Pizza fame Karthik Subbaraj returns with Jigarthanda, a gangster flick set in Madurai. Udhav Naig catches up with the filmmaker

The runaway success of short filmmaker-turned-feature filmmaker Karthik Subbaraj’s Pizza has demonstrated that aspiring filmmakers no longer have to slog as assistant directors before making their directorial debut. It also inspired confidence in the minds of producers who opened up to the idea of collaborating with up-and-coming short filmmakers with bright ideas on a feature film.

Almost a year and a half later, Karthik is back with Jigarthanda, a gangster flick set in Madurai that promises not to hold back its punches. Featuring the ever-young Siddharth, pretty Lakshmi Menon and menacing Bobby Simha, the smartly cut trailer seems to suggest that this 'Western' will be populated with men with bushy beards wielding sickles engaged in bloody duels.

A litmus test

The second film is usually considered a litmus test for any filmmaker and Karthik is feeling the heat. In addition to it, he has to cope with the pressure of being identified as a representative of the entire community of short filmmakers. Has it affected him at any point?

“The success of Pizza didn’t happen in isolation. Around the same time, Balaji Mohan’s Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi, Nalan Kumarasamy’s Soodhu Kavvum and Alphonse Putharen’s Neram were received well at the box office and gained a lot of press. Then, suddenly we were all labelled “short filmmakers” and our second movies became the talking point. But is it not the case that a filmmaker is under pressure to deliver every single time? If I deliver in my second film, it would put the doubts about the capability of the short filmmaking community to rest,” says Karthik.

Jigarthanda was supposed to be his first feature. The unwritten industry protocol that producers do not invest huge sums in rookies forced him to write Pizza, which could be made at approximately 1/10th of Jigarthanda’s budget. Jigarthanda is a film which incorporates Karthik’s personal experiences, growing up in Madurai. It is filled with anecdotes about gang wars and induction of youngsters into such groups. Why is Madurai always the milieu for violence in Tamil cinema? “Frankly, I could have set this film anywhere. I chose to set it in Madurai because I have seen how youngsters get inducted into small gangs and know how things work,” he says.

In commercial cinema, violence is often depicted in a stylised way, conveniently side-stepping the context and the social conditions that give rise to it. How open will this film be while discussing violence in Madurai? “It is true that an honest discussion about a number of issues is difficult when it comes to a commercial feature. That way, short films are liberating. I made a short film called Neer which was about issues faced by Tamil fishermen. But I have tried to shed light on a few myths regarding Madurai in Jigarthanda.”

On more than one occasion, Karthik talks about how fascinating ‘mob’ movies are and how the general audience get hooked on them.

What makes these gangster flicks tick? “It is a kind of fantasy that we wouldn’t want to live ourselves. We love rooting for anti-heroes,” he says.

Jigarthanda is a triangular love story involving a dreaded gangster, played by Bobby Simha. The film is expected to be a big break for Bobby. What was the idea behind casting a fairly young actor in the role of an ageing gangster? “I decided not to cast anyone who we thought was an obvious choice for the role, including Vijay Sethupathi. After seeing his performance in Neram, in which Bobby played a gangster, we thought that if we do a complete makeover, he could crack it.”