Director Arun Matheswaran became the Tamil cinephile’s favourite underdog when he made the indie revenge thriller Rocky (2021). The film moved beyond genre troupes and became a surrealist and philosophical exploration of violence and the human being’s obsession with it. His sophomore effort Saani Kayidham (2022) also explored similar themes, moving the setting to a more rural place.
Now, Matheswaran has gone big with the Dhanush starring period action thriller Captain Miller. Similar to his previous films, the film traverses genre tropes as it follows the life of Dhanush’s character Analeesan from his days in the British Army to him becoming a feared thug and then a revolutionary. The film’s visual grammar, however, has a few changes compared to Matheswaran’s previous efforts.
“I had a general idea of how I wanted to film Rocky or stage it,” says Arun when asked how he developed his unique sensibilities. “But when I started shooting the film is when I discovered my language…in my second film I knew that this was me, that it was my visual language. Captain Miller is a big-scale film and it has to appeal to a lot of people. I had my doubts because my previous two films were small, revenge dramas, which had fewer scenes and they were not a huge journey of a guy like Miller. I could experiment with shot length in my previous films, but because the span of Captain Miller is huge and I had more scenes, I could not follow the same film language.”
With his first film Rocky, Arun established his sense of visual language. Characterised by brutal violence, long shots, double frames, and slower pacing, Arun Matheswaran’s films toe the line between art and mainstream cinema. He generously stylises his films with ultra-wide shots, black-and-white photography, aspect ratio changes, and unorthodox background scores for action blocks. But Captain Miller uses these tropes to a minimum and focuses more on the character played by Dhanush.
“The long shots and other staging elements were there right from the scripting stage,” he says. “While writing Captain Miller, I knew the span of the film would be great. I knew that I could not afford to go with the same visual language. So I took a call to not use my usual practices here. At the same time, I had to work around it to make sure that it didn’t go beyond my sensibility.”
Although he just directed a mainstream entertainer with a star, he still feels he's an underdog. “I’m not a proven successful commercial director. I’m not a popular name. I like the tag of an underdog, the dark horse type of reputation, where the expectations of me are not high. I think that might just work for the film.”