There has been a long-standing battle to marry literature and cinema. This has been a beef in Tamil cinema for decades for the simple reason that it did not have a parallel cinema movement as opposed to the neighbouring States of Kerala and West Bengal. Nor did it nurture the idea of a film society movement. This ‘invisible wall’ so to say, made it even more difficult for the crossover to happen. Very few have succeeded in bringing about a bridge between these two artforms. Film adaptations of popular novels — such as Jayakanthan’s Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal or Pudhumaipithan’s Chitrannai — did not translate into more writers coming in. Novelists simply stayed away from films. So much so that Kamal Haasan recalls in an interview how he literally forced the celebrated Tamil writer Sujatha (S. Rangarajan) to write for cinema. Their first and only collaboration was Vikram (1986).
Screenwriters with a successful track record — like Salim-Javed in Bollywood — have been far and few in between. Sure there have been successful phases in Tamil cinema: MGR-M. Karunanidhi, the two pillars of the Dravidian movement, were a success story. As were Sivaji Ganesan and Vietnam Veedu Sundaram. C. V. Sridhar often wrote films with his friend Chitralaya Gopu. Then came the Rajini-Kamal era: K Balachander had Ananthu by his side, while Bharathiraja had K. Bhagyaraj. But two of the most influential screenwriting collaborations have come from Kamal Haasan and ‘Crazy’ Mohan, and Shankar and Sujatha.
There is often a misconception about writing for cinema, as the language that cinema speaks is not literature. A lyrical masterpiece may not necessarily work for cinema. One never knows what will work. In a recent interview, writer B. Jeyamohan discussed how he and Mani Ratnam saw the potential for a lengthy scene from a short piece of text while brainstorming for Ponniyin Selvan.
That is why when filmmakers often rue over the need for more writers, the argument holds very little water for the simple reason that not all writers qualify as ‘screenwriters’. What usually goes for pages in a novel comes to just about a few minutes in films. Writing and screenwriting are two different professions and have to be treated that way.
It is in this context we need to acknowledge the towering contribution of Sujatha. It has been said about Sujatha’s works that he was an accessible writer and that truly reflected in the films he wrote for Shankar ( Indian, Mudhalvan, Sivaji: The Boss and Enthiran) and Mani Ratnam ( Kannathil Muthamittal and Aayutha Ezhuthu). Not just Sujatha but Balakumaran too, who has written dialogues for classics such as Nayakan, Guna, Baashha and Pudhupettai, ushered in an easiness to film writing. Having said that, it is even harder to find a writer who knows and appreciates cinema as a form, while at the same time possessing the gift of the mighty pen.
Which is why what Vetri Maaran does is perhaps a wonder. To give an example, the filmmaker infamously said during the release of his blockbuster Asuran (2019), adapted from Vekkai, that people who have read writer Poomani’s novel might not end up liking the film. Because what Asuran was on screen was not Poomani’s Vekkai. Vetri had taken somebody else's written material and made it his own.
Particularly in the last decade, veteran Tamil-Malayalam author B. Jeyamohan has emerged as one of the important literary voices operating in mainstream Tamil cinema space, in the post Sujatha-era. The position Jeyamohan occupies today is rather delicate. Starting from Bala’s Naan Kadavul (2009), based on his novel Yezhaam Ulagam, Jeyamohan has mostly been a dialogue writer in films such as Neerparavai (2012), Papanasam (2015) and Sarkar (2018) to name a few. The first screenplay he wrote was with Mani Ratnam for Kadal (2013), followed by Kaaviya Thalaivan (2014) and 2.0 (2018) — all of which were marred by mixed reviews and box-office figures. It is interesting that three upcoming biggies — Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu (VTK), Ponniyin Selvan (PS) and Viduthalai — have Jeyamohan in common. It's as if Tamil cinema has suddenly woken up to the writer. Based on his short story, Jeyamohan has written VTK with Gautham Menon, while PS has dialogues by him. Vetri Maaran’s Viduthalai too is based on his short story.
The box-office success of the aforementioned films remains crucial for Jeyamohan, more so for Tamil cinema. If they are a success story, then it will give birth to a new beginning in Tamil cinema, ensuring that this cross-pollination is here to stay. In the case of an anti-climax, it remains to be seen if the gap between Tamil cinema and literature would widen further.