From R‘n’B in Tamil to a crowd-sourced horror film, these emerging stars of Tamil cinema know their audience and how to reach them
The new brigade in our film industry is all about breaking rules. Young actresses are not hankering after the lead role; in fact they can essay a mother in an ‘award movie’ and be a glamorous heroine in another. Professionals from other fields are jumping onto the bandwagon, with engineers making successful films. Even rejection slips from 40 producers do not stop a movie from being made, while an Indian-American trained in classical music switches effortlessly to ‘local’ film music. Meet the 20-something actors, singers and filmmakers of Tamil cinema, who are making quick work of clichés.
Text: Sharadha Narayanan
ALISHA THOMAS | 27
Big break: When this Indian-American sang the R&B-influenced song, Don-u don-u, in July’s Dhanush-starrer, Maari
It’s no surprise that singer Alisha Thomas calls her musical inspirations eclectic. There’s a staggering amount of musical and geographical diversity in this Indian-American, who is a Kerala Christian by origin, has trained in Carnatic music and whose claim to fame now, is an RnB-ish song, Don-u don-u, in a Tamil film (Maari) that prides itself for being ‘thara’ local. And she is in the city pursuing Hindustani music after dabbling in gospel at a church in Chicago for a couple of years.
“My entry into the film industry was not planned,” says the 27-year-old, adding that she keenly tracks Tamil film music despite not being able to speak the language. “In April, Dhanush and music director Anirudh were looking for a voice for the song, and my name just got passed around.” Little did she know that the song would become such a rage. Another song in director Bharathirajaa’s next, Om, has happened since. “If you are from the US, it is assumed that you are into Western pop in a big way. Frankly, I’ve done more Western music in Chennai than I did in the US,” she says of her hotel gigs and stage performances in the city. Having come to the city in 2014 for a year-long course at AR Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory, she has extended it by two years, and hopes to do more exciting work. Singing for AR Rahman and D Imman top her wish-list.
If I’m offered a role which has one powerful scene, I will gladly sign it,” says actress Aishwarya Rajesh. At another point in the interview, she says, “I look at any role as a dream role and give it my all. I’m not yearning for anything particular.” These may sound like the claims of an actor eager to land roles, but Rajesh walks the talk. You’re likely to remember her as the luckless mother of two boys in what is easily this year’s most talked about film, Kaaka Muttai. Measured in her words, but with an impressive clarity of thought, Rajesh, 25, says she is set to make a mark in the industry, and will not relegate herself to roles that only require her to dance around trees with heroes.
Ironically though, it was a dance show that put her in the spotlight. She was part of Maanada Mayilada, when she auditioned for Attakathi in 2012. She was a commerce student in a city college when the offer came. “By the time I had attended the audition, the crew had found the heroine. I got selected for another role in the film, she says,” referring to her role of Amudha. A few forgettable films later, she landed a role in Vijay Sethupathi’s Rummy and Pannayarum Padminiyum. The icing on the cake has clearly been her role in Kaaka Muttai. “I was unsure about playing a mom so early in my career, but I’m happy it paid off,” she says.
Rajesh has six roles in her kitty this year. The highlight will be Kutrame Thandanai, in which she teams with director M Manikandan for the second time, playing a cameo. “I do a guest role alright, but one with negative shades that is important to the story. This is very different for me,” she says excitedly. She plays a debater in director Seenu Ramasamy’s Idam Porul Yaeval, in which she pairs with Vijay Sethupathi, again. Then there’s a horror-comedy, Hello Naan Pei Pesaren, with actor Vaibhav. She is also starring in the remake of the National Award-winning Bollywood courtroom drama, Jolly LLB (featuring Udhayanidhi Stalin) and a remake of the Malayalam crime thriller, Memories (Arulnidhi plays the lead).
Sometimes, you can like doing something and still not want to do it all your life. Anu Charan, director and editor of the recent film Kirumi, will attest to that. An engineer, Charan confides that he really liked his job of designing surgical devices for a client in Kolkata, and yet, there was a void. He had a fascination for filmmaking, and after an epiphany of an interview in which Steven Spielberg said every director must be an animator, proceeded to study animation. Following that with about 20 videos in Australia, including short films, ads and a TV show, Charan decided to direct and edit Kirumi, which hit screens in September.
But making the movie was not as easy as the decision to turn filmmaker. “Of course, friends in the film industry helped. Like M Manikandan (director, Kaaka Muttai ). He passed on film offers that he came his way to me,” he says. Charan and Mani wrote the script of the movie. “It was shot in 50 days. Finding distributors was no easy task. People are raving about the climax in Kirumi, but we weren’t able to convince distributors with that ending, and so, shot another climax too. Thankfully, our distributor Madan (Escape Artists Motion Pictures) liked what we had done originally, and let it be,” says Charan, whose interest in filmmaking came about when he tried putting together photos and videos in college. And then, he found another love — editing. “It is the most underrated art form. 70 per cent of the film gets done at the editing table,” he says. Kirumi is slated for an international premiere at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival in November. Closer home, it has been selected for participation at the Mumbai Film Festival and talks are on to remake it in Hindi and Telugu. Up next is an entirely different movie with a huge star cast, says Charan.
Actor Vidyullekha Raman does not nurture ambitions of playing a heroine. The 24-year-old, who had a dream debut in Neethane En Ponvasantham (NEP) three years ago, already has an enviable filmography of 25 films, including ones with stars like Ajith, Vijay and Suriya. As with most popular supporting actors, it all began in theatre for Raman, who had a seven-year stint on stage before entering films. There, she played it all — from the titular creature in Rumplestiltskin, to a frail grandmother. She also helped form an all-women theatre group, 14 Idlies, in her college, where she studied visual communication. “I got my first lead role in Hairspray, a musical by dancer-choreographer Jeffrey Vardon, but that is when I got an offer to act in NEP, too.” Not wanting to keep anyone waiting, she decided to opt out of the musical.
Now, the jaunty youngster is aware that she is filling a void in the film industry; one left by strong, supportive actresses like Manorama. “I get compared to her and Kovai Sarala all the time. It’s very flattering but I’m nowhere there yet,” she says. Also, I’m not just a comedienne, she says, with obvious disdain for the industry’s fondness to stereotype. “Santhanam wanted me to ward off that image and gave me a small, yet serious role in his film, Innimey Ippadithaan,” she says.
Raman has an exciting time ahead in the Telugu film industry, where she will play one of the five lead roles in a horror film, Raju Gari Gadhi. “The story is about five people who enter a haunted mansion and I am one of them,” says Raman, who is also in the remake of Tamil film Sundarapandian, besides Bhale Manchi Roju with Sudhir Babu. In Tamil, she is awaiting the release of Ajith’s Vedaalam, Vikram Prabhu’s Wagah and Thanni Vandi with actor Thambi Ramaiah. As for theatre, she says she has a couple of scripts that she wants to bring alive on stage. “I hope to take three months off films to do some more theatre,” she says.
SRINATH RAMALINGAM |28
Lesson on the job: Rejection from over 40 producers has inspired this horror-filmmaker to inspire others through internet videos
If director Srinath Ramalingam’s life were to be made into a movie, the highlight would be the scene of young Ramalingam and his father watching Rajinikanth’s Pandian at Kingsley Cinemas in Colombo. It would shift 23 years later, when his father would enter the cinemas a second time, to watch his son’s directorial debut, Unnakenna Venum Sollu. “Directing has always been my only ambition,” says Ramalingam, who was born and raised in Sri Lanka. As a child, he even memorised lines of the Tamil Shiviite hymns, Thevaaram, using film tunes. “I then went to the US to train in filmmaking and did several allied jobs too (production assistant, production coordinator, executive producer, head of creative work, editor) before coming to India in 2012 to work on my first Tamil feature,” he says. But nothing prepared him for the rejection he would face from over 40 producers who he approached with his script. “I had to take up a day job at my uncle’s flour retail business. Then, a visit to a Shiva temple in the Jadayudham forests near Rameshwaram changed my fortune instantly,” he says. On the day of his return, a friend from his days in America called and said he found investors to fund his film. And the investors casually handed out eight, crisp $1,000 bills during a cigarette break in their meeting. Everything fell into place after that and Unakkenna Venum Sollu, the horror flick that hit screens this September, happened.
His next film will be a rom com with a hero and three heroines, he says. “I’m in talks with three producers for this film. It should get rolling by February 2016.” In the meantime, with an aim to inspire more people to pursue their dream, Ramalingam has been making and releasing videos called YOLO (You Only Live Once) on the internet and in Tamil television channels. “This is an annual affair and we choose a specific location every year. It is destination Ladakh for 2016 — our third year,” he says.
ASHWIN SARAVANAN | 24
Ashwin Saravanan, 24, might be agnostic about ghosts, but he cannot deny the lure of a horror film. “Some may believe in it, some may not. But it’s impossible to ignore it,” says the fan of films like Yaavarum Nalam, Eeram, Exorcist and the TV series Vidaadhu Karuppu (decades after its telecast, he still chooses to get spooked by watching episodes on the internet). Luckily for him, he found an actress, Nayanthara, who was a fan of horror films too. And thus the bilingual horror film, Maya, which is having a successful run in the box office, came to be.
As a student of engineering, Saravanan was inspired by Naalaya Iyakkunar, a TV show for filmmakers. And yet, he took up a job with Infosys after college, to pay off his education loan. “But I couldn’t take it beyond three months. It was just too mundane for me,” he says. It was then that he worked on the script of his movie. But finding a producer proved to be a toughie. “Many producers liked my script, but they did not trust my filmmaking ability. So me and my friends pooled in some money and shot a scene from the film. That pilot convinced a producer,” he says, referring to Potential Studios. Ask him if it is easy to make a film without working as an assistant, and he says “By not training under another filmmaker, I did not miss the craft. What I missed was the politics of dealing with people and convincing them to do the film you really want.” Saravanan is currently soaking in the adulation his film has received. “I knew the movie would do well with a multiplex audience. The surprise has been its greater, more universal appeal. This goes on to show that the horror genre always finds takers,” he says. Does this mean he will attempt another horror film next? “Oh no, I’m done with horror films for now. I travelled with the movie’s story for a few years. So I will not attempt anything like this for the next couple of years.”