Theatres value stars, not content: 'Merku Thodarchi Malai' director Lenin Bharathi

The director, whose film was produced by Vijay Sethupathi, speaks of the confidence the star had in him and why he decided to make the film.
Theatres value stars, not content: 'Merku Thodarchi Malai' director Lenin Bharathi
Theatres value stars, not content: 'Merku Thodarchi Malai' director Lenin Bharathi
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Last week’s release Merku Thodarchi Malai earned rave reviews from both the audience and critics alike. Debutant director Lenin Bharathi, a former associate of Suseenthiran, seems a much-relieved man.

“I was quite restless like an expectant mother all these days. At least three films hit the theatres every weekend. Small-budget ones like ours, of course, struggle to get shows, no matter who the producer is,” he smiles.

Excerpts from a conversation follow:

Merku Thodarchi Malai made waves in the festival circuit. Yet, you had issues releasing it theatrically?

Oh, yes. On the day it was released, ovvoru theatre-layum oru show dhan kuduthaanga (they gave only one show in theatres), despite knowing Vijay Sethupathi was the producer. Then, it got eventually increased to three shows. Here, they value only stars and big production companies, not the content.

We planned to send the film to the festivals right from the start because good cinema should reach a larger audience. And, it played out to our advantage. The objective was to create a buzz. It happened. I was sure it would work well. The film talks about the landless labour class living alongside the Western Ghats.

I’d say it’s one of the refreshingly honest attempts ever made in Tamil cinema.

Thank you. The film is for the commoners, and the intention was to capture their lives and present it to the audience. We never stayed in hotels or caravans during the shoot. We lived among them, those who were employed in the cardamom farms.

Since I wanted to keep the film as authentic as possible, I made my actors work as daily wage workers for some time. I did the pre-production work for almost three years, observing people, their lifestyle. This is not a film, it's a record of lives.

I am sure the experience would have been surreal.

The Western Ghats is visually mesmerising, and we trekked a lot. For me, where the story has been set, is extremely important. When location becomes a character, the storytelling becomes easier. So, the moment the idea struck me, without even writing, I started visualising the scenes, and how I wanted them to be shot.

I heard you shot the film in 49 days.

Yes. Everything was pre-planned, and I had a clear sketch of how I was going to execute the shoot. More importantly, people were helpful and kind. We had only a handful of professional artistes on board. The supporting roles were done by the villagers. It didn’t look like we were shooting. Everything appeared real as we bonded so well.

Tell us more about the challenges and advantages of working with non-actors?

They express the most honest emotions, and that was done effortlessly. Also, they’re least aware of the camera. And took the film closer to reality. For many of them, it was their first experience of facing the lenses. As for the costumes, we purchased new clothes and exchanged them with the locals for old ones. I don’t think they even understood why we did so. (smiles)

I was told Vijay Sethupathi was eager to act in the film as the lead.

Absolutely. But I insisted on having newbies on board because of the script. When I explained it to Vijay, he understood and came forward to produce the film. He had so much confidence in me that he didn’t even watch the festival version, and told me he’d watch the film in theatres.

How did you rope in Ilaiyaraaja as the music director?

Raja sir and my father were schoolmates. He was the first one to have heard of the narration in 2011. He heard it and said it had the feel of a story set in his time. I was very pleased with his words.

As a filmmaker, where you think you really scored?

My parents had worked in the cardamom farms near Kerala and I used to stay with them during vacations. I think my observations helped me write a better script, depicting emotions and reality. Merku Thodarchi Malai is successful because the audience could connect with it. Capturing the lives of simple people without using gimmicks is what I had aimed for. Moreover, I believe in realistic cinema and narrating soulful stories. I could achieve it because I didn’t worry much about the commercial aspects.

It’s disheartening to see how ‘success’ is interpreted today. Say, we upload a picture on Facebook, the first thing we notice is how many ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ we get. It’s all about numbers (quantity), and not quality. Another depressing thing we witness is, ‘trends’ on Twitter. So many good things would have happened in the world...but all that won't trend. Just five cinema-related news will trend. This shows where as a consumer we focus primarily and how our mindset is.

How can you criticise these things being a director yourself?

The majority don’t discuss all that, whereas I do. It's okay if something trends but it's wrong to make something trend. I am feeling guilty because I also belong to this film fraternity. Films are a powerful visual medium, and it’s high time directors realised their responsibility. Let’s admit that many actors are overrated and fans indulge in blind hero-worship because of the filmmakers, who indirectly hype every little thing that an actor does.

Did you want to make any political statement with Merku Thodarchi Malai?

Not really. A director's job is to make a film, not make political statements. I remember screening the film to a few distributors initially, who told me, “Who’ll watch this film? The first half is boring.” I didn’t know how to react, but I knew I made a good film. (smiles)

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