“Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read…if you don’t read, you will never be a filmmaker.”
– Werner Herzog, German director.
Prabhu Solomon would perhaps tweak that quote a little. “Travel, travel, travel, travel, travel, travel…if you don’t travel, you will never be a filmmaker.”
For Solomon, it definitely takes a lead over reading. Such travels lead to meaningful destinations, he says. Meaningful destinations and soulful characters.
Payanam oru miga periya anubhavam…aayiram book padikaradhu onnu, oru thadava travel panradhu veronnu…
And these excursions have always resulted in eminently watchable cinema. The kind Solomon believes in. Mynaa, Kumki, and also, his upcoming movie Kayal.
Kayal’s release marks the 10th year of the Tsunami. And that’s no coincidence. The Tsunami was a calamity that struck him hard, and Solomon knew he was ordained to make a film about it. That’s when the journey began. It started with Nagappattinam. It took him to Vailankanni, Cuddalore, Colachel, Manakudi, Kottilpadu, and Kanyakumari.
He spoke to the families of survivors whose concrete homes withstood the might of the Tsunami. It was heart breaking, he admits, yet it gave him newfound courage and peace. When he rode back to Chennai, the story of Kayal was already in place. He knew it had to be a tale of love – in the backdrop of the Tsunami.
It took them 6 months to just create a wave.
“CGIyil Tsunami create panradhu romba kashtam,” he says.
The climax featuring the Tsunami was filmed first, near Ponneri. The rest is an unadulterated love story. “In the Titanic, the ship wreck is an accident. Just a background for the love story. Kayal is similar.”
Solomon is quite fond of tragic love stories. There is never a “happily ever after” in a Prabhu Solomon film. He chuckles at the observation. “If you notice, every immortal love story is tragic. Do you think Romeo and Juliet would have been this memorable if they had not died?”
But then, none of these climaxes were ever planned, he maintains. After Mynaa’s morbid ending, he wanted a happier one for Kumki, but he knew the script demanded something else. “I wanted to be honest. Any other climax would seem forced. Somehow, it ended up being tragic.”
And typically, he is banking on newcomers in Kayal. Not that it makes his job easier, but it does give him an advantage. “It’s their first film, so they are ready to mould themselves in any way I want them to. For Kayal, I made them shoot in water for 6 months; they would work from 7 am to 6 pm. I don’t think I can take this liberty with established actors,” he concedes.
Correcta 16 vayasuthan irukkanam. Pathaley oru innocence irukkanam.
That was the profile he had in mind for his Kayal heroine.
She had to have a Cinderella-like allure, he tells me. “Someone who has not seen the world. Someone so naïve that when love happens, she can’t even fathom the emotion.”
Solomon knew an established heroine would be a misfit in that role. It took him nine months and several auditions before he found her in Andhra Pradesh. Rakshitha, who he would christen Anandi.
Solomon prefers Dravidian faces. Natural, with no make-up.
Oru Mumbai ponnukku half sari kattina seriyavarale. You need to be honest to the script.
Music is cathartic to Solomon. His ideal movie has more music than dialogues, and he is especially partial to live orchestras in his soundtracks; violins, guitar, and drums.
But duets are preposterous, he hastens to add. He continues, “Romance should be subtle, and that’s why nobody says “I love you,” in my films.”
Poi sollama kadhala sollanam.
“You should never make a film by watching another film,” he tells me. “You should observe, experience and learn from mistakes.”
He has several instances to reiterate that theory as well.
During Kumki, he lived with elephants in Thiruvalla (Kerala); communicated with the mahouts. He met the villain of Kumki, the ferocious Komban elephant at Mudumalai near Ootty.
“Moonnu stateyeum kalakkana elephantanu sir,” the mahout had said.
That line was used verbatim in the film.
Solomon is a staunch follower of Christ and confesses that he had divine assistance during the making of Kumki. While shooting the climax, he recalls the elephant going mad, but he was able to continue shooting with it for a 14 more days.
Another anecdote he recalls is that of a very sophisticated American English-spouting Vikram Prabhu, who came to meet him at his office. But somehow, he could visualise his mahout Bomman in the suave young man. “Yenakkenamo antha rolekku avan correctennu thonichu. Dialogues kooda kammi. I had more confidence in him than he had in himself,” he smiles.
Vikram was also dedicated, he adds. He would bathe and feed the elephant, and slowly began to forge a bond with the animal. On the other hand, Lakshmi Menon was perfect as Alli. “The elephant was 12 ft and Vikram was 6ft; I had to strike a balance. Oru frame la vecha ellarum azhaga athukulla varanam. I searched for a tall girl, an Apocalypto kind of girl. Lakshmi was spot on. Besides, she was easy to direct.”
Neyveli, the small town he grew up in, had just one theatre – Amaravathi. It showcased only MGR and Sivaji Ganesan films. And Solomon remembers watching every single one of them.
In school, he was a part of the football team; an aspect of his life which later inspired him to make a film called Lee years later.
After finishing his MA in English literature, he migrated to Chennai.
His movie career started in 1991 with a desperate three year attempt to gain a foothold in the industry. He debuted as a stunt double for Sarathkumar in a movie called Namma Annachi. That’s when he met Sundar C who was the associate director of the film. He later joined Sundar’s film Muraimaman as an Assistant Director. That was followed by Agathiyan’s Kathal Kottai.
In 1999, he directed his first film – a romance titled Kannodu Kanbathellam with Arjun in the lead. The role was a departure from the norm for “action king” Arjun. Speaking about the movie, Solomon says, “Arjun used to tell me that I made him really act in it. But then, I told him that it was a role not meant for him.” The movie flopped.
So was the Kannada film Usire (2001) starring Ravichandran; it was a remake of Bharathi Kannama. Again, it was a case of miscasting. He’d wanted Shivraj Kumar to do the role.
The pattern repeated itself again, with the Vikram-starrer King. “It needed a small hero. Vikram’s image had changed after Gemini.” Prabhu Solomon had signed him after Sethu.
Kokki with Karan was a big break. The movie received critical acclaim and did well at the box office. The two films that followed, Lee and Laadam, were experimental, even if Solomon had to make a few compromises. For Laadam, he did not want a heroine. “It’s a story about a guy who is caught between two dons. What would a heroine do in there?”
That resulted in his own production company: Shalom Studios.
Then, Mynaa happened.
“At Saidapet court, I saw a policeman tagging along with an accused. He had his hands cuffed with the cop. I saw them cross the road, drink tea, share a cigar. That image struck me. What if they had a discussion about their life? Ithu pinnadi oru ponnum pona eppadi irukkum?”
Mynaa changed a lot of things for Solomon. He has found willing distributors since then.
If there is one thing that Solomon would rather not compromise on, it’s the script. And he is not ready to bend backwards to accommodate any “star” in his film. Not yet. “During Kumki, a big hero asked me, ‘intha yaanayila naan ukkandha nalla irukkatha?’ I said ‘no sir, sorry.’”
His desire to do something good for the society resulted in Saattai. And not surprisingly, he is a lot closer to the actor who played the do-gooder in Saattai – Samuthirakani. They both share an intense dislike for ‘acting behind the camera’. “Out of camera, nadikkaruthu enakku pudikkathu. I don’t attend parties. I prefer my own company at times. I can’t behave with an agenda.”
Solomon would rather be respected for the man that he is than the filmmaker he has become.
He is also a huge fan of J Mahendran and swears by his films. In fact, a song sequence in Mynaa was inspired by Mullum Malarum’s Senthazham Poovil. “Yaarume nadikkira madhiri irukkadhu. It looks real. I like that kind of subtleness. Amma yeranthal, you go numb, you don’t scream and howl. No one does that.”
I steer the conversation back to Kayal. He found his hero, a 23-year-old, in a short film. He also did three auditions to find his cameraman. Vetrimel Mahendran is making his debut as a cinematographer in Kayal.
And that is because Prabhu Solomon wants perfection. In everything; his actors, his technicians, music, frames and even in his forests. And, if that means travelling 15,000 kilometres or holding several auditions for each technician, then so be it, he shrugs.
The Prabhu Solomon interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.