A fortnight and a quarter of a century ago, it was time for the first-day-first-show of a film about an idealistic young girl who is forced to take on the mantle of her father, after his life is brutally cut short. In a tale of two villages torn apart by casteism and the egos of blundering elders bloomed a young generation that believed in equality and fair play and lack of fear. Into that idealistic world of Indira (played by an earnest Anu Hasan), and Thiagu (Arvind Swami), the lawyer who gently nudges Indira towards her true purpose, the audience stepped in, and emerged people with a slightly different worldview.
In an interview over voice-chats and messages, Suhasini Maniratnam (the film marked her debut as director) and Anu Hasan speak about the process of making the film, the way its women were written, the shackles it broke free of, and why the film is still relevant.
When people remember Indira fondly now and tell you it has aged well, what’s your reaction? You set out to make a film in 1995 and nothing has really changed in 2020…
Well, cinema is not news, it is documentation of life. And, I am glad that Indira is appreciated and understood better even now because it means people are more open to ideas of how government should be, and how a woman can actually rule. I’m not really surprised it has aged well. On the contrary, I am happy people are appreciating the film as much as when it was released, or even much more.
At a time when films about caste clashes and class struggles were settled through the aruval, you chose dialogue, and rule of the heart…
I come from a small village that was very feudal. There were always caste clashes, and the women were the most courageous. They kept the home intact when the men were fighting. They had to be strong and confident to survive among hate and fights and blood and gore. It’s all from experience; you don’t need to structure something you’ve seen from childhood.
I grew up in a family of lawyers, and when two groups fought, they would engage them in a dialogue and compromise (samarasam). In a way, the filmmaker tries to speak like a lawyer or judge, telling them to cool it.
How did you cast for the film…
I wanted Mammootty to play the father (Nasser eventually played the role), but he felt he was too young for the role, which is true. For Indira, I wanted someone who could draw the India map in 10 seconds. My cousin Anu was able to do that. She was a good mixture of a modern and traditional South Indian; she’s from Tiruchirapalli. She could read, write and speak very good Tamil, and in the 90s, not many actresses could do that. She was able to speak the village dialect and was perfect. For Thiagu, I wanted someone very pleasant, who would make everything interesting, and Arvind Swami suited the role. For the mother, I wanted someone like Ashwini, who is always seen as very soft and timid, because of Uthiri Pookal. I wanted her to be a strong mother who is there for her daughter and pushes her to do something. I’d originally signed Kota Srinivasa Rao to play the role of Kotamarayar, but on the first day of the shoot, I realised that language was going to pose a problem. I wanted him to speak with authority and the village accent. It was my first film, and I did not know how to handle it; today, I might have handled it differently. Eventually, Radha Ravi did a great job.
Creating an entire ecosystem to support Indira rang as unusual then, and, sadly, continues to. Were you disheartened when the film was not as well-received as it should have?
Yes, the film did not do well, but so many good films are not doing very well today. I don’t think the film lost money; it did not make money too. I was very disappointed that it was not liked. But, when you see a film like Pariyerum Perumal, you realise why Indira was not successful or did not strike a chord. I was trying to strike a compromise between the two warring sides, and make the film look colourful and beautiful, and I think that was where the problem was. Yes, a lot of good films get forgotten, Indira was one of those films. It’s sad, but what to do… (Laughs gently). So what if it’s your film; it happens.
The scene where Indira is molested is among the more sensitive portrayals of violence against women. Could you elaborate about how you visualised it?
I have even forgotten how I wrote it because so many more terrible things have happened to women since. It’s not just in India. I see how even in the French Parliament when they want to insult a woman MP, they use abusive language and character assassination happens. The most a woman gets hurt is when she’s touched — when her morality is touched or when she is physically touched… that’s what I was trying to show. This scene was inspired by a real incident. One of our best actresses was heading to shoot in a village. There was a huge crowd to receive the hero at the railway station, and he was escorted out safely. She got down and was caught amid so many men who were upset the hero left without saying hello. They somehow got her out and she refused to come out of her room for a day, though it was not her fault. The incident shocked me. I still shudder when I think of how terrible the situation could have turned out. A beautiful woman who is usually worshipped was just prey for a group of 30 men!
Indira (the film and the character) has a certain confidence about it. A quiet, strong voice. It is feminist without the frills. How did you structure it so?
When you make a film, you don’t think about all that, whether it is written in a book, encyclopaedia… you take it from life. There was a friend of mine who did the last rites when her father died. That impacted me and was probably the seed for me to do a film like this.
The music of Indira is much loved, yet underrated. Could you speak about the process of designing the soundscape for the film?
I don’t think Indira’s music is underrated. In fact, singer Hariharan has said his most favourite song of all time is ‘Nila Kaigiradhu’. I actually wanted Ilaiyaraaja for the film, but AR Rahman wanted to do it. We composed most songs in the drawing-room of my brother-in-law (late) GV’s house in Nungambakkam. We did not go to Kodaikanal or Paris or New Zealand. (Laughs.) I wanted a classical touch to the songs and dance. Once, a Mirazdar in a village was speaking about why village children should be taught music and dance; it would make them forget barriers and differences. Only music and dance can teach people that we are one. That was an inspiration too.
What was your hope when you wrote Indira? Has at least some of that turned into reality?
I always thought that when women led, there would be more work done in the district, state and country. Quite a bit of that turned into reality, many women have become successful leaders. What I did not foresee while making Indira was that women were equally capable of going on the other side, like the men.
In many ways, Indira is Bharathi’s Kannamma. Is she also a mix of many characters you’ve played on screen? A steel magnolia, with a heart of molten wax?
When you write a character, you don’t think she’s Kannamma or a part of many films you’ve done. I just wanted to show a woman who has been pushed to the corner, only to emerge stronger. I’m sure all these roles have been role models for many women in many small towns. So, I brought in all those who will be role models for a small-town girl. If you look at it, all these characters have been much appreciated. But all these don’t matter when you start writing a character. The town she’s from, her family, her problems, the surroundings, the socio-political demographic ambience… only all these come to mind.
Is a film like Indira, with a mainstream cast and crew, possible today?
Yes, of course. It would take another Suhasini to convince them, and I’m sure they will agree. Marketing the film is another issue altogether, but making it won’t be difficult.
Indira celebrates a naive innocence, a fervent wish for integrity. Does she belong to 2020 too, or was 1995 her time?
I wish everybody thought like that. I don’t think today’s youngsters think like that. Indira has a lot of hope; she learnt from great parents. She thought if she gets the little ones and people like Thiagu together, there might be a change in society. I think today’s youngsters have given up. They are more interested in their cell phone and OTT platforms, and not quite ready to go out into the real world to do something. The lockdown is not helping too, and we have been asked to stay inside. Indira was more a child of the outdoors. I wish today’s youth were more like her. She was naive and innocent, but thought big.
You’ve been working during the lockdown…
I’ve finished one short film, Chinanchiru Kiliye, and am writing four more. After a long time, I’m writing and directing. This short is about three generations of women handling the lockdown. The youngest is pregnant, the middle-aged one I play is a doctor who cannot go to the frontline due to certain health reasons and my mother. My mother, who is 85, is the strongest of the three. Shooting is on for the second one, and I’m remote-directing it.
People always wonder when you’re going to make your second feature…
Filmmaking and poetry are not like cooking, which you do for others. You do it when you’re ready. My second feature will take shape when I’m ready. I’m writing these shorts but don’t want any more pressure. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Right now, filmmaking is not a frontline job, like a healthcare professional’s is.
Anu Hasan On Playing Indira
How did you react to a script that was different from staple fare and had a very woman-centric point of view? Why did you feel it was right for your debut?
It did not occur to me to compare the script with other scripts that were being made into films at that time. And I always knew that Hasini was one-of-a-kind when it came to the creative field. I trusted her completely and knew that she wouldn’t have cast me in the role if she did not think I had it in me. We might be family, but we are very sensible when it comes to work. And since I trusted her… I trusted myself to do a decent job.
Twenty-five years down the line, why do you think Indira is still relevant?
Well, nothing much has changed, has it? I wonder, in fact, if it hasn’t just gotten amplified with the advent of social media.
Any fond memories of the shoot?
It has been 25 years, so it’s not as if I have crystal clear memories, but I do recall cinematographer Santosh Sivan pretending to be angry with me because I said he looked like Peter Ustinov. I recall the shot where I had to run my knuckles against a wall and I ended up bruising my hand. Hasini tried to demonstrate how to do it and ended up getting hurt too. Throwing away Arvind’s cigarette in the monitor, him scowling at me and reminding me it was just a monitor and I did not have to waste a cigarette, Radha Ravi sir staring me down in that confrontation scene and then telling me “Nalla dhairyam unakku” and, most importantly, Appa playing the role of a minister…