Director Karthik Subbaraj, whose last feature was the Rajinikanth-starrer Petta, speaks about how he got the idea for Jagame Thandhiram, what his initial casting options for the film were and his favorite scene as a writer from Petta, in this interview with Baradwaj Rangan. Edited Excerpts…
I thought it might be interesting to talk to the writer Karthik Subbaraj. When you started Jigarthanda you said you were researching a short film when you met a guy convicted for murder who had just gotten out of jail and wanted to become an actor, which kind of led you to Jigarthanda. What was the basis for Jagame Thandhiram?
There are too many things that inspired Jagame Thandhiram. The first thing was when Jigarthanda was selected for the New York Indian Film Festival. When I was working previously in software testing, I had been to New York and loved it as a city. After I got into filmmaking, I watched a lot of gangster films set in New York. Even when I was walking the streets of Manhattan I felt a connection. So, I felt that I should do a film that was a mix of the worlds of Cosa Nostra and a gangster from Madurai.
I then moved on to Iraivi. Near the end of its shoot, I was thinking of my next script and the idea came to me. When I was in New York, I learnt about problems with immigration and refugees. I have a lot of Sri Lankan Tamil friends who left the Eelam war and settled in the US. I got a story idea around all these issues set in New York. I was excited by it. It involved a lot of research. I narrated the story to Dhanush at the end of 2015. My first idea was to have Dhanush on one side and someone like Robert De Niro or Al Pacino on the other side. After many years, it has gotten here. I’m happy with the way it has shaped up.
You say you do a lot of research. When you sit down to write after research, do you set yourself a deadline for finishing the script? Or do you let it flow?
Obviously, I have a deadline. The deadline decides the script. That’s the pattern I’m working in now. For example, I had the script for Pizza finished and was looking for producers. In fact, Jigarthanda was the first script I had written that I realized would be better as a second film. But for Petta, I had the story in my mind for a long time. I didn’t get a chance to work on a detailed screenplay because we know that we’re going to start the shoot on a certain date.
I somehow believe that a script knows the time it takes to finish it. It will decide how much time it needs and it happens like that. Petta required a month of writing. I was supposed to shoot Jagame Thandhiram before Petta and I had time to revise the script after it. Now I am shooting Chiyaan-60 for which I wrote the script during the lockdown; now we’ve completed fifty percent of the shoot.
Tell us your favorite and toughest scenes from some of your films: let’s begin with Pizza.
The easy part was coming up with the idea of a guy getting locked in a house. I was discussing it with Alphonse Puthren and a few friends one day and then started writing it. But I didn’t want to make my first film an out-and-out horror, and the toughest part was what he would do after he comes out. If I made it such that everything was a dream, it would be too usual. That’s when I thought that I could make it a heist.
I enjoyed writing the reveal where he rubs off the kungumam and speaks on the phone. The heist part of the film was very interesting for me.
I was very interested in the first part, which was about how the hero might get caught but the changeover in Assault Sethu was the toughest to write: how he believes in making people laugh and how violence is replaced by art in his mind. His changeover had to be believable and not abrupt. He cannot become good in a single shot. It had to evolve slowly.
I met a person who had been in jail for murder which was the inspiration for Jigarthanda. When he explained his murders, it was cinematic. In Jigarthanda, there’s a scene where gangsters sit in front of the camera; I enjoyed that scene.
The scripting of Iraivi was entirely new to me. It was an emotional drama that has already been dealt with by directors like Balu Mahendra sir, Mahendran sir and Balachander sir. Even if I don’t touch their level, the film has to work emotionally. A lot of people suggested a positive ending for the film but I felt that this would be right. That was tough.
Petta was full enjoyment with Thalaivar; we enjoyed every scene. I have idolized him since childhood and was directing him; he was speaking the lines I had written. The climax with ‘Raman Andaalum’ was especially exciting and I also enjoyed the funeral scene. The funeral scene was pivotal: when you’re showing a Madurai flashback, one scene should highlight the character. Everyone was excited by how raw the scene was for Thalaivar.
For the climax, we had a different, more intense theme for a dance like a rudhra thaandavam. But Thalaivar suggested that the audience should leave the theatre on a more enjoyable note. He suggested remixing an older song and was okay with it when I suggested ‘Raman Aandalum’.