Building the ‘Dhruva Natchathiram’ Spy Universe

Writer Deepak Venkateshan talks about this much-delayed and much-anticipated project
Building the ‘Dhruva Natchathiram’ Spy Universe

Gautham Menon’s Dhruva Natchathiram with Suriya was announced in 2013. A decade later and with a different hero in the lead, the film is finally expected to release on November 24th. Starring Vikram, Simran, Ritu Varma, Parthiban and others, the spy thriller has been cooking for a long time. Despite the delay, the trailer of the film has received a lot of love from fans and has crossed over 10 million views in less than a week. 

Writer Deepak Venkateshan, who has been with the project since its inception and is credited for the additional screenplay, talks about how the film was conceived, dealing with the frustration of the project not taking off, and what we can expect from Dhruva Natchathiram. Excerpts from the interview below:

Dhruva Natchathiram was announced in 2013, and it's releasing a decade later. How do you feel?

We actually started in 2012, and there was an actor on board even before Suriya. I came from a very different worldview, and Gautham (Menon) used to laugh at me and say we can’t do such things here. The spy universe was unheard of then. Right now, it’s everywhere! We were trying to do the film based on books that we’d read. Gautham had given me a line on what he wanted to do, and we went back and forth on what sort of organisation the film could be about. The film then went to Suriya. It was almost a done deal. 

My daughter was supposed to join school back then. It was also my wedding anniversary, and I gave up on both of them and was waiting in Chennai because the movie was about to start. And it didn’t happen at the last minute. Gautham also gave up on it for a while. My daughter is now a teenager. That’s how old the film is. Most films go through some kind of drama, but this was a much more visible drama. At the heart of it, I am, of course, very happy that the movie is coming out. As a writer who has been working in the industry for a while, you know that movies don’t happen the minute you decide they should happen. It is accepted. But this went on for too long, and it’s amazing that Gautham held on to the idea of what he wanted to do with the film. I’m very excited.

As you mentioned, we didn’t have a spy universe back then in India, and Dhruva Natchithram was conceived as one. Where did the idea come from?

The breakup of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) killed the spy genre. American films had great villains in the Eighties and Nineties and then they were left grappling for villains. They moved from aliens to Al-Qaeda, ISIS, China and everybody in the world. But in the pre-USSR era, a Cold War was going on and every country was somehow involved, and it was possible to have a clear villain. As a teenager, I read a lot of spy novels and that was a world that I truly loved. Gautham also liked such literature. Of course, now every other Netflix series is about espionage, but at that time, the spy universe had gone quiet in the West. I always loved that world – where you put chalk marks in a seat corner, the light in the bedroom is turned on and then it goes off, and it all means something. It’s a very exciting world. 

The USSR was central to American spy films, but how did you go about Indianising the genre? 

Pre-2014, our films used to have a certain kind of propaganda. We wouldn’t have one villain but we used to have faceless villains sitting in Pakistan or Afghanistan – terror groups. It was loud and in your face. Post-2014, espionage has become driven by ideas of national duty and honour. 

When we were writing the film, it came from a place of communal anger. The 2006 train blasts and 2008 terrorist attacks had happened. There was fatigue among the people. We wanted to set it up in that world. The world has changed a lot since then, of course. It has become more propagandist, and this wasn’t the case then. Our film is about a spy world but it is not one with political leanings. 

The film is about a covert organisation, not bound by any laws. This must have been new in 2013 but we've had films like Vikram (2022) or series like The Family Man (2019) since then. Are you concerned that the audience may find it dated or feel a sense of deja vu?

The sense of deja vu may come at times but I don’t think they will find the film dated. A film about a unit that has already been set up and is functioning, is different from one where they are trying to set it up. The idea behind Dhruva Natchathiram was unique then and I believe it still is. 

The covert team in Dhruva Natchathiram
The covert team in Dhruva Natchathiram

What kind of research went into it?

There is a lot of written material available on how covert organisations work, even in India. There is fiction and non-fiction. In fact, much of fiction written around spies is based on real life stories. We spoke to a few people who had retired from the field too. 

The material is plenty, but what to do with it is the challenge. If you treat it as a case and deal with it very authentically, it may not work visually. When you’re reading a book, you’re imagining it, but cinema is a visual medium, and you have to make it interesting. Reading is a one-to-one experience while movie watching is a shared experience. The film has to be textured, it has to be visually interesting. We had so much material that Gautham said we should turn this into a trilogy. 

When the film was announced, it had ‘Chapter 1’ as part of the title. Is the trilogy still on the cards? 

I hope it is on. It’s always fun to do a movie that you can go back to, a world which is so rich in iconography and symbolism. As a creator, you know there is so much this world has to offer. So, I still hope it happens. 

Vikram in Dhruva Natchathiram
Vikram in Dhruva Natchathiram

When big stars are cast in a Tamil film, the screenplay is also supposed to do a fair amount of fan service. How do you approach this as a writer? 

It is incredibly complicated. Now that we’ve gone back to the era of superstardom and alpha male films, we will have more and more difficulties. When a star-led film makes money at the box office, I can’t say fan service is not important. It is the fans who are going to watch the film. Across industries, be it Tamil, Telugu or Hindi, stardom has proven to be very important in the last few years. We’re trying to make larger and larger films. 

Writers are sitting in a corner and trying to create a world. They have no idea who will play that role. That amplification happens much later, when we know which star or superstar is playing the role. There are some things they won’t do and some things they have to do. 

You’ll see how this affects the film. There are many good movies where you’ll see that the second half is splintered. In Tamil and Hindi as well, there is a huge ‘second half’ problem. The story starts with the amplification, noise, setup…there are bound to be things they include that don’t get closure in the second half. Superstars are necessary for us to survive, but the superstardom sometimes leads to dissonance in the script. We all have second half problems. 

Building the ‘Dhruva Natchathiram’ Spy Universe
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You mentioned how most of our films today are about alpha men. Does your spy universe have space for female characters?

When we started writing the film, I remember naming all the characters after my sister, sister-in-law and so on. I even tried to slide in my own name (laughs). The spy world that I grew up in was very intellectual and cerebral. It wasn’t just about how you shoot a person. It needed both yin and yang. Look at all the John le Carre books – Smiley is an old man. You have such nuanced, brilliant writing. It’s not just testosterone. Yes, there is an action block, a chase, a spy who is outed, people who are tracked, sources who are traced, moles who are protected. All this drama is there, but it is like an onion that can be peeled. It isn’t a gendered world.

I thought Sridhar Raghavan did a fantastic job in Pathaan (2023), the way he wrote both the genders into the storyline. Be it Dimple Kapadia or Deepika Padukone’s characters. We have a lot of women in the cast of Dhruva Natchathiram and they were written for a reason. They have jobs to do. I wrote an identity and skill for each character. 

There is pretty much nothing that Vikram hasn't tried on screen. In fact, many of us just want him to play a regular guy for a change. What can you tell us about his character? 

He is a man with a past, as should be the case for a spy. He has a present narrative that belies the spy setup. One of the books that Gautham and I truly love is Solo by Jack Higgins. We both kept talking about it and the idea stuck with us. Making the hero a mundane spy living in that world gave him a unidimensional structure. We tried that initially – just keeping him a spy. Then we realised that we need to add another persona, another texture. You know how films like Mission Impossible 2 and 3 tried to make Ethan have more of a life than just be a spy. The wife came in, the past came in, a very bad villain came in. We’ve tried to do something like that with Vikram as well. I love him as an actor. After Kamal Haasan, it is Vikram who has that shape-shifting quality, be it Pithamagan (2003) or even movies like I (2015). He’s so wonderful. Having a star like that makes the character richer. You have more to work with. 

So, is the screenplay influenced by which star is doing the role? From what you said, Vikram is the third actor to play the lead role in Dhruva Natchathiram

Definitely. The star system and fan clubs necessitate this. Stars get people to come to theatres, and as a writer, I can’t get them to come for different things. So we can’t get the star to do things that aren’t the character but we also can’t get the character to do things that aren’t the star. It’s a balance. There was a lot of rewriting to be done. 

Vikram in Dhruva Natchathiram
Vikram in Dhruva Natchathiram

The Tamil industry doesn't invest in writers. Mostly, it's the directors doing the writing themselves. Why do you feel this is happening and what can be done about it?

I don’t think it’s a problem with only the Tamil industry. It’s there across industries. We all have bad script problems. I’ve been trying very hard to be a writer for the last 15 years but I’m constantly told to do something else. Most writers end up becoming directors even if they just want to write. There is a hierarchical system, and a writer isn’t made to feel like they’re important after a point. A lot of directors want the ‘Written and Directed by’ label. They either feel they should write and direct the film themselves or take a writer on board but not credit them. Eventually, the writers feel like they can’t just be writers in the industry. 

Apart from the star system, there is also a packaging system. Every manager of a star is packaging them. By looking at the star in a film, you can guess who the director will be, who the writer will be and so on. It’s difficult to break into it. A lot of our content is “me too” content – stuff that looks eerily like something we’ve seen before. But we also keep saying “content is king”. That’s the irony. The other thing is that many films don’t have proper screenplays. People get “dialogue writers” who will just write what this character says and what the other character says. They come up with punch dialogues. But there is nothing about the scene setup, where this is happening and so on. Even if you want to include an action block and there’s an action director who will take care of it, shouldn’t you set it up and write what will happen in that scene? This industry desperately needs writers.

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