Ten days before his wedding on March 28, 2007, Premkumar and his three friends Saras, Bagavathi “Bucks” Perumal and Balaji Tharaneetharan set out to play a friendly match of gully cricket in a Chennai neighbourhood. But nothing about the match was friendly, we are told. For when it comes to cricket, the gang of best friends assume the form of bickering young boys who are in it to win it. So, when Balaji hit the ball with steady resolve, aiming for a sixer, fielder Premkumar, placed at the outer end of the ground, went for a high catch. But he instead slipped, took a hit to the head, and experienced a case of retrograde amnesia, days before the wedding. Sounds familiar?
This dramatic turn of events went on to prompt Balaji, a young filmmaker looking for his debut subject, to make a small yet poignant digital-camera film with Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom (2012) – one of the earliest films to lay the path for Vijay Sethupathi’s stardom (the movie was shot by Premkumar). As the film turns 10, the batsman and fielder from that iconic game of Gully cricket sit down to discuss the dropped catch that eventually went on to become a sixer in new-age Tamil cinema.
“Summa naalu vetti pasanga cricket velayadinadhulendhu oru kadha vandhichu / A story emerged out of a random cricket game played by four boys. Who knew?” laughs Premkumar.
The momentous ‘fall’
Premkumar is not a good batsman, and nor is he a bowler. He instead prides himself in being a good fielder. A real Jonty Rhodes man, if you will, he says. “Since I am very interested in athletics, I could run fast and fetch the ball. So, generally I get placed on the covers to take high catches. That is exactly what happened that day.” Premkumar, along with his friend Saras had come to Bucks’ house to give him an invitation. And it so happened that Balaji was hanging out with Bucks that day.
Hanging out at each other’s residence was a common activity in those days for the college friends. “So, we just randomly decided we’ll play a game of cricket, and went to a ground, just opposite to the one that's shown in the film. We might talk about everything under the sun right from cinema, literature and philosophy. But when it comes to a match, things become serious,” Balaji recalls.
And the last thing Prem remembers before the fall is going for the catch. “Immediately after the fall, things started fading and I couldn't remember anything. When you fall on your back, you take a reverse sommersault where you roll over your neck and stand up. This has happened several times to me, but this particular time led to a story.” And once he got up, the mutterings about the brain’s medulla oblongata being shocked by the fall began. Strangely enough, the fall rekindled his fondness for biology of all things!
Although he’s a computer science student, the cinematographer has always been interested in Biology. “When I was in Thanjavur, my house was on the Medical College road, and our tenant was in charge of the preservation of human parts at the college. And I used to be very curious about all of this back then. So, I would accompany her at times, and one of these days, there was a brain being preserved, and she explained everything about the brain and the oblongata. Even though she must have taught me the entire anatomy, the oblongata trivia somehow stayed with me,” remembers Prem.
And while the temporary amnesia erased all recent memory, it triggered old ones. “He started recollecting the phone number of a school friend’s father, who was an ortho doctor,” Balaji recalls. While the friends still laugh about the incident today, the mood was grim back then, with a wedding fast approaching. “He would keep forgetting even the smallest of things. For instance he'd ask to drink water even if he had just had it. Saras was very scared. Bucks and I thought he was pranking us. But once we went to the doctor, Bucks got serious and started freaking me out, like in the film.”
But after a good night’s sleep, Premkumar was back to normal the next morning. “Nothing this serious had ever happened to us in our lives before. So, the second he became alright, I started making fun of the entire thing. But Bucks was still a bit serious. He was like "Hospital la comedy pannakudadhu" (laughs).
The friends also decided to keep this incident from Dhanalakshmi, Premkumar’s wife, to avoid causing an upset days before the wedding. In fact Dhanalakshmi found out about the accident only when Balaji readied a script and narrated it to them all. “She was surprised that we kept something like this from her all these years,” adds Prem. The only evidence of the day was a small toiletry kit that Prem had received from the hospital, which had been lying around in his house for days. “That pouch was the only thing that reminded me of the incident, which was virtually missing in my memory. It was just like a scene out of The Hangover (2009)!”
Easter eggs and departure from reality
What if the fall happened a day before the wedding, and not ten days before? And what if Prem didn’t remember Dhana on the wedding day? These are the creative conflicts that Balaji added to the film. Up until the interval block, the film is a faithful depiction of reality, though. “I was the one who kept him company at the hospital. Bucks and Saras were at Saras' house. All of this was accurate.” The post-interval scenes too carried a touch of reality. “For instance, Dhana (Premkumar’s wife) had a lot of makeup on during her actual reception, and I remembered that well. Normally, namba oorala reception na romba over ah makeup potruvanga!”
In an attempt to have fun blurring fiction with reality, Balaji got Premkumar and Dhanalakshmi to act in cameos. "Remember the couple receiving an invite from Vijay Sethupathi in the film’s introductory song? Not only is that couple Premkumar and Dhanalakshmi, but the invite that features in the song is also their real life wedding invite! Everything came full circle with that shot," the filmmaker says.
A coming together of friends, off and on screen
As much as the dramedy is about a man suffering from retrograde amnesia during the most inappropriate time of his life, in many ways, NKPK is also about the inimitable friendships that you make. A recurring theme and joke in the film is the blinding obedience that Prem has for Saras. This, too, is a reflection of the friendship that binds the real life Prem and Saras.
“Although he is the youngest in our gang, I kind of obey Saras, and I really like and respect him. Even if he is the smallest, even in size, he is quite intimidating and always takes charge of a situation. So, we also tend to pretend like we obey him,” laughs Prem, noting that some of the greatest friendships end up having the silliest backstories.
“When you look at why two boys become such great friends, it will never be a meaningful reason. For instance, Sethu (Vijay Sethupathi) and his friend John are very close. And when we asked Sethu how they became so close, he told us that John got him a bottle of coke when he was thirsty.”
Prem’s friendship with Vijay Sethupathi, too, requires a special mention here. “I didn’t see Sethu on screen, but I saw myself. Right from the way I walk to how I flail my hands when I talk, he got every detail right.”
15 years after the fall, and 10 years after the film, nothing has changed for the group of friends, who get together to play cricket and fight like little boys till date. “The only difference is that every time Prem falls on the ground, we share a look and wonder if we should gear up for NKPK 2,” Balaji says, grinning ear to ear.