A remake that is original: PC Sreeram retrospect on 25 years of ‘Kuruthipunal’

(From left to right) Arjun Sarja, Kamal Haasan and K Vishwanath in a scene from ‘Kuruthipunal’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

They are cut from the same cloth, driven by their own ideologies. One comes from a position of privilege and is with the State, while the other is a messiah to the oppressed and tries to destabilise the establishment. They are both armed, but what sets them apart is that while one is bound by the conventions of law and order, the other is not.

Kamal Haasan’s DCP Adhi Narayanan and Nassar’s Badri, leader of a militant outfit, gave an edge to the PC Sreeram-directed Kuruthipunal, making its proceedings rather unusual and contemplative than what could have been a regular cat-and-mouse game.

There is a general anger against the system at fault that creeps into the narrative. Sreeram agrees that the anger and resultant feeling of being dwarfed by the system were what attracted him towards remaking Kuruthipunal. “In that sense, it is a very personal film. If you look at the photographs we had used in the first scene, we were angry with what had happened in the country,” says Sreeram over phone, “The anger in me was a reflection of my shots; the camera was always in close proximity with the subject. I don’t have a theory behind it, but this was the way I wanted to tell the story.”

How it all came together

Kamal and Sreeram were in Bombay when veteran filmmaker Govind Nihalani invited them for the screening of Drohkaal, starring the legendary duo Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah. This was a time when films were projected for distributors, friends and members of the fraternity. The film evoked an emotion in Sreeram, which he could not express then and even now. Kamal’s immediate response was to remake Drohkaal in Tamil and asked Sreeram what he thought. “That’s the best thing to do,” he said on a whim.

There were discussions among Sreeram, screenwriter John Edathattil (who wrote the screenplay for Gunaa) and Kamal on how to go about the shoot, and it was decided that the latter write the screenplay and dialogues. When the script was ready, Kamal had suggested three titles — one of which was Kuruthipunal and the other was Drohi, which eventually became the title for the Telugu version. The filmmaker was advised against going with Kuruthipunal (River of Blood) as the audience may not have a stomach for a morbid title. “But I was persistent because it was taken from a novel by [Indira] Parthasarathy and there was also a [Akira] Kurosawa connect [Throne of Blood],” he says.

Kamal Haasan and Arjun in a scene from ‘Kuruthipunal’

Kamal Haasan and Arjun in a scene from ‘Kuruthipunal’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

One of the aspects that is less spoken about is the background score by Mahesh Mahadevan; it had no songs and very little background score, and was among the first Indian films to have a Dolby sound system. “The effect it [Dolby] produced gave a different dimension. In fact, most people came to theatres to experience the sound,” says Sreeram. It was Mahesh’s idea to synchronise the ominous score for Nassar. “He wanted the omen of death to reflect on Nassar’s face whenever he appeared. Sangu udhara maari irukanum (it should sound like a conch) is what he told me and it was his interpretation of the brief.”

Commercial viability was still a question of concern, given the absence of songs and the nature of the film (it was rated ‘A’). But Sreeram says they pulled it off in under 30 days with a tight budget and a tighter schedule — “The shooting was akin to a war footing. You cannot shoot three or four scenes a day, if not for a great star cast.”

Behind the lens

Sreeram does not see himself as a cinematographer but a co-author executing the vision of the author (director). However, in the case of Kuruthipunal, he was both author and co-author. He says the process was not as exhilarating as he thought it would be, “I am not a cinematographer but someone who is part of the expedition group,” he explains, adding, “There were lots that were planned ahead of the shoot, which made it easier for us. That is why this film gave me the most satisfaction.”

The film follows the pursuit of two level-headed cops Adhi Narayanan and Abbas (Arjun) on a covert mission called Operation Dhanush, to infiltrate a militant group. Through the course of their mission, they are awakened to a system that cracks from the inside and realise the price that they pay for: honesty.

PC Sreeram and Kamal Haasan were invited for the screening of ‘Drohkaal’ after which they decided to remake it in Tamil

PC Sreeram and Kamal Haasan were invited for the screening of ‘Drohkaal’ after which they decided to remake it in Tamil   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Often cited as a cop film with western sensibilities, Kuruthipunal set a benchmark with regard to staging. A particular scene which has become a recurring motif in cop films, more recently in Vikram Vedha, is the interrogation featuring Kamal and Nassar. “Firstly, that is not how actual interrogation would look like,” he says, “I was opting for that visual style for the first time. I felt it shouldn’t look mundane; it also came from a point of commercial interest.”

Barring its artistic frames and performances, the film was replete with scenes that were violent and graphic, and depicted the extent of custodial torture. “When the threatening comes from the system of power, it will be brutal” says Sreeram, adding, “The idea was to convey the fear that seeps into a man [Adhi] who had always been true to his virtue. That fear of being let down by the system is more relevant now.”

He praises Kamal Haasan for treading a fine line between displaying desperation and betrayal, which were the film’s underlying themes. “Kamal sir conveys the feeling of helplessness remarkably well when he discovers that his boss [played by K Vishwanath], the one he looks up to, was a sellout,” says Sreeram, of a friendship that dates back a few decades preceding Kuruthipunal.

Camera buffs

Both Kamal and Sreeram were part of the now-famous “Samco” gang — comprising a motley group of film students and enthusiasts — that would gather at Samco hotel in Alwarpet in the ‘80s, spending the evening discussing world cinema over tea.

“It was also the cheapest place to get together because we had the luxury of sharing one tea amongst the five of us,” he says with a laugh, “We were just passionate about films. I was a film student then and my greatest skill was listening.”

PC Sreeram and Kamal Haasan on the set

PC Sreeram and Kamal Haasan on the set   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Kuruthipunal, in fact, was among the last projects Sreeram and Kamal worked on after Nayakan, Apoorva Sagodharargal, Thevar Magan and Subha Sankalpam. When the film released a year after its Hindi counterpart in 1995, the response it got was overwhelming; the Tamil version fared much better compared to Telugu, according to Sreeram.

It was ultimately chosen as India’s entry for the Oscars that year, but was not nominated. “For me, it [Oscars] was not a big deal. Although you could say that Kuruthipunal had the intensity of a Hollywood film,” he adds.

The bigger deal, for Sreeram, was when Govind Nihalani came for the première and called it “a remake that is original”.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 6:43:07 PM |

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