In this no-holds-barred interview, Karthik Subbaraj opens up about his sensational ‘Iraivi’, his film-making style and his future projects…

Mani Prabhu

Making sense of Iraivi: The Karthik Subbaraj Interview

Tell us about Iraivi’s journey from your ‘thought processes’ to the first draft.

When I read Sujatha’s Jannal Malar a few years back, the characterization of the protagonist fascinated me. It’s basically about a man who commits a serious crime, and is sentenced to imprisonment. On release, he turns over a new leaf and vows not to go back to his old ways. How he deals with the changes that had happened over the few years is the crux of the story. Though the main talking point of the novel is whether prison brings about reformation in a person, I was more interested in the lead character.

Simultaneously, I was writing a few scribbles for a screenplay titled Jannal Mazhai which was basically about the inherent differences in the quest for freedom among men and women. I incorporated the protagonist from Jannal Malar as the inspiration for one of the characters (Michael) in Jannal Mazhai. And I didn’t want to write the characters that lure the protagonist to perform the crime as the villains, and so the characters of Arul and Jegan were born. Jannal Mazhai, titled after the leitmotif of ‘looking at the rains from the window’, was based on the concept that women needed to find their freedom within their own selves. And going by the theme, I made idol trading as the crime as I thought there was some symbolism in valuable female deities lying dormant in lesser known temples. Once, I zeroed in on ‘Iraivi’ trafficking as the premise, I wrote the screenplay around it, and so with the shooting script, the original title also changed.

Did you have the actors playing the characters in mind while scripting the film?

Yes, I had almost all the five main leads in mind while writing their respective characters. I knew Vijay Sethupathi and Bobby Simha would definitely play their roles, but I wasn’t sure if SJ Surya would agree. But then, when I told him that I had written Arul with a mental picture of him, he was only glad to play the character. I was also very particular that I wanted only Anjali and Kamalini Mukherjee for the roles of Ponni and Yazhini.

What about the casting of Pooja Devariya and Seenu Mohan?

For the character of Malar, I wanted someone fresh with no previous ‘image’ baggage. So after several rounds of audition, we selected Pooja Devariya for the role. With Seenu Mohan, it was a different issue altogether. After writing the character, I was on the lookout for a middle-aged actor who would also feel familiar to the audience. After a few unsuccessful auditions, I remembered meeting Seenu Sir a few years ago, and thought he would be apt for the character. It was perfectly by chance.

Talking about Malar’s character, you seemed to have written her as someone who is clear-headed in her choices about love, sex and marriage. Then, we get the scene where she breaks down after she stages an excuse for Michael to get some closure? Is she caught between her emotions? Does this make her a confused character or someone who is not sure about her choices?

Malar had to resort to that drama because Michael was not willing to let her go. It’s not that she didn’t like him, only that she didn’t believe in the institution of love and marriage anymore. She tried her best to explain it to Michael and his uncle, but was again misunderstood. In that particular scene, she breaks down after he leaves thinking of the extent to which she had been pushed to convince him. She always wanted to part as friends, but the way the relationship has ended drives her to tears. It definitely doesn’t show her weakness, but instead reflects on her humane side. The entire sequence isn’t meant to convey that she is any less worthy just because she wanted another man. It was just her desperate attempt to drive some sense into Michael. And going by her sensibilities, she would definitely move on to other relationships, but that needed time.

Going by the theme that your male characters react impulsively in the spur of the moment, why does Michael continue to brutally hammer the producer to death in absolute calm? And why didn’t Jegan intervene?

In that scene, it was Michael who actually urges the others to leave without creating a scene initially. Then on seeing the bloody sight of his master – someone he considered as his brother lying battered and helpless – something gets to his head and he lands the first blow on the producer’s head. And then, one more! And after this, he realizes that it’s a point of no return. Everything he does henceforth is from a mix of alcoholic high and a deep-seated yearning for retribution. Also, I took the artistic liberty of staging the impulsive moment elaborately with quite some slow motion shots to drive across the point that this one pivotal action would change the lives of all those concerned irreversibly. And yes, Jegan is high and shocked to the point of momentary freezing.

Making sense of Iraivi: The Karthik Subbaraj Interview

Jegan at times comes across as the least developed among the male characters. His angst and transformation also appear less convincing when compared to the others. Was it a conscious decision on your part to hold on to the deception angle till the second half?

Yes, I agree that I couldn’t build on his character traits in the initial parts for the sake of holding on to the anticipatory tension. But I had written an elaborate drinking scene involving the brothers where he accuses everyone of being monsters. From that scene, we get that he doesn’t concur with the actions of both the brothers, but why doesn’t he target Arul? Because he thinks Arul can be reformed, but Michael, in his eyes, has made the greatest sin of all. And so, he sets out to reclaim Ponni.

Do you think the irony – of a guy with such high ideals getting fixated on another man’s wife –was stressed enough?

I think it was. I didn’t want to spoon-feed the audience with dialogues. I think the point was well-conveyed through the character’s actions.

Jegan says they can’t steal the Iraivi statue without Michael. As an audience we know why he does that, but how does he convince Arul, especially because Michael doesn’t have a specific skill set to be an important part in the heist?

Throughout the heists, Arul had been kept out from the details. He neither knows the exact blueprint nor the skill-sets required for the job. So Jegan finds it easier to convince Arul as Michael had been their trusted accomplice.

The manner in which the male characters are developed for more in detail than their female counterparts … was this intentional?

Yes, and that’s why we had the tagline as the tale of few woMEN, with the men in caps. We were trying to tell the stories of three women by focusing on the men in their lives, and how their impulsive decisions threw everything into chaotic disarray. I personally felt the conflicts of the female characters were addressed satisfactorily.

A common criticism placed on the film’s climax is that Arul’s impulsive act looks more like a forced event/afterthought, as there aren’t many scenes which depict the bonding between the brothers, compared to love/respect Michael and Arul shared. Also Arul wasn’t established to as short-tempered as Michael. Do you think the scene evolved naturally? Did you have an idea for an alternate climax?

No, this was the only climax I wrote and this, to me, would be the only way things could have panned out between those characters. Seenu Mohan’s character could made the difference by avoiding the clinching meet between the two, but years of loyalty made him confide the truth with the assurance that Arul forgives Michael. Arul can’t control his raging emotions over the sight of his brother battered to death, and on seeing Michael, impulsively wants to kill him. Here, brotherly love and blood-ties come well before the long term relationship between the master and his aide. Knowing Arul and his sensibilities, I would have been surprised if only Arul had come back to lead a normal life with Yazhini after forgiving Michael. They shouldn’t have met at all; and if they happened to meet, this is the only way, this story could have resolved.

After the climactic event, you had resorted to two strong dialogues which have met with conflicting reactions among the audience. About the first one relating to the tolerance levels of women in general, did you think you could be mistaken for celebrating women for their tendency to put up with crap more frequently than men? And regarding the second one relating to men, did you expect to be understood?

Yes, I knew that there would be polarized interpretations of them. First of all, we should remember that both the dialogues are spoken by a man who is ruminating on his guilt of having not spared a thought for his wife in his hot-bloodedness, in addition to handling new-found information that Michael had tried to cheat on his wife. Though we see several such instances around, the dialogues are purely from Arul’s point of view and probably, the voice of his repentant conscience. His impulsive dialogues, just like his decisions, serve as broad but striking strokes in painting a bigger picture, but definitely not one of insensitive generalization. And the whole point of Ponni coming out of her relationship in a moment of self-realization is about women refusing to put up with crap. The tolerance angle could have been interpreted that way by the previous generation, I guess.

Another criticism put forward was all men being portrayed as people who cause pain for their women in their lives, but did you not think of balancing it out or having a counter view through a male character which actually understands the women psyche?

No, I didn’t think such a balancing out was necessary because all the male characters, with the exception of Radharavi’s character, behaved so, not because they wanted to cause pain or that they didn’t understand the female psyche. Actually, at some point or the other, they wanted to make their partners happy as they understood what their women wanted. Arul doesn’t touch alcohol after his film issues are over, as promised to Yazhini. Michael repents for his mistake in jail and sincerely wanted to start afresh. It’s the impulsive moments/decisions, where their testosterone quotient washes all rational thoughts away, which makes them cause all pain. Even the act of John revealing Michael’s intentions to Arul is an impulsive reaction.

Ponni decides to stay with Michael because she ‘has to’. This means she didn’t have a choice. For a girl who has been force-fed ‘values’ to make peace with destiny by the society, how do you see her walking off from her husband when he lies shot on the ground, and start experiencing the rain?

Yeah, even the first time when Michael goes to jail without a consideration for his family, Ponni is tempted to walk off the relationship, but she stays put because as she says “She doesn’t see another choice”. But now, in the climax, when she comes out and sees Michael lying dead and Arul with the gun, she looks around confused and hears John asking her to leave. Now she makes sense of the whole situation, and the realization that Michael couldn’t bring himself to live with her without killing Jegan, makes her walk away from him without a second thought. ‘Experiencing the rain’ should be taken as a metaphor of finding freedom within the self.

Making sense of Iraivi: The Karthik Subbaraj Interview

Yazhini decides against getting drenched in the end. Why was she shown not to be liberated? Is it just because she is going to fall back on another man? And Ponni experiencing the rains simultaneously… is there some sort of oxymoronic reference in play here?

Yes, I wanted to emphasize that background and upbringing play a role in such decisions only to a limited extent. Here, the small town girl, who hadn’t seen a future ahead of her husband, steps out of the template the world had stipulated for her. The seemingly modern woman, the one who had wanted to break all templates, falls back on another man for happiness. Yazhini wants to be independent, but seems to search for her autonomy in marital bonds. I wanted to strike hard at this mismatch of sorts.

What to make of the Kaadhal Kappal song where Arul is seen singing and dancing in the beach in the midst of a mid-life crisis? Just a commercial compromise?

Yes. Nothing less. Nothing more. Even when there was a necessity to trim the film towards the end, I tried my best to remove the song. But frankly, I couldn’t. Given a choice, I wouldn’t have it in my final cut.

And regarding the Dhustha song, what were you trying to convey? It definitely doesn’t look like a colourful gap-filler. Were the costumes intentional?

Yes, I envisioned the song as human projections of Michael’s inner conflicts when he goes into hallucinations. Everyone connected to Michael appears in some form or the other. And Malar wearing white can be interpreted in two ways. One is that in Michael’s mind, Malar’s thoughts occupy some pleasant space, and so is symbolized in white. Another is a rather sarcastic interpretation of our ‘moral’ outlook of people in the black and white spectrum.

You had used musical pieces like ‘500 miles‘ (in the scene when Arul is seen drinking in the restroom) and ‘Unnai Thaane’ (twice, second time with a clever lyrical twist) to establish the mood of the scenes? Were these written into the screenplay at the scripting stage? How important do you feel is the bound script to the final output?

Yes, I had written both ‘500 miles’ and ‘Unnai Thaane’ into the respective scenes at the scripting stage itself. Unnai Thaane has always been my favourite and I felt it was very appropriate in the scenes it featured. I used 500 miles to establish Arul’s taste in music, apart from Raja. Also, the lyrics of 500 miles suited the scene perfectly. Coming to the second question, yes, I always have a bound script for all my movies. At least 70 to 80 percent of the final cut is based on my bound script. It pays to have it because on any given bad day, it gives you the bare minimum that needs to be canned.

Keeping in tone with KB’s style of visual metaphors, it’s evident that you have used quite a few in the film? Was everything written into the script? For example: the scene involving Michael and Ponni, where we see the couple through the two arms of the cradle.

I see many people pointing out a lot of visual nuances in their articles and reviews. While many of them were pre-planned and shot, some of them were also accidental. I could say that I can take credit for 7 out of 10 metaphors which were picked up. For example, the Pyaasa poster behind Arul and Yazhini as they hug wasn’t intentional and was placed there just for visual symmetry. And regarding this particular scene involving Michael and Ponni, it was a conscious decision that we took at the shooting spot, after another single long-shot failed to materialize.

Was the hospital scene where the nurse keeps visiting to warn the characters some sort of expressionism too?

To be honest, No! We wanted to add something to tighten the conflict and make the scene more interesting. And so we added the revisiting nurse character. And also, we utilized the opportunity to show the hidden nature of Radharavi’s character – the kind of domination that his voice resonates and the way it would have been in his hey days.

Why weren’t the heist sequences involving the idols and the action made more dramatic and detailed?

Because I wanted to draw attention to the sad state of affairs concerning such uncared-for-idols in the interior most temples of Tamil Nadu. Stealing these idols is as easy as walking into these open temples after dark, and walking out with an idol worth millions of dollars. That’s the harsh reality.

We have quite some debate on what constitutes feminism and on the grounds on which Iraivi could be called a ‘feminist film’. How do you, as a film-maker, view Iraivi and the controversy surrounding such debates?

First of all, I am not sure if Iraivi could be termed as a feminist statement because it was not intended to be one. It was just meant to be a character study of different people belonging to two different sexes. It is not a message movie. All feminist connotations are self-interpretations.

Why does “deception” play a major role in all your writings? And also, central characters as story-tellers? Are they a mere co-incidence?

With regard to the ‘deception’ angle, I think that’s how I write. I don’t make it a point to write a twist nor does it spring up organically as I take the story forward. In all three cases, I had written the deception and then taken it backwards. And it works for me. And regarding the central characters being story-tellers, I didn’t notice it till ‘Iraivi’, when someone asked me if I had to repeat another story-telling protagonist. I said “Yes, if that’s what the script demands”. Hopefully, my next film won’t feature a film-maker.

Have you considered co-writing with other film-makers/writers and making films, even across languages (like say someone like a Vasan Bala or a Bejoy Nambiar)

Yes, and I am very much excited at the prospects. It might for sure happen in the future.

If you had the dates of Nawazuddin Siddiqui for a film in Tamil?

I would experiment with the gangster genre.

Whats happening with the Dhanush project? What kind of film can we expect?

I am writing the screenplay for the same. We will commence shoot later this year. It would be an action thriller.

Read here: Revisiting Jigarthanda: The scene that sums up the film’s brilliance