Never say die

Ilango Ramanathan and Hiranya Perera on the remarkable journey of Tentigo

by Jennie Kermode

The Tentigo team receives the Special Jury Award at Tallinn Black Nights
The Tentigo team receives the Special Jury Award at Tallinn Black Nights

What can one say about Tentigo? It’s the most important film to come out of Sri Lanka for years. An award-winner at Tallinn Black Nights and a big hit at the Glasgow Film Festival, it has set a new bar for work made in that country and opened up a world of new opportunities. It is not what might have been expected for an independent comedy about the embarrassment that ensues when a man dies with an erection which won’t go down.

The story behind how Tentigo was made is still more astonishing. Director Ilango Ramanathan and producer Hiranya Perera succeeded in circumstances where most filmmakers would not even have made a start. Having enjoyed the film, I was glad to have the chance to meet them, but unprepared for the story they had to tell. Read on...

“Initially I was writing a very serious script about a mother who was looking for a missing son during the war times in Sri Lanka,” says Ilango. “I interviewed 40 or 50 mothers who were affected by the war in the northeast part of Sri Lanka, and their stories are very painful. I worked with that script for a long time. It was really heavy and very painful to hear their stories. And so then I thought, I need some time out of it.

“I told Hiranya I needed to come out of it for some time. She said ‘Okay, take a break.’ Then in that time period, I came up with this idea out of nowhere. A very simple but very political satire. That’s how I initially brought the idea to her. She said ‘That's very different,’ and she said ‘It's nice.’ So then I started writing the script immediately. And then we started everything. So this was a sudden decision and a sudden change from what I wanted to do, because I needed more time and more research for that film.”

Hiranya explains the satirical element of the film. “The phallic symbol is deemed to represent power and masculinity. That's what they always say about this, it shows that power of man. Ironically, that's the most sensitive organ of the human body. And here we are questioning the validity of the statement, and also making a mockery out of it. So that's the underlying political satire that we're trying to say. But it's very minimal and anybody can relate to it.”

Tentigo
Tentigo

Ilango nods. “If you see the original title, it's Nelum Kuluna is the lotus tower that was built recently in Sri Lanka by the support of the Chinese government. They build a huge tower, like what you see in other well developed countries to show the power.”

At the time of our interview they had not yet put the film before Sri Lankan censors, but Ilango said he was not too worried because the government had changed in the interim. We went on to discuss the challenge of taking a simple idea and keeping it going for a whole feature film.

“I always believe simple is the toughest thing,” he says. “What I made sure of was not to lose the momentum, even at the writing stage. It's a very thin line because I don't want it to be a regular comedy. At the same time, it shouldn't look like very serious films. So I had to walk in a very thin line, like an arthouse film at the same time, not a commercial one. So I found this balance in between.

“When I wrote the script, as you said, I was like, ‘Okay, this idea is good. How far can we hook the audience or keep the audience together?’ So that was my challenging thing. I made sure it feels refreshing, not monotonous or gory. And also, comedy-wise, I made sure it's not a regular slapstick comedy or like the typical American comedy. It's not like that here. The incident itself is funny for us, but for the family, particularly for that family, it’s a very serious matter for them. It's a very embarrassing situation. So when I was directing, I told my cast to be very natural and real.

“Even acting-wise, for normal comedies or even for tragi-comedies, there are certain wavelengths of expressions or certain timings. I wanted to break that. I said ‘No, be natural. Think it's so real, like it happened to your family.’ And so that helped me. Even when I was shooting, I was laughing because they were really serious about certain things, you know? It was very funny.

“So, as you said, the very simple stories are very tough. I think I made a balance, a good rhythm, so it shouldn't get boring for the audience. The first people who have seen, they loved it. They enjoyed the whole process, because I made sure that the tempo of the film should move, not drag anywhere. “

“They are all very well known, arthouse, serious actors,” says Hiranya of the cast. “They all have acted in very serious films before. For the whole of Sri Lanka, this is a very new subject, dark comedy. This is the very first dark comedy coming from Sri Lanka. And even for the actors, it was new for them. And we didn't rehearse. There was no rehearsal at all, because Ilango doesn't believe in rehearsals.”

“We did a script reading,” Ilango says. “We brought all the cast together and we started reading. Not acting, just reading. We understand the character, each character. Who is the elder brother, what is he doing? What about the younger brother? Even a small character, we gave complete attention to their characters, who they are and what they are doing.”

This is not usual in Sri Lanka or India, he explains. Actors there are used to working straight from the script without this type of additional preparation.

“I tried to make sure that even the mother, I gave her a lot of detail of where she works, what she's doing for living and everything. So they understand the characters and what's so nice about them is they look so real, like a real family. Even a Sri Lankan audience was telling me ‘This is a real family.’

“That kind of chemistry was developed during the script reading. When it comes to rehearsal, for certain subjects, like this subject, I want surprises from the actors. So I said ‘Okay, we'll go at the set and you will act and make me surprised.’ That's what I wanted, because if I laugh, it will work. So I gave complete freedom to the actors. They can deliver it on the day the way they want it, but at the same time, I explained each one's character very well. So within that boundary, they acted well.”

On the carpet in Tallinn
On the carpet in Tallinn

“He really went deep into each and every character,” says Hiranya. “Sometimes it doesn't reflect in the character, but it helps the actor to understand the character well and deep dive inside so that they can come up with the body language and know who he is, and if she's running a small or boutique or, like, she's just working in a garment factory. It was very convenient because we have a lot of characters, so that's how he really differentiated each character.”

Making characters less stereotypical had unexpected side effects.

“What we see normally in a film in Sri Lanka, a typical monk is very soft and very fine looking. And they have a typical casting. Our monk looks so natural, the people in that village, they thought he was a real monk and they were worshipping him.”

I tell him that I liked the fact that although the film is a comedy, we really feel for the brothers and can see how much they miss their dad.

“Yes, very true,” says Ilango. “And even the emotion they show is very different. Even though the elder brother is very strong and he never cries, still he's very hurt and he's very sad. The younger brother is completely opposite. He's a people's guy. He knows everybody. He drinks and he enjoys his life, like his dad. And he cries all the time and he never controls his emotions. So there's a difference in the characters of the two brothers, which helps the audience to connect to them.

“In funerals in Sri Lanka, they sometimes go and cry and hug the body. Sometimes they maintain their dignity. So it's there in the difference in the characters of both of them, and especially the grief.”

He trusted his audience to know when to laugh, he adds.

“I always respect the audience. Let the audience decide. Let the audience choose the emotions. Let them say ‘No, I'm going to laugh at this point. I'm going to be sad. I'm going to connect with the other brother.’ I gave that kind of a freedom to the audience to play around. That's why even the shots, you see lot of wide angles, not a close-up, throughout. I played with wide angle and handheld movements. It's mostly handled, but not over the shoulder. Basically I supported the camera under my arm, so I kept it in such a way so it's more like someone is watching throughout, like it's happening to a neighbour.”

We talk further about the differences between the brothers, and the tension between the superstitious and the rational in Sri Lankan society.

“That is always there in our culture,” says Ilango. Some people are very traditional. In this family, the older brother has studied, he says he has gone to college and he has well read, well studied and all, but he is against this cultural thing. At the same time, the younger brother has never studied like him, but he believes in the culture. But again, he's more of a people's guy. He understands the culture and the people more than the one who's rich and educated. The older brother is more practical than the younger brother, and he doesn't like the ideology of the father and his younger brother. But the younger son is more practical in solving the problem.”

Whilst Ilango was handling all this, Hiranya had to make sure the shoot could go ahead despite circumstances which were orders of magnitude more difficult that what most filmmakers have to contend with.

“It was the most difficult time in Sri Lanka,” she remembers. “We had a financial and economic crisis. We had a ten hour power outage every day and we didn't have cooking gas or fuel for generators and for vehicles. If you wanted fuel, you needed to stay in the queue consecutively for three to four days.”

“She somehow balanced it all,” says Ilango. “I was like worried: was it possible to shoot at this point? And she was like, ‘Don't worry. You take control of the creative side. I’ll take control of all these production issues.’ Even the budgeting varied every day.”

Onstage in Tallinn
Onstage in Tallinn

“The price of day to day essentials kept rising every single day,” Hiranya says. “So keeping up with the budget was difficult. We shot in a very old house. We had power for about 14 hours per day, and at that time we used power from the house. Ilango had to try and use very minimal lights because that house is really old and you can't use big lights. During that ten hour power cut we had to use the generator. Even that was difficult because we couldn't get fuel for that. So we really had to strategise.

“This was apart from the normal struggles that any independent filmmaker or producer would get on a day to day basis, in any country. Apart from that, we had more struggles. And because we didn't have cooking gas, we had to use firewood, then cook for the whole cast and crew.”

“Everything we did in the house,” says Ilango. “Behind the house, there's a yard, like a long lawn, and we were cooking there. We all stayed in the lodge there. Sometimes we walked to the house. There were only three vehicles, or one vehicle. But we all worked together as a team. Because we were at the economic crisis and hadn’t worked for a long time, everybody loved it. They were like, ‘Finally we are working!’”

“At that point, Sri Lanka was pretty much standing still,” says Hiranya. “Because of power cuts, nothing was happening.”

“And there were protests,” Ilango adds. “Even our cast members were at the protest. So it was a nice. I think it was very positive with the energy there was, with the cast and the crew. No-one complained about anything. It was a beautiful.”

So was their festival journey with the completed film.

“Our film was at Tallinn Black Nights. That's where we had the world première and we won the Special Jury Award. Everybody loved it. Then after that, talent programmers got in touch with me and they said they would like to screen our film in Glasgow. And there the response was amazing. We had two screenings and we had two of the cast members there as well, the younger brother and the funeral partner manager. It was amazing.”

Ilango agrees. “It was well received by the audience. They were laughing throughout. Some of the nuances are very Sri Lankan, but even the westerners, they were laughing at that. They were understanding. It's nice to see movies can be very universal if done properly.”

“We are trying a few more festivals, and then we plan on having theatrical views,” says Hiranya. “And one more important thing is we will be remaking this in India, and this will be the first ever Sri Lankan film to be remade in any country. Generally what happens is in Sri Lanka, a lot of Indian and Korean films get either remade or dubbed. This is going to be turning the other way around. The first ever time a Sri Lankan film is remade in South India, in Tamil. Ilango will be directing it with a prominent company called Stone Bench Films.”

“In Sri Lanka, we always had this hope,” says Ilango, but explains that a lot of people still thought it would never happen. “This film, hopefully, could change that perception. We always get movies from India to remake. Even I got offered to remake Indian movies. I said ‘No, no, I won't be doing that. I want to make my original first.’ It will help a lot of youngsters in the future to gain more confidence.”

“Another important thing is this film was well received in the festival circuit,” says Hiranya. “After 17 years, a Sri Lankan début film won an award at a festival. This is a remarkable milestone for Sri Lankan cinema. So there's a hope for Sri Lankan films and Sri Lankan cinema and Sri Lankans.”

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