M Manikandan is not only the writer and director but also the cinematographer of his National Award winning Tamil film Kaaka Muttai. Produced by Dhanush and Vetrimaaran, and distributed by Fox Star Studios, the film has won accolades at many international film festivals. Manikandan talks to Rohini Nag about the film and his next
What prompted you to become a filmmaker?
I have been working as a photographer for 15 years. Four years ago, I made a short film called Wind and, after that, I wanted to make a feature film. My short film won me a lot of appreciation and that prompted me to make Kaaka Muttai.
How was Kaaka Muttai conceived? Was it tough to get producers for the film?
Basically there was a time when my son wanted to have a pizza but I couldn’t afford to buy him one. I had taken time off from my job as a photographer to write a feature film. The fact that there are many poor children who don’t even know the taste of something so normal for us and made me think about how much effort it might take them or their parents to save up just to have a small taste of it.
After watching my short film, Wind, Dhanush and Vetrimaaran came on board instantly. It was the same with Fox Star Studios. Usually, films like these are shot on shoestring budgets and they lose a certain value in production. When I pitched the script to Dhanush and Vetrimaran, they insisted it should be a local story narrated with technical finesse. Everything fell into place in no time.
Do you think awards burden you with expectations for your next?
Expectations are high but I will never let that affect my work. I made this film with a certain purity of thought which I will carry in all my films. Many articles and praise have come my way, not just in India but Internationally as well. I don’t read interviews or articles as I don’t want anything to affect me. It is very important to maintain clarity when it comes to filmmaking.
On the International front, comparisons were made with Slumdog Millionaire. Do you think that was justified?
Comparisons were inevitable as both films were based in the slums of India. But the story of Kaaka Muttai is diametrically opposite to Slumdog Millionaire. In my film, these two boys don’t dream of leaving the slums behind and of a bright future. Their only dream is to eat pizza. My film is just a story that unfolds in a slum setting, about globalisation’s effect on our kids.
How did you cast the two boys, Ramesh and Vignesh? How did you train them to act in front of the camera?
I wanted to cast trained actors at first, but while auditioning for the parts, I realised that the natural reactions and antics that were required for the part were not coming naturally to any of the trained child actors. I met these boys by chance and they instantly fit the roles. I first saw them when I was going through the slums taking reference photos of children from those areas, because I wanted kids who looked and acted like them.
Ramesh and Vignesh were both very energetic and talkative, just the kind of
kids I wanted for the film. They were good with their lines but they were very conscious in front of the camera. So we had workshops for them to be comfortable in front of the camera. We had two cameras on location as well to get the required footage and their reactions.
What was their reaction when you told them they had won a National Award?
They didn’t react to the award but when I told them that they had to fly to New Delhi to collect the award, they got excited. The only thing they were happy about was that they would get to fly in a plane. The award doesn’t mean a thing to them. It’s only the plane ride that mattered.
My next is a crime-based political thriller. The film will tackle a social issue and will have a low budget. With Kaaka Muttai, we were sure to have a minimum guarantee attached to its release and my next has an even smaller budget than Kaaka Muttai. It doesn’t have a complex plot but is a simple narration.
Do you plan to work on any big-budget films with A-list actors?
I have a couple of scripts that I will start working on and, hopefully, in the next one and a half years, things will start to shape up. Two big stars have agreed to work with me and we are working out dates.
What prompted Fox Star studios to back Kaaka Muttai?
Fox Star Studios is always in support of good content and when we believe in a project, scale and cast is never a barrier. Kaaka Muttai was one such film where after the first screening itself, we decided to back this beautiful gem. The film came to us through National Award-winning director Vetrimaaran and Dhanush. Our team was really proud and excited to partner with Vetri and Dhanush, as each one of us believed in the film. The rest is history.
Fox Star Studios has managed to deliver six back-to-back hit films in Tamil. How did you manage to crack that market?
It’s an amazing feat for us, especially since all six films were with first-time directors. We have given the biggest priority to the script and the story, and that has worked for us in a big way. Most importantly, we have been able to partner with the best and most creative producers in that market. From A R Murugadoss, with whom we had three hits, to C V Kumar and now Vetrimaaran, who has been able to nurture some wonderful directors and talent.
Also, our marketing and distribution has been pathbreaking in that market, which in fact has been acknowledged by the industry there. For every film, we have had a unique promotion and distribution strategy, which together with the content has ensured us huge box-office numbers. We have been able to forge a wonderful relationship with our Star channel partner Vijay TV, which not only enables us to minimise the financial risks, but also helps with some clutter-breaking promotions for our films.
Kaakka Muttai was not promoted like a regional film as there was a national buzz around it before its release. Was there a particular marketing strategy you had adopted for this film?
When we got this film, we knew this project was special. Also, we knew that if we just released the film without fodder, it would pass off as another good film without reaching the heights it has touched now. So we started with taking the film to international film festivals like the Toronto International Film Festival, Dubai Film Festival, Rome Film Festival and others, where it fared extremely well. And the film being a two National Award winner would always be icing on the cake.
We believed that language should not be a barrier to a film which is so beautiful. So we promoted the film as a film with a universal theme rather than a regional film. This worked as the Karnataka government gave this film tax exemption and this was the first non-Kannada film to get this sort of privilege; the film is in its third week in cities like Bangalore and Mumbai, and is still doing fantastically well.
Moreover, we had screenings for Bollywood celebrities like Karan Johar, who tweeted praise, and ensured a meeting of the child actors with M S Dhoni, who again endorsed the film. These developments created a good buzz nationally even among the non-Tamil speaking audience.
You have four upcoming Tamil films on your slate for 2015. How do you choose a regional project?
We have three films – Kaakka Muttai was the first of the four. The most important aspect we look out for when we chose a project is the script, and the producer and director behind the project. It’s very important that we believe in these two most important pillars. The rest becomes easy.
Which other regional markets would you want to tap?
We have plans but it’s too early to speak about them.