Interview Tamil

It’s either complete control or complete distance: Priya Krishnaswamy on lack of women's representation at IFFI 2018

Priya speaks about the story, casting, editing and other aspects of her film Baaram, and also shares details about her next project.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Blessy Chettiar

Director Priya Krishnaswamy’s Tamil film Baaram brings to light the practice of Thalaikoothal, a euphemism for mercy killing of the elderly in some parts of Tamil Nadu. The idea of abandoning or, worse, killing an infirm elderly is not as surprising, she says.

The editor-turned-director said the practice is prevalent not just in South India. “It has happened across cultures," she said. "It happens in the North too, where people just drown their elderly in the Ganga. It happens in Japanese, Eskimo (sic), and many other cultures.”

Baaram was one of the 12 films nominated for the ICFT UNESCO Gandhi Medal. It features Dr R Raju and Sugumar Shanmugam in the lead roles.

Baaram review: Mercy killing or cold-blooded murder?

Talking about the shooting of her first documentary [as editor] for the Films Division, Priya said there was a small child in the lost-and-found section at the Ajmer Sharif dargah in Rajasthan who had been abandoned as her parents didn’t want her.

“It happens at the Kumbh Mela," she pointed out. "It is the place to say I have lost my belongings. One of the greatest Japanese films I have seen, called the Ballad Of Narayama (1983), is about a loving family. The village custom is that you must abandon your parents at age 70 on a mountain top with a week’s rations. He loves his mother and he has no intention of doing this, but they make him do it.”

In an exclusive interview with on the sidelines of the 49th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) 2018, held in Goa last month, Priya spoke about the story, casting, editing and other aspects of making Baaram, and also shared details about her next project. Excerpts:

How did you come across the story of Baaram, which is based on true events?

In rural Tamil Nadu there is this thing called Thalaikoothal, which means a head bath. I grew up with my grandmother and we used to have a head bath every Diwali. What was happening in Tamil Nadu is that elderly infirm parents were being dispatched with a cold water head bath and copious amounts of coconut water. They were being killed by their own children. This is something that had social sanction.

I didn’t believe it as it was just online news until I saw Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate which showed this in one episode. So, I thought let’s make a documentary. I’m a Tamilian and I didn’t know of such a thing.

So I went to the area where the first case was reported. It was a nephew who went to Chennai and returned to see that his uncle had died eight days after a hip fracture. This is what Baaram is based on.

Is the practice of Thalaikoothal still prevalent?

Very much, and probably growing. One thing that did happen with the case that we talk about in the film is that the administration became very proactive. Doctors were called in, deaths had to be certified, especially old-age deaths, they created pension schemes, rations for those elederly who were not living with their children. Still, having said that, being a government pipeline there are roadblocks, but there is an intent to protect the elderly.

Your artistes were so natural that it seemed they weren’t acting. Where did you find them?

What we didn’t realize going in is that I thought I had taken a very simple story. But there were 80 characters! No way can you cast 80 actors. One thing I was clear about was that I wanted the device of watching a film to be removed. So no lights, only hand-held cameras. I wanted to remove the experience that you are watching a film. I wanted you to feel you are right in there, a fly on the wall.

I had a detailed script. The dialogue writer Rakav is from Chennai whom I’ve never met. We were doing my English dialogue into Tamil for about 2-3 months over Skype. We were very specific.

When I came to the actors, I told them they had to stick to the content but were allowed to improvise. That brought in a fluidity in the way how they interpreted it. We were very clear that a scene has to begin with this and end with that because it will link into the next scene. I’m an editor by training, so I know you can’t just devise it out of thin air.

How did you cast Karuppaswamy the night watchman [played by Dr R Raju]?

It was amazing, but a difficult role to cast. A 65-year-old with a certain amount of art that I can’t see. So I knew Pondicherry university had a great drama department because I had seen them.

Baaram is the story of a community, and I couldn’t create the sense of community with strangers. So I knew I had to pick up my characters en masse. So my daughter Ardra Swaroop, who is the producer, reminded me of a play we saw in Cuddalore.

I went to Auroville and a friend suggested I meet this guy who could help. He was HoD [head of department] at Pondicherry university at that time. I sat opposite him and asked, ‘Sir, do you still act?’ He was, ‘Yes, I do.' No test, no nothing.

Later, I discovered that he had studied at the National School of Drama under Ebrahim Alkazi. The way this film fell into place is just miraculous, step after step. The woman who plays Meena is an accomplished singer. In the film she has no dialogues. But they are all damn good friends.

The handheld camerawork gives a sense that the narrative is not steady and a voyeuristic view of the old man’s plight. The old man being ferried on the truck gave a sense of carelessness...

Precisely. But it was designed. When I got my DoP [director of photography Jayanth Mathavan] on board, my reference was a scene in Narcos [the Netflix original show]. I’m a big fan of handheld.

One of the things I decided right upfront was, as an editor, I wanted as little editing as possible. I didn’t want the manipulation of the film craft. There were three things: how do you make it real, how do you make it non-filmi, and how do you show the pain of that character who is being lifted on and off a vehicle? He was just not being cushioned. What is the metaphor? That here is life in free fall and there is no net.

You were the among the handful of women with a feature film in the Indian Panorama. Weirdly, even the jury had just one woman in the non-feature section. Not a single one in the feature films jury. Do you think it skews the kind of cinema we as the audience end up watching?

Absolutely. I wonder why there is such low representation. But it’s kind of changing.

There is a fear. They don’t know how to interface with women. It’s either complete control or complete distance. They don’t trust women. Producers don’t trust women, audiences don’t trust women, women don’t trust women.

I think that’s the biggest problem we have right now.

It’s a huge issue and I don’t think it’s going to change radically in the foreseeable future. Look at Hollywood also, nothing is happening.

Do you plan to have a theatrical release for Baaram?

We would love to do a theatrical. The Tamil industry releases 220 films a year and you know the fight with four films releasing every week. There is no chance, you don’t have a window.

So the middleman is still the problem. I think online might be a better way to go. But that space is getting very crowded very fast.

So many are making a beeline for digital...

You know what the digital space means? It means you need to make a film for under Rs10 lakh, which is definitely not Baaram. You can’t monetize it otherwise.

Have you started working on your next project?

I’m working on a martial arts epic set in 16th century Kerala. It’s on the legend of Unniyarcha and her love affair with her cousin. She was a 16th century Kalaripayattu warrior.

What’s interesting is it is based on ballads of north Kerala. In the ballads, she vanishes midway and it becomes more about the boys. I was interested in what happens to her because it’s called the Ballad of Unniyarcha. She gets married and vanishes.

So, I rewrote the story from the point of view of what happened to Unniyarcha. I did a documentary for Films Division on Kalari, [it became] research for Unniyarcha. It won me the National award.

So I have been working on the film for 18 years now. Everything is done. Script is done, we just need to attach talent and find money to go.

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