Critically-acclaimed, multi-award winning director Jayaraaj was at the Habitat Film Festival to present his epic historical drama Veeram, a film which has been celebrated for its story, as well as technical finesse.
In an exclusive interview, the director talked about his love for Shakespeare, his next film project and the responsibilities of using digital technology.
Veeram is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. What inspired you to re-create the story of Macbeth?
Before answering your question, allow me to give you the background. Kathaprasangam is a popular art form in Kerala, performed by a single performer with the help of a troupe of musicians. It tells a story narrated through performance. In the 1960s and 1970s, Sambasivan’s adaptation of Othello in Kathaprasangam was very common.
As a child, I would listen to these stories and even though they would be performed late at night, I would only be partially asleep, with my ears keenly tuned into the story, especially for the climax where Desdemona’s predicament moved me even at that young age. Many years later, in 1996, I made Kaliyattam, which was based on Othello. This was my first experience with adapting Shakespeare’s plays and I felt that we could use the art form of Theyyam to adapt Othello.
In Theyyam, you see a dual personality as the artist is a human but is treated as a God. There is a dichotomy in the performer, which also exists in Othello's mind. He loves Desdemona but wants to kill her. He loves his wife and has an innocent possessiveness, where he kills her because of his intense love for her.
I feel that Shakespeare’s plays are relevant even today as the emotions, feelings of characters, remain relevant after so many years. Othello’s possessiveness can still be found amongst people. This holds true for the tragedy of ambition that one sees in Macbeth as well. There is a certain truthfulness of emotion that emerges through Shakespeare’s characters.
I want to adapt The Tempest next as with digital technology we can create the storm that is created in the play. The central character is isolated on an island, but symbolically it is his mind that is isolated, which holds true to some degree for all of us.
I am fascinated by the expression of personal feelings in Shakespeare’s plays. So, first I adapted Othello, then Antony and Cleopatra (Kannaki), now Macbeth, and next The Tempest.
In Veeram, you’ve blended Shakespeare with the northern ballads of Vadakkan Pattukal. In doing so, you’ve taken forward the ways in which Shakespeare has been fused with traditional art forms in theatre. What was it about this ballad that made you fuse it with the play?
The central figure in Vadakkan Pattukal, Chandu is a legendary figure and has many parallels with Macbeth in terms of his tragedy of ambition. Kuttimani is Lady Macbeth's character and the play brings to light the conflict, cruelty and ultimate tragedy of Macbeth. Unniyarcha, a female figure from the ballad is the only addition to the characters from the play and Chandu struggles between the two female characters.
I was very inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. His versions of Shakespeare are the best and his films inspired me to become a filmmaker. I have seen several versions of the play including Polanski’s version as well.
In Veeram, you will find that while the film presents the complete play, it simultaneously remains completely true to the ballad and even incorporates the Malabar accent.
You mentioned that digital technology would be important for your next venture and Veeram has been hailed for its technical brilliance. In Hollywood, we are seeing films adapting technology in ways that enhance storytelling, especially in the superhero films, where technology enables filmmakers to capture the imagination and creativity as envisaged in the comics. What do you see as being the role of technology in the making of films today?
Technology certainly helps in telling stories. To create something like The Tempest, for example, technology will be needed but in Hollywood earlier, films like The Ten Commandments were made without the kind of technology that we have available today. But there are several possibilities available to us now. We can dream of anything and create it.
But unfortunately, there are films that concentrate on the VFX aspect alone. In Veeram we haven’t just emphasised on technology, we have used it to generate the feel and emotion of the film. So technology needs to be used wherever necessary and I strongly feel that it should not be misused.
What made you choose Kunal Kapoor for the central role, considering that he has mostly done sensitive roles in Hindi cinema?
I did not want a glamorous figure and was looking for a newcomer so I auditioned more than 1,500 people for the role, including Kalari practitioners! Finally, the casting director suggested Kunal Kapoor. He has universal features and a good physique. We needed the actors to undergo martial arts training for six months and he did so diligently. I liked his determination and feel that he has performed well. In fact, all the action shots have been done without any double.
In the past few years, we have seen more and more regional films coming in to the mainstream. Baahubali: The Beginning & The Conclusion of course, is continuing to shatter box office records in India, as well as internationally. Do you feel that the central position occupied by Hindi films in the country is fast eroding to give way to regional cinema?
The stronghold of Hindi films has already vanished. Take the example of Baahubali, which is a regional film that has conquered all records and made history. We are competent enough to compete with Hollywood and not just with Bollywood. Maybe Baahubali will even cross the record made by Avatar? Now there is no ruling of Bollywood, any film can overpower the box-office. Take the example of Sairat, or the Malayalam film Pulimurugan (2016), or even films like Kabali (2016) that were at the forefront of this trend.
We are not just conquering Bollywood but Hollywood as well which is a big phenomenon and has a lot of potential. Earlier, we could not dream of making Rs100 crore and now the collections are exceeding that number. It’s certainly a breakthrough for Indian cinema and it’s time for us as filmmakers to be responsible. Now that there is a gate open, we must make better films that are emotionally engaging.
Finally, the Cannes festival is ongoing and amidst much talk of fashion, it raised the question of the lack of Indian films screened at the festival. In your opinion, why are Indian films not making their presence felt at the festival?
I had also sent my film to Cannes, but I really do not know about their selection criteria. I had sent my film to the Berlinale as well where the film won an award, but Cannes remains a dream of mine. I will keep trying as I certainly want to show my film there.