When the 2019 Indian National Awards were announced, director Priya Krishnaswamy was completely unknown to her peers and fans.
Her film ‘Baaram’ (Burden) went on to win the award for ‘Best Feature’ film in Tamil, causing outrage amid several directors from the industry who called the Mumbai-based filmmaker an outsider.
From making documentaries to working as an editor, Krishnaswamy turned director with Hindi film ‘Gangoobai’ in 2013. ‘Baaram’, her second feature, had a small release in Chennai on February 21, but is finally receiving it’s due after its release this month on Amazon Prime Video.
The film deviates from stereotypes with its story on the ancient practice of patricide, prevalent in parts of Tamil Nadu. ‘Thalaikkoothal’, as it is called in Tamil, literally translates to pouring water over the head. But this bath, given in the early hours of dawn after an oil massage to an ailing elderly parent, paves the way to their final journey.
In an exclusive with Gulf News tabloid, director Priya Krishnaswamy speaks on the making of ‘Baaram’, a journey of five years.
We hear ‘Baaram’ was inspired from a news report on the ancient practice of ‘thalaikoothal’. How did this conceptualise into a film?
I went to this village in Tamil Nadu for my research. The aunt, Menmozhi, in the story and her sons are based on real people. However, Veera, the social activist who fights for justice for his uncle is originally a 55-year-old character in real life. Finding someone to play him was hard. We were close to the shoot and I still had not locked Veera’s character. One of the problems with Veera was that I wasn’t sure if this 55-year-old man could not have known about thalaikoothal.
Sugumar Shanmugam, my casting director, brought in actors but I found them unsuitable for Veera. As I watched him training them, I thought, ‘Why not Sugumar Shanmugam? He and R. Raju (who plays Karuppusamy) are close friends. So in a day Veera became a 25-year-old nephew of Karuppusamy and I had to change the script to suit this age.
There is this cute scene with a puppy in the film. Are you a dog lover?
I am very much a dog lover like my father. A lot was written in the script — some of it was shot and discarded or not shot at all. After the accident when Karuppusamy is carried by onlookers, people are asking who he was. Only the puppy knew him. In my script the puppy is barking in the background, but we couldn’t pull off that scene due to constraints in the shoot. The idea was to flesh out Karuppusamy — for me he was the embodiment of love.
Karuppusamy's accident scene was well shot and without any gore. How did that come up?
That was a big job. We shot it extensively with the bike rider coming towards him and around it. I did not want to feel on the edit table, ‘Oh! I should have gone back.’ While editing, I wanted to keep it as minimal and simple. It took a long time and was the most difficult scene to cut until I got the final reiteration of the sound design. And, I was doing it a year after it was shot. Having gone through an accident earlier in life, I know how it suddenly happens and hits you. I realised if I kept the sound I could bring in the suddenness of the accident.
Apart from writing and directing you have edited and produced the film, that must have been quite a task?
My daughter Ardra Swaroop and I produced it under our banner, Reckless Roses. ‘Baaram’ was funded from my life savings. My children pitched in and I roped in a bunch of friends too. It gave us complete freedom to take the film in what direction we wanted. The trick is to control budgets. We managed to do that.
What were the rewarding moments?
Director Ram was the first to reach out to me. Ardra and I met him in Chennai. His reaction to my film was a big delight. He told me, ‘They did you injustice. It should have been the best film at the national awards.’ Meeting Vetrimaaran, who presented ‘Baaram’, was a dream come true. In 2016, I had wanted to meet him. Myskkin’s speech about my film went viral. His reaction to my film is something I treasure. Stars Sivakarthikeyan and Vijay Sethupathi lent their voices for my trailer. Nowhere in my scheme of things was any of this planned. Sometimes I look out of my kitchen window and wonder, ‘How did this all happen?’.