Director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan on Art, Politics, and Non-Bollywood Indian Films

Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's latest film "Sexy Durga" won the prestigious Hivos Tiger Award at 2017's Rotterdam Film Festival — a first for Indian cinema.

By , 22 Mar 17 05:06 GMT
A portrait of Sanal Kumar Sasidharan.

Sanal Kumar Sasidharan is an independent film director from the South Indian state of Kerala. After working for some time as a lawyer, Sasidharan was able to dive into his true passion of filmmaking by making several shorts and, eventually, three feature films.

His features — Six Feet HighAn Off-Day Game, and the recently released Sexy Durga (which won a prestigious Hivos Tiger Award at 2017’s Rotterdam International Film Festival) — are nothing like the rambunctious, star-studded Hindi films of Bollywood that many in the West associate with India. Instead, they are meditative pieces of art that often highlight touchy social or political issues (caste, gender, religion — note that the “Durga” in Sexy Durga refers to a goddess).

Cinema Escapist spoke with Sasidharan about his artistic process, the quirks of his home state of Kerala, and why it’s so hard to make artistic films within India’s diverse film industry.

•   •   •

Before you were a director, you were a lawyer. How did you get from that into filmmaking?

I chose advocacy [law] as an intermediate profession. It was not my passion, and I was not at all looking to become a lawyer. From my childhood onwards, I dreamt of becoming a filmmaker and looked for every option to reach that dream.

However, I grew up in a middle class family, and there was a lot of taboo regarding cinema — my father was totally against it. So I thought “OK, I’ll select a profession that’ll give me some dignity and then, after that, I’ll approach some directors to become an assistant director.”

Even after becoming a lawyer, I couldn’t concentrate on my work — I was still thinking of being a filmmaker, so I quit advocacy around 2006. By that time I had already helped form a film society named the Kazhcha Film Forum, which helped me produce three short films. Then, after my first film Six Feet High came out and gained some recognition, I started becoming more established as a director.


How does making a movie through crowdfunding compare to getting traditional producers? Does it make things more flexible, or harder?

Dealing with [the mainstream film] industry was much harder than [crowdfunding]. At first, I tried to get into industry. I approached lots of producers, artists, and technicians, but for ten years I couldn’t get any help from inside industry.

Then I thought “things aren’t working, so I need to find an alternative”. That’s why I considered crowdfunding, which wasn’t as hard as industry seemed to be. Since my films were low cost and not particularly extravagant, it was not so difficult to find people — friends, friends of friends, more people out there — to support you outside of industry.

However, one challenge with crowdfunding is that, once your film is made, it’s difficult for you to show it to audiences. You can’t reach people as easily as industry films.

Why is it so difficult to get an independent, art house film made within the mainstream Indian film industry?

The industry has a very particular mindset about what a film needs to have — there must be luxury, there must be a lot of money, there must be stars.

We’re not working with stars in independent films — we’re working with artists! Industry has a feeling that everyone working in it has to be above society, coming from stardom and the sky, which makes it difficult to talk to them as well.

Now, after becoming more established and winning some awards, it will be easier for me to approach them. However, in general, if someone new goes to them with a good script or scenario, I’m sure they won’t even pay attention or spend time to listen. That’s the biggest problem. You can follow after industry for years and years, and your projects will be postponed until you’re dead.

To be more precise, I know that India has many different languages each with their own film industries. What’s distinct about the Malayalam (the language Sasidharan’s films are in) film industry, or how does it compare with other languages’ industries?

Yes — we have lots of industries and languages [in India]. Besides Malayalam there’s Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi — and of course Hindi-language Bollywood is most predominant.

Around 150 Malayalam films come out each year. That’s a huge number considering Malayalam, and the state of Kerala, are relatively small — only about [35 million] people speak the language (compared with ~400+ million for Hindi).

Every industry has their own criteria, their own ups and downs, their own problems. In Malayalam there are a lot of upcoming indie projects, and that’s the case for Kannada, Marathi, and Bengali as well. These small, independent films are happening, but at the same time they’re totally outside of the mainstream industry.

Overall, I think it’s very hard for [Indian independent filmmakers] to reach out to people and obtaining an audience for such films. While [Indian independent films] have been slowly emerging over the last fifteen years, I think that within five years we’ll start getting a decent sized audience for these films, and we can then at least survive.

Do you think these new audiences will come primarily through video streaming services and the internet, or other methods?

For me, cinema is produced primarily for theaters. When you watch a film in a theater, that’s an experience you won’t forget or get anywhere else. When we dream about film, we think about the projection inside that theater, the feel, and the sound.

At the same time, we need to accept that fewer people are watching films in theaters nowadays. Everyone’s watching through internet streaming and mobile, and if it’s not available on the internet they’ll start pirating.

In India, people have in a bad mindset because they think films will come out on the internet for free, and they have the right to watch everything for free, and thus the revenue [we filmmakers] generate very little revenue from the internet.

Though there are good [legal] platforms like MovieSaints coming up, the number of people watching through these platforms is still quite small. At the same time, if someone streams something [for free on a larger platform like] YouTube, it’s a way for them to be educated about such films. After being educated, little by little, maybe next time they might watch films in a theater or pay money on proper platforms.

Most of your films are about your home state of Kerala, which has many interesting dimensions like an active communist party, for example. Tell us more about it.

A map of Kerala’s location within India.

Kerala is a tiny state in the southernmost part of India. We definitely have many peculiarities — lots of good things, and lots of bad things too. It’s like a kind of milkshake, where everything’s mixed inside and you really can’t say how it tastes.

In Kerala, we find politics in everything [Kerala has a reputation for being one of India’s most politically active states]. However, we’re a also hugely politically manipulated society.

Everyone talks about politics, but these days those discussions are no longer sincere — it’s more like entertainment, where people do it just to pass the time. It’s also tragic to say we’re a politically sensitive society, because we’re sometimes too focused on political correctness [as opposed to real issues].

Even the Communist Party, which as you mentioned has been identified outside India as unique because it came to power through elections, is leaning more towards the right. There’s a lot of complicated things happening with globalization, with Communists now talking about bringing in [big corporate] industry. As a result, everyone’s become a critic and a Nostradamus. They’re making predictions about the future, and not focusing on living today and now.

What do you think is the relationship between filmmaking and politics?

Filmmaking is primarily an art. Pieces of art might sometimes relate to politics — however, you can’t take politics and force it upon art. That’s what I personally believe.

If an artist makes a piece of art, there may be political interpretations and repercussions, but it’s primarily just a piece of art. Art can’t be politically correct all the time, and art doesn’t have to have to express a concrete opinion.

Art is primarily art, and maybe it can spark discussions on human rights or political correctness — but that’s later on.

On the note of art, your films are quite artistic indeed. One example of that is how the last 48 minutes of An Off-Day Game are a single long take. Can you describe the process behind doing that?

After reading the story [that An Off-Day Game is based on], which offers a very sharp critique of society, I began to think about how I can best impact the audience by making this film unique and very different from others.

I thought “OK, everybody knows about the basics of filmmaking these days — there’s a cut, the editing is good, the cinematography is good, the acting is good.” I felt that rather than having people analyze too deeply about so many shots and cuts, I’d just shoot something very raw.

I wanted to tell the story as it was, and allow people to see themselves in the film. And that’s why I tried to minimize the number of shots I used, which led to the last 48 minutes being a single shot.

I also know that both An Off-Day Game and Sexy Durga have no script. What was your thinking there?

My first [feature-length] film Six Feet High had a great script. However, while making it I kept deviating from the script — and I enjoyed those deviations very much. Not having a script allows actors to say what they feel, so I thought that scripts were limiting.

Thus, when planning my second film [An Off-Day Game], I thought “why should I go for a script if it’s a limiting factor?” Not having a script ended up working very well because the actors behaved organically, they behaved as if there was magic. I just observed them and got inspiration for how to shape the next scene. Then I put the actors in the next scene, and they help it grow.

I could feel the film grow on the spot — that was my remuneration. While shooting, I actually couldn’t stop laughing, because I was thoroughly enjoying the dialog and scenes that occurred when I didn’t force people to go behind a script. I followed this same route for Sexy Durga because it helped give me pleasure.

What are your creative influences?

[Polish director] Krzysztof Kieślowski was pretty influential — he’s not about technique, he’s about observation, life, and the subtle presentation of philosophy. Kieślowski’s my favorite.

Andrei Tarkovsky’s poetic narration, and Michael Haneke’s style, must’ve also influenced me.

And of course, in Malayalam cinema there’s Adoor Gopalakrishnan and G. Aravindan — I’ve probably seen all their films.

Sexy Durga won the Hivos Tiger award at this year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival. What’s the impact of that been so far? Have industry people started reaching out?

Yeah, of course. The Hivos Tiger Award is one of the biggest awards at these film festivals, and this is the first time a Indian film has won it. [People in industry] are quite excited and looking at me now. Before, they were just thinking: “He’s doing something, but we don’t know what he’s doing. He’s always talking about independent cinema and not coming to us to make films.”

Now, they’re curious about what I’m doing, and curious about participating. I’m not sure what I’ll do with that though, because I feel that I need to keep the organic nature of filmmaking I’ve pursued so far. But things are pretty good at the moment.

What do you think audiences outside of India can take away from Sexy Durga or your other films?

Actually, I was very curious about this because I thought my films are very indie and indigenous — the people and stories I deal with are very Malayalam or Indian. I wasn’t confident that they’d work with international audiences.

However, when I screened Sexy Durga in Rotterdam, I felt that I was wrong. People are very much interested in these stories, and they’re interpreting them to have universal values. I felt happy because even if [films like Sexy Durga] are very local, strictly indigenous, and only discuss politics in our state, people can still connect. I’m very happy to know that this universality of cinema exists.

One last question — do you have any other films or projects in the works right now?

Yes. I’m working on a film that will start shooting in May or June. It’s about a filmmaker and the society he lives in. It’ll show how society controls artists, and how the artists try to escape from this control.

Want to watch Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s movies? Check out An Off-Day Game, Six Feet High, and Sexy Durga on MovieSaints, a website that lets you stream movies from all around the world. 

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