Tamil movies now take up realistic issues, says Sugumar Shanmugham

Sugumar Shanmugham
Sugumar Shanmugham

'Baaram' directed by Priya Krishnaswamy was adjudged the best Tamil film at the 66th National Film Awards, 2019. It was the sole Tamil work to get any laurel at the prestigious event. The film casts light on the practice of ‘Thalaikuthal’, a traditional practice of senicide or geronticide by which the elderly are eliminated by abandoning or killing them.

Sugumar Shanmugham, a research scholar-cum-artist, plays a leading role in it. He also worked as casting director for the movie.

He got the chance to make his acting debut with 'Baaram' -- meaning 'The Burden' -- while doing academic research at the Department of Performing Arts of the Pondicherry University.

Hailing from a family of Therukoothu (street theatre) artists, Sugumar has got an innate flair for arts. Konstantin Stanislavski and Michael Chekhov are his favourite theatre practitioners. In casting, Charlie Chaplin is his inspirational figure.

Sugumar took his Masters in Drama and Theatres from the Pondicherry University. Later he joined as a student in the first batch of National School of Drama in Banglore. He is an active theatre practitioner for the past 12 years and has worked with eminent theatre personalities from all over India.

Sugumar Shanmugham shares his experiences and views on acting and casting with Onmanorama.

'Baaram' was adjudged the Best Movie in Tamil at the National Film Awards. It is about a hard-hitting reality that is rarely spoken about. Can you share with us the social significance of the movie?

Thalaikuthal is about how people abuse elders. The theme makes us think on how parents are taking care of us even when they are poor; how people are brutally attacking elders; and how they are maltreated.

In 'Baaram' Priya wants to tell that these kinds of practices are happening around us. She wants to promote awareness about that.

She was doing research on Thalaikuthal in Tamil Nadu. From information gathered from villagers, she made a script for a documentary film. She also got the idea of making a film on Thalaikuthal from wellwishers there.

Tell us about your experience working with Priya Krishnaswamy.

My experience with Priya, a national award winner for the Best Documentary, has been fantastic. She had given lots of freedom to me. We travelled to villages and chose actors from remote areas. 'Baram' was shot in the villages of Tamil Nadu and it took around one year.

We spent two months for casting in Tamil Nadu. We held acting workshops so that artists get involved completely with the character.

Dr R Raju, the Head of the Department of Performing Arts in Pondicherry University, introduced her to me. He also played the leading role of Karuppasami in 'Baaram'.

Casting director to the character ‘Veera’ in 'Baaram'. Tell us about that journey?

My character name is Veera. He is 45 years old. Priya had asked me to take up the role after the actor supposed to play it was absent at the workshop.

Casting director or actor? What do you prefer?

I am happy doing either.

Casting agencies or casting houses exist in South Indian Film Industry, but there are very few casting directors.

Wrong casting may doom the film; hence there should not compromise in this case.

Casting agencies take money from those seeking a chance to act in movies. They may present those who they want to act, not actual talents, and this tendency create problems during the shoot.

Casting director should understand well the anatomy, psyche and acting skills of an artist.

Your take on ‘casting couch’ in Indian film industry

Asking for favours and returning them is a wrong practice. Ultimately it is wrong and not suitable for an artist. No real artist can afford that in film industry. Everyone wants to be honest to their profession and disciplined.

How did senior directors and artists react to 'Baaram'?

The 'Baaram' team received positive responses on several counts. Many said that the script and treatment were very unique. Some termed the realistic elements in the movie as really fantastic. They noted the actors in the movie were living as characters not mere playing as characters.

Films like 'Sudani from Nigeria', 'Mahanati', 'Andhadhun' got more audience attention before their release in their respective industries. But people came to know about 'Baaram' only when it received recognition. What do you think about that?

That is because there is no star cast in the film. This is not a huge-budget film. 'Baaram' has a very simple and truthful story. Most of the public audience are looking forward to mainstream actors and commercial films. When these kind of pre-conceptions are there, how can we expect recognition soon for a low-budget movie? But still there are good number of cinephiles who are watching content-centred movies like 'Baaram'. Such type of movies should go to youngsters as they are the people who will take care of their parents.

Did your Ph D research topics help you to cast right people?

My research is about characterisation, actor’s bio-psychology and physiology. It helped me a lot while I was doing the cast selection and 95% of my selection turned out to be perfect.

During research I found we may get good actors, but their attitude, behaviour or gestures will not be suitable for the character always. Some may look good but are bad at acting.

These findings may also help in theatre.

Tamil movies are on a path of realism. Do you think that this shift to focus on contemporary human issues would help Tamil movies to conquer the minds of cinephiles?

Audiences are changing. Now they are ready to accept movies with contemporary human issues. There are actors and directors who are engaged both in mainstream movies as well as in theme-based artistic movies. Slowly the old concepts about cinema is changing. Now people are ready to accept the reality through movies.

Through the Pondicherry Theatre Arts Academy, you are training students free of cost. Tell us about that.

Pondicherry Theatre Arts Academy is for young theatre and movie aspirants. Around 18 students are there. They appear in the productions, exhibitions and workshops of the Academy.

Many experimental workshops related to my research is being applied here.

My aim is to produce not only good actors but also artists with excellent knowledge and humanity. The workshops and classes are at weekends mainly. There is no fees, but I choose only those students who are passionate about this field. Right now this academy is working with a motive of service.

What are your plans and other projects?

I am about to finish my research topic. I am also engaging with three more films as an actor, casting director and acting coach.

I also keep on doing my theatre activities to increase my knowledge and skill. Theatre is my root.

I am also planning to do a documentary, funded by the Indian Foundation for Art. It is about characterisation on Therukoothu.

‘K M Monica’, one of my plays, is currently being staged in Kerala.

I like to work in the Malayalam film industry. ‘Maheshinte Pratikaram’ is one of my favourite Malayalam movies.

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