'I didn't want to make cheap comedy'
From Mani Ratnam's assistant to independent filmmaker,Susi Ganesan has come a long way
You would not think that an automobile engineer had anything to do with films. More so if he has graduated from the Madras Institute of Technology, the institute that produced India's missile man, Dr A P J Abdul Kalam.
But S Ganesan, who graduated from the prestigious MIT, did turn to films.
"I wrote short stories and worked as a student reporter for the Tamil magazine Vikatan. Though it was not a passion, I wanted to be a filmmaker. In Tamil Nadu, writing and filmmaking are interconnected."
While he was doing his graduation in Physics in Madurai, S Ganesan became Susi Ganesan; 'Su' for Subbayyah (his father’s name) and 'Si' for Sittappa (his mother's name).
His elder brother, a Tamil professor, encouraged him to dream about making films, but only after equipping himself with a degree. When he got an admission at MIT after his BSc, he grabbed it without thinking twice. "I wanted to be an engineer. I wanted to be a professional. I also wanted to be a filmmaker. Had I been an engineer, I would have been one among thousands of engineers. Now, I am known!"
After he graduated ten years ago, he rejected all the offers that he got from various companies and stood waiting outside the office of noted filmmaker Mani Ratnam to work as assistant director.
After several days of waiting, he sought the help of his sister's friend, the award-winning art director Thotta Tharani. At the time, Thotta Tharani was creating the sets of Mani Ratnam's Thiruda Thiruda.
His recommendation worked. Susi Ganesan got an appointment with Mani Ratnam but "it was a failure," as he couldn't convince the director that he wanted to be a filmmaker and not an automobile engineer. "Why do you want to waste your time when you are an engineer? If you really want to make films, write a script and meet some producers. An assistant director's job is the most idiotic job in the world. Why do you want to be an assistant? I never assisted anyone," was the director’s comment.
The problem was Susi Ganesan did not know how films were made. He only wanted to make films.
It took him one-and-a-half years after graduation to start working as assistant. "It was the most difficult period of my life. I was ashamed to tell anyone in those days that I passed out of MIT. I knew people would call me a fool. All those I met dissuaded me from pursuing a career in films."
With the help of Thotta Tharani, he met Mani Ratnam again. This time, he convinced the director how serious he was about films. He was asked to submit a script. What he submitted to Mani Ratnam in 1994 has now come out as Susi Ganesan's much acclaimed Five Star.
After assisting Mani Ratnam during Bombay, Iruvar and Dil Se, Ganesan got an offer to make a film independently.
"Working as assistant to Mani Sir was like studying in a film institute." Full of excitement and enthusiasm, he made Virumbikiren with Prasanth and newcomer Sneha. The milieu of the film was rural. Having spent the first 20 years of his life in a village, he was familiar with the rural setting.
The first print was shown to Mani Ratnam, and the first reaction of his guru was, "Well done! I never expected you to make a film like this."
Within a week, to his surprise, he was given an offer to direct a film for Mani Ratnam's production house, Madras Talkies. "The initial shock was there but soon I considered it a great honour. It was like joining the school where you studied as a teacher. I got the offer after the first copy was ready."
Unfortunately, Susi Ganesan's first film never got released. "It's my first baby. I feel very sad that it is still lying in the cans because of financial problems between the producer and director."
He then decided to make the second film completely urban and chose the milieu that is very familiar to him --- the lives of five engineering college students and their friendship. "Basically, it is a dream to have such close friends even in your adult life. But immediately after deciding on the subject, I made a note of the things that I didn't want to do. I didn't want to shoot inside the class room. I didn't want students teasing teachers. Students do not behave that way in any college. I didn't want boys to sit on a wall as a group and tease girls like you see in all the other college films.
"I didn't want cheap comedy. I just wanted to make a film about real friends. So, I didn’t show how they became friends which might have happened when they joined college. My film starts with them as final year students. I didn't want any makeup on the students. I didn't want gaudy costumes. I want them to dress like real college students in jeans and shirts. I wanted to maintain a blue tone all the time as blue is the colour of youth. That's why, now, people say the film is fresh."
The shooting of Five Star was completed in 45 days, as all the artists were newcomers without any date problems. Having new faces had its disadvantages too --- there was nothing to pull the crowd to the theatres initially. But word of mouth publicity worked wonders for the film.
The biggest compliment Susi Ganesan got was from Ratnam: "He told me, 'I think the film is one step ahead of what was written in the script.' It is a great appreciation from a person like Mani Sir. I felt very happy and proud of myself."
Photographs Courtesy: Sreeram Selvaraj