Aaranya Kaandam won a prize at an international festival even before the film was completed. Director Thiagarajan Kumararaja gives the details

A Tamil film, made by a debutant director with an ensemble cast with no big names to boast of, dark, grainy picture quality (thanks to the projection in its offline quality, without colour correction) and no background score or songs — an incomplete film unable to meet its completion deadline —premieres at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York last October, meets with whistles and claps in the theatre with its wicked wit and deliciously dark humour, and goes on to win the Grand Jury Prize for Best Film.

Back home, after completion, the Censors refuse to clear it. They rule that not even adults can handle profanity or violence! The revising committee agrees to clear Aaranya Kaandam with an A certificate if the makers agree to implement the 52 cuts — mostly use of colourful slang and stylised violence — and ask the producers to get clearance from Rajnikant and Kamal Haasan for a joke involving their names!

Kamal Haasan loves the film, S. P. Charan tweets. The makers are planning to head to the Tribunal to get justice for the film that would lose its teeth and punch if the suggested cuts were made.

“I think they are being extra careful,” says Thiagarajan Kumararaja, sitting down for an interview at the new Amethyst. “They don't have any fixed rules or guidelines, so maybe they want to play it safe. Most of the words used in this film are not for sensationalism or meant to titillate, they are used to define character. What do you expect when a gangster is angry? It's very essential for the characters to speak that way.”

What gave him the guts to take his own time before he made a film? “I didn't know anything else in life,” he laughs. “I've been trying to write since 1998 after dropping out of Visual Communication from Loyola. My parents have been supportive. I tried making ad films. Remember the Sri Krishna Collections ad with a girl walking all around Pondicherry? I made that. Then, I made a short film for Ability Foundation's one-minute film competition for the prize money. My animation film won and the money kept me floating for six months. After that, I wrote Oram Po and hung around the sets for two years. By the end of Oram Po, I started writing Aaranya Kaandam, in December, 2006. I met Charan in January, 2007, for the first time, and gave him a narration. He listened to it for two hours and immediately said: ‘Let's make this film.' I also asked him not to be around during the shoot,” he laughs.

The cast

For a debutant, Kumararaja knew exactly what he wanted. Be it the equation with the producer or the actors.

“A lot of people turned it down because they didn't want to share space with other stars. Some people wanted changes and didn't like the ending… If I agreed to the changes, it wouldn't be the kind of film I wanted to make. A friend suggested Jackie's (Shroff) name. He agreed right over the phone. A couple of stars auditioned but I didn't think they fit the characters I had in mind.”

Did he make what he started out to make? “I wanted to make a racy film that moved at breakneck speed, but what I have ended up making is a slow, classic build-up to the climax,” he grins. “Most of the film starts off only in the second half. At the interval block, the filmmaker or a character will tell you the story begins only now. It's like saying you will be paid only from the third month of joining work. Oh, then I will join work from the third month. The idea was to cut to the chase.”

Aaranya Kaandam is Tamil cinema's first foray into neo-noir, a genre popularised by Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and even the Coen Brothers. It's got all the elements of traditional film noir and also post-modern references to pop culture.

Aaranya Kaandam is a term from the Ramayana. It means Jungle Chapter but apart from the term, I haven't borrowed anything else. The characters are as good or as bad as the common man. We might do something wrong according to law, jump the signal, go triples and commit such petty offences. When a friend sleeps around, we don't think he's being evil, right? I have just treated murderers and scum in my films just as I would treat a friend,” he laughs.

Influences? “Everything I have watched has been an influence. I'm a huge fan of Doordarshan, so my influences range from international to local. I like Karagattakaaran and at the other extreme, Aval Appadithaan. I think Bhimsingh's classics are the greatest. I like Thiruvilayadal, also Visu as he directs a lot of people talking all along. At another level, I like the works of Tarkovsky, Tarantino, Lars von Trier... To me, it's the work that matters and not the directors. No matter how many films a filmmaker makes, there would be very few films that are truly great, where he has got everything right.”