Surprise is a word that Lokesh Kanagaraj uses a lot.
What is surprising about the director is his commendable clarity on cinema — both the craft and commerce aspects of it. I ring him on a day of exhaustive shooting, when the young filmmaker is taking a lunch break.
He agrees to do a phone interview, for he is running from pillar to post for his new movie — no prizes for guessing: Thalapathy 64 starring actors Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi.
“I’m either flooded with offers or nothing at all,” laughs Lokesh, whose directorial debut — Maanagaram (2017) — was a surprise hit at the box-office.
Though the positive critical reception for Maanagaram did take Lokesh by surprise, he says that he never took the audience for a ride. “More than anything, it was a learning experience for me. Maanagaram was a small film made with a smaller cast. But it resonated with the audience,” he says.
Post Maanagaram, however, Lokesh says he was cautious about one thing — to not succumb to the pressure of staying relevant in the industry by signing back-to-back projects.
Instead, he took a backseat despite tempting offers from production houses. Since he had already signed a deal with Maanagaram’s producers (bankrolled by Dream Warrior Pictures), Lokesh sat down to research and develop a new script.
Halfway through the scripting stage, he realised that the movie was too early for his career, and so he kept it aside for revision. He worked on another script but the casting did not fall in place.
“I came across a news article which grabbed my attention. I wanted to make a movie on it and discussed it with my friends. The excitement they showed was motivating, and that is how it became Kaithi,” he says, adding that the film’s scale increased to a mammoth proportion when actor Karthi came on board.
“Karthi sir saw Maanagaram, and that is why he wanted to work with me. He knows what is expected of me. Likewise, I know his strength as an actor. So, we had a great mutual understanding,” adds Lokesh.
Mission: Break Out
At the outset, Kaithi appears to be a genre-specific movie that stays true to its premise.
Lokesh admits that the writing process was new to him because the script had minimal dialogue and more descriptions in it.
“My final draft was over 45 pages. When I met SR Prabhu sir (co-founder of Dream Warrior Pictures), I told him that the movie would roughly be around two hours and 30 minutes. Given the size of the script, he was perplexed when I handed it over to him,” laughs Lokesh.
“I had to expand the movie when Karthi sir came in. Hence, I asked Pon Parthiban to help me with dialogues,” he adds.
Lokesh turned to Virumaandi (2004) and Die Hard (1988) to draw additional references for Kaithi. “Be it in terms of characters or performances, Virumaandi is a huge inspiration for me. In fact, I have given credits to these two films in Kaithi,” says Lokesh.
A significant challenge in helming a genre-specific movie is the director’s skill set to sustain audience’s interest, especially when the runtime is over 150 minutes.
“Since Kaithi doesn’t have songs or a heroine, people assumed it would be under two hours. See, that’s how they are conditioned. The entire movie takes place in a single night but it needed to be told in that stipulated duration,” he says, adding, “My respect for the audience increased manifold after Maanagaram. If the premise and execution parts are taken care of, then people are willing to sit through a movie regardless of its runtime.”
Time to experiment
- It is not an exaggeration to say that the Kaithi’s trailer is one of the best we have seen in recent times. Lokesh divulges some interesting trivia. “My editor (Philomin Raj) has been travelling with me since my short film days. When we hit a roadblock with the trailer, I asked him to show me a rough cut. Since we had introduced Karthi sir’s character in the teaser, we wanted to offer a peek into his world. If you watch closely, you will notice that we have juxtaposed the back shots in the teaser with front shots [in the trailer],” says Lokesh, adding that the only instruction to his team was to use the movie “as an experiment”.
Lokesh is convinced that Kaithi will be spoken about for its technical brilliance.
An intriguing aspect of Kaithi’s trailer is its arresting visual, thanks to cinematographer Sathyan Sooryan. The filmmaker adds that he and Sathyan determined the film’s tonality well in advance.
“What was important was that both of us knew the kind of cinema we were trying to make. The rest of it was working towards achieving what we set out to.”
Given that it is also an action-thriller, Lokesh took his time to find an individual arc to his characters, and justify their actions.
“Kaithi has a lot of action. But we haven’t made it fashionable like the ones you see in [most] Tamil movies. Every fight has a purpose and a backstory to it. Only when you approach the characters through their arcs will you get the right output. In that sense, Kaithi is not your regular action flick,” he explains.
If Kaithi turns out to be a success, then it is a victory for Lokesh, the director, as opposed to the writer. He says that executing his vision was the most difficult part of filming the movie.
- Lokesh has not had the time to catch up on recent movies, courtesy his commitment to Kaithi. He did manage to squeeze in some time to watch his “thalaivan” Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. Like any cinephile, he is eagerly looking forward to The Irishman, which streams on Netflix from November 27. “I might be shooting (Thalapathy 64) at that time. Eppadi aachu paathurven (I will somehow watch it),” he says with a laugh.
“Of course, whatever you write is going to translate on the screen. But there were some places where I didn’t require my script book. Because most of it was impromptu and improvised along with my technicians. In that sense, I would give additional marks to Lokesh as a director,” he says.
I ask him if the announcement for Thalapathy 64 came too early since Kaithi is clashing with Bigil on Deepavali. Supposing the former opens to unfavourable reviews, would that have an adverse effect on Thalapathy 64?
“I haven’t thought about it until you asked. It might,” he laughs, adding in conclusion, “Honestly, it doesn’t bother me at all. From where I started to where I am today, every juncture of my life was a surprise. At the end of the day, all that matter is that I am sincere as a director.”