When Mouna guru released in theatres, not many people were interested in it. For one thing, previous releases were still attracting people; another star-movie had released simultaneously, as well. And yet – there was something about this movie, which boasted a taciturn hero, a pregnant policewoman who investigates a crime brilliantly, and a clutch of villains who bring you to the edge of your seat.
Critics and film buffs alike went gaga about it, and shared the news on social networking sites; Facebook, Twitter and blogs exploded with this ‘new movie’ and of a director who is ‘unafraid to take risks’. Disappointed with other starvehicles, the crowds thronged to watch this little-known film and slowly, when almost on the brink of being removed from theatres, Mouna guru got a new lease of life: the number of shows was increased, and the film is now a respectable hit.
“I was this average guy who studied B.Sc Zoology, you know,” director Shantakumar grins. Currently he’s on a sabbatical of sorts, having proven himself to both the classes and the masses, so to speak. “But visions of making movies had started in me as early as when I was in the 9th Standard,” he admits. “I was always enamoured by story-telling. And, that’s what cinema is, at its simplest level: telling stories in a way that gets people to take a journey with you.”
Shantakumar claims Mansapauram, near Srivilliputhur as his hometown, but as he was born in Sivagiri, near Thenkasi, southern Tamil Nadu is pretty much his home-ground. “I don’t have one place to stick to – I was uprooted and re-planted everywhere,” he says, matter-of-factly. “And I used to be the kid who ranked first in whichever school I went to. That’s until I became mad about movies, of course – and then studies went to the backburner.”
But here, he’s self-deprecating: he completed an Animation (3D) course post his graduation and decided that movies would be his mainstay. He went on to work in movies such as Dhil, Dhool and Gilli, with none other than the acclaimed mass director, Dharani. And then, he decided that it was time to direct his own. But then, something happened – a momentous event that made him pause.
“That was the time when all these pirated DVDs began to flood the market. And suddenly, there were all these world class movies at 40 or 50 bucks, and I was stunned,” he admits, rather naively. “I was devouring movie after movie, and fast! When I finished, I wondered, What on earth was I thinking, trying to make my own film, when all these masters have done so much more?”
Amazement about Kubrick and Scorsese, whom he reveres as his heroes, notwithstanding, Shantakumar persevered, although his screenplay didn’t win over producers. Perhaps it was because of the non-formula content? “Oh, Mouna guru is every bit a commercial movie just as the rest,” he guffaws. “It has fights and songs – it’s just that no one wears a folk costume and dances with them.”
It does, however, possess a sharp screenplay that made viewers sit up, with its subtly nuanced characters and fantastic negative characters. “Ah, I tore my hair out writing and re-writing my screenplay,” he grins, flicking his long hair about – which, he says, is an example of his state of mind. “In many ways, writing is what I really want to sink in. Directing means yelling ‘Silence!’ a lot. But writing – ah, now that’s something that’s your own world,” he enthuses. “It’s like jumping bodies, getting into the skin of every character you create and feeling what they feel. There’s nothing to equal it.”
And there’s no greater example of it than his strongly etched female characters, especially Inspector Palaniammal, played by Uma Riyaz Khan, who received much acclaim for her portrayal. “Now that was a character I really worked on. And by the way, Palaniammal is the name of my 1st Standard teacher,” he chuckles.
“You know, that character was originally supposed to be a fat, under-achieving male police officer. I mulled over it in my mind, and then had a brainwave: I’d make the cop a female! I researched about the policewomen I knew, asked friends about costume, and eventually put her in a khaki sari.”
What about whispers that the character is an inspired version of Frances McDormand’s pregnant cop role, from Fargo? “Well, I haven’t watched the film yet, but my camera-man did mention that there was a character like that,” Shantakumar says, cautiously. “But mine is very different.”
Not all of it was hunky-dory, though. The romance track, for instance, though appealing, was thought by many to be irrelevant. “Not to mention that there was zero-chemistry between the actors,” Shantakumar says matter-of-factly. “But that was a compromise I had to make.”
As for his next project, he’s on a high right now, and would like to keep things that way. “Still working on it. I’m looking at developing interesting characters – and when I have them, I’ll have my movie!”