Tirru remembers being overwhelmed by a sense of heaviness when Karthik Subbaraj narrated the script of Jigarthanda DoubleX to him. Likening the script to a novel, he says, “I told Karthik this was a 5 or 6 hour film.” The cinematographer isn’t wrong. Apart from it being a film (well, two diametrically different films if we’re counting SJ Suryah and Raghava Lawrence’s pursuits chasing two types of greatness behind a camera in the movie’s two halves) within a film, Subbaraj's latest film packs in a heavy-duty gangster saga, plenty of Clint Eastwood homages, a mistaken identity thriller, and a political period piece, all enveloped by an overarching theme of finding greater purpose in cinema and mother nature. But this is also exactly what excited Tirru right off the bat.
Subbaraj’s 8th feature film, which tells us the story of Madurai goonda Allius Caesar and Chennai recreant Kirubai, is being read as a powerful tribute to nature and filmmaking today. “Karthik agreed with me, but also told me the film's destiny looked better when we pinpoint the politics and the rivalries inside the politics, like greed and so on. I realised he was right because if you aren't explaining a political situation in one moment, it might look like any other film. We're talking about a man, who has uncontrollable power and backing from politicians. He is not a superhero gangster. We have a realistic gangster doing ordinary things without realising that he is going into an extraordinary situation.”
Tirru, who has worked with Subbaraj in Mercury (2018) and Petta (2019), first identified the two different worlds — Madurai and the Kombai village forest that houses the Kanakal tribe — that the film’s two halves operated on. The challenge was then to do something different. “The paradigm shift excited me. Usually, we use one tone and look for period films, but I didn't believe in that for Jigarthanda DoubleX. We had to play with colours. There is a vibrance in the forest and so is it in Madurai, a rich city in which money was flowing because if you think about it, Goondaism in TN began there.”
While most DOPs would’ve wanted to capture the forests with muted tones, Tirru wanted to respect the abundance of the land they wanted to film. The Kombai vanapradesam, a forest filled with elephant whisperers who coexist with the gentle giants, is under attack when Shettani, a feral man kills animals and humans alike for ivory in the film. “This is such a wealthy community that worships their elephants. This is why the external force wants to take away their wealth. I didn't want to take away this wealth, too, just because we're talking about people's sorrows and we're doing a gloomy film. People might not do this, but I gave respect to the story more than the grammar of filmmaking.”
Tirru seems to have functioned in the same line of thought that Subbaraj’s head was probably at. Let’s take the VFX for instance. The DOP points out that the effects aren’t used as a gadget to propel a hero introduction. “The VFX here is part of a story for a character who is not a hero in the film. When a supporting character like Shettani gets such heavy VFX, it speaks about the film. Karthik Subbaraj was ready to spend for a sequence like that.”
Like Kirubai and Caesar, the crew had to learn to completely surrender to nature to make a film like this that depended on things like weather and interacting with tuskers in the forests of Thenkasi, where Jigarthanda DoubleX was shot. The crew just kept their eyes and ears open, and nature gave them plenty. “You cannot fight against nature, so we had to fully understand things like the time, weather conditions, planning locations and so on. Apart from this, nature might give us more difficulties like wind, rain, and clouds. We shouldn't say 'I did it'. Nature did it and I understood it is how I looked at it.”
Among the many ways in which nature surprised Tirru, he remembers the climax sequence with the most clarity. The climax (Spoiler alert) details the poetic death of a community that stands undefeated with their spirit during their massacre. “I wanted a high-speed camera because I wanted each blood splatter to be felt. I wanted to extend the time frame of the agony because the erasure of the clan needed to be established. Their sacrifice is what makes the climax. How do you make the sacrifice extraordinary? I wanted a gloomy feel to this scene and you cannot always shoot late at night to achieve this. So, we were struggling but eventually, the rainy clouds came and we got a nice, soft feel and it helped.”
The film chronicles not one, but two transformation arcs — of Kirubai going from a pretend filmmaker with a 10mm camera in hand to that of a director realising the true meaning of the weapon in his hand and Caesar finding his way back home in Kombai. “This was a challenge not only for the makers but also for the characters travelling with the film. For Lawrence, until the end of the first half, he's the king of the place. He can get away with anything. And then suddenly he is taken over by the power of nature. In one such scene, SJS leaves Lawrence in the forest, leaving him to die. But when he sees the elephant's pregnancy and the possibility of life inside the forest, he realises that he has unknowingly done something extraordinary.”
This epiphany gets a terrific visual treatment in the film, which sees SJ Suryah fall to the ground in tears, placed between a dead elephant and the camera he has flung. “If you would've noticed, the first time he comes out of the forest, he'd be depicted as a tiny person in the middle of a vast landscape. It is to say "You're a speck in the universe.” His mental confusion becomes a confession to nature that makes him go back and make things right.
Did capturing a film — that has SJ Suryah run around with a camera with a conviction for much of his screen time — make Tirru ever stop and question the metaness of his place in the film? “It made me extremely happy to be part of a tribute to the power of cinema,” says Tirru, who has worked on politically charged projects ever since his work in films such as Magalir Mattum (1994) and Hey Ram (2000). “I think this is there in my horoscope (laughs). Politics, human suffering and nature are themes that always travel with me.” But like Jigarthanda DoubleX, these films have also given him the scope to explore different technicalities. “The politics of it is incidental, but the technical challenges are the most interesting and thrill us naturally.” Recalling the biggest challenge in the film, Tirru takes us back to the shot where the elephant Athini forgives Caesar and his father by making a surprising visit to their backyard.
“You can't ask the elephant for ‘one more’ or tell her to give an expression. She's not going to listen. The elephant came, it did something, we understood it right and captured it, that's all. We didn't do anything. That is the bigger challenge because you don't know what it's going to give or where it's going to stand or the kind of a lens range you have to keep ready,” he says. He remembers an eerie silence that took over the entire set after they shot the scene. “We were supposed to shoot this scene for one full night, but you won't believe, we finished this in half an hour. After the shot, we packed up, and after the pack-up, we were all silent, just like the audience after the film. We were all like, “Did someone tell the elephant to act like that? Did we really shoot this?” It was a kind of madness.”