As I sit down with Karthik Subbaraj at his Stone Bench Creations office, I recalled how, a decade ago, he had come to my tenant’s place, a small-time company that rented out audio and video equipment.
A few months later, I learned that he had picked up from them a projector to use as a prop in the background, the one that plays the legendary ‘Malarnthum Malaradha’ track in the first and last scene of Jigarthanda (2014). Naturally, the conversation started with why such attention to detail was necessary.
“While writing a scene, there are certain aspects that have to be perfect for it to be converted well onto film. I think it’s necessary for each film, and it does make a difference,” says a smiling Karthik Subbaraj, who, almost ten years later, is back in the world of Jigarthanda with its spiritual sequel, Jigarthanda DoubleX.
Excerpts from a conversation:
Your earlier films have had a lot of Western film references, and now looking at the promotional material of ‘Jigarthanda DoubleX,’ it seems to fit into that genre...
Absolutely. When we made the first promo for the first Jigarthanda, it featured a poster of Clint Eastwood. In the new film, the script lends itself very close to the Western tropes, and I have tried to explore it to the maximum. This is the closest tribute I can do for Western films and Eastwood.
From the trailer, we realise that SJ Suryah’s character is an erstwhile assistant of Satyajit Ray and your previous films have had mentions of other directors’ works as well. Are these references just hat tips to legendary filmmakers, or do their works influence yours?
The story of Jigarthanda DoubleX is set in 1975, and at that time, Satyajit Ray was a working legend, and I wanted to incorporate it into the story. When we introduce the character of a filmmaker as someone who had assisted Ray, the character’s dimensions change drastically — how he behaves, his costumes and so on. It’s also another tribute.
Suryah played a filmmaker in your first collaboration with him, in ‘Iraivi’ as well. Did it require additional effort to make this character more different?
If Iravi’s Arul felt similar to his character in Jigarthanda DoubleX, I wouldn’t have approached him. Apart from their profession, both characters are very different. Even performance-wise, not a single scene will remind the audience of Arul.
Raghava Lawrence has become synonymous with (horror) comedy films in recent times, but at the beginning of his career, he had proven his mettle with serious, dramatic roles. Will ‘Jigarthanda DoubleX’ mark his return to that zone?
He has done a lot of horror-comedy films, but as an actor, I was impressed with his work in Parthen Rasithen. In it, despite limited screen time, his body language and screen presence embodied the villainous trait of that character. I felt the performer in him hasn’t been explored much, and while this is completely different from his roles in recent films, that’s what excited both of us about his character in Jigarthanda DoubleX.
Does the fact that both your lead actors are also directors make it easier for you to get what’s needed from them?
Totally! Both were in their characters throughout the film and put much thought into it. There were a lot of discussions, and the fact that they didn’t let anything distract them from thinking about their characters for almost a month made it a very healthy atmosphere.
Your films have always had memorable supporting characters. Are they just products of your writing or is more effort put into shaping those roles?
I don’t add more to a character just because I’ve got one, and only after writing the necessary characters do we scout the right actors for it. Characters exist for the screenplay to move forward and that makes them important by default. My characters come up organically while writing.
In an earlier interview, you’d said that a lot of research went into getting the period right for ‘Jigarthanda DoubleX’ which is how you discovered that several English films used to have dream runs in theatres back then. What else did you discover?
What fascinated me the most was how Westerns had brilliant theatrical runs in our state. Before Ilaiyaraaja sir came in, there was a huge following for Hindi pop music even. We learnt that Madurai back then was a city that was influenced by pop culture... that itself was quite new to us.
Your films predominantly relied on live locations instead of specifically-created sets. ‘Jigarthanda DoubleX’ seems to be different in that sense...
Yes, it was quite a challenge. When I worked with Thalaivar (Rajinikanth) in Petta, we opted for live locations. But we cannot shoot with big stars in Tamil Nadu, so we shot in north India and matched it as the south. The scenes that were supposed to depict Ooty were shot in Darjeeling, while for Madurai, we matched it with Varanasi. But for a period set up like Jigarthanda DoubleX, we had to create sets. That is why Santhanam sir’s production design was integral.
We had to recreate Madurai’s iconic roads like Town Hall Road and Ezhukadal Street like it was in the ‘70s. We didn’t get photo references to match the period; the ones we got were much older. So we took some liberties with the design and Santhanam sir designed buildings based on the 100-year-old two-storey buildings that are still standing strong. The street we show in the film is located right next to the Meenakshi Temple, and even now, at the end of Ezhukadal Street, there’s a stretch with pillars which we recreated.
‘Jigarthanda DoubleX’ is going to be a “spiritual sequel” to the first film. Doesn’t such sequels come with pressure to live up to its predecessor?
Since a sequel comes with so much pressure, I didn’t have the confidence to do this film earlier. I pitched this story to Lawrence sir back during the time of Iraivi (2016), but the idea I had wasn’t good enough. Given the obvious comparisons, our aim was to match or outdo than the original film. I gave up on that original idea and it took me eight years to arrive at this film’s script.
If I had done the sequel earlier, it would’ve been the work of a two-film-old filmmaker. Now, over the years, I’ve learnt a lot of filmmaking aspects and how to handle big-budget productions. I don’t think I would’ve gotten this film’s budget back then either. I think everything came together at the right time!
The soul of the film is still the same; that of a gangster wanting to make a film with a director. In the original Jigarthanda, a gangster gets furious when someone laughs at him and ends up becoming the laughing stock of the town. He realises that being treacherous is easier when compared to making someone laugh. He realises the power of art. That’s the core idea of Jigarthanda DoubleX as well, but on a different and much bigger scale. We just saw the final version of the film, and I strongly believe that the audience will keep comparisons aside and enter into this new world within the first ten minutes.
You just recently stepped into your 11th year as a filmmaker. How has the last decade been for you?
It’s been both an exciting and challenging journey. Each film came with its own challenges; Pizza had its fair share of issues while Jigarthanda had a problem that persisted till its release. After facing that, in Iraivi, we encountered a new set of issues. They all were new to me, and while it stressed me back then, there was also the excitement of being in an industry where life wouldn’t be monotonous. This profession has always demanded more from me, and there has never been a monotonous day in the last 11 years.
Jigarthanda DoubleX releases in theatres on November 10