War doesn't happen in a day: 'Irandam Ulaga Porin Kadaisi Gundu' director Athiyan interview

For director Athiyan Athirai, the scrapyard is a metaphor for ostracism and exploitation. He would know, considering he has worked in one previously.
War doesn't happen in a day: 'Irandam Ulaga Porin Kadaisi Gundu' director Athiyan interview
War doesn't happen in a day: 'Irandam Ulaga Porin Kadaisi Gundu' director Athiyan interview
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The trailer of Pa Ranjith’s second feature production, Irandam Ulaga Porin Kadaisi Gundu, released on Wednesday, showing Dinesh playing an enraged young man fighting for the rights of workers at a scrapyard.

For 36-year-old director Athiyan Athirai – his last name is his wife’s first name – the scrapyard is not just an unjust workplace; it is a metaphor for ostracism and exploitation. He would know, considering he has worked in one previously, before making it to the Tamil film industry.

Athiyan comes from Siruvalai village in Villupuram, where his parents are employed as agricultural labourers. After his schooling, he went on to study BSc Botany at the Periyar Arts College in Cuddalore, and later shifted to MA Tamil at Annamalai University. It was after this that Athiyan came to Chennai, chasing his cinema dream.

“But that didn’t work out for me and I went on to do CD composition work in the animation field,” he says.

However, this was around the time that the Satyam scandal broke, impacting the industry and leading to job losses. Athiyan, too, found himself out of work and ended up becoming a manager at a kailankadai – a scrapyard.

The scrapyard as a metaphor

The scrapyard, which provided a living for Athiyan at that time, has found an important place in his first film.

“All kinds of waste comes to the scrapyard. An aeroplane might cost crores, but if it is dismantled or has an accident, it ends up in a scrapyard. Bus parts, railway tracks, wheels of the train, a military cannon – every single thing that you may have looked at in wonder, will end up in a scrapyard one day,” he says.

Also a poet, Athiyan draws a comparison between this and how the employees at the yard are treated by society at large.

“The people who work there are those who are ostracised by everyone and whose labour is squeezed out of them. They work for 14 to 15 hours a day. They have no organisation for them, no union. They lose their limbs and organs doing this work. There are about 5 lakh workers – either visible or invisible – who work in such places. Knowing their lives, I felt like connecting it with the idea that I had for the film,” he says.

A complex message in a simple story

Athiyan clarifies that the film is entirely set in contemporary times, despite the reference to World War 2 in the title.

“War isn’t something which happens in one day, when someone throws a bomb. War will impact a country for centuries to come. The mindset which is created during times of war will change the psyche of that society. It will create people who have no love or compassion, and who are money-minded. My film looks at how the psyche which was created in those times still affects people today,” he says.

Only peranbu, or an all encompassing love, can save the world, Athiyan believes. But all of this complex messaging isn’t in your face in the film, he hastens to add.

“It’s a simple story about an ordinary lorry driver,” he says. It is a life that Athiyan knows from close quarters – his brother works as one.

Bringing communism to the screen

From Athiyan’s views on labour exploitation and capitalism, it becomes apparent that he is aligned with Left politics (he has two sons – Dileepan Che Guevara and Tamil Murugan). In the trailer of Irandam... too, we see protests with the communist red flags and Ambedkarite blue flags. But the Left movement in India has been criticised for speaking only of class struggle and ignoring caste. How does Athiyan see this?

“Today, the communists are fighting against caste too. Caste isn’t any one person’s problem. It is a social disease. There’s nothing wrong in thinking it should be eliminated from everyone and for this, the communists, Ambedkarites and Periyarists are all fighting. My film acknowledges this truth,” he says.

The trailer narrates the story in therukoothu style, similar to folk performances in Villupuram. But there’s a difference in how Athiyan has used the medium.

“The koothu comes at a very important part of the film. Moreover, though therukoothu is a drama for all people, it is given a religious slant by bringing in stories from the Mahabharata or elsewhere. But I have used the same medium to speak about people’s problems. I have not changed the medium itself – it is one that easily reaches ordinary people and has existed for centuries. Without setting it aside, I have entered that space and replaced the usual content with my own. I feel it has worked well, you should be telling me if I've succeeded!” he says, smiling.

On the cast and crew

When it came to casting, the choice was easy. Dinesh, who worked in Pa Ranjith’s first film Attakathi, is the male lead, while Anandhi, who was the heroine of Pariyerum Perumal (produced by Ranjith) is the female lead. Others like Riythvika, who have been part of the same team’s films, are also in the cast.

“I like Dinesh as an actor very much. All assistant directors will always have Dinesh as an option because he gets the job done. He gets very involved with the character he’s playing. He liked the story very much when I told him, and was in fact ready to produce the film. He tried for 4-5 months but it didn’t happen. That’s when Neelam Productions stepped in,” says Athiyan.

Describing Anandhi as the kind of young woman you’re likely to see in your village, Athiyan adds that he was impressed with her performances in earlier films.

“I was not sure how it would be to work with her, but I found her to be very down-to-earth and easy-going,” he says.

However, the film also has John Vijay in the cast. The actor’s name came up during the #MeToo movement when VJ and singer Sriranjini accused him of sexual harassment. How does Athiyan view casting him in a film that’s essentially about social justice?

“I don’t wish to comment on what happened. But I had already finalised him for this film before the allegation came up,” he says, declining to speak further on the issue.

The film has Tenma of The Casteless Collective as its composer and Athiyan is sure that the former’s contribution will be celebrated in the days to come.

“I already knew what his style is and was confident that it will go well with this film. Pa Ranjith gave me 2-3 choices for a composer and I picked Tenma. I spoke to Tenma about the subject of the film – it is one where the hero travels across landscapes. And I think after a long while, this will be an album where each song becomes a hit,” he says.

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