What If Karnan From Mahabharata Understood Justice?: Durai Senthilkumar on Garudan and Soori

Filmmaker Durai Senthilkumar on what it took to write a Tamil mass hero who is gutsy yet gentle all at once
RS Durai Senthilkumar
RS Durai Senthilkumar

Soori is a loveable goof in Durai Senthilkumar’s Garudan — a role that we’ve now come to associate with the Tamil comedian-actor. He is Chockan, a loyal watchdog running errands for two brawny friends in the village (Sasikumar and Unnimukundan as Aadhi and Karuna), who don’t think twice about picking up the tools to kill for blood and feud. But what if the knife were to be suddenly tossed not just into the hands of Chockan, but also Soori, an actor who has mostly been on the sidelines in the Tamil mass cinema fabric for over 15 years? 

Durai, who has always been attracted to creating memorable heroic set pieces in his films (Ethir Neechal and Kodi for instance) tells us how he redefined his thinking to write a new kind of mass film hero to root for. “I have to say that Soori sir's off-screen image has added to the effect of the character. For around 150 films, we've put him into a box of what a comedian should be doing. So when he got to do this role, I think people believed it more because, in the film, people think of Chockan like "Ivanala edhuvum pannamudiyadhu/he cannot do anything."

Soori in Garudan
Soori in Garudan

What was the origin story for Chockan?

Most comedians have their own team to work on stuff for the content of comedy tracks in films. Since Soori sir had a team like that, he had a bank of stories. One of these characters was a poosari (priest) he had seen in real life. The poosari runs everyone’s errands in the village throughout the year. But during the yearly village festival, he is the one who wields the power…the wealthiest of the lot come to him to seek blessings. I found this contrast to be very interesting and turned that into Chockan. I wrote Chockan immediately after my conversation with him, and all of this happened a week before Viduthalai's release.

How did you see Soori in this space, considering this is his first such mass commercial role?

I usually like to create heroic moments. But for this film, I also tried to redefine my knowledge of film language. I have created such moments for stars like SK (Sivakarthikeyan) and Dhanush, but for this film, I didn't have any pressure to cater to the image of a star. I had the full liberty to do anything. I have been closely following the films coming out in the past three years and it helped me understand that commercial films need to be taken to the next level today. So instead of going into templates like songs and other things, I looked at the story and saw if this character actually translated as a real person's life.

Soori in Garudan
Soori in Garudan

Chockan is a difficult character to be boxed into. He isn’t your typically hyper-masculine hero, and nor is he just a funny guy. What was your brief to the actor?

What if Karnan from Mahabharata understood justice? This is what excited us the most because Chockan is a take on Karnan. Soori sir has a library of characters inside him. So, he could understand everything I told him, and the metre at which I wanted him to perform. If you notice, he'd be eating and drinking the leftover food and drinks in the background when another scene would be going on in the foreground.

Tell us about storyboarding and implementing that remarkable interval scene when  Chockan gets possessed by the village deity.

A few moments like these leave us with certain emotions. The atmosphere on set felt like “avarukulla saami erangiduchu”. It felt like a festival. We played some music and got this done. So, overall, the idea was to capture something live. A few people seemed to be so struck by Soori sir’s performance that they were taken over by the “saami” too (Saami aaduthal is a form of “deity possession” that many people experience and express through spontaneous dance in southern states).

We shot this scene in four takes. It's around two minutes in total, and I couldn't call cut in the middle too. There are usually different types of Saami - Karuppu, Mariamman, Muni. Karuppu is a goddess who is aggressive and fear-inducing. Mariamma is a dance that makes one forget everything. I just told him these things and asked him to run with it. These kinds of performances are spontaneous, so I just captured everything in those four takes and edited it accordingly. This isn't a performance that can be precisely explained.

Soori in Garudan
Soori in Garudan

Can you recall how Soori reacted to this?

We shot this on the 14th or 15th day of our schedule. And in those 15 days, we were only shooting the first half sequences, which made it seem like Sasikumar and Unni Mukundan were the heroes. Imagine being on the sidelines of a shoot, after having done a film like Viduthalai. As a comedian at least, he'd usually get a punch line, but in this case, he didn’t get that as well. Soori sir was feeling all of these things and kept it to himself. Only after we filmed the interval scene, he came to me and said, "Naan nambaren na, indha padathula naa dhan hero (I believe now that I am the hero in the film). I guess this was that one scene that gave him confidence.

The “flight” really took off with that scene in Soori’s own words, and the actor isn’t wrong.

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