Halitha speaks about the inspiration for a film about the difficult bond between a father and son, her film aesthetics and more.

Halitha Shameem in a green kurta on the sets of Aelay
Flix Interview Tuesday, March 09, 2021 - 15:11

Growing up in Chinnadharapuram in Tamil Nadu, Halitha Shameem experienced village life, first-hand. Her life was about being with friends and family, eating yellow savoury called kodal, and waiting for the ice cream vendor to bring a ‘cup’ ice cream; and varieties of ‘kuchi’ (stick) ice — milk, milk with vermicelli and rosemilk, besides frozen juice in a flexible plastic tube, more famously called ‘pepsicola’.

She had another life in her Kodaikanal school hostel, and Halitha lived in the present both places, never once slipping into the past. That explains the unaffected nostalgia in her films — Poovarasam Pee Pee, Sillu Karuppatti and now, Aelay.

In a conversation that lingers, the director speaks about the inspiration for a film about the difficult bond between a father and son, her film aesthetics and more. Excerpts from an interview.

Let’s begin with Aelay and the extended sequence of people grieving the death of Muthukkutty. It did not feel like they were actors, and the humour there was organic. How did you conceive of this?

This was not something alien to me, but once I began writing the film, whenever I travelled in the hinterland and saw a house in grieving, I would stop by and observe. I saw the ‘mic set’ culture in Madurai, and that fascinated me. The old lady whose gold tooth goes missing, the busy oppari artiste… they walked into the script as I was writing it.

Muthukutty is not an easy man to like, or love. Yet, the audience is able to get what he is. Samuthirakani brings him alive, warts and all. How easy was it to convince an actor to take up this part?

Samuthirakani sir might have had issues with how I’d written Muthukutty, but he trusted me blindly, and that’s what you see on screen. Eight years ago, I pitched this film to another popular actor. The minute he heard that this is a father who is not ‘liked’ by his son, he was unwilling to listen further. But, Samuthirakani sir understood that I knew the Muthukutty I had written. He was irresponsible, playful, but he did not know better. Unlike his character in Sillu Karuppatti that was written for him, he slipped into this role, adapted himself.

Speaking of nostalgia, how do you see it? The audience seems to love this throwback to the past and detailing, but what does it mean to you?

I don’t get nostalgic, because I still live that life. In my village, we still have an audio cassette shop that’s functional. What the city considers nostalgic is the living present there. For me, personally, these things are not seen in ‘flashback’ mode. I’ve seen both the city and village, and simultaneously lived both lives. I’ve been to ice cream parlours in the city, and waited for a Muthukutty to come calling in the village. I still remember the horn of the iceman, and how I waited with a tumbler in hand, ready to eat the kuchi ice without wasting a drop. I love both the hand-churned ice cream of my Kodai school with peach and all things nice, and semiya ice, rosemilk and paal ice.

Is Muthukutty drawn from many real-life people?

The main inspiration for the film is my father. He once asked me, shortly after his very close friend passed, if I’d cry for him if he died. That line stayed with me. My father was very playful, but after his friend passed, he turned very quiet. He remains a quiet person. It struck me that even appa, who in my head can do no wrong, wonders if he has been a good father. I was his pet, I spent so much time with him, and yet I never knew there was a quiet side to him. That was the kernel for the film. The alcoholic side of Muthukutty and his other attributes, I added while writing.

Let’s speak about Manikandan. How did you realise he’s your everyday man? He shone in Sillu Karuppatti and now in this, smiling through tears, and being utterly real.

I convinced the producers I wanted Manikandan on board. I wanted an ordinary guy. He loved Poovarasam, and came to me and told me that he never asks anyone for a chance, but wanted to work with me. I met him at a dinner party during Vikram Vedha, for which he was the dialogue writer. He had acted in Kadhalum Kadanthu Pogum, and his performance in the film is something that lingered. He asked me if he could work with me at a time when very few asked me that question. Whoever told me Poovarasam was good got a role in Sillu Karuppatti (laughs). He’s a very natural actor. That said, if he gets too popular and becomes too known a face, I might have to start looking for another ‘everyday’ man.

In just your third film, people are speaking of a ‘Halitha signature’. How do you see this?

I don’t know if I have a signature as yet, but whatever my aesthetics are, I picked them up watching films at the Indo-Cine Appreciation Foundation in Chennai. Every day after college, I’d go there and watch a movie. That was my film school. There would be subtitles, sometimes no subtitles, but those films spoke. That place is also why I love showing my films in festivals. I try to make films about things that I feel deeply about, things I see. And, I’ll probably concede this much — I see things a little differently. That probably comes across as a signature.

How did you react to the fact that the film will not release in theatres, but on TV and then OTT (Netflix)?

If I’d known this was to happen, I would have been better prepared. All of us in the team, including the producers, were caught unawares and were helpless. It’s like seeing your work release in bits and pieces, but it’s happened and one has to move on. Let’s go back to the humour in the grieving scenes...

Could you elaborate on how you came up with that?

I remember an incident when we went to a friend’s house. Someone had died there, a little boy came by and loudly announced that there was meen kozhambu (fish gravy) to eat. Suddenly, there was muffled laughter. A moment of levity amid a pall of grief, but life is like that, no? As for the tamarind fruit scene where the old lady puckers up as she wails, it has happened so often to all of us, when the village bus trundles past tamarind trees and a bunch of fruit falls on our lap — a rare treat. And the tamarind fruit does not see age — it makes everyone react the same way.

How do you react to the criticism that the two halves of the film are very different in terms of treatment?

I think that when I write, I know what I want. And, I wanted two different moods in either half. I wanted to make a film that appeals to all, and I was willing to let go of a tiny bit of my sensibility for that. I knew pure film lovers would not like this, but I made this for the family audience. I knew they would like it. And, I need to make different kinds of cinema. I need the liberty to do them. I cannot be bogged down by expectation and make the same kind of cinema. Caste is an issue that you take up in the film, but you address it subtly in your way. I don’t like stating anything loudly. I feel that when it is loud, we tend to close our ears and mind. I firmly believe subtlety speaks better. And you have to understand I wrote it in 2009. When I decided to make it in 2019, I decided to retain the soul of what I’d written. I still trust the Halitha of 2009.

Next up is Minmini, for which you’ve waited five years for your cast to grow up...What else are you working on?

I am planning a film with an elderly cast, and I want to shoot it when they are still mobile. I hope to begin work on it this year after shooting Minmini.

Watch: Trailer of Aelay

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