‘I create between the worlds of fiction and non-fiction’: Pa Ranjith

Tamil filmmaker Pa Ranjith on his latest film Sarpatta Parambarai, regional politics, and the struggles of daily shooting during a pandemic

Tamil filmmaker Pa Ranjith’s latest outing, Sarpatta Parambarai (released in July on Amazon Prime) has actor Arya as Kabilan, a boxer from Black Town in old Madras. The film is set in the ’70s, in north Chennai, a working-class region which had been, for decades, supplying labourers to the city. It tells the story of a socially-backward community, who loved the boxing game. Excerpts from a telephonic interview with Ranjith (38):

How much of the film is fictional?

I’m not a historian or researcher, neither am I an academic nor are my movies documentaries. I experiment and create between the worlds of fiction and non-fiction. I have certain responsibilities as an artist, and my focus lies there. I ensure that I’m not distorting the facts when I use my creative freedom.

The film captures the days of the late chief ministers M Karunanidhi and MG Ramachandran (MGR), and the Emergency. How do you see the contrast between the two leaders?

The movie is set between 1975 and 1978, when Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK, founded in 1949) was ruling the state. The AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, founded in 1972), led by MGR, was emerging as a regional party. The movie looks at the political stand taken by the parties but beyond that there was nothing for or against any particular party. If it is about the sale of illicit liquor, for instance, people irrespective of politics engaged in that. There were MGR supporters within the traditional DMK families, too. The character Rangan Vaathiyaar (played by Pasupathy) and his family are an example. I tried to show the work done by both the parties. Obviously, DMK was at the forefront of opposing the Emergency, and it was the most affected by it, too. Elders have told me that there used to be boxers who sported the DMK symbol on their jackets at arenas. The period also saw the rising popularity of the AIADMK. If I had set the movie in the 1980s, AIADMK would have been the dominant party.

How was it to shoot during the lockdown?

The movie was budgeted at nearly Rs 13-15 crore, the cost exceeded eventually. We finished the shoot in about 63 days, but maintaining the realistic feel was a real struggle. We needed crowds for scenes and that was a challenge in the lockdown. Some, who were infected with the coronavirus, had to leave the set, while some never returned. Then there were important actors who weren’t able to complete their portions due to the infection. We had to reshoot, edit those parts, and replace them with new characters. Each frame was important in the boxing sequences. It had three layers — mob in the backdrop, actors at the front row, and the arena. Daily shooting was a real challenge.

How do you script your films?

I always have a notepad with me. I keep writing my thoughts and I transfer them to the computer later. For Sarpatta Parambarai, I approached the writer Tamil Prabha, who is familiar with Chennai’s Dalit life. Before we could finalise the script, there were eight or nine drafts. Every draft saw the birth and death of many characters. For instance, one of my favourite characters was Rathi, whom we let go of. She was a daring woman, who ran a meat shop, and was the sister of Dancing Rose (Shabeer Kallarakkal).

Do you think Sarpatta is your best movie?

All my works are my favourites. Kaala was obviously my best effort, and I was happy the way it triggered debates in society. But, I love Attakathi (2012), Madras (2014) and Kabali (2016), too. Personally, I am not fully happy with my movies. Each movie helps me to do the next. The criticisms I received for my previous films have helped me in Sarpatta Parambarai. So, I cannot compare them.

Could you tell us about the casting in Sarpatta Parambarai?

Arya and I were talking about a project for a long time. Finally, when he came with a producer, the project became a reality. Arya had immense trust in me. While all the actors were of darker complexion, I worried about Arya’s look, and he went all the way to get a tan. Maybe, without Arya I wouldn’t have had this kind of freedom in selecting the characters.

How has it been working with cinematographer G Murali?

G Murali and Sathyan Sooryan are among the cinematographers I always wanted to work with. I connect with them visually. Murali played a huge role in making Madras better. He relates to my frames and understands politics and ideologies.

How do you curate your music?

I see music as an important tool that makes the movie experience deeper. I find Santhosh Narayanan a suitable colleague as we share aesthetics, emotions and politics. In Sarpatta Parambarai, the guitar was used initially, and I wanted it to be replaced with traditional instruments like the parai; bringing the sound of north Madras was the aim.

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