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Cinema’s new mentors in the South

They are open to working with strangers and first timers, to help these filmmakers navigate both on-set challenges and film festivals. The only requirement: fresh ideas and talent

Last month, PS Vinoth Raj’s “seemingly simple” Tamil film, Koozhangal (Pebbles), won the much-coveted Tiger Award at the 202 International Film Festival Rotterdam. The jury called it “creating a maximum impact with a minimum in means”, a feat the debut director says wouldn’t have been possible without the support he received from senior filmmakers.

By now, mostly everyone knows how the 3-year-old met Ram (of Thanga Meenkal and Peranbu fame) at last year’s Film Bazaar in Goa, and how the National Award-winning director backed Vinoth’s film, and introduced him to actress Nayanthara and filmmaker Vignesh Shivan (who went on to present Koozhangal). “I made a good film and it might have done well by itself,” says Vinoth, “but if Ram anne [brother] had not stepped in to chart a path for me, I would have been exhausted. It was such a relief to know there was someone who had my back”.

Until just a few years ago, one of the few ways aspiring filmmakers could hope to get help with their projects was by assisting a renowned director before branching out. Mani Ratnam, for example, has mentored several of his associates, including Azhagam Perumal (Dum Dum Dum), Shaad Ali (Saathiya) and, more recently, Dhana Sekaran (Vaanam Kottatum) But, of late, this mindset is changing, especially with the emergence of a different kind of filmmaker — one not trained in an institute, and with hardly any on-set experience. These creators envision dramas that are deeply rooted in the hinterland, that defy genres. And commercially-established directors and producers are now open to mentoring these ‘strangers’ just on the merit of the stories they bring to the table. “There are so many talented people who are not getting visibility. I’m certain that if we organise this talent better, it will help the industry. As it grows, we will grow too,” says Kannada actor-writer-filmmaker Rakshit Shetty, who has been backing young talent — such as Senna Hegde (Katheyondu Shuruvagide), and Kiranraj K (the upcoming 777 Charlie).

Putting stories over connections

Unlike most regional cinema, Tamil has mostly been commercially driven. But now a parallel voice is emerging in the state, feels Puducherry-based Samir Sarkar, co-producer of Arun Karthick’s Nasir, which won at Rotterdam in 2020. “Young directors like Arun and Vinoth Raj are pioneers of this new wave of cinema, exploring themes that are gritty and thought provoking. And directors such as Ram, Vetri Maaran and Pa Ranjith are supporting these strong voices. This will not only get these new talents the necessary media exposure, but also help them with theatrical releases and sales.”

Thamizh, whose Seththumaan premièred at the recently-concluded International Film Festival of Kerala, comes from a non-film institute background. When he decided to make a movie based on writer Perumal Murugan’s short story, Varugari (fried meat), it was tough. “I’d managed to gather just ₹8 lakh [of the ₹5 lakh required to shoot] when I decided to meet [filmmaker] Ranjith.”

Thamizh adds, “I knew none but him in the present crop of producers would touch a film like this, which speaks about food politics [and caste],” he says. Ranjith, known for films with strong sociopolitical narratives, backed Seththumaan, and helped Thamizh with suggestions. Today, it is doing the festival rounds. “I was walking with my film. Now with Ranjith on board, I feel a bigger responsibility. So even if I’m tired, I want to run with the film, to justify confidence he had in me,” says Thamizh.

Over the past few years, Ranjith’s Neelam Productions has been backing stories told by voices not often heard before. The 38-year-old, who calls Babasaheb Ambedkar his mentor, says what he offers younger filmmakers is “his duty” and not a service. “When I began nine years ago, I had to moderate what I wanted to say because producers were hesitant. I could not make the films I wanted to,” he tells me. “Now that I have made a space for myself in Indian cinema, in Tamil cinema, I thought I should help others like me do what they want to do, with confidence.”

Banking on teamwork

For many mentors, fostering young new talent is a kind of course correction. “When I began my career, we did not have the liberty to listen in on discussions. We were supposed to just do what we were told,” says Kannada actor-director Rishab Shetty, who is mentoring young voices. “Cinema is teamwork, and we travel together while making a film. There should be no egos.”

Ranjith looks at it as encouraging change — when new stories and new ways of looking at them are given a push, change will take place. “There’s no model. The success of Pariyerum Perumal [Mari Selvaraj’s 208 debut which dealt with caste discrimination] gave me the confidence that these subjects will also work commercially. While Pariyerum had some commercial elements, Seththumaan is pure cinema,” says Ranjith, who also backed last month’s psychological thriller Kuthiraivaal, starring Kalaiyarasan, and co-directed by newcomers Manoj Leonel Jahson and Shyam Sunder.

But in the end, it is about lending a hand. Award-winning Kannada writer-director Hemanth M Rao — who made 209’s neo-noir thriller, Kavaludaari — believes filmmaking is a solitary journey. And that mentoring is a “combination of paying it forward and wanting to be that person who didn’t exist in my journey.”

“When I come across young filmmakers facing problems similar to what I experienced, I give them my perspective in the hope that it helps them overcome any barriers. These could be self-built barriers — of what works or doesn’t work — that add layers of crippling pressure to those starting out. Half the battle is undoing that, and I help in that process,” concludes Hemanth, who has produced indie filmmaker Manu Anuram’s short film.

With inputs from Sangeetha Devi Dundoo and Surya Praphulla Kumar

Navigating festivals

Getting help navigating the film festival is key for a newcomer. Ram’s team had shared their strategy with Vinoth, and it paid off with the Rotterdam premiere and eventual win. “Not many know the intricacies of the circuit. For instance, if you want to show your film at an A+ festival like Cannes or Venice, you have to hold its world premiere there,” explains Sarkar. Having taken several of his films to festivals like Rotterdam and Busan, he is approached by mentors and debut directors “because they feel I could help take their film on a journey internationally” Sarkar breaks down the festivals:

A+: Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Toronto

“Considered the top four in the world, this is where films get maximum visibility and sales [if selected] Some of these festivals have markets attached [such as Cannes and Berlin] and some don’t [like Venice].”

A: Rotterdam, Busan, Sundance and Locarno

“While Koozhangal can’t go to an A+ festival [since it’s had its premiere at an A festival] it can show at one of these parallel events, though not in the main competition.”

B and C: “Most other festivals fall into this category, such as Shanghai, Sydney, Moscow. Generally, the festival lifespan of a film is between one and one-and-a-half years. So it is best to take it to as many festivals as you can.”

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