Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan’s Lens, which releases tomorrow, is an honest representation of cyber-bullying and harassment, but off the screen, it’s also about the financial and logistical struggles of a first-time director
In October 2012, Amanda Todd, a Canadian teenager, killed herself at home. A video that she had posted on Youtube, would later reveal that the teenager was a victim of bullying. Online and offline. In the video, Todd had narrated her ordeal using flash cards. A man whom she had met online had blackmailed her into exposing her breasts on web-cam. He had taken a picture, and had harassed her for years with it, finding her classmates on Facebook, and sending them the photograph. Todd took to drugs and alcohol to cope with the stress; she was ostracized by her classmates, and attempted to kill herself a few times.
“I was in tears when I watched the video,” says Jayaprakash. He was researching for his film when he found it. “It was disturbing, especially when she talked about how depressed and helpless she felt.”
That prompted him to make Lens.
A Skype conversation with Jayapraksh’s instructor had sparked the idea, and by then, Jayapraksh had tried several times – unsuccessfully – to make a mark in acting, apart from a small role in Yennai Arindhaal. “The [the instructor] was a little drunk, I was a little drunk. We were talking about things in general,” recalls the director, “He said we have YouTube, Skype, and so many other social media tools. Why not use them and make a film? It made sense because I thought of a story being told over Skype – two people in it and how the entire story would revolve around that. I brought in more characters and slowly developed the tale.”
His film, comprising many new artistes like him, is inspired from Amanda’s story. “I didn’t have a big budget in mind, so I thought of an idea which could involve Skype, a room with a few people in it. And due to budget constraints, I had to restrict it [the production]. An idea should come with a strong theme. That’s when I came across Amanda Todd’s suicide note on YouTube.”
It took him three years to finish the script, but the hardest part – of finding a producer – was just beginning. “Since I am a first-time director, many mainstream producers and actors didn’t want to work with me,” he reveals, “It’s understandable. When senior technician Kathir came on board though, I decided that there was no looking back – I was going to do this myself. I got help from Kerala, sold some property. My friends helped. My friends in the US gave me money. I put in my own money…”
“I have to thank my wife, who is the executive producer, for putting up with everything,” he laughs.
Lens soon became famous at many film festivals, with Jayaprakash winning the 19th Gollapudi Srinivas National Award. Two memories remain etched in his mind. “At the Pune International Film Festival, the audience refused to let me go after the screening. They had thousands of questions for me and screamed, ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai!’ and ‘This is our Oscar film!’ I had to pinch myself to make sure it was all real.”
His second happy memory was more of a gesture. “This was after a screening in Bangalore. I noticed an old lady who just stood there and said nothing. She looked me in the eye, joined her hands and bowed. I got distracted for a second, but when I came back, I couldn’t find her. That still leaves me a little emotional,” he narrates.
Appreciation and accolades aside, the journey was a far-cry from what he’d thought it would be.
“After the awards in 2015-16, I thought everything would be smooth there on. Nothing happened. I knocked almost all doors. It would have been okay if people had seen the film and rejected it. But here, many didn’t even want to watch it,” he says. Another grouse he had, was the lack of professionalism. “I contacted so many producers. Many didn’t answer my calls. Some will tell me to come at a particular time and then not show up.”
He recalls a particular incident with a ‘well-known’ producer. “He had asked me to show him the film on big screen at a review theatre. I had to reschedule the screening five times, change locations etc. Finally, when I got there at 9 ‘o’ clock on the scheduled day, I was told that it had to be rescheduled again. I have a lot of newcomers in my film, it was definitely a bad experience.”
Help finally arrived in the form of director Vetrimaaran.
“Through him and Vinod of Mini Studio, the film got through to everyone. It made me realise that there still are mainstream filmmakers, who, despite knowing moneyed and famous people, give others a chance in a bid to take some good films to the audience. I gave the DVD of Lens to Vetrimaaran just before he went to the USA. He watched it there and messaged me that he liked it and would want to discuss further when he gets back. To me, that broke the ice. We met and he told me what he liked and what he didn’t. He said, ‘Wait, I will show the film to some people and see what they say.’ That was a year back, and here we are.”
Jayaprakash’s tryst with cinema was borne out of being in a monotonous job for ten years. “I am a software engineer. I was doing that for ten years, was in the US for seven. I joined acting classes under the tutelage of JD Coburn. Back then, he told me that he cannot promise me that I’d become an actor. Perhaps a director, but not an actor. He said he could only teach me the art.”
“I didn’t understand it then,” Jayaprakash says, “but now I do. What I learned there was the foundation.”
He currently has a few scripts that he’s been working on, but is pretty confident about not producing a film again. “I’ll let somebody else handle that part,” he grins.
Lens, starring Anandsami and Jayaprakash in the lead roles, releases tomorrow.
The Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.