Lights, camera, action, authenticity

Praveen Sudevan,Srivatsan S
From Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan to M. Manikandan’s Kadaisi Vivasayi, Tamil filmmakers have been giving equal opportunities to non-actors by casting them in small yet significant roles IN THE LIMELIGHT In Kadaisi Vivasayi, octogenarian Maayand...
From Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan to M. Manikandan’s Kadaisi Vivasayi, Tamil filmmakers have been giving equal opportunities to non-actors by casting them in small yet significant roles

In Kadaisi Vivasayi, octogenarian Maayandi (played by the late Nallandi) is the last active farmer in a small village near Usilampatti, Madurai, where he is caught between modernity and tradition. In the film’s closing portion, he folds the veshti and joins a group of villagers to revive the damaged crops on his land. Watch Maayandi closely and you will notice how stark the difference is in the way he folds the veshti and gets on to work and the way stars do this in films with a rural backdrop.

For one, this authenticity can be attributed to the fact that Maayandi was essayed by a real farmer Nallandi, who, unfortunately, passed away before the film’s release. Filmmaker M. Manikandan says the decision to cast Nallandi instead of a professional actor was a practical one. “Of course, our first choice was to go for actors. But for this film, I needed someone who also knew farming because I wanted to show the different processes involved in farming and the intervals in between. Let’s say a harvest takes six months to yield. I wanted someone to travel with the film during its course. Since we couldn’t find anyone, the second-best option was to cast a non-actor, who is a real farmer, given the budget and subject material,” says Manikandan.

Casting non-actors in movies is not a recent phenomenon; Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra and Bala have all done it in the past. But Tamil filmmakers today seem to be insisting on working with non-actors from a particular region or community to bring about a sense of authenticity and realism to the film’s milieu. Manikandan worked with ragpicker boys in his acclaimed debut, Kaaka Muttai (2014). Lenin Bharathi’s Merku Thodarchi Malai was shot with those who live in the foothills of the Western Ghats. Last year’s Sarpatta Parambarai, Karnan and Jai Bhim all had non-actors in the cast. Some of them even became viral on social media post release. Sarpatta Parambarai’s Beedi Rayappan, who was played by real-life boxer Gajapathi Vathiyar, who coaches students in Mogappair, was one such example. Pa Ranjith had approached Gajapathi to learn boxing before Sarpatta… and discussed his desire to make a film on the boxing scene in north Madras. “Ranjith told me that he would cast me in a small role. I didn’t believe it until I got a call from him one day. Beedi Rayappan, in fact, is based on a real person,” says Gajapatthi, 67.

Gajapathi as Beedi Rayappan is the one who fine tunes Kabilan (Arya) for the final showdown. A boxer for more than four decades, Gajapathi knows players from both the boxing clans: Sarpatta Parambarai and Idiyappa Parambarai. He says he wasn’t intimidated by the camera and even dubbed for some of the scenes. “Ranjith was there to guide me. He was the one who suggested that I tell Arya to catch crabs as part of the training in the ‘Neeye Oli’ song,” he says. “Had I got this spotlight when I was young, it would have meant something. But I’m old now,” he adds.

For Jai Bhim, a courtroom drama about the systematic violence faced by the Irula community, director T.J. Gnanavel visited Irula settlements in search of non-actors for small roles. As most of them were daily-wagers, they were provided compensation and were trained for about a month with the lead actors. “We did not train them to act; it was more like an icebreaker between them and the camera so they can remain natural. Likewise, the actors who play the main Irula characters Rajakannu (Manikandan) and Sengeni (Lijomol Jose) were able to portray them authentically because they interacted with people from the Irula community for one and a half months. So, it was two-way training; for a non-actor to be an actor and for an actor to be a non-actor,” says Gnanavel.

Democratising cinema

Farming was not a prerequisite when Manikandan cast Nallandi in the lead role. He clarifies that one cannot expect actors to be masters in other fields to bring about authenticity on screen. “For Kaaka Muttai, I cast those two boys because I wanted two people who were familiar with that milieu. In fact, I would say Kaaka Muttai was more challenging compared to Kadaisi Vivasayi because we shot it in film. That was not the case for Kadaisi… thanks to technology and digital filmmaking. We had the luxury of retakes and adjustments that we did on the set,” he says.

Though the reviews for Kadaisi Vivasayi praised Nallandi for living the part, Manikandan says that Nallandi too had to ‘act’ for scenes such as the courtroom proceedings. “The difference is his ‘acting’ doesn’t show on the screen,” he adds. Having non-actors as part of the crew helps shape the film better, believes Gnanavel. He remembers an old Irula woman helping Malayalam actor Lijomol Jose get her lines right during the dubbing.

“I think a film requires authenticity. As a director, it is my responsibility to ensure that. In Jai Bhim, we had a retired forensics officer to supervise another actor who was cast as the forensics guy. But the way he sprinkled the fingerprint powder was so smooth and unique that we could not replicate it with the actor. So, we ended up casting the officer instead. And we chose the actor [Tamizh] to play the role of S.I. Gurumoorthy because he has worked in the police department for over 10 years,” he says. Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan, a recreation of the 1995 Kodiyankulam incident against Dalits, featured non-actors from that region as background artists. On casting non-actors, Mari Selvaraj had said in an interview that it was an important step in democratising cinema. Gnanavel concurs. “If there is a system that says only certain people can be a part of something, that is undemocratic. It is democratic only when everyone has an equal opportunity. So, to say that only actors can be in a film and others cannot is undemocratic,” he says.

Filmmaker M. Manikandan says that in film Kadaisi Vivasayi, octogenarian Maayandi is played by an active farmer as he wanted how knew farming and looked professional.
For Jai Bhim, director T.J. Gnanavel hired daily-wagers from Irula settlements, provided them compensation and and trained them for a month.
Many films which released last year, such as Sarpatta Parambarai, Karnan, had non-actors in the cast. Some of them later became famous on social media.

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