An actor, director and screenwriter, Ananth Narayan Mahadevan is a multi-faceted person, who has directed many thought-provoking Hindi and Marathi films, as well as television serials. He has also been a journalist with a trade magazine.
A man of few words, he is always on a creative drive, searching for subjects which touch human emotions. Recently, his Marathi film, Mai Ghat: Crime no. 103/2005, bagged the best movie award at the Singapore South Asian International Film Festival. The film is based on a true story, revolving around a mother’s fight for her son who was wrongly arrested as a thief and tortured to death. It raises a vital moral dilemma in the end. “Can one really win justice after everything is lost? ”
In conversation with A. Radhakrishnan.
A man in love with the camera…both, in front of it and behind… a camera buff.
What made you pursue film making? What according to you are the attributes of a good film?
The moving visual in a dark precinct always fascinated me. Characters coming alive, thanks to the magic of technology. It led me to fantasise and eventually manifest my dreams as an actor and film maker. Now the art of cinema is the reason to live… to emulate the great masters and outdo myself with film after film.
But a good film should speak the language of cinema, it should not be a mindless movie. Films are made not by turning on a camera, but turning on the mind that in turn, turns the audience on.
What were the roadblocks you faced when you were starting out?
By no stretch of logic could I imagine myself on the humble platform that I am on today. No one to tell me where to go or whom to see. But I knew what to do…how to act, react, write and direct. That held me in good stead as I crossed the fences like a good soldier, not knowing how long the war would last, but knowing how to wield the weapon.
I am still fighting my way through even as the ‘enemies’ get bigger and stronger. I am that man who lives in a secluded war… the man who has lost his mind; the man for whom the war is never over.
How do you come up with the idea for a film, considering you are known for new subjects? What is the toughest thing about it?
A film is only as good as the subject you choose. Everything else comes later. So over the past 10 years I have been very careful to select concepts that challenge me and push my limits as a film maker. Not all subjects that I choose find favour with a producer or funder.
I still have several subjects which can make memorable cinema, but are beyond the comprehension of commercial big wigs. International cinema has taken great strides, but we aren’t interested. We live in the stone age of cinema compared to the space age on the global arena.
How come you have a penchant for Marathi films, despite being a South Indian?
I have had my share of glamour, gloss and glory with films like Dil Vil Pyar Vyar, Dil Maange More, Aksar and the like. But real cinema is another world. The world that I tutored myself was watching the great masters from Europe, Japan, and Russia and to a certain extent America. Mee Sindhutai Sapkal, my first big critical success on the national and global fronts made me realise that concepts far outweigh language and budgets.
I choose to make films in Marathi only if the subject demands. My latest film Mai Ghat: Crime No. 103/2005, a true story that happened in Kerala, also suited the Sangli Marathi milieu. Besides, logistics work better in Marathi right now.
Even as a South Indian, I took the Marathi language seriously in school. But I would like to try my hand at Malayalam, Tamil and Bengali subjects too, wherever suitable.
Tell me about your upcoming projects.
A shocking revelation of a disturbing ritual in a cash rich industry in Maharashtra is the subject of my next film, following which I begin my work on Satyajit Ray’s original story, a satire that I have the rights for.
Do you prefer commercial cinema or so-called art films? How would you face failures?
All films are meant to be commercial. Which film maker would not want large audiences? We have irresponsibly labelled films as commercial and art. They should be good films, bad films or no-films. A majority fall in the last category but rake in money leading to more mindless exercises, leaving the audience with no choice.
A mental revolution has to happen with film making and film goers in India. My failures are only if I fail to make a film that does not match my high standards. I will wait for the audience to discover them by and by. Gour Hari Dastaan is an example. Audiences who did not see it on release are applauding it now. Success is a slow process.
How do you combine the roles of a screen writer, actor and director ?
They are all allied parts of film making. If acting is the body, direction is the brain. And I aim to be a complete film maker. I now write and edit my own films.
I also decide the frames along with the cinematographer because at the end of the day it is my vision that ends up on screen. So I better know the job…every department of it.
Do awards mean anything to you?
Yes, the national awards, four of them for Mee Sindhutai Sapkal reinstated my faith in me, and inspired me to better myself as a film maker. Any award that is genuine and not rigged (utopia, of course) means an acknowledgement of my work that is important as much as audience patronisation.
What do you feel is missing in entertainment today?
Entertainment is a misconstrued term today, as all our present films resemble a circus and are passed off in the name of cinema. An entertaining film need not necessarily be escapist.
Would you not term Hitchcock’s films as entertaining? They were suspense dramas that gripped you. Most of our stars define entertainment as comedies, action dramas and farces. We have to extricate ourselves from this mindset.
Have things changed since you got into the line?
I have traversed three decades…have seen film makers come and go, styles change. Technology has advanced. Today attention spans and tolerance levels are diminishing fast, and to hold a great moment on screen demands audience patience. They expect the film to run away with the plot.
Even critics are ill-informed. One of them called Gour Hari Dastaan slow, not realising that it was the film about a man for whom time had stood still for 35 years to prove his identity as a freedom fighter. This kind of reaction is stupefying.
How important is social media in your work?
Social media is a useful tool considering that the newspapers are all paid advertorials that people no longer believe in. But the same rigging is seeping into the internet and that is a pity.
How important is background score?
It is important as long as you don’t misuse it. Or overdo it telling people where to cry or laugh. I believe in minimalist scores.
How important is the script?
Like I said it is the foundation for the structure you are building. You can assemble the best of names but no actor will rise above a mediocre script. It is unfortunate that most corporate houses fall for star power and totally overlook the script logic.
Any philosophy in life that influences your creative work?
Always. Life guides art and art is but a mirror to the truths and untruths of life. A film maker needs to be socially responsible. I cannot make biopics that are exploitative of the subject and the audience, who come to see a true story. Formulaic treatment and dumbing down of political and scientific scenarios is sacrilegious.
Your icons in the film industry ?
Bergman, Truffaut, Fellini, Wajda, and all the European masters. Kurasawa, Eisenstein, Bondarchuk, Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwick Ghatak. Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Shaji Karun, Shyam Benegal, Bimal Roy, Govind Nihalani… They made cinema that was world class in an age where their thinking was ahead of time.
How do you get the finance?
Very tough for film makers like me. But I have miraculously survived. Don’t know how long one can subsist in a very difficult, money-driven industry. I admire Rima Das who set out with a 5D Canon and picked raw talent from Assam and made Village Rockstars. I guess the time has come for me to set out on my own and make the kind of films I want to make.
How do you cast your actors?
A very careful exercise. I cast the right faces, doesn’t matter if they have experience or not. What is important is intelligence and awareness. In Rough Book all the students were raw….but brilliant!
It is said there are only six or maximum twelve stories. What do you do to keep it fresh? Can you subvert it and keep it original?
That’s why the extra effort to go the extra mile in concepts. There may be six stories reversed inside out to make 12; but the idea is to reinvent each genre and explore depths. Today our films, even the so called true stories are superficial. None of them have layers. We need to do ‘advanced cinema’ to get to world class levels.
Which do you like more, acting or direction?
Acting is now a picnic and direction is like a General leading his forces. Both are adrenaline pumping. A great script drives me to direct. A gear role awakens the actor in me.
What is your advice to people wanting to join the industry?
Enter, if you have the ability and the perseverance; if you have the passion and the honesty of an artiste…or else keep out.
What does success mean to you and how successful have you been?
Survival itself is success in this cut throat industry.