• Golden Globe Awards

Soorarai Pottu (India) – In conversation with Sudha Kongara

Soorarari Pottu is a film based on the life of Captain Gopinath, the son of a schoolteacher who follows his dream to start a commercial airline for the common man in India where flying was considered a privilege that was reserved only for the wealthy.  Sudha Kongara, director and writer shared her thoughts and experiences while making this film. 
This is a very masculine driven film, what do you think you brought to the film as a woman?
Captain Gopinath’s life, filled with adventure and a deep sense of inquiry towards the unknown, is a fascinating study. Though technically a male-driven film, I did not see his life in a vacuum. It was what it was because of his wife. This lady had supported him emotionally and financially for ten years when he was trying to get a license to start his airline. She stood by him when everyone told him to give up on his impossible dream. When I put these moments into the film, I was told by every male in the writers’ room to remove them as they were belittling the ‘hero’. I refused. Bommi kicks the patriarchy around her with panache. She never hesitates to tell the man she is going to marry, that their visions, ambitions, and goals were equal in every way. She is a true feminist who is extremely successful in an equally challenging business. Women play an important part in Maara’s success, be it Chitra the reporter or his mother. I guess that’s what a female writer/director brings to a male-driven film – a female presence that’s not merely a token one.
In spite of all the obstacles the lead character must face, but through sheer determination and passion he realizes his dream, can you relate to this in any way as far as your career is concerned?
I remember once telling my writer, I don’t know why, but all my films seem to tell the story of the underdog. To this Shalini said, maybe that is your voice and there will be an echo of that in all your films. I’ve realized that this is true. I have been the underdog for too long – at home, at work, and in society – for it to not influence my choice of subjects. When I was working with Mr. Mani Ratnam, a top filmmaker of the country, I would never take leave. This was because I fought extremely hard at home and at work to get that job. While my male counterparts took leave quite often and nonchalantly, I would not because I heard people say female assistants could not work as hard as the boys and require days off often for personal reasons. It was an unnecessary chip on my shoulder, I guess. So, I worked twice as hard to disprove that. Was that fair to me? Maybe not, but I never stopped to question that then. I just had to and did work more than the boys. All this is reflected in my films. The passion, the angst, and that quality of running without stopping, just so that one does not fail. I remember telling my lead actor, a superstar, many a time during the filming, to look at me and tap into my experiences because they were still fresh in my memory. I still carried a lot of that raw emotion. I would tell him to look into my eyes as I explained the emotions I wanted in the climax. When I think of the struggles I had faced to get to where I finally got, I get that look in my eyes – a strange mixture of extreme pain and triumph. It is this that I wanted him to channel. It is my journey that I speak of through the protagonists in my films. 
Now that you are an established director, do you find it is easier for you to get work compared to your counterparts?
There is definitely a 180-degree turn in attitude towards me post the success of my films. They hear me. They don’t laugh behind my back so much and they don’t resist my instructions on set as much. Do I find it easier to get work than my male counterparts though? No. It is certainly and definitely not easier. With more women in positions of power today, I get offers more ungrudgingly from them. It has been a hard and long-fought battle for twenty years, but they have finally begun to acknowledge me as a director and not a ‘female director’.
Do you think films influence society?
I have always believed that as much as films are a reflection of society, they are also major influencers of society. A week after the release of my last film, based on amateur women’s boxing in India, I remember getting a phone call from my sound engineer at 4.30 am. He was crying and incoherent. He told me he was on the beach and little girls were streaming in with boxing gloves on because a boxing coach influenced by the coach in my film was conducting free classes for these underprivileged kids! The film had impacted a section of society. I saw more of the same after the release of Soorarai Pottru. Many, many people reached out to me saying how inspired they were to try, just one more time, and not give up. My office boy who had given up his dream of ever being able to direct a film told me that he was going to try again. It did not stop at people calling me to tell me that they had liked the film, but more often than not they were reaching out to tell me that they were inspired to dream and to not give up on those dreams. This moved me, more than the commercial success of the film.
Since you are also the writer of the film, did you learn anything new about Captain Gopinath, and what surprised you about him?
I had seen Captain Gopinath’s interview ten years ago and was fascinated with his recounting of the tale of Air Deccan, his airline for the common man. I read his autobiography thereon. It was the tale of a maverick entrepreneur, who had probably tried his hand at everything that caught his fancy, be it an Udipi hotel, bike dealership, or sericulture. When fascinated with something he became obsessive to the point of what the world saw as madness. This madness was what I saw up close and still sparkling in the eyes of a sixty-five-year-old filled with boyish enthusiasm for another new venture he was talking about. Soorarai Pottru is based largely on my conversations with him, his friends, his wife, and the people who had worked at the airline from its inception. He told me something that charted the journey of my protagonist. He said, Sudha, I want you to tell the youth out there that if I, a schoolteacher’s son could start an airline, with no pedigree or background, anyone can do anything they dream of. He said they should just dream so hard that they become the dream and the dream becomes them. No amount of reading about him can reveal that quality of Captain Gopinath to you – that faith in the self and passion for what he sets out to do. It’s contagious! Thus, was born Soorarai Pottru, a very ambitious film for me, because it was not a regular mainstream thought for the Tamil film industry. Then again that is what captain had warned me about – if they tell you, you cannot do it, that’s all the more reason for you to take it on!