violence propagate vigilante justice as the solution. What does Fredrick think about this?
"The tagline of the film is 'Delay in justice is injustice'. It's true that there are a lot of people who are working hard on these issues. But when there is a delay in providing justice, it affects several people. That's what made me do this film. This is a very important issue and I didn't want to project anything in a wrong way," he signs off.
The film will released directly on Amazon Prime Video on May 29.