Deepak Kumaran talks about the success of Chemman Chaalai

Deepak Kumaran’s directorial debut Chemman Chaalai has garnered interest from San Francisco to Singapore. The young filmmaker shares his thoughts with NANTHA KUMAR on the film’s success. 

Deepak Kumaran’s remarkable entrance into Malaysian filmdom bears similarities to the desolation of renowned director Satyajit Ray, which preceded the legendary Bengali filmmaker’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), and plays on the theme of basic humanity in a relevant and realistic way. Kumaran’s Chemman Chaalai (The Gravel Road) is also a song of the little road albeit in a rubber estate here between the late 1960s and early 1970s while Ray’s Pather Panchali was set in the 1920s. 

LocalindependentIndianfillmakers(from left)KannanThiagarajan,DeepakKumaran andKumaresan.

Such resemblances, of course, resulted in attracting the same criticism. For one, Chemman Chaalai and Pather Panchali were castigated for their slowness. In Kumaran’s more unfortunate case, the audience was less tolerant of what was deemed an unpardonably torturous pace. This resulted in its failure to indulge Kumaran in his representation of the actual tempo in a rubber estate in Malaysia – as did Ray in his in illustration of the languid Bengal village. 

Nor were the critics and cinemagoers at ease with the portrayal of poverty in Chemman Chaalai. 

Kumaran was asked during the post-media screening in January of this unappealing depiction of rural life and the image of the Malaysian Indian that it would project in the international festivals that accommodated the film.  

It was a query that both neglected to address the roots of the Malaysian Indian and denied the exposure of Indians who have not gained from urban growth. But these are not the only elevated watermarks of Chemman Chaalai – the film essentially addresses the question of cultural identity and stakes a high ground in dictating the shape and purpose of Malaysian Indian film-making. 

“I tagged Chemman Chaalai as a film of self-discovery. I’m an Indian but I don’t know who I am. The film helped me discover myself and it was also about my mother who connected me back to my roots,” said Kumaran, who won the International Competition category’s principal prize at the 51st International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in Germany last month as the producer of Tan Chui Mui’s A Tree in Tanjung Malim

“Also, another factor that disturbed me a lot ? I hated Bollywood films as they didn’t make sense to me. I’m trying to capture what it is like to be in Malaysia – it’s not all that dancing and singing but human relations.  

“Our issues are different; they are not about love, rich and poor families and killing each other. Our issues are our suppression as people ? we don’t have political and other rights and there are other issues that we want to discuss as Indians in this country which I was more interested in, which make us unique.” 

Kumaran recalled the curious questions from perplexed film enthusiasts on Malaysia and the country’s diversity at the International Film Festival Rotterdam between late January and late February – Chemman Chaalai was part of an inaugural screening of Malaysian independents – after watching U-Wei Haji Saari’s Buai Laju Laju which has only Malay characters and Beautiful Washing Machine from James Lee, which relies on a Chinese cast and production team. 

“They wondered whether we live together or not ? and that’s the beautiful reality of this country. We are quite segregated but we think in the manner of a closed community. (At home), I received a lot of thank you notes from non-Indians for introducing the rubber estate. They have heard of the rubber estate but had no idea what it fact, Yasmin Ahmad (director and scriptwriter of Sepet) is one of the biggest supporters of Chemman Chaalai.  

“She thanked me for not showing the violent side of Indians and for exposing the beautiful side. I could easily do a gangster comedy because that tallies with the perception of the community which has high suicidal, crime, divorce and drop-out rates (and tolerates) alcoholics, drunkard husbands and wife-beaters. But I didn’t think that it would be important for me to show those bleak aspects of the community in Chemman Chaalai.” 

As an auteur who has influenced him, Ray offered the path of light in Kumaran’s quest to capture his “little community in Malaysia”. Post-Chemman Chaalai nothing much has changed for the 26-year-old. He expressed his deep satisfaction with his maiden endeavour which overcame weighty odds and the negative vibes that preceded the making of the movie.  

Kumaran is concentrating on his next project which is kept under secrecy while attending to the interest spawned by Chemman Chaalai which has travelled to four international film festivals (the San Francisco edition, Barcelona’s Asian Film Festival and the Philippines’ MOV International Digital Film Festival) since January.  

The film will be screened in India (Osian’s Cinefan Asian Film Festival in New Dehli) this week and Singapore’s Asian Film Symposium in September. 

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