Portraits – truthful and beautiful – of survival
The Tamil documentary, ‘Meet Me at the Mango Tree,’ was screened at the Sydney Film Festival 2009.
Fresh perception: (Clockwise) Producer Santhana Naidu, director Brian Mckenzie, Aravind-Shankar (who scored the music), the TV repaiman and the boy who catches crabs.
A five-part documentary in Tamil directed by Australian filmmaker Brian Mckenzie, a winner of Best Documentary Series and Australian Directors’ Guild Award, and produced by Santhana Naidu, Tamil of Malaysian origin, had been nominated for thi
s year’s official selection for Doco Prize at the Sydney Film Festival 2009.
The music for ‘Meet Me at the Mango Tree’ has been scored by the Chennai-based duo, Aravind-Shankar. “We were advised by Brian that we should not use the keyboard, but use only the original instruments for the re-recording,” say Aravind and Shankar. “We, therefore, used only mridangam, tabla, flute, violin, guitar, bouzuki (sounds like veena) and the double bass. Of course, we had to call P.K. Ravi, the nagaswaram vidwan, to play for the title piece, to give it a southern flavour.”
In an e-mail interview, the director and producer who are settled in Australia gave the details of the project.
“This is meant for pure art-house cinema lovers, artists, photographers and those who love social realist art modes, students and teachers of Indian languages, Indian culture, anthropology, cinema studies, art, society and culture” says Brian Mckenzie.
‘Meet Me At The Mango Tree’ has been woven into a feature film of three episodes, he explains. “The five stories, each beautifully composed illustrate the fragile nature of a worker’s day-to-day existence in this region, with a wry humour and marked dignity.
“The first segment follows the tribulations of a man who scrapes a living with his street side ironing shack. The second depicts a young man, collecting crabs, who approaches the world of work rather more casually. Next we met a diligent coconut gatherer who runs a stall by the railway crossing, a livelihood that is threatened by the disintegration of his bicycle. The fourth segment explores a fascinating microcosm of stall-holders and street vendors in colourful and chaotic Thayar Sahib Street. Finally, we tracked down a TV repairman… (whose) immense calm in a series of face-offs with disgruntled customers and constant power blackouts is nothing less than inspirational.
“These are arguably the most entertaining to the widest possible audience, due to more traditional narrative structure and pacing. ‘Ironing Man’ and ‘Crab Boy’ are pieces of art, but require a different kind of engagement.”
Santhana Naidu says that they began their project with an interest in the aftermath of the tsunami with its effects on the fishing villages of the Coromandal coast. But then, on the first morning of the first of their three visits to India, a dawn walk in the back streets of Chennai changed everything.
Santhana says, “It all started about six months before the tsunami while sitting in Brian’s kitchen, drinking tea when he challenged me by asking, ‘Why don’t you write something about India that we can make into a documentary?’ I went straight to my library and pulled out all the books I had by R.K. Narayan and started reading again…I wrote a series of stories/outlines with Narayan in mind and set it around the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. The hundreds of small vendors and shops around this temple have always fascinated me. I remember jumping on my soap box preaching to Brian, how I did not want India portrayed as so many westerners tend to do…
“It was September 2005 and the monsoon greeted us with its fury as we travelled down the East Coast Road. We stayed in a hotel in Cuddalore and filmed in Pudupakkam and when we took a break, we went back to the children’s home in Kadapakkam, which became our base camp for the entire four-year shoot. We went back to Chennai in search of our ‘Ironing Man,’ but his jerry built ironing stand was deserted.
“We left the ironing stand and wandered down the road to Thayar Sahib Street and saw a young boy playing with his pigeons on the street corner, where they were housed and Brian filmed him playing. While we were doing a wide shot of the home from the edge of the backwaters, we saw a young boy catching crabs and started filming him and when he finished, we followed him home and filmed his mother cooking them…
“One day, as we were returning, we asked our driver to slow down on the village road as the late evening sun lit up the paddy fields on all sides … Suddenly we heard American cartoon music and we pulled up to meet the village TV repairman.”
Screen Australia had special documentary fund and suggested that Brian-Santhana Naidu make an hour’s documentary, instead of the earlier subject on the aftermath of tsunami they had planned. This made them combine the three episodes into a feature version – ‘Ironing Man,’ ‘Crab Boy’ and the ‘Village TV repairer.’ This was premiered at the Sydney Film Festival on June 8.
“It was well received and at the end of the show during questions and answers, a young lass asked me how much we were influenced by R.K. Narayan. I said that even if she had seen the vaguest trace of Narayan, I had succeeded as a producer,” says Santhana Naidu.
“Understanding Asia and collaborating with it is increasingly important to Australia. This series of portraits show people who are the foundation of Indian society, whose sense of place and spiritualism and whose humble and heartfelt endeavours put all the striving to develop and modernize into perspective,” says Brian Mckenzie.
On whether he is happy with the project, Brian says, “I have relished the opportunity to discover and document in a foreign land. The close collaboration with Santhana Naidu has made this project possible…” Jason di Rosso, Movietime ABC Radio National comments: “In cinematic terms, I thought it was the purest film. I like it, when films rely on - and trust – the strength of images. The images of people going about their daily, physical tasks were full of tension, pathos and mystery. Then there were the stories presented, insights into the human condition, family and the cycle of life.”
As for the audience response, this is what one had to say, “Every person who speaks to the camera in ‘Meet Me at the Mango Tree’ gives the audience, fatigued by story overload, a fresh perception of the world. If beauty is truth, then this quintet of stories about people that maintain tiny enterprises within extraordinary constraints is both truthful and beautiful. It is also a protest song to the over rated pursuit of happiness. Quality of life for the characters in ‘Meet Me at the Mango Tree’ is about overcoming a mountain of obstacles to complete a single task. It is a hugely satisfying and inspiring film. ”
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