‘Jagame Thanthiram’ is meant for theatrical release: Karthik Subbaraj ahead of ‘Penguin’

It does not come as a surprise when Karthik Subbaraj, who challenged Tamil cinema’s conventions when he entered the field as a short filmmaker, says that the theatre and digital space should coexist. For, he was one of the earliest to find an ‘alternative’ route to becoming a filmmaker at a time when short films and its creators were not considered professionals, nor were they taken seriously by the gatekeepers of Tamil cinema.

His production, Stone Bench Creations, was the first to lap up the ‘direct-to-home’ option, when the industry was waging a war with streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video for disrupting the business of Kollywood. “The lockdown period has been hard on us all. Personally, I have been utilising this time to work on a few scripts,” says Karthik Subbaraj, ahead of Penguin’s release on Friday. Excerpts from an interview:

‘Penguin’ was originally planned for a theatrical release but is now ready for a direct-to-home release. Was it a last resort, given the current COVID-19 situation?

The direct-to-home window is not because of the current situation. You cannot completely turn a blind eye to OTT platforms. Going forward, I think both theatre and OTT will continue to coexist. But we decided to release Penguin on Amazon Prime because we had the product ready. We were eyeing a summer release, but then, COVID-19 happened, which brought the world to a halt. As a production company, we had stakes involved and when we got this opportunity, we thought it was good for the film.

What attracted you to the material?

Eashvar Karthic knew Vijay Sethupathi, who, in turn, referred him to us. I liked the way Eashvar narrated the script, which had a strong story of a mother and had a lot of scope for performance.

If you take a movie like ‘The Irishman’ or ‘Choked’, they were specifically written for streaming platforms. But that is not the case with ‘Penguin’. Do you think the direct-to-OTT release would dampen its impact?

The other definition of OTT is comfort watch. For example, I loved The Irishman, but I did not watch it in one-sitting. I watched the first one hour and resumed it later the next day. That is the luxury you get with an OTT release. Yes, The Irishman was written for Netflix. But look at the quality of production — from sound design to cinematography. How many of us have discovered great movies on streaming platforms? With a good television and sound system, I don’t think Penguin’s effect will be any lesser.

Normally, a streaming platform quotes a price for a movie, depending on the star value or how well it has performed at the box office, right?

Content is content and it is up to them [streaming giants] to pick and choose. I cannot comment about their business strategy, but the process is as simple as selling satellite rights. For some cases [like Petta], the rights are bought beforehand. But for low-budget films, they have a different business model.

But how do you measure its success — in terms of the number of views?

Even in a theatrical release, there is no transparency in box-office figures (laughs). There is a certain group that decides the net collection, even though it is the producer who truly knows whether a film has netted or not. But, in OTT, the metrics are different. We don’t know how it is measured. If you take the number of views, we don’t know if it is a single-day count or a cumulative figure. Take Ayyappanum Koshiyum, for instance. People hardly noticed when it played in Chennai. But those who watched it online are many.

So far, most of the movies we discussed were relatively ‘smaller’ in terms of scale and budget. Do you think a direct-to-OTT release is a feasible option for ‘Jagame Thanthiram’?

See, Jagame Thanthiram [his upcoming film with Dhanush] is a theatrical film and it will release in theatres no matter what. It has an ensemble and is a completely different scenario. The whole ‘direct-to-OTT’ release itself is a new concept which has become the ‘new normal’, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. But as more audience move to the web space, there will be high return on investment, which will prompt the streaming companies to slowly acquire big stars’ films.

Director’s cut
  • A début work, for a filmmaker, could bring about a much-needed moral boost, irrespective of its performance at the box office. It is about those myriad emotions that (s)he goes through inside the dark hall, while watching it with an audience — something no filmmaker would vouch against.
  • But Eashvar Karthic presents an interesting counterpoint, “Any creator would want his film to reach a wider audience. That’s all that matters,” says Eashvar, adding, “Yes, I will miss the first day, first show experience. But on the flip side, Penguin is releasing in over 200 countries.”
  • Eashvar hit a blind spot sometime around in 2014 when he was torn between acting and direction. He took the plunge and worked in a theatre company, owned by his friend, where he sharpened his writing skills. He was about to give up his cinematic dreams when a project he pitched was put in the backburner. That is when he met Vijay Sethupathi, “I only wanted to know his opinion. He asked me if I had a script in mind and I gave a one-liner about Penguin. He was the one who referred me to Karthik Subbaraj,” he says.
  • Eashvar had a thriller premise, but he also wanted to mount a women-centric story. Learning the craft, he says, has become easy thanks to online masterclasses. “I’d say thriller is the most easy genre. Because, how you present is all that matters,” he says, adding that the movie is actually about theemotional journey of a mother, played by Keerthy Suresh.
  • Penguin, he says, is a departure for Keerthy who showed no reservations when she read the script. “She takes time to analyse the script and comes up with good points, which was surprising to me.”
  • In the film, the serial killer sports a Charlie Chaplin mask as he goes on a rampage. Eashvar tells us that nobody in his crew, except for the cinematographer, knows who played the character. So much so that he employed a body double to maintain the secrecy. “I didn’t want to spoil that moment. I’m looking forward to their reactions,” he says laughing. He believes that Charlie Chaplin has a “neutral face” — the reason he opted to use his face mask. “It’s like the Pan Piper story. Sometimes I look at Chaplin and can see Hitler in him. This identity crisis has always been there for me.”

A week back, ‘Choked’ premièred on Netflix and two weeks back, there was Jyotika’s ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’. What have you observed generally from these two?

I have not watched either. But Ponmagal Vandhal, I feel, got a lot of traction on social media. Maybe because it was the first major release in this lockdown. The audience, too, was craving for good content so they accepted it. Had it been a theatrical release, there may have been two or three releases along with it.

In a webinar session, Mani Ratnam said that filmmakers would factor in audience’s patience and would appropriately tweak their stories for the online medium. Your thoughts?

It is true. The way I write for a film format would be different from that of a digital platform. As a writer, I would be tempted to experiment with OTT content. When it comes to theatrical, you have to be aware of the meter with which you tell certain things. There are certain subjects that may not work for a theatrical release. Personally, I would definitely consider those aspects when I am writing, say for a Netflix or an Amazon. I want to try a musical and something strong — as in, something that has not been explored in theatre.

Could you elaborate?

When it comes to theatrical, you have to be aware of the metre with which you tell certain things. There are certain subjects that may not work for a theatrical release. Personally, I would definitely consider those aspects when I am writing, say for a Netflix or an Amazon.

To take a cue from your answer, what kind of content would you write for the digital space?

There are lots, actually. I want to try musical and something strong — as in, something that has not been explored in theatre.

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Printable version | Oct 26, 2020 7:02:46 PM |

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