A film director recalls his 40-year association with the late Arun Mozhi
Dealing with Arun Mozhi’s sudden demise seems to be silencing me; not letting me express my feelings about the moment when I heard the news in a crowded Bengaluru railway platform from my student Omar, in Chennai. Forty years of friendship that has seen periods of intense togetherness and long separations pack themselves into a state of mind unable to reconcile with his death.
Back in November 1979, I remember meeting him as one of film director Rudraiah’s comrades when he joined me as my assistant. At that time, let me be honest, I needed him much more than he needed me. His willingness to accept my FTII-carved ideas with his ‘native’ intelligence drove him to be my toughest critic, in the process of shaping a film titled Ezhavathu Manithan. Thanks to him, I had the guts to embark on a film about the venerable poet Subramania Bharati. Being a Bombay-ite, my Tamil was just good enough then to read bus boards and menu cards. Without Arun Mozhi, comprehending Bharati would have been impossible. After several debates on scripting Bharati’s complicated life to cinema, Arun gave me the courage to abandon the biopic approach and move on to adapting the spirit of Bharati’s poems to an entirely new terrain located in the cement factories of Thalaiyuthu, Tirunelveli. He was much more at home in the rural hamlet than I was and translating our scenes into action was very easy for him.
Sadly, when the film went on to win the National Award and was selected for the Moscow Film Competition, it was me, the suave urban ‘intellectual’, representing the film. Looking back, I can only say that Arun Mozhi was extremely gracious in letting me grab all the laurels, accolades and status that came along with it. He never once felt or expressed that he deserved more than what he got. In my later projects, where he was my associate director, his argumentative mind was solely restricted to the private scripting space. On location, he projected himself as the jester in King Lear’s court. Readily obeying my commands but constantly critiquing the organised systems which I was used to, he brought a new buoyant energy into the locations.
Why did he choose to efface himself thus? Why did he project himself as the pied piper followed by nomadic film buffs? Why did he not stabilise himself in one place? His only film Kaani Nilam remained unreleased and he did not complete any of the films, documentary or fictional, that he commenced with his little handycam. I teased him often to release all that footage in one package called ‘The Incomplete Works of Arun Mozhi’, and probably, it could start something new. And along with everybody else, he would join in a hearty laugh.
At 63, Arun Mozhi, when he collapsed in a cinema theatre, represented the true status of Tamil cinema, a large field where the soil is packed with human nutrients for an orchard producing so many feature films. Arun Mozhi was the faceless ‘thotakaran’, the gardener, nurturing that soil packed with impoverished dreamers but who were rich enough to enshrine the ornate pillars of Tamil cinema.
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