Thamizh Talkies: Real stories make for great cinema

Cinema is a mix of the personal and the imaginary. When there is a healthy mix of both, it becomes a good story, which makes for a great film
Sivakarthikeyan in Don
Sivakarthikeyan in Don

Personal films make for great debuts, as evidenced by Sivakarthikeyan’s Don. These stories are personal for the filmmaker, and hence become personal to the audience as well, while coming alive in the movie hall. Filmmakers across languages have begun showing us worlds they have inhabited. I specifically recall the time when Sethu released, and I was given the task of interviewing Bala. Like many others, I was shaken to the core by the film and Vikram’s performance. I asked Bala, “Was Sethu someone you knew in your life?” After a long drawn pensive silence, Bala said, “Yes.” Sethu was one of his best friends and this was not just a film for him. The director’s ability to draw us into the worlds he creates has made him an outstanding filmmaker whose stories draw from myriad characters—both from his own life and outside of it. A Bala film shows us not a make-believe life, but one that is hard-hitting and gut-wrenching.

But Bala's films aren’t always personal stories. They also take on lighter proportions and yet, make an impact. When a filmmaker embarks on something they know well enough, they can lead the audience right into the core of their world, their story. Let’s take the ‘mass’ version of the personal thread: Sivakarthikeyan-starrer Don is a good example of how wrapping up a son dealing with parental pressure and his tryst with the education system can make for an entertaining outing. Writer-director Cibi Chakravarthy’s parents who were present at the film’s pre-release event must have gone home proud of their son, who perhaps might have had arrears in college, but whose debut film has hit the bull’s eye at the box-office. Let me clarify: Personal stories do not mean biopics. These are stories drawn from the life of a writer or a filmmaker.

Martin Scorsese is quoted as saying: “The more personal your script, the better”. His life in the by-lanes of New York and his fascination for gangsters made him give us one mind-blowing film after another. His was no ‘slice-of-life’ world. His was a ‘death-staring-at-your-face’ world. Scorsese’s success lies in his ability to see stories and characters in dark alleys. A new genre of gangster films was inspired when Francis Ford Coppola made The Godfather, and Scorsese expanded on this theme by bringing his life experiences into the mix. When a filmmaker knows his or her world best, they are able to convince us about it better. Back home, Bharathirajaa took us into his villages and made us see people he knew. Of course, he made the totally fictitious Sigappu Rojakkal, but hey, even a serial killer might have been familiar to some storyteller somewhere!

Love stories (perhaps Divya from Mouna Raagam was someone Mani Ratnam knew?), self-discovery narratives (was Dhanush’s character in Pollathavan someone Vetrimaran knew?), and triumph against all odds are genres that personal tales fit in. The story is personal for both the filmmaker and the audience, who identify with some emotion or character trait of the lead actors and thus the film makes an impact.

Cinema is a mix of the personal and the imaginary. When there is a healthy mix of both, it becomes a good story, which makes for a great film. Sometimes, personal narratives are too personal, and so, the audience fails to identify with an alien world. The trick is to be able to find that line where reality can blur into fiction: When all that’s in a heart can become a story for posterity.

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