To the entire world, Bharathiraja is a director as lofty as the Himalayas. Who is Bharathiraja, to himself?
Bharathiraja is a name that I gave myself. My father named me Chinnasamy. That is the name in my school records and other certificates. My mother’s pet name for me was Paal Pandy. When I came to Chennai, I changed my name. My younger sister’s name is Bharathi and my elder brother is named Jayaraj. I took parts of the names of people I love and made myself a new name. I used to put up drama shows in Mylapore, Triplicane areas and the crowd began recognising me as Bharathiraja. I’m not like the Himalayas or anything – it is just a name given to me, as is the practice with us: we give a new title to any new talent. And the given names just stick on. Imayam, Sigaram, Vaanam… It is a regular thing in Tamil and Telugu film industries.
The 80s indeed was a golden age for Tamil cinema. The movies that were being made had strong story lines. I used to be a great fan of directors like Sridhar, Balachander, Shantharam, Sathyajith Ray, David Lane & Sethumadhavan!
The 80s of the Tamil cinema is considered the golden age. What do you think of that period?
The 80s indeed was a golden age. There were only a limited number of movies releasing every year. Joint families existed. It wasn’t the ‘time of fast food’ and the movies that were being made had strong storylines. Even if it was just 10 artists, we had identities. KS Gopalakrishnan, Sridhar, Madhavan, Balachander – directors had their own identities. Today, how many directors can you identify? It has become hard to remember the name of a director even if he has a hit. There are over 700 directors. I find this difficult. The 80s were really beautiful. Those days, stepping into a studio in itself was difficult. Now you can script, film and edit from the comforts of your house itself. Today you can shoot and immediately see it on the monitor. Back then, we had to take copies to the lab, process and print them. To just see the opticals, it would take 15 days. When you saw it for the first time on the screen, it would be magical. The thrill of getting a video done right, is gone today.
In a friend’s native village, there is a shop named Bharathiraja. The owner had named his shop after you as he is a fan. You are one of the pioneering directors who attracted a fan following during the time when actors used to be worshipped. How do you feel about this?
I used to be a great fan of directors like Sridhar, Balachander, Shantharam, Sathyajith Ray, David Lane, Sethumadhavan and M Bhaskar from the Malayalam industry… I used to watch movies for the directors’ sake even at a young age. I never really went to the theatres for an actor. Then I came in as a director and was able to become popular almost immediately. There is a generation that did go to the theatres to watch a Bharatjhiraja movie. I had about 950 fan clubs in Tamil Nadu until I called them all and disbanded them myself. I called all of them 35 years ago, gave a big feast and asked them to disband the clubs. I did it because having fan clubs is an intoxicating thing. It creates expectations of growth, it may turn me ambitious. Also, it would take the fans on a wrong path too. Placing my cutouts, pouring milk over it, all this is me encouraging a fan to become an ignorant fanatic. You may be part of an audience, praise and criticise my movies, ask me questions. But I may not just keep you a naive follower forever. How can you judge my character just by my craft? I’m a normal human being. I know what sort of a man I am, I know my strengths and weaknesses. But you don’t know the grouses I hold, you don’t know the pain I have. You only see my creations, not the good and bad traits in me. If you accept my craft, that makes me happy. Even when people compliment your dressing style, you would feel a frisson of pleasure. I like it when people like my movies. Nothing more, nothing less.
Even today I love the movie 16 Vayathinile – it was taken without even an iota of exaggeration!
We are a generation of electronic communication. You come from the age of letters. Is there an unforgettable letter in your life?
There are many precious letters. I still have them. My father’s letters, copies of my replies to them. Letters from my sister, letters from my brother who used to be in the military. I’ve restored most of them and made copies of the ones that are fading. I talk about them on my YouTube channel. As a teenager in those times, you would have a love letter written and ready, read over many times, folded and left in your pocket for you didn’t have the courage to give it to the girl. Now, couples can send messages like, “my dad is standing right in front of me, please call me later.” We used to write letters and hold on to them till it is almost torn at the folds because we’d be too scared to actually hand a woman a letter. When you finally work up the courage, you don’t give the letter in their hand, you would throw it on the road before her and she would just step on it and walk away. There was this letter I got from a young lady who had to leave after her father came to pick her up for her marriage. It went: “Enthan vaazhvil thunbanilai soozhnthathe, thuyar vandu ennai azhaikka nerndathe, vaanil megham niraniraindu kaanuthe, idi minnal mazhai vara thonuthe…” (Sorrow has come into my life, melancholy has come to take me, the sky has turned cloudy, it seems a thunderstorm with lightning and thunder is approaching). We were friends and we were parting ways. She wrote this and threw the letter at me. (laughing)
Recently, Kamal Haasan was asked what actors he would choose if 16 Vayathinile is to be remade. He said, the actors may change but nobody other than Bharathiraja can direct that film. What comes into your mind when I mention 16 Vayathinile?
If Kamal said that, I need to thank him (laughs). In those days, the government had something called the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). We could send them stories and somebody would read them. If the script is good, the government will finance the movie. Otherwise, it gets rejected. When I was an assistant director, the students of the Chennai Film Institute made a film named Daaham. Late Babu Nandan was the producer. Nivas was on camera and Santhosh Shivan had given the camera. That movie was made by students and I worked on the movie as an assistant director. Their craft was interestingly refined; the sound effects and all were unique. The budget for the movie was around Rs. 1.5 lakhs. After that, we thought, why not make another movie. I had written a story titled ‘Mayil’, about the dreams of a girl from a rural background. That was the black and white times – Roja Ramani & Nagesh were the rage. I sent the script of Mayil to the FFC but it was rejected. Later, I met a businessman who was interested in producing a movie. I told him the story of Sivaprakaram, he didn’t like it. There was a story based on a musician – he rejected that too. I told him the story of Mayil and he immediately approved it. He called the theme simple and artistic and said it was a class film, not a commercial one. Then I added some songs because I was scared that it wasn’t commercial at all. 16 Vayathinile was shot in 32 rolls, with a shooting schedule of a maximum of 30 days. It was all shot precisely: if the distance to the object in the frame was to be 5 feet, it would be set at 5 feet. If the shot is to be a close-up, nowadays they just switch the camera and let the actor perform. Back then, we measured the reel for that too. There would be one frame for the clapboard, then I’d say, “Sridevi, just lower your face, raise your eyebrows and look at the camera. We were using RO films, which were difficult to procure. Even today I love that movie – it was taken without even an iota of exaggeration.