We live in times when fan wars and fan clubs keep films and stars alive in the online world. Everything from the costumes of the lead actors to the budget and the earnings per day are discussed with much fervour. And so, while Halitha Shameem was hopeful about her creation, she did not quite expect the outpouring of love Sillu Karupatti received when it released on December 27, 2019, and weeks later on Netflix.
Recently a fan sent her a hand-made sketch based on Halitha’s photograph. Before the lockdown, a kind gentleman handed over a set of four bookmarks, each one painted for one story in the anthology. “He did not even wait to see me. It was almost like he felt he had to give this, and he gave it. I don’t even know his name, and have been trying to find out who it was. This is all a very new feeling. I’m only used to commercial films and a punch dialogue, a confrontation, some great comic sequence… receiving this kind of love. That people have loved this celebration of everydayness, ordinariness, has left me stunned.”
And so, Halitha feels like a truly rich person, as she receives these gifts made with love — gifts that were created, inspired by her creation. The gifts have come in the form of stories too. The young cancer survivor who wrote that Kaaka Kadi gave him great hope, and that he hopes to embrace life again. Someone who signed up for a turtle walk after watching Turtles. Someone who now packs broken glass and sharp objects carefully before disposing them, after Pink Bag, and men who’ve decided to speak to the women in their lives and re-discover the relationship after Hey Ammu.
The film was an organic creation that took on a life of its own. “I don’t think anything was put in there intentionally, with a view to getting a certain reaction. In fact, I believe that that is exactly why it reached people the way it did.”
Halitha loves anthologies, and likes that the format allows her to explore different facets of a topic. “I loved Lust Stories and loved the podcast of Modern Love and read it in the New York Times, and while I really admired ‘96 and Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya, I prefer exploring multiple angles, and this allows me the freedom to do just that,” says Halitha, whose focus has been finishing pending work on Aelay, produced by Y Not Studios’ Sashikanth and with her mentors Pushkar-Gayatri as creative producers.
As much as the Sillu Karupatti team received love, it gave back in equal measure. “Venkatesh Velineni, my producer, is also in the garment business, and he had printed t-shirts for the team. I thought we should gift some to people who chose to watch it in theatres despite the fact that a HD pirated link was doing the rounds. We handed out over 400 shirts, and they were delighted. I wanted to appreciate their integrity.”
Halitha was so confident about her creation, that when someone commented on Twitter that due to health reasons, he would not be able to go to a theatre, she quickly announced that it would be up on Netflix soon. This when it was still running to packed houses in cinema screens. “I did not think. If I had, I would not have done that. I was just moved that someone wanted to watch, but could not. And, the film continued to do well in theatres too after this,” she says.
After it released on Netflix, the tide of good wishes was back after a brief break. “So many production houses have got in touch asking me to make a good, small film for them too. I’m happy but I don’t think I’ll let it change me as a person. Probably because the feedback is from the heart, it’s entered my heart, and not my head,” she laughs. Does the fact that people expect her to make more “small, beautiful” films bother her? “No. I’m very happy doing them. I don’t view films as a commodity that need a lot of money to make. Small is good, no?”
Halitha is now called someone who writes love, well. And so, she dismissed it as kindness when Suriya, who presented her film under his 2D banner, and his wife actress Jyotika, told her they’d love to have her write something for them. “And, then, at the JFW awards, Jo maam, repeated that again. That gave me the confidence that even saleable actors want me to write for them. That I can write for not just performers, but stars too.”
Halitha says her being grounded probably comes from having seen a ‘below poverty line’ existence as a child; the world-view that being in Zion International School, Kodaikanal, gave her; and the innumerable people from various strata of society she’s seen. “I’m a very neutral person, and like to constantly better myself as a person. I’m inspired by people. Sometimes, I might not stop when someone asks for help on the roadside, as I would be preoccupied, but that guilt would consume me. I like to analyse the root cause of that guilt, and go back and rectify it if possible.”
Among the things that have given Halitha joy is the support from industry veterans she has never met before. “Balaji Sakthivel Sir had a ligament tear, but he walked two-three flights of stairs to attend any event related to Sillu Karupatti. He’s the kind of person I’ve hesitated to speak to at film festivals, because of the body of work he’s done. Lingusamy Sir called almost every other day to find out what I was doing to promote the film better. He got so many from the industry to watch it. He got Shankar sir to watch it. Poo Sasi Sir, whom I hugely respect, spoke kind words about the film… And, finally Pushkar-Gayatri Sir and Maam, they are like my parents, always supportive. They would give me money to get myself a good dress for promotions…that’s the kind of kindness I’m speaking about.”
A good fallout of Sillu Karupatti’s success is that many film festivals have approached Halitha asking her to premiere Aelay in their fest. And no, she’s not in a high-pressure zone following its success, because she’d already made Aelay, a tale of father-son bonding, by then. And then, there’s Minimini, the second half of which she hopes to start shooting once the lockdown is lifted. This is a film where Halitha has shot one half and is waiting for the cast to grow up before wrapping up the second.
And, what is she doing in the meanwhile? “I somehow can’t write now, I’m not in that frame of mind. So, I’m observing people, and I hope they will seep into my heart, and transform into something, someday. It’s just observation without any intent.”