Karthik Subbaraj is drawn towards the abnormal in the normal. Ever since his debut thunderbolt Pizza kicked off in 2012, the director has remained keen — ecstatic even — on shoving ordinary characters into extraordinary situations.
The average Subbaraj film resident isn't anything we haven’t seen before: fabled gangsters in Jigarthanda, troubled artists in Iraivi, alcoholics in Mahaan and dimwits in his delightful short in Paava Kadhaigal. Their circumstances — paired with the director’s incredible talent for visualising scenes — however, come out of nowhere, hitting us like a tornado lurking in the sky. What if the gangster found kindness in acting? What happens when the artiste lets the fragile male ego get in the way of relief? Or when the alcoholic is forced to take down the Frankenstein monster he unwittingly created? The twists are inconspicuous in his sprawling films, but they are there for a reason, and there to shake up his world’s ideals, along with ours. His films haven’t worked all the time. But the questions he has for his characters have always remained endless and hard to resist.
With Jigarthanda DoubleX, featuring Raghava Lawrence and SJ Suryah, the director returns to explore two of his favourite things — his breakout hit Jigarthanda (2014 original starring Siddharth and Simha), and films about films. The film not only features Subbaraj at his most political best, but also his love for cinema in its most passionate display. As Karthik Subbaraj pens a powerful paean to cinema with Jigarthanda DoubleX, let’s revisit his films with a very subjective ranking.
Watching Mercury brought to mind an impactful rule of thumb a mentor once discussed with me. Echoing many purists like silent film connoisseur Alfred Hitchcock, she told me, “If a film is good, you must be able to understand it even on mute.” The Karthik Subbaraj film travels quite far ahead on this rule but is somehow still an outlier in this sentiment. A group of five speech and hearing-impaired friends kill a blind man in an accident, only to be haunted by his ghost. Not only does this plot lend itself to a delicious silent film — which uses sounds to a brilliant effect, but also a banging horror premise. But Mercury, excited by the prospects of both these possibilities, fulfils neither. There is of course that superb scene in the factory with Sananth, Deepak and Prabhu Deva that evokes dread by showing us the chilling strengths of both the deaf and the blind. But the horror in Mercury is frustratingly bone-dry and direct, leaving nothing to the imagination, a genre trait that Subbaraj is actually known for.
Subbaraj’s deftness for bringing in the Eelam issue into his film — a fervent obsession of sorts that has always fascinated me — is both impressive and disconcerting. “I only cover Eelam and politics,” Karthik’s journalist-uncle tells him in Jigarthanda. To which comes a prompt answer: “Rendume onnu dhaan.” In Navarasa, his obsession takes a visceral form and unfolds in an LTTE conflict zone in the thick of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Three Tamil Tigers find kindness during a surprising rescue mission. “Even if a gun is in the hands of a man, his heart decides whether to shoot or not,” Simha says. Every war film has a moment of utmost warmth, and this is Peace’s. But the film is quick to remind us that human kindness has a metre, which often runs out too. Subbaraj’s tendency to run into excesses is visible here as well, and the film takes an unnecessary fall, just like Simha’s Nilavan.
Neer, the first to depict his pursuit of Eelam politics, is perhaps Subbaraj’s shortest film (with a runtime of ten minutes), the length of which he uses beautifully to speak about the perils of ambition among the working class with his favourite muse: Vijay Sethupathi. With more time, the director could’ve had more meat to bite into, for the premise is crackling. Two brothers out to venture into the sea for fish — one with a head full of raucous dreams, and another, a calmer rationalist — sounds like a plot right out of Hemingway’s oeuvre. Sethupathi’s ease in playing a troubled yet power-hungry man in the sea makes us want to see more of him. But Neer shows us what Karthik is capable of in this short format. The static shot of the bloodstained fish tells us everything we need to know about the film.
Rajinikanth in the moulds of a young director is always a relish. Pa Ranjith took the superstar and made him out to be a saviour of the masses – not just any saviour, but a politically correct Ambedkarite at that. Nelson showed us how a star of his calibre can never go extinct, making him a grandpa with an edge, never once dilly-dallying around his age. Karthik Subbaraj, on the other hand, stuck to his templated stardom, albeit with a fanboy twist. In a film that’s very much Rajinikanth’s from start to finish, we struggle to see traces of Karthik in Petta. We do see it in Kaali, a star who plays his age, but is still called “young and smart.” We see it in the way he needle-drops Ilaiyaraaja songs to build up his star, and also see it in its climax, which sees him flesh out a trick out of a Hindu epic to take down a right-wing thug. But is that enough?
Not many directors can use a handful of scenes to stitch a story within a story as quickly and movingly as Karthik Subbaraj often does. This is perhaps owing to his background in short films, but this quality comes in handy in a sprawling film like Jagame Thandhiram. Take Suruli’s early days in London for instance. Within just a handful of ingeniously cut shots, Subbaraj shows us how Dhanush goes from being a brown nobody in the city to entering the inner circle of the men he plots to take down — all with the power of parotta. Subbaraj’s brand of comedic flourishes in an otherwise serious action film is apparent in JT too — like how when every character experiences shock, a loud noise undercuts the theatrics. So, a bomb goes off when Suruli’s friend realises how much killing pays, or a pile of dishes shatters when Suruli learns Attilla is married. The devil is in the details in a Karthik Subbaraj padam, and even in a film that’s not essentially his best, the specifics speak for themselves. You notice how Suruli’s bright neon shirts slowly sober down to a black shirt for the final death-defying climax — perhaps in solidarity with Sivadoss.
Finishing the director’s trifecta of Eelam stories, the film charts the Eelam refugee life in another country like no other. But in its pursuit to cram stories of the refugee and the immigrant movement in a white supremacist society, Jagame Thandhiram forgets to make us care for its sympathising universe, leaving no memorable character to take home, somewhat of an anomaly in a Subbaraj film. Even an in-form Dhanush, who plays the appetising role of a gangster-for-hire struggles to save it from its superfluity.
How often do we see a good vs evil story about a liquor baron who stares at the end of his barrel to see the monster he’s created in his son? Mahaan is probably one of those films on every director’s list that has the brightest, most perplexing ideas. Gandhi Mahaan is a free soul who was born to the wrong family at the wrong time. At 40, the son of an anti-liquor activist has his first sip of whiskey. This one move leads him to make some of the best and worst relationships (Dhruv Vikram plays a maniacal cop whose only purpose is to burn his father’s life to the ground). Vikram, who struggles to retain a grip on the cusp of greatness and ordinariness, is brilliant. But equally brilliant is Bobby Simha. Subbaraj’s fondness for found family is well known, but in this film, it shines the brightest. What the film lacks in familial relationships (Dhruv is miscast and his role ends up derailing the film), he makes up for it through friends. While one would expect a liquor baron to spoil a teetotaler, in Mahaan, Subbaraj brilliantly flips the tables — money pushes the teetotaller into a dizzying world of debauchery, and the other into spirituality. Mahaan might not have it all together, but it often reminds us of that irreverent kooky friend we all have who carries some of the weirdest stories.
Most of Subbaraj’s films revolve around the exploits of haughty, over-ambitious men who take on more than they can chew — sometimes with outrageous results. Women have no place in such films — either they exist to spew vitriol like Simran’s nagging wife in Mahaan, or they exist to be overlooked like in Jigarthanda. Iraivi, ironically, seems to be a meta, befitting answer to the hypermasculine nature of these films. Iraivi follows the harrowing (and sometimes micro-aggressive) effects that three selfish men (brothers, SJ Suryah and Simha and their best friend Vijay Sethupathi) have on the women around them. The film raises some important questions on how we see men and women, and casually addresses sexuality, loneliness and ambitions — things that we hardly see women feel on film. “To birth kids and fix you till you get better, am I a machine?” Ponni (Anjali) screams at her husband, easily essaying one of the better-written roles in the film. Yazhini (Kamalinee Mukherjee) gets the shorter end of the stick, forced to care for her husband, even if he hits her during a funk. “Ivanungala aambala thimiru pidicha pombala mavanunga,” an exhausted Cheenu tells Anjali, urging her to leave these men behind. But like Simha's rants on the need for emancipating women, a lot of the wisdom in the film comes only from men.
If you’re surprised how a short film made it this far up a list, let us make our case. Miracle, in Putham Pudhu Kaalai, has everything that a Karthik Subbaraj film signifies. Smart needle-dropping, a heist gone comically wrong, genre-bending and of course, the plot twist with a small philosophy lesson all in a timespan of 20-some minutes. What more could one ask for during the colourless early days of the pandemic? Two dimwits (one who believes in miracles through destiny, and another who believes in making miracles happen) set out to get some quick money to give their daily pulisaadham an upgrade with a biryani. The way Subbaraj uses ambient music and closeups to build tension is one for the ages, and this film has one of my favourite uses of a Raaja song in a film — a moment that takes a life of opulence from one and gives it to another.
There are many parallels between Jigarthanda DoubleX and the OG Jigarthanda: the seamless genre shifts that presents itself beautifully at the interval block, the warped irony that surrounds its characters and of course cinema, which has the power to make people move mountains. The only difference here is that if Jigarthanda used cinema as a tool to express ideas of acceptance and second chances, Jigarthanda DoubleX, doubles down on the idea and goes a step further by making cinema a tool for revolt. And if you look past the surprisingly ordinary first half, DoubleX is also the more intense brother out of the two. The film not only features Subbaraj at his most political best, but also his love for cinema in its most passionate display.
The longevity test of a horror film pretty much lies in its rewatch value. We might be accustomed to the scares. But does the writing make sense when watched with the climax in mind? This was the thumb rule I put Pizza to test, and the film, incredibly still holds up, ten years since its release. Early on in the film, Michael (Vijay Sethupathi kicked off the first of many Michaels to come in the director’s films) tells Anu, “More than seeing a ghost, it’s scarier when people like you retell such horror.” This is exactly the line of thought that made Subbaraj’s small horror film work its magic on us in 2012. The twist in the end, is one for the books, but let’s forget that ingenious tool for a second. The way Subbaraj wields tension with minimal tools in a dark empty mansion still remains iconic, making Pizza a shining example of what imagination, a camera and a bunch of fresh young actors can do to a genre.
When it comes to establishing his signature, Jigarthanda still stands tall in Subbaraj’s filmography. Even if Pizza had glimpses of what would go on to become Karthik Subbaraj-isms, the Siddharth-Simha film showed us what this short film director was actually capable of. Almost every character you spot on screen is worthy of their own film — a dangerous gangster whose biggest fear is to be laughed at, a 64-year-old thatha who lives in his stories and yearns to say action-cut, a mother who has sworn to not talk to her son unless he leaves his hoodlum ways (this gets one of the most satisfying payoffs in the film). How often can you say this about a movie?
Jigarthanda gave us many characters to root for, but one thing it never did is make the boundary between the good guy and the bad guy clear. The first time we see Karthik (Siddharth), a mostly unlikeable and selfish filmmaker, his work is derided by an award-winning director. You’d think he’d have learnt a thing or two about ostentation, but when Sethu (albeit a nobody in the field) expresses interest, Karthik’s narcissism rears its ugly head. The film still remains a brilliant commentary on the ironies of cinema: when Sethu narrates his life to Karthik, we see the swagger come to life with Vijay Sethupathi’s portions. But when Sethu actually enacts these moments, the reaction is different. Perhaps the film’s sweetest irony comes in its climax when we realise that Sethu — a man who Karthik is initially disgusted by — has rubbed off on him way too much than he cared for.