Anantham director V Priya on homosexuality, child sexual abuse, and battle for OTT viewers

In a free-wheeling interview, V Priya, whose Tamil web series Anantham has been received well for its narrative style, talks about tackling social issues with maturity and sensitivity

Tamil director V Priya

If walls could speak, imagine the kind of stories they would spin! Working on this simple premise, director V Priya (of Kanda Naal Mudhal fame) has crafted the plot of her new Tamil web series, Anantham, in which a house is the key narrator.

In the series, the house Anantham is owned by Venkatasen (Prakash Raj), a railway employee, who buys it for his beloved wife Margatham (Indraja). After a tragedy, he rents out the house and the incidents and events that shape the life of the different tenants make up the eight episodes in this series.

A still from V Priya’s directorial ‘Anantham’

There’s a blind, intelligent and ill-fated wife who faces her tough life with stoicism (enacted brilliantly by Amrutha Srinivasan); there’s the intense, romantic love that springs up between two young neighbours essayed by Vinoth Kishen and Vivek Rajagopal, who play their roles with the right amount of vulnerability and angst as they acknowledge their growing attraction for each other; and a humour track with three women – an aunt, her niece and her daughter, whose lives are shaken up with the entry of a young Malayalee paying guest.

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In this episode, Vinothini Vaidyanathan shines as a divorcee, who switches from being a grumpy alarmist into a woman eager for love and romance.

V Priya with the Anantham cast and crew

Anantham, which is currently streaming on Zee5 (which seems to snap up off-beat regional fare) is a part-anthology and part-hyperlink series, as the characters get interlinked in the end. Besides her appealing narrative style, director Priya also tackles social issues head-on. Not in a Vetrimaran kind of way but still in a refreshingly honest manner.

In a chat with The Federal, Priya, who lives in an old house that is incidentally called ‘Anantham’, admits: “Yes, I wanted to take on issues like inclusion since there is so much of intolerance around in our society today. I wanted to offer my view that we need to help each other despite our differences.”

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In Priya’s world, everything is possible with a good dose of ‘love and tolerance’. But, her series, which also has its flaws (some episodes seem like fillers and some scenes may seem melodramatic), scores for its treatment of topics like homosexuality, child sexual abuse and older women falling in love, with a mature and deft hand.

Homosexuality is not promiscuity

Ananth (Vinoth Krishnen) believes his father (Prakash Raj) will accept him when he finds out that he is otherwise sexually inclined. But, there’s an entirely different reaction that comes his way, and turns his life upside down. Shunned as sakadai (gutter), he nurtures this deep wound into adulthood.

In Priya’s view, homosexuality, quite wrongly, is often linked to promiscuity – that’s why she sensitively treats it as a gentle love story. “My characters remain together for 30 years as partners. I wanted to show love is love…love is god and love is what makes the world go around,” stresses the director, who was Mani Ratnam’s assistant for many years and one of the writers of Mitr – My Friend.

The growing attachment between the boys is filmed in a sensitive manner. Priya also steers clear of “blatant sex scenes”. “Yes, I deliberately kept that out. I’d rather show sensuality than graphic sex scenes. In my other movies, too, that’s how I approach love stories,” says Priya, who is known for her feel-good movies (her next is also a slice-of-life romantic film).

Sex scenes in cinema have to be handled well, she agrees, pointing out that art is subjective. What may work for one, may not for the other, she says, refusing to get drawn into a debate on the portrayal of sex scenes in Indian cinema.

Prakash Raj plays a father having to come to terms with his son’s homosexuality in ‘Anantham’

Priya says that it was also important having a seasoned actor like Prakash Raj play the open-minded father, who becomes intensely intolerant when he learns his own son is a homosexual. “When it comes to his own son, his attitude becomes rigid and flawed. Prakash brought in his own take to the character with double standards and there was magic,” she says.

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Child sexual abuse

Anantham taps into the harrowing world of child sexual abuse, which happens in this case in the midst of a loving family. Priya tries to show how the tight-knit family members completely fail to grasp what’s troubling young Parvathy, who will not allow her little niece and nephew to sit on any uncle’s lap.

The episode ends with a dramatic and violent showdown which some may have a problem with. But, Priya is not apologetic.

“Probably, every child sexual abuse victim wants that kind of outlet. It is almost as a payoff for her; after all, her emotions have been pent-up for a long time. I believed that this should be her reaction,” asserts Priya. Adding that the child abuse victim could have hauled her abuser to the police but she preferred this ending.

Priya decided to focus on this issue because families tend to brush child sexual abuse under the carpet and are “so uncomfortable” about it. We need to keep talking about it.

(From left) Co-director Reema Ravichander, assistant director Kajal, director V Priya and costume designer Dipti

Age no bar when it comes to love

There’s comic relief in the episode in which three women fall in love with the same man. And, Priya also gets to send her message across that you cannot put labels on people and dismiss them off because of their age.

“Just because a woman crosses a certain age, or is a widow or a divorcee, her life is not over. Love can happen to you at any age or at any point. I was keen to break all these stereotypes,” states Priya. The idea for this particular episode stemmed from her aunt, who lost her husband when she was 38 years old; her life was considered over.

Battle for viewers in the OTT space

On the battle for viewers in the OTT space, Priya admits there is intense competition. “But, it’s a healthy thing,” she says. In the OTT space, there’s no shortage of stories and filmmakers have carte-blanche to explore the darker side of life. In her view, it may not be so easy to tackle social issues like the ones she did in Anantham on the big screen.

Priya explains: “In a theatre, you have to find a common ground and connect with nearly 1,000 people locked up in an enclosed space. But in OTT, people are largely watching it alone or in smaller groups in their homes or even on phone. They will be more open to questioning themselves.”

She continues, “OTT is also a great medium because you have a viewer’s attention for six hours because they come with the intention of binge-watching. That’s great for us filmmakers actually.” Priya had pitched her idea for Anantham to producer Murali Raman, who took it to Zee5.

Unlike popular perception, OTT projects are not made quickly, she reveals. It took her a year to complete Anantham and OTT web series are as expensive as making a film, she says.

People watch a web series if it has a good cast and promotion, she says, adding promotions are important. The actors and OTT platform Zee5 continue to promote the series on social media. But Anantham, it seems, got traction because of word of mouth.

Tamil cinema in a slump vis-à-vis Malayalam and Telugu films

“We have just come out of a major pandemic; COVID has made us stand still for two years. There is lot of confusion over where our films are being exhibited but I still think there is good cinema happening in Tamil films as well and not just in Telugu or Malayalam cinema,” says Priya.

She gives the examples of Vetrimaran, Mari Selvaraj, Pa Ranjith, Ameer, Gautam…who are writing good scripts and raking up important concerns. “The Tamil film industry has got extremely talented people. They are experimenting as well in their own way, everything may not work for everybody,” she adds.

On regional cinema vs Bollywood debate

Priya says self-consciously, “I am not even in that race, I’m here just to tell stories. I am not here to compete with Bollywood films or anybody. That’s my stance, I want to tell my story as interesting as possible and hope people will identify with it anywhere in the world.”

OTT picks by V Priya: Mare of Easttown, Big Little Lies, Fleabag (‘loved it’, probably, something she could identify with completely)