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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 25, Dated 25 June 2011
    CULTURE & SOCIETY  
    PROFILE

    The year of the rooster

    Can a tale of cock fights in Madurai touch a universal nerve? Vetri Maaran tells Akhila Krishnamurthy why it can

    Vetri Maaran

    Prize fighter Award-winning director Vetri Maaran

    Photo: Ravi Kumar

    THE VENUE OF OUR meeting, Hotel Aadithya, is in the heart of the Tamil film industry at Vadapalani, Chennai. Simmering with cinema, scripts and studios, it also houses Vetri Maaran’s office that functions 24x7, 365 days a year because this is where Maaran spends nearly 16 hours a day, reading, writing, discussing scripts or watching films. Until a month ago, he was part of Kollywood’s growing brigade of young auteurs. And then, at the 58th National Film Awards, his second venture — Aadukalam (‘arena’ in Tamil) bagged six National Awards including two for Maaran — Best Director and Best Screenplay. Everyone in Chennai and the rest of the country suddenly sat up and took notice.

    For Vetri Maaran (translated as ‘king of victory’ in Tamil), by his own admission, “Life hasn’t changed much. People are suddenly very curious to read tid-bits and trivia about my childhood, how many cigarettes I smoke in a day (before the filming of Aadukalam, he smoked 160 a day),” he says with a smile that softens the tone of his dark, bearded face. This unpretentious honesty is the most striking thing about him. Aadukalam too is reflective of him. It is real, rooted and reverberates with a rustic rhythm, telling a riveting tale of the lives, ego and politics of two groups of rooster fighting jockeys and their milieu, set in Madurai.

    Sometime in 1995, while studying English literature, Maaran read Roots by Alex Haley. “The detailed cockfighting sequence in the book always stayed in my head,” he says tracing the origin of Aadukalam, “In 2003, I watched Amores Perros and thought why not a film on rooster fights?” The 29-and-a-half-minute long rooster fight sequence in his own film began framing and panning its way in his head since.

    Nearly five years later, after Polladhavan (a Tamil film with Dhanush in the lead role) and its runaway success, Maaran decided to translate that vision into action. In June 2008, with the same cast and crew (except the editor Kishore Te who replaced VT Vijayan) — the office shifted its base to Madurai. “I had no clue about that city,” says Maaran, “Just looking around wasn’t going to be enough. We had to soak in that space.” It worked. Aadukalam’s visual landscape is earthy and ethnic, thanks to the Madurai-based cinematographer Velraj. “He played a huge part in ensuring the film’s adherence to form and function.”

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    The film’s lustre also lies in the sensitive performance by Dhanush (another of the film’s award-winners). As Karuppu, a rooster fighter, who bears the brunt of his master’s ego, Dhanush sparkles with realism. “It’s amazing because Dhanush has a phobia of birds; the flapping of their wings gives him the jitters,” says Maaran. But roosters, as he will tell you, “have a mind of their own. They are very sensitive. So we gave Dhanush one rooster and let them bond. The rooster got a sense of his fear, it cooperated with him and never bothered him.”

    ‘Dhanush’s awardwinning performance was amazing especially because he has an intense phobia of birds,’ says Maaran

    On a telephonic interview from Singapore, where Dhanush is with his father-in-law (superstar Rajinikanth, in case you didn’t already connect the dots), he says, “Karuppu has been my most demanding role so far. His dialect in the film is distinct and I had to strive to get it right. At that point I was working on two other films, so I’d spend a few days with Maaran and his co-dialogue writer, who hails from Madurai. I’d record the lines, transfer it on to my laptop, put it on loop, plug an earphone and go to sleep. In the morning, when I spoke the lines, I sounded better than the previous day. It helped me internalise sounds, pronunciations and intonations.”

    THE INTRICATELY woven screenplay is a reminder of the interconnectedness of life. “Every character is integral to the film,” says Maaran, recalling how the script unfolded. “The only thing I had in mind when I began working on it was the relationship between Karuppu and his mentor (Pettaikaran, played by VIS Jayabalan who won the Special Jury award.). But at no point did I try to manipulate the script. I let the characters script their own lives. To me, the film is really about an alpha male who refuses to give up his territory.”

    That battle for territory blends harsh realism with occasional bursts of tenderness — seen in the love story that unfolds between Karuppu and Irene (Taapsee Pannu). The resemblance to Mexican cinema is unmistakable. “I’ve always loved Latin American films; I believe strongly that the more ethnic a film is, the more universal it becomes. In the globalised world we live in, it is high time we discover our roots,” says the filmmaker. The universal appeal of the film is also because of its international background score by GV Prakash Kumar. In the scenes between Karuppu and Pettaikaran, faint strains of The Godfather’s theme are audible, to which Maaran says, “Can any serious filmmaker ever outgrow the influence of The Godfather?”

    Maaran speaks of Coppola’s classic and The Bicycle Thieves in the same breath as the films he grew up watching in his upper middle-class home at Ranipet, like Naayakan and Meesaikaran. His father, Dr V Chitravel, was a veterinary scientist and his mother, a writer. Maaran’s childhood was full of rebellion. “At five, I flung a chair at my teacher. At 13, I dropped out of school for lack of attendance. I was busy thinking, playing cricket or watching cinema.” At 19, Maaran, an assistant director on the sets of Kathai Neram, a 52-episode serial for Sun TV, was famous for his clashes with acclaimed director, Balu Mahendra. Maaran is a man who does not like to take orders. “I was known for my insurbordinance as much as I was for my commitment,” he says. Like a certain cockfighter who’s got film critics crowing with delight.

    akhilak@gmail.com


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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 25, Dated 25 June 2011
 
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