In under 10 years since his debut feature film Pizza in 2012 to the recently released Jagame Thandhiram, writer-director Karthik Subbaraj has come to be regarded as one of the most sought-after filmmakers of the Tamil film industry.
With a preference for action dramas and thrillers, the 38-year-old from Madurai who began his career as a software engineer before changing tracks to filmmaking, has directed some of the biggest stars, including Rajinikanth (in Petta), Dhanush (Jagame Thandhiram) and Vikram (Chiyaan 60).
His 2014 action thriller Jigarthanda, starring Siddharth and Bobby Simha, won two National Film Awards. His 2018 film Mercury was a silent horror-thriller. Subbaraj’s short film Miracle was the standout segment in Putham Pudhu Kaalai, an anthology of five Tamil short films released in 2020.
Subbaraj, who counts Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Clint Eastwood, K. Balachander and Balu Mahendra as his cinematic influences, spoke about his inspirations and his future work.
Where did you get the idea for a cross-cultural mafia film?
I like the gangster genre film, and I love Martin Scorsese's world of gangsters based in New York. So when I was in New York City for a film festival, I was thinking we should do a film set there, and all I could think of was a gangster film with the New York mafia. Obviously, I had to make a Tamil film. So then I thought why not the story of a Madurai gangster who meets a New York gangster. That’s how the story started. But just as Jigarthanda was not just about a gangster but also tackled other themes, so also in Jagame Thandhiram I combined the ideas of immigration and gangsters.
But then why did you relocate the setting to London?
Yes. After a lot of pre-production, we realised that logistically it wasn't viable to have a long shoot in New York. So I thought why not London, where it is easier and the UK offers a lot of monetary rebates. I did some research and found out that my story was even more relatable in a London setting with Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants. Plus, the political system in the UK is more similar to India. All this made it possible to adapt the script.
Your original casting wish list was rather ambitious.
I was keen on Al Pacino or Robert De Niro. But when I said logistical issues earlier, those were mainly related to the budget and casting someone of their caliber was definitely outside the scope of this film. It took some time for me to realise that. After shifting to London, I still wanted a good actor because Peter is a very important character. I wanted someone who is known, which makes the casting more exciting. I had seen James Cosmo in Game of Thrones, and I felt he was perfect for Peter. He was also very excited after reading the script and said okay right away. We were lucky to get him on board, and had a good time working with him and Dhanush. But I must admit it was tough following his Scottish accent. Even when I was in software, over the calls I found it tough to understand the British and American accents.
Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
Every film has its own initial inspiration. For example, Jigarthanda began when I was doing research for a short film and met a man who had committed murder. He told us about what he had done and how he was jailed. He is out now, a changed man who is into spirituality. When we met him, he was more interested in cinema and wanted to know if I could cast him in the film. That is how the idea of Jigarthanda came.
The idea of Jagame Thandhiram came when I was walking in NYC and talking about Godfather and Scarface, and I thought why not do a cross-country gangster film. This story is also inspired by the story of immigrants.
You have written every feature film that you have directed. How critical is director Karthik of writer Karthik?Writer Karthik gives confidence to director Karthik because when the writer finishes his job perfectly, it makes the direction part so easy.
As a director I don't feel comfortable unless I have finished writing to a level where I feel I am ready to shoot. Honestly, I cannot separate the two but only after the writer finishes the script can the director come on.
Are you open to directing something written by another writer?
I have bought the rights to a novel called Kadavul Thodangiya Idam by A. Muthulingam, and plan to make it into a series which I hope to direct. I have made one more short for an anthology which was based on a story by a different author. But I have not yet worked on a feature film screenplay written by anyone else. My next film is Chiyaan 60 with Vikram, which I have also written.
You have worked with some of the top stars of Tamil cinema. Who else is on your wish list?
I am fortunate to have worked with very good actors in every film. I have a wish list after I write the script, and luckily I have been able to impress these actors with the storyline so that I can enjoy the entire process of making that film. As for the future, there are so many talented actors in Indian cinema who I would like to work with.
Do you think with the proliferation of OTT, cinema is now breaking down language and geographical barriers?
OTT platforms have played an important part in taking content across boundaries. Not only are people watching Game of Thrones and Narcos, but they are open to seeing actors from other regions too. These days good Malayalam films are being celebrated in Tamil Nadu also and all the good Tamil films are being appreciated in Bombay (Mumbai). So cinema is breaking barriers and becoming one form of art.Jagame Thandhiram is streaming on Netflix.