With their unusual take on modern lives, Balaji Mohan, Karthik Subbaraj and Nalan Kumarasamy have made it big through the small screen. They tell Sudhish Kamath how Naalaya Iyakunar, a privately produced reality show, helped them realise their dream

One gave Tamil cinema a fresh urban modern romantic comedy by turning his much-acclaimed short film Kaadhalil Sothappuvathu Yeppadi into a feature when he was just 24.

Another pulled the rug from under our feet with an unusual horror thriller called Pizza after a series of short films and assisting an American indie filmmaker when he grew tired of his software job.

Even recently, the third made us laugh out loud with Soodhu Kavvum, a dark comedy about “kednapping” after winning a reality show, that the first two also participated in.

Three destinies. Connected by a TV show that made it possible.

Naalaya Iyakunar, a privately produced reality show, on Kalaignar TV is now gearing up for its fifth season and has received 2,400 entries (including 50 international applicants) already with over two weeks to go for the deadline (September 20) thanks to the success of the filmmakers from its first batch — Balaji Mohan (KSY), Karthik Subbaraj (Pizza) and Nalan Kumarasamy (Soodhu Kavvum).

There are over half a dozen films awaiting release by Naalaya Iyakunar finds in the near future — Pizza 2, Pannayaarum Padminiyum, Thegidi, Mundasupatti, Uthri, Savaari, etc.

What’s more, the company behind Naalaya Iyakunar, JV Media Dreams, has just finished production of its first feature tentatively titled Uthri.

We met Balaji, Karthik and Nalan for coffee at Sathyam Cinemas to talk about how they made it big through the small screen. And how making shorts helped them wear the pants on the sets.

Real Estate to Dream State

Nalan Kumarasamy

Age: 32

Route to success: Nalan was into event management and real estate and all set to start his own business when he heard about Naalaya Iyakunar. There were just ten days to the deadline. So he turned it meta and made a short called Oru Padam Edukkanum about a filmmaker with a deadline. He went on to make seven more short films. Nenjukku Neethi, his entry for the final round, made him win the first season of the show.

Learning from the show: “It was a complete A to Z holistic learning in filmmaking because you had to do everything. From art direction to production management, handling extreme stress and high pressure. It was like a film school, that whole year we spent making films,” says Nalan. “These shows haven’t clicked anywhere else in the world, they died out after a season or two because they were not feasible. Here, they made it feasible by making the participants produce their own films, after giving us a token amount of Rs 5,000 per film,” he observes. “The films would cost a lot of money, from Rs. 20,000 rupees to a lakh. I am glad my parents supported me.”

First film: “I just thought I can be a scriptwriter but after making these films, I gained confidence. I got two or three offers but I was keen to make the film I wanted to make and on my terms. I am a Guy Ritchie fan and was thinking of making a gangster film when my writer-friend Srinivasan suggested I could take the kidnap knot from my short film Enna Nadanthathu Na and turn it into a full film. I started off with a one line: How a minister’s son who is a criminal becomes a minister.

Signature style:

“I might have a unique cutting pattern of how I tell my stories. There will always be some comic elements. But honestly, I try to avoid a signature. I want to keep jumping genres and avoid repetition.

Maybe the only thing common in all films is this: They are all extreme fantasy situations made plausible and believable.

Next: A romantic comedy to be produced by C.V. Kumar that he is still scripting.

Links to Short films: YouTube.com/nalanish

How to make a movie

Balaji Mohan

Age: 26

Route to success: Balaji participated in a National reality show Gateway in 2006. He made a short called Kanavu Keertanai that got him selected to Naalaya Iyakunar. Among the seven short films was Kaadhalil Sothappuvathu Yeppadi that he made for the quarter finals of the show. His Mittai Veedu for the final round didn’ win the prize but he was adjudged Best Director of the series along with Karthik Subbaraj. KSY was an even bigger hit on YouTube. Thaman approached him for music, cinematographer Nirav Shah saw it and recommended it to S Sashikanth of Y Not and when they approached Siddharth, they realised even he had seen it and was keen to do it.

Learning from the show: “Managing time and money. Through the short film experience, we came to deal with production constraints. I had a small crew, with just a couple of assistants and my parents would come to help out on the set. I made KSY without lights! Ended up spending an average of 40,000 to 50,000 per film. In fact, KSY was the least expensive. But that’s where we learnt cutting budgets.”

First film: Even when he wrote the short, Balaji was aware of the feature film potential in it. I had worked on it for over six months and after I met Sashi, we spent another six months developing it. It took me a year in all to turn it from a short film script to a viable commercial film with Siddharth.

Signature style: “Urban realism and an emotional connect that happens with an undercurrent of humour,” he says. “Not mindless humour, but something sensible under it. I want to do all genres, no reservations. I am a big Rajni fan, so I to do a big action film some day.”

Next: Untitled film for Y Not that will go on floors in October

Links to Short Films: YouTube.com/destinatusbalaji, Fridaymoviez.com (Additale, Juniors and Mittai Veedu)

Slice of Entertainment

Karthik Subbaraj

Age: 30

Route to success: Karthik worked in a software company in Bangalore and made short films during weekends. I learnt the basics during a one-day workshop called Film Camp Sanjay Nambiar. Out of the five years I spent in software, I was in the U.S. for two. I worked with an indie filmmaker called Mark Williams, a lawyer who was making a zero budget family drama called Move Me. I had assisted him in a documentary made for the church and also did live sound and ran second unit. I made two short films in the U.S. but it was Kaatchipizhai that I made in Madurai that got selected for Naalaya Iyakkunar. Thuru was my most popular short, Vijay Sethupathy acted in it and my comedy Black and White went to fests and Neer, the film I made for the final round earned me the second prize.

Learning from the show: “I was doing it the amateur way, doing everything myself till Naalaya Iyakunar. They said you need crew members, they insisted on having proper production values. So I learnt a lot about making films for that show... Sound design, working with a crew, handling budget. I spent about 15,000 per film on an average. I had some money from my savings and my parents supported me.”

First film: It took Karthik a year and a half before he started Pizza. I met a lot of producers and made many contacts through the show and the guidance from the judges Madhan and Pratap Pothen was invaluable. Sundar, an executive producer who worked with CV Kumar put me in touch and he liked my films. The first script I narrated was Jigarthanda. He liked it but wanted to do a smaller film. That’s how I wrote Pizza.

Signature style: “I haven’t yet found out. I don’t want the film to say it is a Karthik Subbaraj film because anyway they will come to know when they see my name in the credits. I am not fixed about anything. I start writing with an open mind without thinking about genre and realise only after writing, that it falls under many genres.”

Next: Jigarthanda. He just completed a long schedule in Madurai. The film starring Siddharth, Lakshmi Menon, Bobby Simha and Karuna will be ready by December.

Links to short films: YouTube.com/karthiksubbaraj

More Naalaya Iyakunars

SP Mohan (Season 1) Panjumittai

Arunkumar (Season 2) Pannayarum Padminiyum

Ram (Season 2) Mundasupatti

Deepan (Season 2) Pizza 2: The Villa

Ramesh (Season 2) Thegidi

Bharathi Bala (Season 3) Uthri

“Season 4 started with 27 contestants and seven will be selected for the final round,” says Vijay Kumar Vijayan, creative head and director of Naalaya Iyakunar. “Directors Suresh Krissna, Chimbudevan and Pandiraj are the judges for this season. The grand finale is scheduled this month and season 5 call in and auditioning has already started.”