Arun Matheswaran interview: On ‘Captain Miller’ and why Dhanush is ‘not a regular superstar’

Watch | Arun Matheswaran interview: On ‘Captain Miller’ and why Dhanush is ‘not a regular superstar’

The director also speaks about casting Shiva Rajkumar in the Dhanush-starrer, his fascination for de-saturated colours, the bigger artistic journey that he is pursuing, and more

Updated - January 11, 2024 12:58 pm IST

Published - January 09, 2024 04:37 pm IST

Arun Matheswaran has had an unusual yet scintillating start to his career as a mainstream filmmaker in Tamil. His debut film, 2021’s Rocky, struggled to fill screens during its release, picking up pace only due to good word-of-mouth marketing. His sophomore project Saani Kaayidham in 2022, starring Keerthy Suresh and Selvaraghavan, was released directly on Prime Video, making it even more difficult to ascertain its reach and commercial success.

And yet, if those films persuaded a star like Dhanush to sign multiple projects with the filmmaker it is probably due to the filmmaking prowess that he had displayed in those two films. Rocky and Saani Kaayidham were terrific works of art that established Arun as a filmmaker with a confident film language and distinct style of storytelling.

Arun Matheswaran; Dhanush in a still from ‘Captain Miller’

Arun Matheswaran; Dhanush in a still from ‘Captain Miller’ | Photo Credit: Thamodharan Bharath & Special Arrangement

Now, ahead of the release of his film with Dhanush, Captain Miller, Arun speaks about his fascination for de-saturated colours, casting Shiva Rajkumar in the film, and the bigger artistic journey that he is pursuing.

Excerpts from an interview:

Where did the idea behind ‘Captain Miller’ germinate from?

This is a story about the oppressed fighting for freedom. My uncle was in the Army and the idea originated from everything he told me when I was a child. I have also taken some inspiration from the events that happened in the 1980s during the Sri Lankan Civil War. I worked out a story based on all of that, but materialising that script in that original form wasn’t possible; many producers were apprehensive because it was based on the Sri Lankan War. I had to let that story rest for over two years, and then I thought of basing it on the British Army to make it more acceptable.

In both ‘Rocky’ and ‘Saani Kaayidham,’ apart from the internal journey of the character, the story also takes a journey through the road. Does ‘Captain Miller’ too embark on one such journey?

I wouldn’t call this a road film. But there are elements of travel because these characters are like nomads; they are dacoits who don’t have a permanent residence. But I did not focus a lot on that aspect. This film is more about the drama and what drives the protagonist to do what he does. The journey is about this young boy whose innocent decision changes his life forever.

Through your previous two films, you’ve established a distinct style of storytelling. But when a star like Dhanush comes into the picture and the scale of the film grows, you’d have to make the form of the film palatable to a larger audience while also ensuring your sensibilities stay intact. How difficult was that?

I am not a filmmaker who thinks in terms of a ‘commercial’ way of storytelling; not to take away anything from those who make films with that sensibility. So, it is tricky for a person like me to make a film for everyone, but I believe we have managed to do that this time. My first two films had thin storylines; they followed how an incident happens to the protagonists and how they react to it. Captain Miller needed a bigger canvas, both in terms of the story and the economics.

Arun Matheswaran

Arun Matheswaran | Photo Credit: Thamodharan Bharath

And when you have a star like Dhanush on board, you have to consider the expectations of his fans as well. Luckily, Dhanush is not your regular superstar. He does films like Asuran and Karnan and he likes to take roles that are grounded. Captain Miller is also in that zone. It is a very emotional story, and contrary to the impression people might get from the trailer, only 40% of the film has action. The rest is pure drama about the journey of the character. More importantly, you cannot tell a journey like that through a regular superstar; you need an actor who is also a superstar.

We have seen you use a lot of static shots and long un-cut shots. But the trailer of ‘Captain Miller’ showed many cinematic shots that constantly move. Was that a conscious decision considering that the current generation of audiences get impatient with long, static shots?

Yes, that is a conscious call. The lengthiest shot in this film will be around two to three minutes; I mean, even that might seem too long for some. Both Rocky and Saani Kaayidham had fewer scenes and it was about showing the events that happen within those scenes more elaborately. Here, the number of scenes is more and we need to show multiple timelines as well. So the film language changes entirely to suit this story. At the same time, I do take time to sustain an emotion and give some breathing space.

Your fascination for de-saturated colours is well-known and that seems to continue in ‘Captain Miller’ as well. Where does that come from?

I don’t know. Maybe I am colour-blind (laughs). No, I don’t prefer bright colours even in real life. I believe life would have been much better in black and white.

Extracting performances is something very subjective because the actors bring their own methods and ideas. When you are making a film of this scale, do you get enough time to first understand the actor, and if so, what was that process like with Dhanush?

Dhanush is a phenomenal performer and that works well for me; I don’t have to feed him a lot. He read the script and he knew the ins and outs of the character. Moreover, I am not a filmmaker who acts and shows. I just tell them the situation, the scene and how the character reacts to the situation. Now, when Dhanush comes to the set and performs, it might at times seem like he lacks interest. But only when I sat down at the edit table, did I see how subtly he had performed.

Generally, there’s a belief that you need to perform loudly when you are a part of a big-scale film such as this. In this film, we didn’t want it to be over-the-top because the characters are commoners who are fighting against the system. Dhanush understood that; even though this character ends up as a rebel, he is an innocent commoner in the beginning. What happens in his future should not reflect in the present and Dhanush pulled that off brilliantly.

Arun Matheswaran and Dhanush on the sets of ‘Captain Miller’

Arun Matheswaran and Dhanush on the sets of ‘Captain Miller’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

This was supposed to be a three-part film, isn’t it?

The idea is there. Even during the ideation, we looked at it as a three-part film. We were supposed to do the first part initially, which tells a story set in the 13th century. But I am not a commercially successful director yet. That project requires economics of a different scale and so at least for now, they cannot mount a project like that on a director like me. So, we decided to do the second part first, which is relatively not as big as that. So we do have a prequel and a sequel.

This film is more like an extended episode between those two films, but this episode by itself should seem complete. We cannot tell them ‘Okay, the answer to this will come in the prequel, and that will be answered in the sequel’. So, within this film, all the character arcs should end and find fruition. At the same time, the film begins with the story of the prequel and ends with a lead to the sequel.

You are a filmmaker who sees value in silences and this time you are collaborating with a music composer like GV Prakash Kumar who is known for his background scores. Where does your understanding stand in using music to elevate the scenes?

It totally depends on the mood of the film. For Rocky and Saani Kaayidham, we needed a lot of silence to show the isolation of the characters. Because if they are lonely, the audiences should feel that as well; we can’t drown that with a background score. Here, if we are charting the emotional journey of a character, we need to use music to underline some aspects of it. In that sense, GV Prakash’s contribution is phenomenal. In fact, music helps us a lot in the first 45 minutes when we are setting up the world, to keep the audiences engaged. So I see music also as a tool to keep the audience engaged.

We are seeing actors cross regional boundaries constantly these days; what was the idea behind casting Shiva Rajkumar in ‘Captain Miller’?

His character is like an extended cameo in the film. We did approach a couple of actors from Tamil but that didn’t work out due to some issues. I was very impressed by the trailer of Mufti and I loved his 1995 film with Upendra, Om. His look matched the role and I needed someone who could carry that sense of seniority. His presence should be appealing the minute he enters the frame, especially because we don’t tell too much about his backstory. And he’s a terrific performer. There’s a five-minute conversation between him and Dhanush in the film, and both of them are great in that scene.

You seem to be having even more fun with weapons in ‘Captain Miller.’ Where does this fascination to use tools of destruction as storytelling devices come from?

I wouldn’t call it fascination. I mean, firstly, we need all of that the minute we decide to make an action film. Unlike my previous films, this one revolves around dacoity, war and militancy, so, you have the freedom to use weapons like that. Moreover, in my previous films, the violence was very physical. But to ensure this film doesn’t alienate audiences, we didn’t want to make the violence seem too brutal. We can do that thanks to how audiences already perceive the different degrees of violence; shooting someone from afar is considered an acceptable form of violence on-screen than using the grip of that gun to bash the opponent’s head.

Dhanush in a still from ‘Captain Miller’

Dhanush in a still from ‘Captain Miller’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

You are making the films you want to, but beyond that, what is the bigger artistic journey that you are pursuing?

Making films for stars is like playing for the gallery. At the end of the day, those films are all about the collections. But there is cinema beyond that and I want to explore that space. The point of making big films like these is to earn money and to produce my own films independently. I am currently setting up my own production house, and I am also thinking of doing my own cinematography for those films. For projects like that, I need complete freedom to tell what I want to tell and I am working towards that.

Captain Miller releases in theatres on January 12

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