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From Texas to tinsel town

Sumathy Ram, who lives in the U. S., is in Chennai for her first project, "VishwaThulasi," in Tamil, starring Nandita Das and Mammootty. The writer-director in conversation with MALATHI RANGARAJAN ...

Sumathy Ram

SUMATHY RAM knew very little about cinema when she flew down from Houston, in the U. S., to make `VishwaThulasi' with Mammootty and Nandita Das in the lead. But now that the project is complete, you have a whole lot of people in the know showering appreciation on it — editor-director Lenin for one. "Sumathy has done a good job," he says. "Ilaiyaraja came out of the studio after the re-recording of `VishwaThulasi' and told M. S. Viswanathan, `We do not often get a chance to work in a film like this, do we?' The joy in his words were gratifying," says Sumathy. In the U. S. she had made `A Silent Wish', a three-minute film in English.

I was testing the cinema waters then ... " she reminisces. Sumathy spent a year in Chennai, watching her Vishwa and Thulasi come alive before her eyes. Her two daughters and husband Ramki Ramakrishnan have come down recently, as Sumathy is all set to release her dream product.


"I'm sorry. This is just a makeshift residence. We don't even have a kitchen here," smiles Sumathy, pointing out to the sparsely furnished rooms at her large house in Saligramam. But how this happily married housewife, born in Dharapuram, educated in Coimbatore and later at the Anna University and married and settled in the U. S. for 12 years, emerged as a writer, director and film producer, is an interesting story in itself. "I've always been a dreamer ... " Sumathy has been writing poems in English and Tamil from a very young age. Husband Ramki who happened to read her poems one day, suggested they come to Chennai and make an album out of them. And that unwittingly, was her first step towards Tamil tinseldom.

Music album to movie

The couple met M. S. Viswanathan with her poems. "In a matter of 10 days Sumathy had Shankar Mahadevan, Bombay Jayashri, Srinivas, Unni Krishnan, Harini, Sujatha and Hariharan giving voice to her words. "I named it `Vishwa Ragam' in honour of MSV. The collection also has a tribute piece to him. We plan to release the album after "VishwaThulasi," says Sumathy.

After the recording she returned to her home in the U. S. and as she began to listen to the songs the characters of her film just walked out of them. Sumathy goes into a reverie as she describes the experience: "I didn't have to do much. They seemed to enact the story in front of my eyes. I only had to write down what they were doing." Thus inadvertently she had embarked on the big job of scripting her story. "I would sit for hours on end working on it, adding a little there and changing the course of the tale a little here ... " The next step was to paint the entire story scene by scene. "From the props to the costume I knew what I wanted for every scene and I had an artist sketching out everything for me." Organised, focussed, clear and determined about what she wants Sumathy doesn't give up easily. Mammootty would keep teasing me ... `Better do it her way ... she won't settle for anything else,' he would say," she laughs. Once the entire paper work was done, the couple decided to make it into a film.

The lead players

"Even when I conceived the story, I only saw Nandita Das as Thulasi. `If she refuses to do the film I won't make it,' I thought. I was glad when Nandita told me that she was very much taken in by my script. `I like the language ... let's meet,' she said, and that was it. Mammootty is the Vishwa I had thought of. Also Manoj K. Jayan has a solid role to play. First I had thought of Prakash Raj for the part ... " Sumathy is so convinced about her cast that she is not unduly worried about the saleability of her stars. "My husband takes care of the business angle. All that I can say is that "Vishwa ... " is a commercial film, artistically made. Mammootty told Nandita and me that in all these years he had not done such a deeply romantic role ... I've shot the film with sensitivity ... " "Actually I was not too keen on a comedy track, but I was told it is necessary ... " So she shot a comedy track, but just when the film is to hit the screens, she has decided that "Vishwa ... " can do without such a distraction. "So now "Vishwa ... " is totally my film, " says Sumathy.

Mammootty and Nandita Das in "VishwaThulasi" ...

Technical crew

Sumathy may not have known much about Tamil cinema but she has roped in some of the most talented technicians. Anil Pemkarikar who so naturally transformed Kamal Hassan's appearance in "Anbae Sivam" has taken care of Manoj K. Jayan's looks in "VishwaThulasi."

The film has been shot in 35 mm. "I feel it would bring the audience closer to the story ... they shouldn't be just seeing Sundarapuri ... they should be there. One sure way is to use this format," she explains. Sumathy Ram and Ilaiyaraja are the lyricists of the film. "The two greats have created some mesmerising music," she says. Sprinkled throughout the film are tiny, two-line numbers. "I call them Haiku songs ... initially MSV was quite surprised at the concept. Now he's very happy with the way I've used them." Sumathy feels that the film has reached an elevated plane after Ilaiyaraja's incredible re-recording. "I was thrilled when I saw what the magic he could do with his music ... " she smiles.

"VishwaThulasi" is a period film that spans 20 years (1942- '62) and is set in an ambience Sumathy has named as Sundarapuri.

Basically Sumathy is a very cool person. And her rapport with her unit was perfect. "It was more like a family. I did have my trying moments but they have only made me more confident.

"One night we were busy shooting when I paused for a moment to look around. More than a 100 men were working and there I was — a woman who had never stepped out of the safe cocoon my husband had provided — heading the hectic activity. I couldn't believe it myself," she laughs.

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