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Plucky and on untrodden terrain

SARASWATHY NAGARAJAN

Self-taught filmmaker Biju Kumar tells Saraswathy Nagarajan that cinema is both personal and political for him



Determined Dr. Biju, right, on the set of his film, shooting in cold terrain

Damodaran Biju Kumar is not used to posing for the camera. That is because Biju is at home behind the camera, calling the shots. But he still remembers the day he first saw a movie camera on the sets of his maiden directorial film, Saira; the film that eventually saw him walk the red carpet in Cannes in 2007. “ Saira was the opening film in the Cinema of The World Section and I watched it along with the likes of Mani Ratnam and Rituparno Ghosh,” recalls Biju.

Independent cinema

Saira, made on a shoestring budget of Rs. 18 lakh, took its soft-spoken and unassuming director to 21 film festivals and affirmed his faith in his kind of independent cinema. Today, this three-film, self-taught director has the top stars rooting for him though finding producers is still a Herculean task. His latest film Veettilekkulla Vazhi, starring Prithviraj and Indrajith, has won a place in the Malayalam Cinema Now section of the 15th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). It was premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival in October and was also screened in the Cairo International Film Festival.

In a way, it is befitting that Biju first finds his niche on the festival circuit for it was the various editions of the IFFK that opened his eyes to world cinema and the potential of this art form of the twentieth century.

“I was doing my post graduation in Homeopathy, when the first IFFK took place. My friends pulled me along to watch films,” reminisces Biju. Little did the budding Homeopath realise that cinema was his ticket to fame and recognition. The masters of cinema in general and Roman Polanski in particular became gurus for the wannabe filmmaker. He watched their masterpieces several times and nurtured the idea of a film that was taking shape in his mind.

In 2004 Biju landed a State government job. A steady job and a marriage did not snuff out his dream of seeing his name on the silver screen. Cinema, for him, is personal and political. So he kept writing and polishing his script during his free time and nearly a year later, he showed his script to thespian Nedumudi Venu who complimented him on his work and agreed to work in his film.

Then it was Navya Nair who understood the potential of the film. With a bank loan of Rs. 4 lakh, the camera started rolling for Saira. When the money ran out, production stopped. That was when his friend agreed to fund Saira and finally the film was premiered to rave reviews.

“In Cannes, I happened to watch Michael Moore's Sicko and that is what inspired me to make Raman, a political film that came down heavily on the American presence in Iraq.” Although his second film, Raman, did not get the recognition of his debut effort, Biju feels it was a good movie that went unseen as he was unable to persuade theatres and distributors to screen the film.

Friend indeed

When it came to his third film, Biju found a generous producer in his friend B.C. Joshi. In fact, every time, it has been his wide network of friends who has come to his rescue to help him turn his scripts into films. “People are important to me. I have tried to retain the same crew for my films. Cinematographer M.J. Radhakrishnan is a good friend and as soon I finish my script, I have long discussions with him. I feel it is the communication between a director and his cast and crew that matters the most,” believes Biju.

Although still practising in Pandalam as Chief Medical Officer in the Department of Homeopathy, Biju has already begun work on his fourth script. As is his wont, the filmmaker has already finalised the cast of his next film that has Indrajith in the lead and the search is on for a producer. But Biju points out that finding good producers is only one of the many ills plaguing Malayalam cinema.

Biju's prescription is to persuade the government and the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy to take a more active role in promoting Malayalam cinema, especially non-commercial cinema. “The single biggest problem hitting the industry is the lack of theatres to screen art house films. If the government makes it mandatory for government-owed theatres to give at least 30 days a year for filmmakers like us, it would make a great difference to the quality of cinema,” says Biju.

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