Rule-breaker. Moviemaker. Maverick.
For 12 years, Bhavan Rajagopalan (39) from Chennai, India, has relentlessly pursued his dream of making a feature film.
After a few false starts with his first two original screenplays, Bhavan finally achieved his goal. This year, following almost four years of intense graft, his third feature screenplay – VIVESINI – will see the light. All because Bhavan made the decision to never give up.
I caught up with this intrepid writer/director/producer in August, shortly after his private screening at the Conway Hall in London. What follows is an in-depth interview that I’ve been breathlessly waiting to release. (It’s all about timing, darlings!) So brew a cuppa or grab a glass of what you fancy and settle into your sofa.
For ease of navigation, I’ve divided this interview into sections. If your time is limited, just click on a bulletpoint below to go directly to the subject of your choice.
Alternatively, to read the FULL INTERVIEW, just scroll down…
– Convincing The Investors
– Breaking The Rules
– Pushing Through
– The Release!
– Why This Story?
– How It All Began
– First Big Break
– Paying His Dues
Making Vivesini: CONVINCING THE INVESTORS
Bhavan, how many potential investors did you approach?
Around 400-500. Out of which I got less than 20 people to put money in.
Wow. Your passion for this movie shines through. It’s clear that the people who have invested believe not just in the film but in you. Not only have you put a ton of your own money into Vivesini, but you’re a man of your word; you have made this movie despite Covid, a lack of funds and many stumbling blocks. And now you’re about to release it, ensuring that investors get their money back plus, hopefully, sizeable returns.
See that’s the tricky point here. Every filmmaker believes that they are going to make their film. But to convince another person – especially an investor – that they are going to see the end of the tunnel is the toughest part. I feel proud in that regard: that I was able to convince these 15 people to invest money – especially for a film that doesn’t have ‘stars’.
This is an independent film; and most indie films – not just in India but all over the world – don’t get completed. They’re shelved halfway through – mostly due to lack of funds, although there are other reasons. They don’t have someone who is willing to see the project through to the end over a few years if necessary, because nothing is holding them to it. They get bored, their passion for the project fizzles out, they lose interest.
Also: indie films are usually easy on budget, whereas Vivesini’s canvas is so big to be an indie film, it was even tougher to get investors. And most of them didn’t even believe that I could actually finish this extravagant script within the projected budget.
At the end of the day, there has to be some binding factor. I think I should be proud of that: I was that binding factor. Despite a lack of funds and no big names, I was able to transfer this confidence to my whole crew and cast.
What you’ve done, and what you’re accomplishing, is incredible. Did people tell you along the way: ‘It’s impossible. You shouldn’t even bother carrying on.’?
Yeah, sure. Mostly they said: ‘I don’t think this will work out.’
Because they saw other indie producers shelving their films?
Yes, sure. See, the way films are marketed in India is like this. The first and foremost thing potential investors ask is: who are the actors and who is the director? They want big names. Box Office names. So that they’re assured they’ll make a profit even before the film is released. They don’t even need to wait for box office returns, because the sale of the film to a distributor will usually give them a profit; the producers become ‘safe’. As soon as you sign a contract with an A-list actor, you’re good to go. But you have to finish the film. There are some directors who don’t manage to finish the film (after convincing the producer with these A-list actors in their project). Mainly because they haven’t budgeted correctly. As a result, they go way over budget and can’t afford to carry on. So that’s a problem with producers; they get carried away with A-list actors and end up spending more than what they were actually told.
But when you talk about a film without A-listers, or any kind of stars, then it’s going to be a big task – because you don’t know when it’s going to be released. There are hundreds and hundreds of unfinished Indie films just lying on shelves all over the world.
That’s very sad…
How did you manage to raise the crucial funding for post-production?
For five or six months I spent almost all my time looking for ‘closing’ funds (to complete post-production and produce the first full copy of the film, ready for distribution/exhibition). As I was getting nowhere, I had to slow down post-production work. During this time I was trying to get someone to be the Tamil voice of the British character, Alice, for dubbing. One of the audio engineers had been great in recommending other people for character dubbing, but the person for Alice was eluding us. Incidentally, there is a small role in the film, played by a child. His mother is an actress who speaks Tamil, so I thought maybe she would work well for ‘Tamil Alice’. I needed someone whose voice was strong; not a typical feminine voice. So I called this woman, and she was happy to do it – she’s very considerate in that way. She came in and did the dubbing really well.
At that time, I was asking everyone – everyone – for funds to help me complete the film. Without shame. Now, two or three weeks before this woman came into the studio, I’d asked for her help with funds. But she said she wasn’t sure; she didn’t think she wanted to invest in films. So, anyway, this was two or three weeks later, and she was in the studio with me, kindly doing the voice acting. And while she was recording, she was watching the footage pertaining to Alice’s scenes. Once she’d finished recording, she looked at me: her expression told me she was impressed with what she’d seen. And she told me that she would be speaking with her husband that night about funding for the movie. A week later, she came back to me with her husband and they invested the crucial funds.
But that’s not all. When I say ‘closing funds’, this is what I mean: Let’s say I needed 80 lakhs (approximately £87,000) to finish everything – I would not ask for 80 lakhs because it’s too much money to ask for in one go. So I would ask for only 5 lakhs, for example, so I can finish a certain amount.
So when this couple invested their portion, I was able to complete an integral part. Then I required another closing amount. And I found that as soon as people watched the trailer, things changed. People started believing in me. Because it looked like a proper film – an extravagant horror/thriller! Until that moment, they were all thinking: OK, this guy is doing something stupid. Let’s see what he does. But when they saw the trailer, the change in them was incredible. It was like they could see what I saw: a proper movie that you can actually go and watch at the cinema!
So this woman’s husband then put me on to his friend who’s a big shot in East Africa. He’s actually from a film background, but he hated films because his grandfather lost all his money in films – so he moved to a different industry and is doing really well. So I had a conference call with him, with the help of our mutual friend. But what he’d apparently told his friend – the husband who’d invested in my movie – was: ‘Listen, I’m not planning to invest in films. I saw the trailer, it’s very good but I don’t want to have anything to do with films.’
So I got on the call and spoke to this guy… And I told him I didn’t want him to invest in the film – because the moment you say ‘film’, it’s a gamble. I understood that. He did too. I just asked him to hear me out. And I proceeded to give him the same ‘speech’ I’d given hundreds of times already.
At the end of the call, he said he wanted to invest. Everything. Not just a part of the remaining funds, but everything.
I couldn’t believe it. A lot of people say they’ll invest but don’t. But this guy did. And it all happened because my audio engineer couldn’t find me a good option to do the Tamil voice of Alice.
There were several instances in the making of this film where something would elude me… and then I’d end up with something better than I’d hoped for.
Making Vivesini: BREAKING THE RULES
I understand your casting decision for the Protagonist/lead female actor breaks all the rules. Tell us how that came about.
I happened to sign a well-known (not A-list but a ‘name’) actor. She loved the script and she was studying anthropology at the time; I was thrilled because she was so close to the character. But a month before filming began, she pulled out. I think it was due to a better offer elsewhere, but I’m not sure. I’d prepared everything; we were almost ready to start filming and the protagonist had disappeared. So I found someone else. But I wasn’t happy, initially.
When I saw Kavya’s headshot, I thought: No. I can’t see this young woman in the role. But she insisted: she wanted to audition. I felt so bad! I told her not to come, because I knew I was going to just reject her; I didn’t want to waste her time. However, when she carried on insisting, I gave in and said she could send in a self tape. So she did.
Well, I was impressed. My co-writer was impressed. I showed the tape to my wife, to get an outside opinion; she was impressed too. But there was a problem. In Tamil cinema, the ‘look’ factor is considered a big thing. There is a certain type of look people expect when they watch a movie. In India, fair skin is a huge thing. Just like Caucasian people tanning themselves to look darker, bleaching over in India is a very big thing. So this particular young woman, Kavya, is not your typical ‘lead actress’ material. Usually dark-skinned female actors would be typecast in certain roles, restricting them to be a servant maid or a mother of a small child in the slums, in the ghetto – because Indian people associate dark skin with this. (They are not cast as higher/middle class, English-speaking, progressive, fashionable, learned women.)
Now hold on. Kavya is stunning! And talented! How could she not be considered a lead actress?
Exactly. It’s just the way people are. I mean, I was quite impressed with the audition, but when I told my team I wanted Kavya as the protagonist, they were not happy. I understand where they’re coming from, but after watching her audition, I’d changed my mind about her. She was phenomenal, and her dark skin perfectly suited my needs. Getting them to change their minds, though… I actually had a make-up man booked, and he did a couple of make-up tests with her. But every time he finished, he moaned: ‘Why do you want to do a film with this girl? Do you want this film to bomb? I have seen people – extras – who look fair and better.’
I wasn’t angry with him; I understood where he was coming from. It’s drummed into you from childhood; it’s part of our education and upbringing. His outlook. But he didn’t understand what I saw in terms of what I was trying to accomplish with the script. So I didn’t say anything. But I had to get a different make-up man because he would’ve remained prejudiced against her. Every time he made her up, he tried to make her look fair – I didn’t want that. (In fact, we actually dropped two shades down to make her look a little darker than she is.)
This film is breaking a lot of rules in a lot of senses. For example: how actresses are projected in the film. If you compare my film with any other Indian film, you’ll immediately see what I mean. In Indian cinema, you will not see a shabby female protagonist. Or a dark one who is from an upper middle class, progressive family. In typecasting, their characters will be found in ghettos.
What made you want to break the rules?
As a filmmaker I want to break clichés. You’ll see a lot of what I mean in Vivesini. I’m not happy with the way fair vs dark skin is being treated in India. Especially in cinema. Especially with women. Male protagonists can be dark and clumsy. They’re considered masculine. Female actors have to be clean, fair-skinned, and neatly dressed. Even if they roll on the ground, they have to look perfect. Especially their hair. I just can’t digest this. So finding this protagonist was a big thing for me because I had to convince a lot of my chief technicians and others that she was right for the part, and I think she did a very good job in the film. She’s believable and she portrayed the lead character, Shakthi, really well.
Why do you believe Vivesini will be considered a benchmark?
Because of the roles I’ve given to two foreign actors. Getting foreign actors to participate has been a highlight. It was a huge task because it involves a lot of processes. The way it usually works is this: when Caucasians are used in Indian cinema, they’re almost always in the roles of ‘puppets’, much like when Asians are used in Hollywood. Mainly because the producers over in India can’t always afford a proper ‘Hollywood’ actor; the cost would be way more than the Indian producer could afford. So what they would do is – because they can’t write a screenplay that has scope for an actual actor of foreign origin (as they won’t be able to afford one) – they will hire extras from Pondicherry. (It’s a French-dominated city, so there are lots of Caucasians – more Eastern Europeans or French people than Americans or Brits, but they work just fine because they’re merely ‘props’.) You’ll never see them portraying a serious role in an Indian film. So that’s why my movie is going to be considered a benchmark.
Would you say Vivesini is a ground-breaking movie?
I can’t say that, as it’s my film. Someone else could say it, but I definitely think my film will stand out as a benchmark film because I can say that with absolute certainty that there aren’t any films in India with foreign actors playing important, defining roles. I’m not only talking about ‘stars’; there aren’t any foreign actors. Because the films don’t allow them to have an additional language. The moment you bring in a foreign actor, the script has to have space for whatever language that actor speaks. (For example, I cannot have a Chinese or eastern European or African actor in the film unless the script demands it). Whereas Vivesini’s screenplay accommodates foreign actors – making it a transnational film.
I’ve borrowed that term from a professor: the head of the film department in the University of Michigan. He saw the film and really liked it. He said it’s the first transnational film from India.
What made you decide to make a transnational film? Wasn’t your task of producing your first feature film ‘impossible’ enough?
I wouldn’t consider this an impossible task. I’ve always known there would be hurdles. My approach to almost everything is to add additional challenges to it. So it seems impossible for someone from outside – getting foreign actors on board, with all the visa issues, etc. – but the script demanded it. Once you see the movie, you’ll understand. The influence of British progressive thinkers – their ideas – on India… There is a huge political debate happening in India, especially about the post-colonial effect. After watching the film, you’ll understand why I had to create an American character and an English character. It’s not just ‘for show’; they have distinct importance and meaning.
So you didn’t mean to go out and make a transnational film. You just intended to write a script, create a story, that meant something to you?
Correct. The script and the research work took me to these places; these characters were born out of the Journey I took while writing Vivesini.
Making Vivesini: PUSHING THROUGH
When you started producing Vivesini, what were your ‘release’ expectations?
We were planning for a December 2020 release. Production began in November 2019, and we’d planned to complete production by April/May 2020 and then spend five or six months on post-production. But Covid hit and messed with our plans, and we had to close down in March 2020. Those 1½ years were complete hell.
What were your lowest moments?
Although there were low moments, I never had the feeling that it was over, that I couldn’t complete the film, because I have always been very hopeful about this movie – positive I’d be able to see it through to completion and distribution. Even during times when I didn’t see solutions in front of me, I just kept telling myself: OK, it’ll be OK; just a few more days, or a few more months… and then eventually everything will ease out.
The lowest point was during Covid. It’s not like I’m on the cusp of the industry, swinging between theatre projection and OTT (streaming services like Netflix, etc.). Initially I was orthodox about the movie: I wanted it to be showcased in the cinema rather than go straight to TV. So I was taken aback with the situation where movies were moving from being released in the cinema to going straight to OTT. At one point I remember (this was at the beginning of Covid, mid-2020), I was talking about this with my friend, my co-writer, and I told him that even if I don’t make enough profit – even if I make a loss – I think I’m going to wait for theatres (cinemas) to open, so I can release Vivesini the ‘traditional’ way. I’m not planning to release this in OTT.
By the end of 2021 I’d jumped to the OTT side of the fence. I told myself, ‘Bloody hell, I’m not going to care about whether this film is released in cinemas or OTT, because investors are at my back and I have invested a great deal in this film myself (time and cash), and I have to recoup the money.’ So I started thinking like a producer.
But my co-writer, who knows me well, wasn’t convinced. Two months ago, I was frustrated and told him: ‘I’m so tired; I just want to sell this film and get the money back; I don’t even care if the film is released or not.’ And he said nothing. He just looked at me knowingly. Then, two weeks back, I repeated my statement but I added: ‘I don’t care if I get the money back – but I do want the recognition.’
He smiled at that and said he was going to tell me that two months ago, when I told him all I cared about was the money. ‘This is you, Bhavan,’ he said. ‘I don’t think you’ll be happy with just the money because you have been starving for this for the past twelve years!’ (I’ve been trying to make a feature film for the past twelve years.) So I think this moment is probably about receiving recognition, or about communicating with the people. You feel happy when your communication with people – getting your message across – is successful, isn’t it?
That makes sense, that you’re looking for recognition. Because the exciting part about completing your first movie – besides getting to be creative and doing what you love, of course – is that it makes producing your next movie easier. Right? Once you’ve been recognised in the industry – once you’ve made a name for yourself as someone who’s written, produced, directed, and got distribution for, a high-quality, commercial feature film – people realise they can rely on you. This means they’ll give their money to you to make another movie. And you’ll no longer have to spend months or years raising funds. Right?
Who has been your biggest support throughout all of this?
There are a couple of people who have practically supported me. One of them is my co-writer and mentor, Gajendran Kannan. He’s known me since I was 20/21. He’s been instrumental in a lot of instances in my life. Emotionally, intellectually, he’s been very supportive. And my wife. Without Saya, I would not have been able to finish this project. She took care of our child by sacrificing her corporate career to enable me to chase my dream. And she’s a huge encouragement to me.
Bhavan’s Journey: HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Now, Bhavan, I understand that you completed your Masters in Film Production at Canterbury Christchurch University in the UK in 2010 – where you wrote, produced and directed the short, powerful sci-fi drama, The Grey Area. Then your long, uphill journey began. You worked your way up from the bottom in the movie and ad industry, producing short films, corporate documentaries and commercials until you founded Laburnum Productions in 2019. But what I want to know is: has filmmaking always been your dream?
No. In India, when I was a child, I didn’t even know what a camera was. It wasn’t until I was 20 that I developed the secret ambition of doing something in cinema. Not out of a passion for moviemaking – but because it was flashy. It took me quite a few years, and Gajendran’s intervention, I would say, after I told him what I thought I was good at. At the age of twenty, it all started for me. It was then that I started making films.
So before that, what did you want to be?
I started writing stories when I was a young child, around ten years old. But they weren’t original. I mostly wrote down a film that I’d watched – and I’d make some small changes, like I would give the films different endings that suited me better.
I didn’t even know at the time that this thing existed in life where you had to achieve something. I was in my own world. Before this, I used to delude myself that I would be a cricketer.
Were you good at cricket?
I was not. That’s the sad part. I was so deluded. Ignorant. I actually believed that I would play for India. Without any practise. I enjoyed it, though. But looking back at it now, I think I must have been a complete hypocrite. I knew I couldn’t do certain things but I acted like I could; I acted like I could somehow circumvent things and achieve what I wanted. You can’t do that.
I think that’s part of my Indian upbringing: that you believe you can circumvent anything and reach the top – not in an honest way.
I’m laughing because that doesn’t sound like the Bhavan I know. That sounds very rose-tinted.
I was. I broke my rose-tinted glasses a long while back.
How did you meet your mentor – and co-writer of Vivesini – Gajendran Kannan?
As soon as I finished my college years and got my filmmaking/visual effects diploma, I started working for an advertising agency, taking care of the marketing. That’s where I met Gajendran. He was a part-time writer there. A lot of things opened up after talking to him. Just for someone to understand they’ve been deluding themselves about their skillset – you need some sort of suspended observation, some kind of intervention to see yourself from a different perspective.
Whenever some part of my brain would ask me: Are you really good at…? I would just lie to myself. To give an honest answer (No) would mean I had some sort of understanding about myself, which I didn’t. Once that’s opened up, you will start giving yourself honest answers. This makes your life much easier.
How did you and Gajendran end up working together?
I wouldn’t use that term. It’s always been a mentor/student relationship, but I don’t think he ever thought about it that way. He’s an amazing guy. He can mentor anyone. I’m not his only ‘student’. We have a similar wavelength and he’s seen so many people in his life who were similar to me. He has a way – he will kindle your abilities, your skillset. That’s what mentors do.
Bhavan’s Journey: FIRST BIG BREAK
After the ad agency and before CCCU in 2010, what were you doing?
I became assistant to the late K.V. Anand, an important, award-winning cinematographer and director in India. Apart from Tamil films, he did notable Bollywood films too.
How did that happen?
Gajendran had interviewed K.V. Anand, and – realising the man’s love of literature – thought he and I would be a good fit. He said I should make a short film; that was sure to impress K.V. Anand. (At that time, doing a short film was a big thing; not many people were doing it.) So I did, and I approached this great cinematographer and gave it to him to watch. He was just about to start work on his first feature film as a director, so the timing was great.
Well, he loved my film; he told me it’s very good. But he said: ‘I’m sorry but I can’t take you on. I already have five assistants. I really like your film but I just can’t take you on. I have no space for you. Why don’t you try other directors?’
I told him, ‘I really just want to work with you.’
So you killed one of the five assistants and took his place?
Oh the truth is much more interesting – and legal. At this point in my life, I was broke. And I’d lost hope because K.V. Anand had told me several times that he’s not going to take me on. So I took a job in a law firm, doing graphic design. I’d worked there for just five days when I received a call from my previous employer at the ad agency. His grandmother had passed away and he asked if I wanted to pay my respects. All my friends would be there.
So I got permission from the law firm, which was only three streets away from the house where I would need to go to pay my respects, and I started walking. I was just a few steps away from the entrance when I got a call. From K.V. Anand. He told me his film had need of a visual effects person, so if I was willing to start as his assistant – with low pay – I could have the job. And I could start that afternoon.
I was so excited! Too excited, in fact, to be going to a funeral. I entered the home, where everyone was sad and I could barely contain my exhilaration. My previous employer asked me what I was doing as a job, and I proudly answered: ‘Oh you don’t know? I’m K.V. Anand’s assistant.’
After paying my respects, I had to return to the law firm and apologetically resign. But they were so impressed with who my new employer was going to be, they were happy. I left there and went straight to K.V. Anand’s office and started on my first feature film.
How did you find working with K.V. Anand?
He was primarily a cinematographer, so I learnt a lot. See, I believe that you don’t actually really learn anything from a director. Because direction is more like a curating job. You need to have it in you. It’s a style. In those days people arrived with a clean slate. They’ll work for seven or eight films with the same director and then you will see similarities in the films they make because they would have got everything they learned from the director. But it doesn’t work that way nowadays. Basically, you now work with a director for contacts. If any person comes to work for me in the future as my assistant, I don’t believe he’ll learn anything from me. He’s just coming to me because I have a name, so he’ll get some contacts and that’s how he’ll grow. Whereas cinematography isn’t like that. You learn from them. It’s a process, a technique. So, with K.V. Anand I learned a lot with respect to cinematography, stylised lighting and aesthetics. Not directly from him but from his assistants; that’s how it works with these stalwarts. So I’m strong in that regard.
Bhavan’s Journey: PAYING HIS DUES
What part-time jobs have you had throughout your life?
I liked doing part-time jobs because I liked having cash in my hand and I didn’t like to ask my father for money. But for each part-time job I did, I would have to bunk college. So I would do it discreetly. I didn’t want my father – who was paying my tuition fees – to know that I was missing some studies because I was working part-time so I could get a couple hundred bucks.
After finishing my under graduation, I started at the ad agency; and I worked there for less than a year. That’s when I made my first short film and screened it at a few local festivals. That’s when I found my path. I realised my content was completely different to other short films. This was back in 2003/4. At that time, ‘short film’ meant: ‘give a social message’. That’s what short films were all about. Complicated emotions don’t come into it at all. My film was about a complex point in a guy’s life and I’d added a huge sexual taboo in one scene. It all started there. That’s why I was not able to get too excited about my first two feature film scripts – because they’re too conventional.
What made you decide to go to CCCU to do a one-year post-graduate degree?
I always wanted to pursue higher studies in films, ever since I finished my digital filmmaking diploma back in 2003. But it didn’t happen. I tried going to Australia in 2005, but it didn’t happen. Then, eventually, in 2008, I made a 60-minute film. That film got me a scholarship to CCCU.
That was a turning point in my life. Until then I’d always considered myself as someone useless with academics. I thought I could never step into an academic life because I don’t have the skillset. I have a lot of difficulty in understanding a lot of things. So, getting a scholarship from a prestigious university greatly boosted my confidence.
Did you make the 60-minute film in order to apply for a scholarship?
No. I’d already made the film when I decided to make my application. When they asked me to submit what I’d already done, I submitted this 60-minute film. And I got in. I was one of only eleven international scholarships. For me, that’s something I cannot digest.
Wow, that’s huge. Congratulations. What a validation. No one at CCCU knew who you were; you had no contacts or connections there. You simply got in on the merit of something you had created.
Yes! It gave me the assurance I needed to know that I’m not deluding myself about being a filmmaker. Because remember, I deluded myself about being a cricketer. That part always plays on my mind and makes me doubt my abilities. But this achievement gave me what I needed to realise I’m actually capable of making films.
How did you gather the funds to make the 60-minute film?
A little portion was funded by a friend. Another portion was crowd-funded. And I put in my own money for the rest.
After CCCU, upon returning to India, what was your plan?
I was not planning to immediately make films. I knew it would be tough and I had to earn money straight away. So I started a production house and created TV commercials and corporate videos. That was a win-win. I earned money and I built a showreel I could show to potential producers.
How did you land such prestigious clients? I see two or three big names among your ads.
It was a struggle. Especially since I was in Chennai, not Mumbai or Bangalore – where all the big shoots (films and ads) take place. Chennai is a very conventional, orthodox market. They don’t spend a lot of money. But I was not willing to move. I wanted to eventually make a film in Chennai, so I stayed there. And it ended up being a blessing in disguise because I was able to make some really big films for peanuts.
Every time I attempt something big, I tell myself I’m learning something: something is going to come out of this. And that’s actually what helped me finish Vivesini.
When people watch Vivesini, they will see the scale of the production. It does not look like an independent film; it appears to be a studio film. I got this practise – perseverance and stamina – from several years of doing small films. It has become second nature for me, like muscle memory. If I don’t have money, I won’t think: I can’t do it. I will find alternative ways to do it.
I have trained my crew like that over the past few years. My crew understands that I will push them. Someone who has worked with me will not work in the same way with another director because he knows how I work. We have shot in idiotic conditions and in unconventional ways, but we have done it.
Making Vivesini: THE RELEASE!
Bhavan, how are you feeling right now?
Relieved! After almost four years of struggle. We all took an unwelcome break during Covid – even though I filled my time with post-production work and editing on the film, as well as fundraising. But I’m relieved the movie is now ready to be exhibited. I can see how people react. I’ve already received fantastic feedback, so I’m positive about distribution.
Fantastic! When are you hoping to release Vivesini in India?
I’m aiming for November this year.
I understand you’re looking at film festivals, but they’re secondary. Your priority is releasing the film, right?
You know, just like a lot of plans changed due to Covid, my initial plan was different. In 2018, we were planning on going down the traditional Indian marketing route. i.e. You make an independent film, you take it to festivals, you get laurels on your poster (if your movie wins anything), and then you start selling your film. But what I realised is: festivals are a huge commercial industry now. Especially over the last five/six years. There are hundreds of film festivals across the globe. So even if you make a terrible film, you just have to literally pay some money and you’ll get laurels from quite a few of them. So that rang a bell for me. I decided I’d never get into that. If I submit my film to festivals, it will only be prestigious ones – ones where winning or even just being nominated matters. But even if I get a screening at one of these, I won’t use it for promoting my movie. Because people have become so diluted. Filmmakers can now say that their film got into the Cannes or Venice film festival. But if you look a little harder, you’ll see it’s not the Cannes, etc. festival – it’s the Cannes Tamil film festival, for example. For these reasons I decided to stay away from the general film festival circuit and market this film like a typical commercial film. And my marketing tactics are interesting ones.
So you’re marketing it in India first, but you have English subtitles throughout the movie – does this mean you aim to market it outside of India as well?
I am planning to market it outside of India, but that’s not a priority. The reason the English subtitles are there is: India has close to thirty languages; at least ten of these are used in the film industry. People living in Delhi don’t speak Tamil, so they won’t be able to understand my film. But in southern and northern parts of India, people speak English – so even though Tamil is not their language, they’ll be able to understand my film. And of course, film festivals need subtitles for foreign films.
OK, so India aside, what are your next steps? Will you take Vivesini to Netflix or Amazon Prime, for example, or do you want an international cinema release in another country, or worldwide?
That all depends on the offers that come in.
Making Vivesini: WHY THIS STORY?
This isn’t the first feature film you’ve written. What made you choose to produce your third screenplay, rather than the first two?
I strongly believe the story transports you somewhere. Whereas the other two screenplays didn’t have the energy to ‘pull’ me, to keep me committed to them, this one did. I’ve pitched all three scripts to several investors, but this one had a different energy. I just knew that with this one, even if no one decided to put money in, I would make it. It’s a story that can’t just sleep. It has to see the light. It’s probably the Vivesini energy that the films speaks of that has awakened.
Do you think, of the three screenplays, Vivesini has the best ‘draw’ to give you acclaim? Whereas the other two will definitely get: ‘Wow, what a fantastic writer, director… What great entertainment!’ But this one might afford you the recognition, the acclaim, you deserve?
Maybe. I really don’t think about acclaim, to be honest. I’m just happy I made the film. But let’s assume this film affords me some acclaim – I’m pretty sure the other two films would not. If I look at the three screenplays from a commercial standpoint, this one is the riskiest to make. By far. The other two are also commercial, but superficial. They would have given me a very safe ‘landing’. A safe footing. Especially being the first film. But fortunately it didn’t happen, and they didn’t have the energy to pull me in. Whereas this, being so deep – that’s probably why I put in so much effort.
Why did you choose to make a film about rationality?
Rationalism is important to me because I am a perfect example of what happens without it. See, until I was 33/34, I was a strong ‘believer’; I would do the most irrational things. I made horrible life decisions because I believed in such irrational things.
Because of the religion you were brought up in?
Religion is a fundamental reason, but I wouldn’t blame it completely. As a character I had a lot of beliefs in irrational things. For example I would take life decisions on irrational things, believing something would happen. It stemmed out of religious beliefs, yes, that’s the root of it.
This film is like a catharsis for me. I want to show people that if you start going behind rationality, you’ll end up on the better side.
From the age of 22/23 until I was 34, my only aim in life was to make a film. So each of my decisions in life would move towards that. ‘If I do this, then I think I will make a film.’ It doesn’t have any rational connection. It’s a belief.
Let’s say: ‘If I move from a house that’s not auspicious for me to a new house that is, things will click into place and I will probably make a film.’ That’s one of the reasons I moved house. Because I believed silly things like that would propel me to do a film.
Is it like superstition?
Yes, but no one tells you that. I was in a state of madness. When you’re a child, for example, you tell yourself you mustn’t walk on the cracks in the pavement. If you succeed in this, you will have a better chance of passing your exam. See? The only problem is: I believed this sort of thing as an adult. As a result, I ruined my life.
I’m looking at you, Bhavan, and I don’t see a life ruined. You have a beautiful, loving wife and a gorgeous daughter, and you’ve achieved your dream of making a movie. You’re fulfilling your passion. You may have taken a longer route than you would have liked, but I think there’s always a reason. Some people, and I’m including myself here, take a bit longer to get to success – because if they’d got to it sooner, they wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Do you think you’re one of those people?
You can say that. But I wouldn’t give that as a reason. I would just say: one should not be so irrational in life. And in India it’s partly because of the upbringing, the social pressure that’s been put on you. For example, in India you can tell your child: ‘Go pray to god that you’ll do well in your exams. And if you do, you’ll pay god ten bucks.’ That’s where it starts. And it just gets worse. Every decision you make in life: marriage, children, moving house, buying a car, taking your parent to the hospital or not taking them to the hospital… You become a mentally ill person.
I can see that this movie is not just a life achievement or a career achievement for you. It’s a mental achievement, an emotional and psychological achievement.
Yes, that’s the right way to put it. It is an emotional achievement. It has cleared away a lot of clogs in my head.
The fact that Vivesini got screened in the prestigious Conway Hall in front of the members of The Freethinker magazine, as well as The NSS and other academics and intellectuals, was really a defining moment for me in this journey. The reception and the feedback I received really gave that morale boost that I was searching for.
Emma Park (Editor of The Freethinker) & Bhavan in conversation with the audience during the Vivesini private screening at the Conway Hall, London.
Watch Bhavan’s TV Interview below. (No English subtitles, sorry! But it does include BEHIND-THE-SCENES CLIPS of acclaimed actor, NASSAR, as well as yours truly.)
Bhavan, I see why so many people have been willing – are willing – to support you. Because they see who you are: a beautiful, talented, lovely human being who has created something, and they want to be a part of it. Wishing you every success with Vivesini and for everything that comes after.
Never give up on your dream. Find a way to make it happen.
Break the rules!
BELIEVE you can do it.
Pursue your passion!