Calling Karthik

Sudhish Kamath caught up with director Karthik Subbaraj in Mumbai where his much-acclaimed Tamil film Jigarthanda got a special screening

Updated - November 17, 2021 12:05 pm IST

Published - September 06, 2014 03:05 pm IST

Karthik Subbaraj

Karthik Subbaraj

Pretty much every movie buff I knew in Mumbai, whether they followed Tamil cinema or not, wanted to see Karthik Subbaraj’s Jigarthanda after the rave reviews it opened to in Chennai. More so because this was the second film from the guy who made the original Pizza (that was remade into Hindi). Unfortunately, though, the film released a week late and without subtitles for some inexplicable reason. It went off theatres in a couple of weeks. In fact, a critic friend who drove 20 km to catch it the first-day first-show in a suburb was so upset at the absence of subtitles that he walked out in 10 minutes. Most movie buffs decided to wait for the DVD.

A few days later, Karthik Subbaraj made amends. An old friend of his, Pavan Narendra, took the initiative and organised a special screening in Mumbai. The show was sold out. Besides Karthik, Simha, Gavemic Ary (cinematographer) and Vivek Harshan (editor) were also there. And, as late as it was after the almost three-hour film, the audience stayed back another half hour to chat with the Jigarthanda gang.

While the first half of the film — especially that meaty mid-portion — is undoubtedly the finest hour of Indian cinema this year, it was the second half that polarised audiences when the gangster film becomes a full-blown comedy.

“But that was exactly what I started out to do. The idea of a filmmaker who is forced to cast a gangster in his biopic was what appealed to me,” Karthik defends. He had read that most filmmakers making gangster films had felt the need to meet gangsters they were inspired by. “Mani Ratnam did it for Nayakan and Selvaraghavan for Pudhupettai.”

It was during his interactions with dreaded gangsters for one of his early short films that the thought had crossed Karthik’s mind: What if one of them wanted to play himself on the big screen and insisted on it with a gun to his head?

“That — when he realises that he has to now make a film with the gangster in the lead — was initially the planned interval point, but at the edit table, we thought this would work better,” he admits.

Jigarthanda is full of tributes and movie references to delight movie buffs. But not all of them were intended, he clarified. The iconic Pyaasa frame in the climax of the film is pure co-incidence. Both the director and the cinematographer haven’t even seen Pyaasa, they admit, when I point it out. Maybe they should say it was intentional because it seems planned and executed with meticulous design as a tribute to one of the most uncompromising films ever made.

Karthik is not one to shy away from admitting his influences. He loves Quentin Tarantino. He loves Sergio Leone. He loves Scorsese. He loves Mani Ratnam. He loves Anurag Kashyap. These were the obvious and intended references.

“I even wanted Mani Ratnam sir to play the role of the director in the climax scene, but he wasn’t willing to appear on screen,” he says. He remembers not being all that impressed by Gangs of Wasseypur till he watched both parts together on DVD. But admits it was one of the films the crew was excited by when they were making Jigarthanda. That’s how Karthik and Oorni wake up to ‘Kaala Re’ on TV and Sounder imitating Faizal in their house. It was his chance to pay back Kashyap who had dedicated Gangs of Wasseypur to the Madurai triumvirate of directors — Bala, Ameer and Sasikumar.

Karthik’s Madurai is a lot more modern than the ones we have seen on screen. “This is where I grew up and this is the Madurai I wanted to show on screen.”

Karthik lived in the U.S. for five years, working with an indie filmmaker for a couple of years, before starting out making short films. Nalaya Iyakkunar gave him the first break. He lost out only to Nalan Kumarasamy (director of Soodhu Kavvum), one of his closest friends (who appears as himself in the first scene of Jigarthanda, in the elimination round of the reality contest). The two make cameos in each other’s films. Jigarthanda was the first script he wrote, but Pizza was that quick film he made to not lose an opportunity (As the line in his film goes: An opportunity is like a guardian angel. If you entertain her, she will keep coming back. If you disappoint her, you will never see her again). Jigarthanda needed the scale and you can see why in all the painstakingly crafted frames during the largely outdoor mid-portion of the film drenched in rain.

The crew came over to my place for the after party and the conversation about films went on till 7 a.m. A lot of it is off the record. Suffice to say that it was my turn to make pizza for Karthik.

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