Interview: Darbuka Siva on first love, power of cinema & Gautam Menon
A scene from the Tamil film 'Mudhal Nee Mudivum Nee', a refreshing take on first love landed on Zee5 this weekend

Interview: Darbuka Siva on first love, power of cinema & Gautam Menon

We all have our stories about school, first love and cringe-worthy pranks that evoke a smile or a grimace. Darbuka Siva, a well-known Chennai-based music producer, actor, radio jockey and now film director, journeys down this nostalgic lane in his debut Tamil film Mudhal Nee Mudhavam Nee.

The coming-of-age high school drama, which landed on Zee5 this weekend, is refreshing because the cast involves a bunch of new young actors, who seem comfortable on celluloid even though it is their first film. Set in the middle-class, north-Madras milieu of the 1990s, the film follows the lives of a group of teenage kids studying in a Christian school.

There’s a love story here between a budding musician Vinoth (Kishen Das) and his schoolmate Rekha (Meeta). The scenes between them are handled with finesse. There’s Vinoth’s friend who goes around proposing to different girls in the school, there’s a class on sex education which makes the boys go wild-eyed and the school’s quintessential ‘Veronica’, who has her eyes set on the cute looking boy of the school – Vinoth – and the know-it-all, sarcastic Catherine who talks down to people but has a sad story tucked behind her bravado. The film is picking up good reviews except for criticism about a flagging second half.

Filmmaker Darbuka Siva

In a conversation with The Federal, the 39-year-old Darbuka Siva, who has spent most of his working life in the world of music, talks about how “seamless” it was to switch tracks and pick up the director’s baton. “It was not planned but a seamless move,” says the former RJ of Radio Mirchi.

“I had always drifted into varied places that seemed interesting to me as an artist. I never restricted myself to just being a musician or an actor. (Siva had acted in a prominent role in the 2015 heist Tamil thriller ‘Rajathandhiram’). All I need is a canvas, any creative medium would do,” he explains.

And, Siva seemed to have found many different platforms to express his creative energies. Having begun his performing career in 2002 with ‘Oikyotaan’, an outfit experimenting with Bengali Baul music, he started ‘Yodhakaa’ – a contemporary Indian classical music group in 2005 that worked with ancient Sanskrit texts. At Radio Mirchi in 2007, he hosted a research based show about traditional Tamil folk music and even created a music travelogue show for television.

In September 2013, Siva was selected as an artist-in-residence for OneBeat, a US state department project, which he describes as nothing short of being “transformational”. He attended the almost two-month music residency programme at the Atlantic Centre for the Arts, Florida along with 25 other musicians, from around the world, which included rapper Kemba from Bronx and musicians from Palestine, Israel and South Africa.

This residency was not just inspiring, it got him out of his comfort zone. He learnt tolerance and respect for others. “This particular residency I did in 2013 gave me a direction and solved my questions on what is the meaning and purpose of my art. It was a transformational and meditative space for me. From the amazing stories I heard from these musicians, I learnt that though we speak different languages and our skin tones are different, what we seek is similar. We need excitement from any art form we do,” says Siva.

And, he got a lot of that excitement he craved while making Mudhal Nee Mudhavum Nee (MNMN). “Though I am relieved that it is over and out there, I enjoyed every moment of the filmmaking process,” shares Siva.

Also read: Mangaluru Days: Why Kannada director Raj B Shetty is the talk of the country

To him, “cinema is one complete medium that has the magical power to seamlessly bring all the sensibilities I have – music, sound, images and bring them all together into a story,” he says with poetic emphasis.

“I did not go to film school,” he points out with pride. (Didn’t Quentin Tarantino famously say, ‘When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘no, I went to films’)

Fascinated with films, he taught himself filmmaking watching “a lot and a lot of films”. Once he became a musician, he got the opportunity to travel and saw a lot of foreign language films, he recounts. He particularly loves European cinema, his favourites being British film directors Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Mr Turner etc) and Ken Loach (Sorry, We Missed You, I Daniel Blake etc), Woody Allen, Fellini and Bergman.

The secret is that he has always been a “watch and learn person”. “I never had a teacher for even my music, I am self-taught. I hear and I play. It is the same for films, for me watching films has been my film school,” he says.

The challenges

There were challenges, however, that Siva had to overcome while making his first film. Luckily, he got a producer who believed in his process of hiring new faces, conducting acting workshops and preparing the actors like they do in theatre. But after wrapping up the shooting of MNME in 2019, the pandemic kicked in.

“We had no clue how to finish the film. It was a challenge, and this situation made us anxious. There were times when the footage was lying somewhere and we could not go out and get it. Two years of work was just lying around, and it had to be carefully maintained. Even if one hard disk was corrupted, it would have become a major problem for us,” explains Siva.

But his producer Sameer Bharat Ram, who encourages independent films sans stars, and OTT platform Zee5, helped him bring the movie on screen. Interestingly, Zee5, which is carving a niche for itself in streaming off-beat, small-budgeted regional films like ‘Malaysia to Amnesia’, ‘Chithirai Sevvanam’, ‘Blood Money’ etc., loved his script.

“We tried other OTT platforms but they were running out of reasons to give as to why they did not want to stream the film. It is not fitting into our schedule they would say. I don’t mind if they give me reasons that had to do with my creativity, but it is clear they only want films made with stars,” says Siva.

Truly, filmmaking is about 50 per cent creation and the other 50 per cent, especially for an independent film with new faces, is about trying to get it out there, he adds, praising Zee5 for taking films “purely based on content”.

Look at Malayalam and Telugu cinema, which strikes a good balance of star and good content films. “When they release a ‘star’ film they do it with a party. But they also put out great content. Here, we are all hell bent on star-driven films, but I truly believe that today no star can pull off a film with terrible content, even if it is a major star,” he points out.

Films rooted in a very local milieu like his MNMN are popular as well since it resonates with people in a different way. “People love what I call ‘event’ films, but they watch small local films that resonate with them as well,” he says. Yet, what Siva says may be true but critics are still writing reams trying to analyse why the Hindi version of Pushpa turned into a money-spinner stumping even cricket drama, 83.

Also read:Pushpa’ effect: Allu Arjun’s ‘Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo’ in Hindi to release in theatres

Art meets life

Interestingly, Siva met his life partner while shooting for MNMN. Purva Raghunath, who had auditioned and bagged the role of Catherine Mersey in the film became his wife last year. “There are no patterns or anything logical about finding the love of your life,” says Siva, on asked about romanticising the “high-school sweetheart” as the ultimate love like he does in his film MNMN.

“It is very random, the chances of finding someone might happen in high school or like me, it may happen when you are 39 years old. When I met Purva and got to know her, I knew this is the person for me. Some of my friends who got married to their school sweethearts are still happy so you cannot generalise these things. You never know where or when you might find the love of your life,” he says.

On picking his film title MNMN from the song ‘Maruvaarthai’ he had composed for Gautam Menon’s film, ‘Enai Noki Paayum Thota’, he says that this song was particularly special for him.

“The song ‘Maruvaarthai’ had received unconditional love that no other song had. Gautam Menon had released it without revealing the name of the music director calling the person Mr X and people loved the song unconditionally. There is a lot of groupism in the music scene, if people like a music director they would love a song even if it is not good. So, it was a social experiment we tried and people loved the song for its merit and not for the name of the person behind it,” he reveals, adding that he loved Thamarai’s poetry.

Gautam Menon is a huge inspiration for him. He had learnt a lot creating music for him and loves his commitment to cinema. Menon has also been a very integral part of MNMN from the conceptual stage, he reveals. “I bounced the idea of the story to him and the first thing he asked is whether he could make the film. That was such a huge compliment for me but there were lot of things from my real life that I had wanted to recreate. But at every point in the film, he was there and he also helped me to get the film out there to the public,” he shares.

On asked if MNMN was about his own high-school sweetheart, Siva shies off from answering that question. “If I reveal that then the 50 per cent fact and 50 per cent fiction which is the way I describe the film will be demolished,” he says with a laugh. Whether it is an ode to his high-school sweetheart or not, his school friends are clearly confused. “I have put three real life characters into one and made it difficult for them to zero in who I am referring to,” says Siva.

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