Karthik Subbaraj, the director of Dhanush-starrer Jagame Thandhiram, speaks about the ideas behind the film, what the three central characters Suruli, Attila and Peter represent, and his writing process, in this interview with Baradwaj Rangan. Edited Excerpts…
Why did you feel that ‘Jagame Thandhiram’ was the right title for the film?
There are invisible lines between lands, man-made borders which have been the cause of many wars. I feel that the fact that borders define the world is itself a kind of trick that’s played on us. So, I felt the title fit the movie.
What is your writing process? Some people get the beginning, middle and end with which they write a step output. Others start with a vague idea and follow their instinct. How do you write?
I think it’s different for every film. When I did Pizza, I didn’t have the climax. I only had the beginning. I had the climax of Jigarthanda first, only the idea that two people switch places in the end. It was more organic for Iraivi.
For Jagame Thandhiram, the starting point was the idea that an Indian and a Western gangster meet. I felt it shouldn’t completely be a gangster action film, especially if it’s set abroad. I wanted it to have more depth. The issue of immigration has been bothering me for a long time. Trump was even openly saying that he would send immigrants out. There was a big campaign in the US. Then, there was Brexit. We have a certain idea of going abroad: either for a tour or for work. But, the journey of traveling to a country to find a life, to survive is not known to many. I wasn’t even aware of these issues when I worked in the US for a couple of years.
But through books and speaking to people, I learnt more about the issue. Not just about the Eelam war, which was very close to us but also about the Syrian war. People escape their countries in huge numbers due to war or political unrest or national economic problems. And this happens at all levels. People have to move en masse when you build a bridge or a dam. An entire village has to move. So, there’s a sorrow behind migration because it’s not their decision. Somewhere, two parties fight and these people are evicted. I wanted the film to discuss this issue.
If a gangster from Madurai goes abroad, that’s very similar to outsourcing which is why I had that IT reference in the film. Generally speaking, the IT boom was through outsourcing. A gangster like Peter needs to outsource a gangster from Tamil Nadu to take on Sivadoss’s gang. He needs someone who knows Tamil. He’s basically outsourcing Suruli.
When the plot gets to that point, we also learn that Sivadoss is an immigrant. When I gave him a backstory, I felt that the story of migration could be blended with it. I wanted to tell stories of post-war migration because they’re not spoken of much in our art or films. What’s the scenario after the 2009 war? How are refugees and immigrants struggling now?
Gangster films, somehow, become about immigration. In The Godfather, he’s an Italian American who stands for his people there. Velu Nayakkar stood up for Tamils in Mumbai. Scarface is also about how he reaches a place and transforms. So, I felt this was the right combination.
Does Suruli, somehow, represent the common person who has forgotten about recent historical events?
When I wrote the character, I wanted to talk about immigration but I also wanted an analogy. Peter represents supremacist or superpower countries, like the US or UK. Suruli represents developing countries and Attila represents third world countries like Sri Lanka. Suruli is a mercenary but, indirectly, he has affected someone he loved, even though he might not have intended it. I thought that we should (including me) think about whether we are guilty. A few of my friends and the general audience were able to relate to it.
You’ve discussed the Eelam issue indirectly in your short films Neer and Katchi Pizhai, and also in your films, like Jigarthanda and Iraivi. How did your interest in this issue develop?
I wanted to bring the issue to the mainstream. I could do it with a lower budget and not as a mainstream movie. But I always prefer blending both. The film has a big hero and also talks about an issue. I want my films to be like that. I did Jigarthanda after Pizza. Then, I did Iraivi. I wanted to do Jagame Thandhiram after that. But Mercury and Petta happened. I started writing Jagame Thandhiram when I was shooting Iraivi.
It’s not an interest, like someone might be interested in Maths or Physics. This is something that I am seeing and become emotionally connected to it. It’s something that bothers you and you need to react to something that impacts you so deeply. I’m a filmmaker and an artist, and all I can do is create art. It’s not about interest. I’m very emotionally connected to what happened in the war and also personally know a lot of friends who went through it. I wanted to talk about it as a filmmaker. When I took up this topic, I wanted to handle it properly. In fact, I want to do a hardcore war film in the future.