The Kerala-based multi-award winning filmmaker Shaji N. Karun retains the distinction of remaining for the 23rd year the last Indian director having had a film in the world’s most prestigious selection. For his next feature film, OLU, Shaji N. Karun has paired with his Vanaprastham partner-producer and original story writer, the French Pierre Assouline
Will OLU be India’s best chance to make its comeback in the 2018 Cannes Festival Official Competition?. Shaji N.Karun and Pierre Assouline spoke to Pickle about “OLU” and their way of working together to grant the film its optimal potential
Shaji Karun, your first film, Piravi (Cannes Camera d’Or Mention Winner), through the poignant story of an old man in search of his missing son, condemned corruption. Swaham (Cannes Official Competition) evoked exclusion through the sad situation of a widow. Vanaprastham (Cannes Official Selection) spotlighted the identity crisis of a Kathakali master celebrated when incarnating a hero on stage but despised in real life. Can you tell us about your next feature film Olu and the themes you will explore?
SK: Olu means ‘She’ in Malayalam dialectical slang used by the small population residing in the northern part of Kerala. Olu is the tale of a girl who gets gang raped and sunk to the bottom of the backwaters where she can mysteriously survive and live for the next nine months -until she delivers her ‘baby from rape’. Only during full moon nights, can she see the world above water. It is on such a night that she happens to meet through sound only a young villager, an untalented painter, rowing his boat. In due course, she empowers him to create exceptional paintings, but there remains a profound and unbridgeable difference between their inner visions of love. She, Olu, can only conceive love between male and female as pure and transcendent.
The film will attempt to convey her perception of innocent feminine desires – spiritual and transcendental feelings.
Olu is a film around man and water. Water is the perfect media to perceive life’s beliefs and mysteries… It is visible and obvious in any part of the world. All religions, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. have different significances in their approach to the energy of water. Olu is a story on Moksha (liberation from earthly life) where water and its concept of pure love represent the female principle.
Kerala is the perfect set, a land having many beautiful backwater islands where the people live in celebration on their ‘abode of water’ with mysteries, love and ethos.
Tell us about the producer and financier of the film. Now, this will be your second collaboration with Pierre Assouline. What motivated that choice? What are you expecting from this collaboration?
SK: Mr. Anoop’s (Ava Productions) main business being in Ayurveda pharmaceuticals and healing, he is a strong promoter of Indian traditions. That also reflects in his activities as a stage actor and active supporter of Malayalam and Tamil parallel Theater and Cinema.
In Kerala, we make over 120 films per year and it is increasing every year because of novices’ easy access to Digital cinematography equipment. Most of those films by new filmmakers are cheap influences from Hollywood and Bollywood concept of cinema as entertainment only. The depth and beauty of simple human life are gradually becoming forgotten themes for regional language cinema. My relationship with Pierre Assouline grew strongly with the artistic qualities he demanded for the medium of Cinema. It was very marked while we worked together on my film Vanaprastham. His collaboration in Olu will be extremely important for me because prior to our film shooting, he encourages me to converse, argue, debate, thus benefi ting a lot from him on the aesthetics of the actual media of Cinema. I am aware that with him by my side I will gain in confidence in my artistic choices when facing my shooting in August 2017.
Pierre Assouline, you have produced Shaji’s Vanaprastham, a National Award winner, and ranked one of the ten best Indian films of all times by CNN/IBN. Tell us about your role in the upcoming Shaji Karun film.
PA: Shaji is a uniquely talented director, a finely nuanced artist. With all respect, I personally felt he lacked the proper guidance – or maybe input and support – for his very last films, which did not get released outside of India. Olu already had a producer/ financier on board when I came to know of the project. Yet Shaji and I instinctively felt how the film could be benefitted if his talent and my know-how were to be dovetailed. The fi nancing producer, Mr. Anoop of Ava Productions, understood the potential of such alliance. That is a quality of producers who craft a team to achieve the best results. I was invited on board as Creative Producer. I believe all filmmakers need a creative producer who actually knows Cinema, who knows how to read a script and trace the film’s seed problems within it. A creative producer on the director’s side at all stages of the filmmaking process. A creative producer who protects the director and the integrity of the project from all partisan influences. Most important, a creative producer who protects the director from the director himself. All year I watch Indian films with the potential to be on the Cannes Official Selection list, but which don’t make the cut because the filmmaker is on his own. I have watched the two best placed Indian contenders for this 2017 Cannes edition. I feel strongly that the explanation for them ending nowhere on the list is directors bereft of proper guidance. I believe in the power of the Producer/Director Couple. Such Couple Culture is lacking in India, whereas many examples are there in the world. The best known is probably Lawrence Bender and Quentin Tarantino.
Pierre, we’ve talked of your lively interest for India’s sacred and philosophical texts. You have expressed your fascination for filmmakers who place spirituality at the heart of their films such as Martin Scorsese’s Silence. And others like Terrence Malik, Kim Ki-duk who have dramatized spiritual issues. How do you feel spirituality will resonate in Olu?
PA: Inspiration for stories with spiritual content is everywhere, but nowhere more than from within the cradle of spirituality – India, which has such a rich oral and written tradition. It is time for Indian-crafted films to show the world the beauty of India’s spiritual culture. Shaji’s Olu is a poetic, philosophical and spiritual tale, where the surreal uplifts the mundane. The challenge is to ensure that the film rides on cinematic beauty and emotions which pierce all material layers and touch the hearts of the audience.
In his Sculpting of Time, Andrei Tarkovsky says “My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of himself as a spiritual being and aware that beauty is summoning him.” Shaji, you are an admirer of Tarkovsky, your films have marked audiences with their visual poetry, how do you feel Tarkovsky’s statement will resonate in Olu?
SK: Spirituality cannot remain the privilege of a few. Spiritual awareness among people translates into spiritual human ideas that become powerful themes of visual language for Cinema. Tarkovsky’s films stand for it universally and forever. Spirituality is not an idea or a concept. It is a craving for an everlasting peace, joy and bliss. It has haunted human beings throughout history. Cinema can respond to the hopes and agonies of our suffering world provided it addresses this natural craving.
Only a transformed action-oriented spirituality can enlighten human beings. Cinema can and does do that. Cinema deals with time and space. Use of sound and visuals as spiritual insights is of great strength to highlight the mystical dimension in human beings.
In Olu, I will use the idea of Water as a metaphor for spirituality. The sound and sight of water at different moments of my life always fascinated me. I believe water is an element of unity for mankind. So is Cinema.