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April 24, 2001

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'I'm jealous of Mani Ratnam!'

Azhagam Perumal It is quite an achievement when you direct a film for the production house of Mani Ratnam, especially when you are the first outsider to do so for the banner. Azhagam Perumal has this distinction.

His first directorial venture Dum dum dum a romantic comedy starring Madhavan and Jyothika is getting ready to hit the theatres for the Tamil New Yearís Day.

When Shobha Warrier met the friendly and unassuming young director at the Media Artist studios where the final mixing of the film was going on, he was a bit tense about the audience's reaction.

Did you always want to be in films?

No, not at all! It was quite accidental!

I come from a remote village called Kulasekharapuram in Tamil Nadu. So, you can say I am basically a villager and no one in my family has any connection whatsoever with films. All are in the government service and they wanted me to follow their footsteps.

My parents wanted me to be an engineer. But I decided to apply to the Adyar Film Institute after my graduation against stiff opposition from my family.

When did you become passionate about films?

I developed a passion for films only after I joined the Film Institute and after watching the world classics. In fact, I had no plans to enter into the world of films at all.

How did you convince your parents about your decision to join the film institute?

Ha! I promised them that I would join government service after completing the course. Only then did they allow me to go ahead. So, I joined a course in film direction.

After I joined the Institute, a whole new world of films opened to me. Till then, I had the taste of only the commercial Tamil films. But when I saw films made by Kurosowa, Polansky, etc, I was transported to a world that I had not experienced till then. Those films were incomparable.

I had never thought that there were films other than the commercial films that I saw in my village, and there were filmmakers who could make such great films.

What did you like about the films of Kurosowa or Polansky?

The way they narrate the story, the way they tell a story; the grammar that they create, small nuances, style, etc. There are such many, many finer aspects in their films, which we lack in the commercial films that we make here.

Did you feel charged with passion to make the same kind of films when you passed out from the film institute? Azhagam Perumal

See, it was a learning process. Ultimately, I have to think of Kodambakkam! That is from where my bread is going to come. Even when I joined Mani Sir, I started from the stage of clapping because I never considered that I had finished learning about films just because I passed out with a Gold Medal from the Institute in the year 1991.

Why did you decide to join Mani Ratnam?

The fact is that I almost got an appointment letter from the Dept of Education and Communication at ISRO immediately after my graduation from the Film Institute. It was when I was waiting for the interview call, that I thought of doing something in the commercial film industry before moving to ISRO, if I got the job.

Like you had promised your parents...

Exactly! I thought, then I could satisfy their ambition and my interest too. I waited for a long time, but the letter didn't reach me.

It was then that I got a chance to work for Mani Sir for Dalapathi. Joining Mani Sir was a very important event in my life. A gentleman called Mr Pandurangan who was with Mr Ilayaraja knew me and it was he who recommended my name to Mani Sir and took me to his office.

It was only after I started working with him that I got a letter from the ISRO calling me for an interview. And indeed, I was in a dilemma.

I began asking everyone I met including Mani Sir for advice. Everybody felt that I should not join ISRO as getting into Mani Sirís school of filmmaking was ten times better! So, I tore the interview letter!

How was your experience working for Mani Ratnam?

I joined as an apprentice. Frankly, I started liking the commercial aspect of filmmaking only after I joined him. I enjoyed working with him. Those were some of the most memorable days of my life.

I feel that however much you learn, what you need is creativity and it should be there within you. The kind of films that you want to create, the kinds of characters you want to create are within you.

So, working with Mani Sir and watching all those international movies may help you shape well but ultimately what matters is the creative element that you have. If you donít have creativity, no amount of learning can help you become a good filmmaker. I tried to imbibe all the qualities that Mani Sir has.

What are the qualities that you admire in him? Azhagam Perumal

Lots of things. He is so passionate about movies that I am jealous of him! I donít think I can achieve that level of passion and devotion. Besides, I also respect his devotion to his profession.

How did you get this chance to direct a movie produced by him?

I think he had taken the decision quite sometime back. I have been assisting him from Dalapathi till Iruvar. Then, I started my first film, Udaya starring Vijay and Simran. So, that is my first directorial venture but I am yet to finish the film.

Did you feel honoured when Mani Ratnam chose you first among all his other assistant directors to direct a movie produced by him?

Of course I did! It is a great honour for me to direct a film for his banner. Both of us sat together and wrote the screenplay; I took care of the village part and he created the city scenes. You know why!

I have read that the story has undertones of Roja in it.

I donít think so. May be the village and city background might have given that impression. Otherwise, this is a pure romantic comedy. We titled the film Dum dum dum to give the image that it was a pure light, comedy

How do you feel now that your film is nearing completion?

The tension mounts when the due date nears. Yes, I am quite tense now. I am waiting for the reaction of the people.

Does the reaction of the people, the commercial success of the film really matter?

It matters a lot! At the same time, I also will say that if a romantic comedy of yours succeeds, you should not be compelled to make another film like this.

What is more important, creative satisfaction or public acceptance?

Both are very important.

If people donít come to watch a good of movie of yours, what will you do? Success will make you think more and create better things. You can carve out a name for yourself, and make the kind of films that you want to make.

If your style doesn't work, you tend to take the conventional and safer path. That way, your creativity gets strangled. So acceptance by people is very important. More than success, acceptance is more important.

Films made by Kurosowa, Satyajit Ray or Adoor Gopalkrishnan are critically acclaimed but they are not accepted by the public. They made films, which they believed in, without making any compromises. Do you have to make compromises to be accepted?

Yes, we do have to make a lot of compromises, when you are making films for the first time. But once you establish yourself, you can make the kind of films that you want to.

Priyadarshan's ultimate ambition is to make a film that satisfies the creative person in him. But he makes commercially successful slapstick comedies.

Now that Priyanji is commercially successful and has carved a name for himself, he can afford to experiment. There will be producers to finance even his experimental films. That is why I said, we have to first make a name.

Azhagam Perumal What kind of films do you like to make?

Actually, my kind of films is more of parallel cinema. Let me establish myself as a commercial filmmaker and then experiment.

Why is it that Tamil cinema does not have a strong parallel film movement?

It was there when people like Mahendran Sir made films. But soon filmmakers like Bharatiraja came, and the attention of the people went that side. So, Mahendran Sirís films did not work out the way he wanted to. But our parallel film movement was never as strong as it was there in Kerala.

But a film like Bharati is successful now. Does that mean the trend is changing?

Bharati is different because it is based on Subramanya Bharatiís life. Had the film been made on the life of some other poet, it would not have succeeded. It is more of a documentary and not exactly a parallel film.

You said earlier that you were quite tense now as the release date of the film is nearing. What is the feeling like?

It's like waiting for an examination result! I know that if you have packed the film beautifully, you need not worry. Only when you think that you have not done justification to your product, you feel more tense. I have made the film to my satisfaction. I just hope that it will satisfy the audience too!

Photograph by Sreeram Selvaraj

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