Interview: Thiagarajan Kumararaja

Posted on December 3, 2016


Thiagarajan Kumararaja exploded on the movie scene with ‘Aaranya Kaandam’, which was festooned with raves by the few who saw it. And then he disappeared. Now, there are signs of a resurrection. In the midst of shooting his second film, he shoots the breeze with Baradwaj Rangan.

Thiagarajan Kumararaja does not know if he is going to continue making movies. This is an odd statement from someone who’s just begun work on a breathlessly anticipated second film, but it seems to fit into his conception of himself as a rootless drifter. The philosophy informs his perceived place in the directorial pantheon: “Somewhere in the middle. There are always better directors. There are always worse directors.” The philosophy informs his romantic relationships. “They were great people, all. But I’m a bucket full of holes – nothing sticks, no one stays.” So it’s surprising when he says he once went looking for a design for a tattoo. It must have been a big thing for him, something so… permanent. But this anecdote isn’t about tattoos. It’s about cats. He wanted a cat tattoo because he really loves cats. “They live among us, but they have their own life, a discreet life.” He likes rats even more. “We can’t do anything about them. They are great survivors. It’s so exciting to see them.”

Exciting is a word Kumararaja uses a lot. It comes up when he talks about his childhood, which was the opposite of exciting. His parents thought he’d pick up bad habits if he stepped out, so he stayed mostly at home. There was a books phase – Sujatha, Rajesh Kumar, Kovi Manisekaran, Sandilyan – that didn’t last. But the real entertainment was the bus ride from his home in Porur to Santhome Higher Secondary School. He used to stand next to the driver, observing at what speed he’d change gears. “I wanted to be a PTC bus driver,” he says. “The idea of driving a bus was so exciting.” Trains, in contrast, held no appeal. “There’s no overtaking in trains, no excitement.”

He was never a good student, making just enough marks to scrape through, but around Class XI, he was drawn to theoretical physics. “Based on one assumption, you go to another assumption. That was very exciting for me.” Maths wasn’t. At least, the Class XII Maths teacher, a newcomer to the profession, wasn’t. Kumararaja failed the subject, failed Class XII. “If I didn’t like the teacher, I wouldn’t study.”

You might have seen the ad for Stayzilla that came out a year ago, with stop-motion animation and Gautham Menon’s voiceover. Kumararaja directed it. But he doesn’t do many ads. He took this one up because it was exciting. “It has to turn me on. Whatever turns me on, I’ll do that. If murder is going to turn me on, I’ll do that. Otherwise, I’m like a stone. I’ll just sit there, watch things happen around me.” He can afford to do this because he has a very simple lifestyle. He goes around in a bike. And his friends take care of what he calls “things.” Like his office. It’s a friend’s apartment. Of course he pays rent. “But not necessarily every month.” Another friend owns a clothing store. “They believe I will make money, so they are investing in me,” he laughed. Then he turned serious. “One day I will return everything tenfold.”

So how does someone so Zen end up making something as spectacularly lurid and blood-splattered like Aaranya Kaandam? “Usually, they say what’s in you comes out in your first film. But this isn’t like that. Just a few bits, maybe. The face the Jackie Shroff character makes, I make that face to my mother. And I am good at snarky comebacks, so all my characters speak that way. But I have a very different kind of relationship with people. That’s not what’s there in the film. I am not a violent person, so I like violent films. What you’re not in life, that’s what you’ll find exciting on screen.”

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Which is not to say Kumararaja thinks Aaranya Kaandam is the most exciting film on the face of the earth. He knows a lot of people who hated the film. He read all those reviews and laughed, because they presented interesting angles. But he knows it’s not a bad film, and that is all that matters. No one has criticised the film more than him. The last show he saw, he ripped the film apart. Line after line, he kept talking to the screen, giving snarky comebacks. He’s good at that, so when he writes a scene, when he composes a shot, he sees to it – as much as he can – that there is no possibility for a snarky comeback from a smart aleck in the audience. “If I can’t think up a snarky comeback, I don’t think most people can.”

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The film’s failure is one of the great tragedies of modern Tamil cinema. Kumararaja has a reason, and no, it isn’t God or destiny. “I don’t see a reason for God’s existence. There are reasons why he should exist but I don’t see a reason why he would.” He simply believes it was not marketed enough. Friends gave him other reasons. That there were no stars. That it was slow. That the music did not guide the audience, it kept the film from reaching out. But there is a flip side, Kumararaja laughs. “No one’s seen it, so everyone thinks it’s a good film.”

He likes good films. “I can watch the same film over and over. I have the same orgasm watching the same film a hundred times – probably different orgasms of the same level.” But bad films depress him. Literally. “I get upset when I see a bad film – whether from Hollywood or international cinema or from here. If I see a good film, it is so exciting. I get so excited about it. If I see a bad film, I go into depression for a week. I am not exaggerating. I avoid watching films unless they are certified by certain friends of mine who know my taste.” He gets depressed because the director who made the bad film believed he was making a good film. “There is a 100 per cent chance I can end up making a similarly fucked up film. I hate a bad film, so I don’t want my film to be bad and end up hating it. I’m very paranoid about that.”

This second film, he’s hoping people will like it. It’s got stars: Vijay Sethupathy, Samantha, Fahadh Faasil. It’s got PC Sreeram. And unlike Aaranya Kaandam, it doesn’t take till interval point to really get going. The drama begins in the very first shot. Perhaps in the very first line: “Dei rascal, marandhittiyaa da yenna?”

* * *

It’s a question we might ask of Kumararaja. He makes a film. He disappears. We hear he’s making something with Ajith. We hear he’s making a Hindi film. But this is what happened. Over two-and-a-half years, he wrote a mega-budget film. A new-ish genre that allowed him to play with screenplay structure. He showed it to actors who all said, “Namma oorla work out aagadhu.” Then, one day, he was watching The Circle, the 2000 Iranian film by Jafar Panahi where the narrative is handed over from one character to the next – a number of independent-yet-interconnected stories adding up to a powerful whole. Kumararaja was astonished. If Panahi could make this film with so little money, with so many censorship restrictions, then there was no reason he couldn’t make a movie. Even if no actor came on board. Even if there was no cameraman. He’d shoot it himself. He wrote a detailed treatment note – four independent-yet-interconnected stories adding up to a whole.

Then, the Stayzilla ad came along. It took six months. And in that time, Kumararaja split his treatment note into four parts, and handed three of them to three of his friends. He had the details of the scenes in place. He just wanted their take on it, their version. None of these friends knew what was in the other three parts, or how everything came together.

You may have heard of these friends. One of them is named Nalan Kumarasamy. One of them goes by Mysskin. One of them is the Ali Baba director, Neelan. One of them was supposed to be Anurag Kashyap, but Bombay Velvet had just crashed and he wasn’t feeling up to it, so Kumararaja fleshed out that part himself. Then, he rewrote what the others gave him so that the film has the same flavour throughout – but no, he’s not telling which friend wrote which part. He doesn’t want the audience to come with preconceived notions. He’s producing the film. But is he rich enough to produce a film? It doesn’t matter, he says. He’s motivated enough to produce a film.

Oh, another thing about this new film. It’s his homage to Samsaram Adhu Minsaram.

* * *

It’s not that Kumararaja is a big fan of Visu. But he is a big fan of that film. “It’s always about the work, not the person.” It’s not that Kumararaja is a big fan of Sridhar. But he is a big fan of Nenjil Or Aalayam, especially the way it is shot. It’s not that Kumararaja is a big fan of P Bhimsingh. But he is a big fan of Bagappirivinai. “I am a sucker for drama, and those black-and-white films had drama that worked for us. It probably had to do with the black-and-white. It was another world. Everything was in harmony. There was a strong story. The characters believed what they did, and so you bought it. Today, I am unable to buy that.”

The first film Kumararaja saw was Coma. Or maybe Superman. His mother took him along. Then there were the films on TV. Sholay, Deewar, both favourites of his, both released in the same year, both films he points to in order to underline the fact that commercially successful films can be artistically successful too. But most of the films he saw subsequently were with his uncle, who had dreams of becoming an actor and would drag his nephew along to the theatre. Kumararaja is a sucker for escapist cinema. He loved Annai Or Aalayam. He watched it seven or eight times. He loved Pattanathil Boodham. Your own personal genie. What more could a boy want? And then, Thiruvilayaadal. They’d show it on TV. And on Kandha Sashti and Panguni Uthiram, local temples would play the audio tape. He knows the dialogues by heart.

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Then there was the editor who lived near his home, VP Krishnan, who worked on Andhaman Kadhali and never let anyone forget it. The jubilee shield for the film was prominently displayed in his living room. It was in Krishnan’s house that Kumararaja heard a song that remains one of his favourites: Ilayaraja’s Aasaya kaathula, from Johny. He wove the song into his script for the Nalan Kumarasamy-directed segment of the anthology film X: Past is Present. Kumararaja loves songs, he loves talking about songs. The songs of Uyire Unakkaga, one of the handful of Tamil films Laxmikant-Pyarelal worked on. The songs of Paadum Vaanambadi, the Tamil version of Disco Dancer. Sindhu nadhi poove from Shankar Salim Simon. Kann kanda dheivame from Keezh Vaanam Sivakkum. He used Bappi Lahiri’s Thaai Veedu song, Unnai azhaithathu kann, in Aaranya Kaandam. He loves the energy of the song, the way it sets the mood, the zone he wants his audience in.

The music, he hopes, will make people laugh. Or cry. Or uncomfortable, because it’s just not what they expect. Even his background scores are stamped with this philosophy. Like the Mexican music, in Aaranya Kaandam, that accompanies the introduction of the villains Gajendran and Gajapathy. They are important characters who can change the course of the film, but Kumararaja did not want to hint at the future, with menacing music. He just wanted to savour the present. He just wanted to revel in the way they walked into the frame. He wanted that joy.

Aaranya Kaandam was supposed to come with three songs. Gangai Amaran wrote one around the situation of the heroine playing a video game. Kumararaja wanted the sequence to look like a video game. He wanted to shoot it like a video game. Vaali wrote a song that was supposed to come on when the father and son stumble into the cocaine stash and realise they’re going to be rich. They were supposed to wear koothu clothes and prance around on a stage, pretending to be king and prince, with no audience watching. The tune was eventually reused for Konjum kili paada vecha in Kedi Billa Killadi Ranga. Kumararaja wasn’t satisfied with Vaali’s first stab at the lyrics. Vaali booted him out and ordered him to come back in a week. This time, everything worked. Kumararaja really liked this old-school behaviour, the way Vaali took on this challenge. “I really love that in a person.”

Kumararaja likes challenges too. The third song was meant to appear when the Sampath character jumps off the jeep and begins to run. He runs as fast as he can, but the world is very slow. The song was supposed to play out in slow motion. This number didn’t even get to the hire-a-lyricist stage. Aaranya Kaandam finally made it to theatres songless. This new film may have two songs, but they may be simply for promotions. The film may have older tracks like Shankar-Ganesh’s Panimalar song, Paniyum neeye. Kumararaja loves the stanzas. He wants it as the opening song.

* * *

A man with such a specific vision, you’d imagine, would be one of those who, in Class II, saw a film, was blown away by it, spent nights dreaming about it, and said to himself, “I’m going to make movies.” But Kumararaja’s flashback is remarkably undramatic. There was the time he thought he’d join an NIIT course and become an IT professional. There was the time, during school, when he took cricket coaching, and thought of becoming a cricketer. There was the time when he began to click pictures that he sold to newspapers, when he thought he’d be a photographer. There was the time he got his Visual Communication degree, a course he got into just because he’d heard that that was a way to break into advertising, a world where men walked around in ponytails. He thought thoughts like, “Why does an ad have to be about just one product? Why not two or three?” There was the time he became an assistant cameraman, an assistant director. There was the time he helped a classmate with a film project. The reason for this drifting? Well, if something isn’t exciting enough…

Then he got together with Pushkar and Gayathri, who were classmates at college, and wrote three scripts within a month. They even pitched these scripts to producers, but nothing happened and Pushkar and Gayathri took off to the US, to study, and Kumararaja retreated to his “stone state.” They came back. They made Oram Po. Kumararaja wrote the dialogues. He felt that he should ride that momentum, get a foot in the door while being around the process of making a movie. It made sense. He had a script. SPB Charan loved the dialogues of Oram Po. He decided to produce Aaranya Kaandam, which, at that point, in Kumararaja’s mind, was a racy film.

He wanted to make a really racy film, because we don’t really make those films and we think raciness means fast cuts and swooping camera moves. He wanted the plot to be racy. But while shooting the film, his impulses told him to treat it like a Western. Specifically, a Sergio Leone Western. Kumararaja loves Leone. He thinks the opening of Once upon a Time in the West is one of the two greatest opening stretches of all time. (His number two is the opening of Magnolia. He thinks Paul Thomas Anderson is the greatest filmmaker around today.) People don’t seem to be making movies for the big screen anymore. We have dramatic plots, but Kumararaja misses the cinematic approach. Not opulence like Devdas, but just an extreme long shot, say, which you hardly find. So that’s what he was after.

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No. He doesn’t think all this name-dropping – Leone, Anderson, at one point even Welles came up – is alienating. “Maybe the technical details are inspired by their films, but my characters are very normal, the moments they go through are very relatable. The drama is very local.” You don’t have to look towards Tarantino for the explosions of pop culture in Aaranya Kaandam. (“Unakku Rajini pidikkumaa, Kamal pidikkumaa?”) You just have to look at Goundamani. Kumararaja doesn’t need Tarantino for the Chapter format either. What is the Ramayana if not a series of chapters, of which the Aaranya Kaandam is one? What’s interesting to him is the transposition. He takes the grammar of noir. He sets it here. He takes the femme fatale. He sets her here, where we only know the villi.

Or the oppressed woman. That’s what the Yasmin Ponnappa character was, at first. And then she’d fall for Sappai and then the story would hinge on this question: Will they elope, and how? But Kumararaja wasn’t happy. Because there’s nothing there for the audience. The elopement either happens, or it doesn’t. And what’s so great about that? “It’s like a woman being pregnant. There’s a 50 per cent chance it will be a boy. There’s a 50 per cent chance it will be a girl. But what if I say it’s a piglet? Now, that’s interesting. Otherwise, the audience is already ahead of you. You need to push it. Not surprise the audience for the sake of a surprise, but surprise them with something that fits into the flow of the film.” Hence the femme fatale. That’s what’s so great about masala. You don’t have to hew to a particular genre.

Kumararaja thinks of the audience as equals. If he thinks the movie works for him, then it does for them. Even with the swear words beeped out by the censors. That’s minimum damage. He can live with it, because if the characters don’t swear, then the drama loses impact, and because the audience is his equal, they can fill in the words anyway. They can read lips. They can hear the word anni in the first line and guess that the beeped-out word in the next line is…

Kumararaja wants to make a U-rated movie one day, a Disney film for kids. (He’s currently reading stories from the Panchatantra.) He isn’t against popular cinema. He’d like to do a big family-friendly commercial film – that is, to the extent that he can be commercial, with songs, with a big hero, with action sequences, maybe a heist movie. But Aaranya Kaandam wasn’t meant for family audiences and this new film, which is about 20 per cent done, isn’t either. The content is adult content. It’s meant for mature people, and by that he means a person who appreciates things that the person himself may not agree with, instead of saying, “That is wrong. It cannot exist.” Kumararaja believes such an audience exists.

And then he talks about the Lumière brothers. They didn’t make their films – the first ever commercial films – for an audience. The audience came to watch these films. So the film always happens first. The audience comes later. “We need to do something exciting for the audience to come and watch. So if we make an exciting project, if we make an interesting film, they will come to see it. Would you eat the same food everyday? No. I’m probably one of those people who’ll give you something different to eat.”

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil