Tamil filmmaker Venkateshkumar G is preparing an ambitious Russian film about the life of influential novelist Leo Tolstoy
When filmmaker Venkateshkumar G was cleaning out a cupboard in his house in Valasaravakkam in 2019, he came across an old Tamil book written by his great-grandfather, Rao Sahib K Kothandapani Pillai, an Indian diplomat and Tamil scholar. The book, titled Kadhaimanikkovai: Stories of Tolstoywas a translation of three stories by the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and was published in 1932 as a textbook during the Madras Presidency.
“I had heard the name ‘Leo Tolstoy’, but I didn’t know much about him. I read this translated book with great interest,” Venkateshkumar recalled, during a Zoom call.
He sent a digital copy of the book to the Leo Tolstoy Museum in Yasnaya Polyana, Russia, which was delighted to receive it. The curators of the museum, in turn, invited him to Russia, for which Venkateshkumar prepared and presented a speech on Tolstoy’s influence on Tamil literature.
His fascination with Tolstoy began then. It slowly became an obsession, with the filmmaker reading as much material as he could find about him. Venkateshkumar, who has made two Tamil-language feature films in addition to a bunch of shorts, is now ready to start his dream project: a Russian film about Leo Tolstoy.
Presenting the events leading up to the writing of Tolstoy’s epic War and peace, the film is expected to open soon in Russia, once pandemic restrictions are lifted. “There have been records of Tolstoy’s life, but very few tend to focus on his student life at Kazan University and the many events that shaped his outlook on life, which led to writing the classic War and peace. Andrei Vladimir Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy’s great-great-great-grandson, will play the lead role.
Andrei Tolstoy, Vladimir Tolstoy and Ekaterina Tolstoy
The filmmaker hopes to bring to life on the big screen even the environment in which Tolstoy lived. “It helps that a lot of things are still the same there and preserved as they were,” he says, “The villages still have an old world charm and the families who served the Tolstoy family (he belonged to an aristocratic family) are still there.
Venkateshkumar’s cinematic vision includes filming in these locations, which Tolstoy himself wrote about in A morning of landownersa short story that made him wonder how to change the poverty and grief that surrounded him.
“We are planning a four-month schedule to shoot the film,” says Venkateshkumar, who recently received an honorary degree from Rossotrudnichestvo, an autonomous federal government agency under the Russian Foreign Ministry.
A date with the cinema
Venkateshkumar is now a filmmaker in his own right, but he wasn’t always. Ten years ago, he was pursuing a full-time career in business, when he imagined himself making short films and was thus working on a short titled white dirt on manual scanning.
“I was busy in the office when I got a call,” he recalls. “The person said, ‘Balu Mahendra watched your short film on the internet and wants to meet you.’ I immediately apologized and rushed off.
At Cinema Pattarai, a film school run by the veteran Tamil filmmaker, white dirt was shown to his students. A discussion ensued, which Venkateshkumar watched with great interest. Then Balu Mahendra waved at Venkateshkumar and said three words: “Ithu dan movie theater. (It’s cinema).
This prompted Venkateskumar to venture more into film. His documentary on the life of a Tamil fisherman titled Vittil Poochigal: Moths won an award at a prestigious film festival. He went on to make other documentaries and feature films, including light manwhich depicts the life of men of light in Tamil cinema.
Besides the Tolstoy film, he is currently in talks with major OTT players to fund his ambitious project on LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, starring Bobby Simha.