Sriram Raghavan Interview: On ‘Merry Christmas,’ ‘Ikkis’ and 20 years as a filmmaker

The director also speaks about Alfred Hitchcock’s influence on his movies and his wish to create tank battle sequences in his next film ‘Ikkis’

January 10, 2024 08:20 pm | Updated 08:38 pm IST

Sriram Raghavan on the sets of ‘Merry Christmas’

Sriram Raghavan on the sets of ‘Merry Christmas’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

There’s an almost Zen-like quality to how confident Sriram Raghavan seems just days before the release of Merry Christmas, his first film in over five years. Even after a long day with the press, the 60-year-old veteran is eager to give his all in an interaction that makes him any journalist’s dream guest.

The confidence is even more striking because Merry Christmas is Sriram taking a leap of faith outside his comfort zone. Starring Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi, the thriller is his first attempt at a Hindi-Tamil bilingual that was shot with different extended casts. And as he explains, it may also be his last such experiment.

Sriram Raghavan and Vijay Sethupathi on the sets of ‘Merry Christmas’

Sriram Raghavan and Vijay Sethupathi on the sets of ‘Merry Christmas’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“It was fun but the adventure is over. Say, you do a scene in Hindi today; after 15 days, you have to do that scene again in Tamil! Now, do you just replicate the same shots for the scene or do you do something different? This is a huge dilemma; also, the writers in the two languages are different and the languages themselves are very different. Next, I will either make a straight Tamil film or a straight Hindi film only,” says the director.

In these times, one good promo can take a film to unexpected heights and the decision to have two drastically different trailer cuts for Tamil and Hindi has made Merry Christmas all the more intriguing. “I didn’t want people to assume that it was a dubbed film. I decided that the poster and trailer would be designed by two different people who would be shown the film and given the same brief. I was pleasantly surprised by the trailer cuts.”

On making thrillers in the age of diminishing attention spans

Sriram is one of the few filmmakers who seem unshaken by the diminishing attention span among audiences. “I know it’s happening because it sometimes happens to me also; for instance, I spend an hour selecting a movie to watch and by the time I choose one, I am too tired. It’s sad but also inevitable.” The lack of impatience is also why many filmmakers these days hesitate to take the time to build an atmosphere in thrillers. While Sriram agrees that ‘thrill-a-minute’ is a fun technique that some stories can benefit from, building an atmosphere is not something you can do without.

Merry Christmas, he says, begins in a slow-burn fashion, even letting the viewers make up their own scripts in their heads. “The idea is to find a way to subvert that. I don’t believe in rules like ‘If you don’t hook your audience in three minutes, you will lose them’.”

He agrees that this diminishing attention span shouldn’t change the way films are made. ”That’s why I don’t know if many of the big hits we get have a life after the initial release. There’s a beautiful quote by Quentin Tarantino, which goes, ‘In the larger scheme of things, the first few days of a film’s release is the least important time.’ You are not making a film just for a weekend, right?”

Katrina Kaif and Sriram Raghavan on the sets of ‘Merry Christmas’

Katrina Kaif and Sriram Raghavan on the sets of ‘Merry Christmas’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Hitchcock’s influence on his films and how objects become motifs in his films

One of the aspects of Sriram’s style that stands out is his Hitchcockian use of sound. We witnessed it most evidently in his last film, Andhadhun (2019), about an ostensibly blind piano player enmeshed in a murder. “Sound is as important a tool as a camera. A major advantage is that you can suggest more details through sound. If you show something, it might lose its intrinsic value. Sound lets you imagine more. There are so many examples from Hitchcock films. Everything cannot be drowned with fast cuts and background music; that’s not the best way to make every movie.”

When asked to cite an example, he mentions a specific match-cut from his film Badlapur, that he believes might have its origins in Hitchcock’s first sound film, 1929’s Blackmail. “In that Hitchcock film, there’s a sequence in which this girl kills the blackmailer with a knife and the whole family speaks about the murder while having breakfast. And even if someone says, ‘Pass the knife,’ she suddenly keeps hearing only the word ‘knife’. That film was made almost a hundred years ago but the idea is fantastic.

“In Badlapur, Nawazuddin’s character is sentenced to 20 years in prison, and that ‘20’ is something that Varun Dhawan’s character keeps thinking about. In the next scene, Varun’s character books a hotel room and when the receptionist asks him the number of days he wishes to stay there, he says 20 years. With that, we cut and we immediately hear a familiar piece of music, which we realise is from Sholay. We see the prisoners watching Sholay and the dialogue goes, ‘After 20 years, you won’t remember anything, Gabbar.’ So, that ‘20’ becomes my ‘knife’. There are many such examples.”

Just like in Andhadhun or Badlapur, and as is evident from the trailer of Merry Christmas, Sriram has a knack of vividly capturing physical objects and decor. Often, these objects become recurring motifs. This is a fascination that stems from how he consumed other films while growing up, he says. “For a major part of my life, films weren’t readily available to watch whenever I wanted. There were no streaming platforms or computers. So you watch movies much more carefully and every movie has something precious you take from it.”

Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi in a still from ‘Merry Christmas’

Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi in a still from ‘Merry Christmas’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Though many of these motifs are written while writing the script, he says, some find their way during the shoot. “The paper swan in this movie, for instance, came mid-way through the shoot. This character has a habit of making origami. So when you do that, you’ll suddenly feel that because we’ve used this habit of this character, it finds its way right until the climax.”

There have been other instances where an object meant only for a special appearance ends up as a major motif, he adds. “In Ek Hasina Thi, for instance, there’s a scene with a rat. We began shooting and I told Ramu (Ram Gopal Varma) that we needed something thrilling because the first 45 minutes, again, had no twists or turns or anything to suggest that it was a thriller. I mentioned the scene from The Godfather Part III in which there’s a couple making love; when they hear a sound, they turn to find two gangsters standing nearby. And when we were brain-storming, Ramu said, ‘What if she goes to get water, she screams and he jumps out of bed with a gun, only to find a rat?’ I started laughing and I realised that it’d genuinely be funny. However, the rat became a motif and it went right up to the climax.”

On completing 20 years in the industry and his upcoming film ‘Ikkis’

Next week on January 16, Ek Hasina Thi, which marked his debut, turns 20. And Sriram is content with the way his career has taken shape over these two decades. “I began lucky because Ram Gopal Varma was my producer. That gave me a huge high that time. He was also a great mentor of sorts; he used to even help me in making the films without interfering or hassling me. In these 20 years, I have chosen subjects which I wanted to do and I am not trying to do, ‘Okay, I have done this, now I have to go bigger.’ I do stories that impress me.” In his artistic journey, what does he look forward to next? “To get chances to make films for as long as I can.”

Urmila Matondkar and Saif Ali Khan in a still from ‘Ek Hasina Thi’

Urmila Matondkar and Saif Ali Khan in a still from ‘Ek Hasina Thi’ | Photo Credit: Prime Video

If he could offer one advice to the Sriram Raghavan of Ek Hasina Thi, he says he’d urge him to be faster and more prolific. “Because everyone asks me why I take so much time in between films.” That’s the only regret he has over how his career has turned out. “It’s not that I was sitting idle but some things took time. And for the first time, even before an earlier film has been released, I have started shooting for my next film Ikkis. Usually, after a release, I’d take weeks just to read, recharge and think of what to do next. This time I had the story and script ready. We have finished one big schedule with Dharmendraji and now we have to get back to the shoot again.”

Ikkis is a biographical war drama that tells the story of Arun Khetarpal, the late Indian military hero who was killed in action in the Battle of Basantar at Shakargarh during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 and was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra. “He did something spectacular during the last two hours of his life. This is not a biopic in the usual sense of it. There’s another part to it, which is what happens to his father, 30 years later, when he goes to Pakistan. So it’s a drama of sorts.”

A war drama is a complete departure from what Sriram has done till now. “I needed to recharge a bit because I may start getting repetitive if I keep doing thrillers.” Did it require any sort of learning or unlearning? “Not really. Because I was doing a war film, I watched as many war films as I could. So you just soak yourself in that zone and stay in it.”

1964’s Weekend at Dunkirk is one of the many war films that Sriram recommends. “Of course, I love all the versions of All Quiet on the Western Front." Erich Maria Remarque’s novel has been adapted into an American film in 1930, a CBS television film in 1979 and a German film in 2022. “There’s another film called Lebanon, directed by Samuel Maoz, which is a film told entirely from the point of view of someone from inside the tank. I get excited with such interesting ways of storytelling. Normally, we think of everything in a staged, conventional manner.”

In fact, tank battle sequences are something Sriram hopes to pull off successfully in Ikkis. “I want to balance the drama with three or four interesting tank battles. Indian films have not really done a proper tank battle sequence. These are my ambitions, so let’s see, because many of these tanks are not physically available currently.”

Sriram Raghavan on the sets of ‘Merry Christmas’

Sriram Raghavan on the sets of ‘Merry Christmas’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

On the non-fiction side, Sriram had long ago expressed his wish to make a film on infamous serial killer Charles Sobhraj. “Not anymore, because you need to get the rights from him and I have no idea where he is now. However, everything I read about Sobhraj and found interesting can still be used for other characters that I end up writing.”

But the Raman Raghav: A City, A Killer maker says he will continue to take inspiration from real-life personalities. “But because of streamers, no matter which case you come across in a newspaper, someone has already bought the rights to it. One has to find something unique and there’s also a glut of content now. That’s why I have stayed away from the series format.” Contrary to popular believe, a straight-ahead romance is still something within his zone of interest, he adds.

“If I get a story, I will do it. I also love a film like The Bridges of Madison County. I mean, I do have romantic bones in my body!”

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