Shaji N. Karun, the veteran cinematographer and director, who believes that cinema must always retain its meditative, philosophical and spiritual qualities, speaks to Pickle, about his thoughts on Cannes, India’s participation at the festival and what would it take for India to overcome the hurdles to make it to international film festivals in a big way.
Shaji N. Karun, the filmmaker from Kerala, made a strong impression in Cannes with his very first film, Piravi (1989), which screened in Un Certain Regard and earned him a Camera d’Or–Honourable Mention. The director’s second film, Swaham, competed for the Palme d’Or in 1994. That was the last time that India had a film in Competition in Cannes. Shaji’s Vanaprastham made it to the Un Certain Regard section in 1999. Before he debuted as a director, Shaji was G. Aravindan’s cinematographer, shooting a string of films for themaestro beginning with his second venture, KanchanaSita (1972). The second film that Shaji lensed for Aravindan, Thampu (The Circus Tent, 1978), is a part of Cannes Classics at the current 75th Cannes Film Festival.
How did it occur to you…….
Many of the films at Cannes and many people, including Satyajit Ray, were different in terms of content when I was a student. It wasn’t like there were any Oscar-winning films available. But then the concept of spirituality entered the films. Films, in my opinion, are a form of poetry that requires spirituality. We also used to watch a lot of films at the Film and Television Institute of India that were selected for the Cannes Film Festival. At the time, the Venice Film Festival was more aggressive in acquiring films from India. Indian films used to win awards there as well.
More Asian films were approved for screening at Venice. However, Cannes received more international films and placed a greater emphasis on new discoveries. They also discovered a lot of new talent, including myself. In fact, my first film, Piravi, was supposed to compete but was moved to the Uncertain Regard section. However, I believe it was a mistake. I missed a lot of competitions that year. However, the film later went on to win 46 international awards from around the world. People were eager to see the film after it was discovered, so I entered it in a number of festivals. Cannes is comparable to the Olympics in terms of sports. Running or even being there is the highest honour for a filmmaker, whether you win or not.
How did Swaham happen?
I directed Swaham in 1994, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or. It had a running time of 146 minutes. They even called to ask if I could shorten the film, but I couldn’t come up with a solution. They then left it at that. Swaham was shot in black and white. I was given the opportunity to compete at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival. As you may know, no new Indian film has entered that competition since 1994. People in India are unaware that countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia are emerging on the strength of Cannes, but the concept of the international language of cinema is becoming diluted here. Appreciation of good cinema art in India is not there as compared to developed countries and even some developing countries. It’s not ignorance, as we are culturally strong, but the idea is to have the ability to understand what is art and what is not. I believe we should examine the quality of art custodians in India. Looking at art necessitates a variety of selfless activities. The first step is to remove selfishness from your heart, which is unfortunately not happening in India. Unfortunately, if no Indian film was accepted into the Cannes Competition section after 1994, it means that Indian cinema is no longer relevant to the international community, which is unfortunate.
What solution can you suggest to resolve this issue?
We should be concerned because India is celebrating its 75th year of independence. But, with the exception of two classic films, there are no Indian films in the other sections. I am proud of our classic films, but I am disappointed that Indian cinema is not included in the competition. When India turned 75, I would have preferred at least one or two films in the Competition or in Un Certain Regard section, and were not on the sidebars.
Please tell us about Vanaprastham, how did it happen?
We had sold out the idea of Indian aesthetics as well as the spiritual part of our Vedas after the competition in Cannes. Pierre Assouline was looking to make a film and liked the ideas I pitched him. My intention was to make a film about what happens to a grieving family and the social fabric when a man dies. That’s how Vanaprastham got its start. I think these ideas matter a lot, because cinema is also the history of a nation.
How do you see Cannes as a festival that has grown to 75 years….
When compared to other festivals, Cannes holds an unrivalled position. Art is the desire to create and discover, and I believe the latter is more difficult than the former. This is where the Cannes Film Festival enters the picture. Cannes discovered Parasite, which was not from the English-speaking world. It means that cinema is discovered on the basis of its strength, rather than its language. It is the concept that can be communicated at various levels and layers. Cannes, in my opinion, is far ahead of any other festival in terms of discovery. Tell us about the projects that you are currently working on My next project is about Amrita Sher-Gil, a Hungarian-Indian painter who died when she was only 28 years old. She transformed the concept of art, and her life has inspired me. Her paintings are all sad and depict pain. From a female perspective, I’d like to highlight her as a passionate and kind person. Surprisingly, she had a secret plan to marry Pt. Nehru. It will be shot in a variety of locations.