Karthik Subbaraj may be making the sequel to his gangster musical Jigarthanda, but he admits that there’s no room in it for loved characters Assault Sethu (Bobby Simha) and filmmaker Karthik Subramani (Siddharth). If the first part connected the world of art and crime through comedy, he says the second part is a more intense drama.
Naturally, a character like Assault Sethu (now famous as the lead in Azhuguni Kumar) finds no room in this serious art world. But with the film turning eight and with its creator completing a decade (Pizza released October 19, 2012) in the industry, we bring back to life two beloved fictional characters from Jigarthanda. Has Assault Sethu gone back to crime? Has Karthik made a socially conscious movie with Vijay Sethupathi? Has Sethu been instrumental in getting even the mighty Vetrimaaran to make a bad movie?
It’s been eight years since the release of Jigarthanda and you’ve completed a decade in the industry, having directed seven feature films and many shorts. Given that the protagonist of Jigarthanda is named Karthik Subramani, can we still call it your most autobiographical character yet?
I do not think so. Looking back, maybe there was more of me in Arul from Iraivi, the character played by SJ Suryah. My wife tells me that I behave like the main character of the film I’m working on at each point in time, so I was Arul during Iraivi (2016), and during Mahaan (2022), she said I was behaving a lot like Gandhi Mahaan.
What about the time you were making Jigarthanda?
I’m sure I was a lot more like Assault Sethu than Karthik. I was spending so much reading, researching and thinking about crime in Madurai that I had almost fully transformed into a gangster myself. Karthik Subramani is who I was before I made Pizza. The Nalaya Iyakkunar bit and the support he received from his family is almost exactly like my own experience. But Sethu’s world was new to me and I had grown a little obsessive when I went into it. This reflected especially in the way I was speaking to Bobby (Simha). I was very strict with him and didn’t give him any options. He kept joking that I had become Assault Sethu.
Why do you call Arul your most biographical character?
Because I went through a similar phase when the release of Jigarthanda kept getting stalled. Arul too goes through a tough time because his film is stuck in the cans. That part was taken directly from my life. Night after night, we sat at (editor) Vivek Harshan’s place trying to think of ways to get it released. Of course I was lucky that my film did not take years to come out, but there was a stage when I felt I was slipping into depression.
Jigarthanda ends with Karthik Subramani transforming into a gangster. That’s perhaps the only way to remain a filmmaker, the movie suggests. How tough has 10 years in the business made you?
That’s a question you need to ask the people around me. We need to become tougher and after all the situations we face with each film, you feel yourself changing. There’s no other option but become tougher.
Has that process of changing come at the cost of a certain sensitivity or softness?
I think I’ve developed the ability to understand when one needs to be tough and when to be sensitive. During the shoot, for instance, I catch myself becoming exceedingly angry and harsh. But by now, my team knows that it’s all a result of the pressure I’m feeling. I don’t let it affect my personal equation with any of them and we usually end the night with a chat that sorts it out. But my childhood friends or my friends from before I became a filmmaker have not seen this side of me. When it comes to people I’ve met only through films, I’ve found myself prioritising the film over that friendship. So I’ve lost a few friends too in these years.
What does your family feel about this transformation?
My wife is the one who has to deal with all these sides. Not that I get angry all the time or that I shout at her, but all of my work pressures do reflect in the energy I take home. More than 70 per cent of my time involves dealing with some kind of work pressure. She is much stronger than me and she has played a big role in bringing me out of many depressing phases. If I’ve reacted to something emotionally, it is she who gets me to see a rational side. I might not agree with her immediately, but she can soon get me to see the sense in it.
How would you compare your own career trajectory to that of Karthik Subramani’s, who had just made the superhit A. Kumar at the end of Jigarthanda?
I think Karthik Subramani is still making all his dream films. Remember the script he narrates to Vijay Sethupathi…the one with the social message? He has probably made many films like that. The fact that he has himself become a gangster has probably made things a lot smoother. Giving you an example from my life, I remember how tough it was for me to go hunting for locations during Pizza. We were kicked out many times and they didn't even let us see certain locations. But now, if I wanted to shoot in a place, there is a support system that makes it easier. Karthik Subramani too has that working for him.
Do you mean to say that he’s using his clout as a “gangster” to make serious, non-mainstream cinema?
Surely. He’s making arthouse and parallel movies by applying this pressure on mainstream stars. If making Aa. Kumar was purely for survival, he has now created enough influence to get any star to act in the kind of serious, social movies he dreamt of making. He has gangsters of his own in case someone says no. He is surely a pucca arthouse director.
What about Assault Sethu? Is he still in the movie business?
I think so. He has understood what the ability to entertain can do to people. He values that now and I think he would still be around, playing the role of a comedian in big films. Given that he is intelligent, I also think he would have improved as an actor. But those gangster traits will surely be intact. So if Karthik is making the kind of films he wants with the backing of gangsters, Sethu might be doing the same to get bigger films to act in.
As in, he’s probably threatening big directors to give him big roles?
Yes. He will use all of his powers to get big directors to cast him, at least as the comedian.
Has Assault Sethu managed to blackmail THE Karthik Subbaraj into giving him a role?
He would have. I would have at least considered casting him. But I’m not entirely fearful of someone like Assault Sethu because I too know a lot of gangsters by now. Plus I’m from Madurai (laughs).
What are your expectations of Assault Sethu as a family man? The movie ends with him adopting the daughter of a man he killed.
I believe so. Art has the ability to cure people and I think he has become a good family man. Even in the movie, we end with him asking the little girl to call her “appa”. He even looks at the mother with love in his eyes. I feel he’s living a good, happy life with them.
What about Sethu’s mother? She had taken a vow of silence having seen his son turn to crime.
Naturally, Sethu’s shift away from crime has made her very happy. She would have broken her vow and started speaking to him and his newly formed family.
Has he entered politics?
Not yet. Eight years is not enough to finish exploring the beautiful side of an artform. He is still exploring that. But I’m sure a major event can trigger him to go back to his ways. Like the play he acted in as a kid, violence is a part of his instinct.
What do you think happened to the film Vetri Maaran made with Assault Sethu? We last saw that he was reshooting one particular murder attempt?
I don’t know (laughs). Knowing Vetri sir, I’m sure even that has turned into a great film. With a guru like Muthu sir (Guru Somasundaram), Vetri sir too could have completed the film the way he wanted to.
What about the relationship Karthik shares with Sethu? Are they enemies now?
Not at all. They are together in the capacity of something like being business partners. The film ended with Karthik threatening Vijay Sethupathi by using Assault Sethu’s gang members. They are probably sharing Sethu’s resources to either make artsy films or for Sethu to keep acting.
Would they have made a sequel to Aa. Kumar?
I don’t think so. They’re both trying to be part of their own films and there’s no need for Karthik to make a sequel if he’s making the kind of serious films he wanted to. But I’m sure Assault Sethu is still trying to be part of a Mani Ratnam movie. He must have surely tried to get the part of Azhwarkkadiyan (Jayaram) in Ponniyin Selvan.
No chance Mani sir would have even let him audition (laughs).
Let’s talk a little about the other smaller characters and what they’re doing today? Firstly, what do you think has happened to Petti Kadai Pazhani?
He is a happy man today. He would have surely worked as Karthik’s assistant in a few films. Karthik, with his new power and money, may have even produced a film for Pazhani to direct. And I’m sure he made the same script he’d been narrating for decades.
Oorni (Karunakaran) and Muthu (Guru Somasundaram)?
Oorni is surely back in Madurai selling bangles. Like the acting trainer had said, there is no chance he would have made it as an actor. Muthu, however, has probably become Sethu’s full-time acting teacher. He probably has no other option.
Last question. What if you were hypothetically coaxed into directing a film like Legend? What would you do?
I will first watch the movie to see if he’s a good actor. I haven’t seen the movie so I cannot take a call. I surely don't have a script right now for him but I can consider it, especially when someone wants me to direct a film. I will not simply say no. It’s not that easy.