I Was An Atheist Before Naragasooran: Karthick Naren On Mafia And More

The young director speaks about why commercial success is as important to him as critical acclaim, and his hopes for Mafia as a franchise. Excerpts from a conversation with Vishal Menon.
I Was An Atheist Before Naragasooran: Karthick Naren On Mafia And More

Karthick Naren's Mafia with Arun Vijay and Prasanna releases this Friday. The director talks about how he has evolved as a writer from Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru to Mafia, and how the skills gained when producing his first film helped him finish subsequent films within budget. He also talks about Parasite's Oscar win, how he's dealing with Naragasooran's delays, and the kind of story he is writing for Dhanush. Excerpts from a conversation…

You've mentioned that Memories of Murder (directed by Bong Joon-ho) is one of the five most important films for you. How do you look at Parasite's huge win at the Oscars?

Parasite completely blew me away. At the end of the film, we hear the son's letter to his father, telling him that one day he will be able to walk free. As the shot cuts to their previous home, he is asking his father to wait for him. That completely blew me away. I really thought Parasite was going to win the Best Picture, and it did.

How would you describe your film education? Did you read theories about filmmaking or did you just watch a lot of films and learn from them?

I think it should be a mix of everything. A filmmaker puts his life experiences into his films. These could be films, books, or people. In fact, my first film was a mix of everything.

How would you describe your writing process?

I put the entire skeleton of the story on paper. I plot all the events of the film. I make sure the beginning and the end are right. I need to be very clear about my A, B, C, D. Even if you want to create a non-linear screenplay, instead of writing A, and then jumping to C, and so on, you should be clear about the order — A, B, C, D. After that, you can juxtapose scenes out of order, and the audience will still be able to understand. I get everything down on paper first. And then, I write the screenplay. 

You are into your third film. Before you made your first film, how many scripts or ideas did you have?

I didn't have any experience working on a film set, but I had experience writing scripts. I had a couple of scripts ready to go. In fact, I made a short film called Pradhi, which was supposed to be my first feature film. People told me it was too complicated for a debut. If the audience doesn't connect with a director's style, the film may go under the radar. The first film is very important for a director. Even Nolan might not have gotten the same success had Memento been his first film, instead of Following.

You are both a writer and a filmmaker. Does that influence how you write scripts? Do you specify camera movements and edit patterns, for example, in the script? 

I think I have evolved as a writer and filmmaker. When I was writing Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru, I didn't have any visual cues in mind. For me, each scene should somehow connect to the next, in order for every scene to have a purpose in the film. With Mafia, my writing has become more visually oriented. For example, if I feel that a certain camera movement is required to enhance a scene or add style to the character, I specify it in the script. 

Do you typically have the luxury of improvising on the spot? 

Of course, that freedom should be there. I strongly believe in spot improvisation. But it should be 50-50. Let's say you don't know how to execute a computer graphics shot and need the help of a supervisor. You should brief the person at least a day before, and figure out the remaining details on set. 

You're famous for planning. You shoot your films in about 30 days. Did it help that your first film was your home production?

Yes. Being a producer, I know where I should spend my money. Usually, people spend money on things that don't show on camera. Obviously, the producer is going to be pissed off. I learnt about all departments of filmmaking in my first film. So, I knew clearly how much I had to spend to achieve something for my second and third films. I think it really helped me. Filmmaking is 50% economics. We might escape saying it is 100% art. But even if my film is critically acclaimed and wins awards, I won't be able to find a producer for my next film if it doesn't make money. 

You made Mafia while waiting for Naragasooran's release. At what stage does a film get completely out of your system?

By now, I have a PhD in how to move on. For a director, a film will get out of your system only when it reaches the theatre. Technicians and actors can move on more easily. A writer-director travels with the film from the moment the writing begins. I won't lie by saying that I was strong throughout. Coming out of the world and characters of Naragasooran was difficult. But life has to move on. It took me a while. Making a film is like getting committed to a relationship; you shouldn't be thinking of your previous films. Once I started Mafia, it was only about Mafia. 

When you think about the film now, what do you think you should have done differently?  

Looking back now, there were so many signs right from the beginning, the strangest of which may seem like coincidence. If you watch or read the script of Naragasooran now, there are parts that may seem like I'm preaching some form of atheism. In the same way, because we were shooting a film with certain supernatural elements, we used a few props that my art director sourced from Chennai. Right when we were getting them, the person in Chennai warned us about the powers of these props and told us to keep all of them separately. Instead of doing that, we kept all of them, around 40 in total, in the same room where we were doing most of the shooting. And when the film goes through so many problems, you start thinking that it's because of these factors. Honestly, I have become a believer after Naragasooran. I was supposed to make another film called Nadaga Medai. If I want to make it now, I will at least make sure I pick a title that does not begin with 'Na' in it (laughs). I think all the advantages I had because I started early balanced out because of what I went through with Naragasooran.    

Did you plan Mafia as a two-part film right from the start? 

I really want this to become a franchise. More than even two, hopefully. Everything depends on the response. If the film does well, we could start the next part soon. 

Rahman, Arvind Swami, Prasanna and Arun Vijay are interesting casting choices. How do you go about casting in your films?

Before Mafia, I would discuss the casting with my team after I finished writing. The casting ideas for Mafia struck me while I was halfway through the script. It helped, because I was able to concretely visualise my characters. 

Is the story of your next film tailor-made for Dhanush? 

I don't want to use the word 'tailor-made', which implies compromises. Dhanush is one of the best actors in our country right now. I think the film should, in equal parts, cater to both the star and performer in him.

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