I was both a filmmaker and a fanboy while shooting Petta: Karthik Subbaraj
The director, in conversation with Cinema Express, discusses his latest film, Petta, featuring Superstar Rajinikanth, directing his Thalaivar and more
If you’ve watched Petta, you will be left in no doubt that Karthik Subbaraj is a “fanboy” of Rajinikanth. He even calls himself one, in case there’s any confusion. The odes to old Rajinikanth films are very many in Petta, and the very objective of making the film was to bring the 90s Rajini back. A few days since the release of Petta, it’s clear from the audience’s response that Karthik Subbaraj has succeeded in what he set out to achieve. Here’s the director himself in conversation about his latest film, Petta, and the superstar at its heart. And as you’ll no doubt notice, at all times, he prefers to use the word Thalaivar, never Rajinikanth…
Were there nerves before the release of the film?
I generally can’t contain my excitement before the release of any Thalaivar film, but this time, it was also strange because the film is mine. While making Petta, we were particularly thrilled about 15-20 moments that we couldn’t wait to show the audience. From the beginning, the objective was to make a pucca Thalaivar film. The focus was on Rajinism. We have added lots of little references as odes to previous films of his. There are enough to have a conversation about, after seeing the film.
Now that you have done a film with Rajinikanth, is that an item off your bucket list?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying that one of my wishes has been fulfilled. In fact, this wasn’t even on my list. Who knew this could actually happen? But it’s now happened, and it’s incredible. I don’t think though that it’s just a matter of checking a box and moving on.
When did it really sink in that you were indeed doing a film with your childhood hero?
To be honest, I don’t think it ever did. When I signed the agreement for this film early last year, I was told Petta was planned as a Pongal release. I had exactly 10 months left. Unlike my other four films, Petta was written for its hero. If he had said no, I couldn’t have made this film with anyone else. This isn’t the sort of film that could be shot inside a studio either. I wanted the three locations — the hill station, Madurai, and Uttar Pradesh — to look real. To get to work with Thalaivar is my wildest dream come true, and it was the same for many of us. We all knew we should just try and enjoy each moment. I think he enjoyed being with the team too. After the shoot, he told me he missed us all. We all feel the same. Takkunu mudinjirche nu thonudhu.
How did Rajinikanth’s stardom affect your process of filmmaking?
I wouldn’t say it affected it. Let me first share that it was on account of his films that I developed a love for cinema. My learning about script and screenplay and all of that came only later. I got into cinema because of his larger-than-life image. The advantage with casting him is, you’re not restricted in any way. You can pull off anything, things you can’t conceive with other actors. As an actor, he has the great skill of being able to change audience’s mood in a second. One moment he will be laughing, and so will you. If he turned that to sadness without warning, you’d be affected, as if a switch turned off somewhere. He’s a terrific actor.
Your previous films have explored difficult themes like gender dynamics and the relationship between art and crime. Where does Petta figure in terms of complexity?
I won’t call it complex. However, it’s not so straightforward either. There’s some interesting emotional play here. But yes, this is the first time I’m writing an out-and-out commercial mass film. I’ve also tried to write in a strong story though.
I was actually two people throughout the making of this film: Karthik Subbaraj, the filmmaker, and Karthik Subbaraj, the Rajinikanth fanboy. Both travelled together while this film was being made. There were times I’d just be lost in admiration of what he was doing. But there were also times when I’d tell him something wasn’t working and he’d agree.
Much of the conversation around Petta seems to be around Rajinikanth. It almost seems like people forget what a definitive presence Simran was in the early 2000s.
She was a sensation, wasn’t she? I think people always wanted to see Thalaivar and Simran do a film together. They were to do Chandramukhi but it didn’t work out. In Kaala and Kabali, Thalaivar was part of a different sort of romance: It was serious, emotional, nostalgic. In Petta, it’s playful. It’s an ode to the love tracks in his mass films I grew up watching. In fact, Thalaivar himself enjoys that playfulness a lot. He even told me it would be interesting to do a romcom, but wasn’t sure if people would accept it without all the mass elements. I simply said, “Okay na sollunga sir. Panniduvom.”
It seems that after Kaala and Kabali, Rajinikanth admirers can be broadly divided into two categories. The ones who want him to continue to play his age and experiment with roles, and the ones who want him to stick to being a mass entertainer. What about you?
I’ll simply tell you one story from my childhood. I came back disappointed from watching Nattukku Oru Nallavvan (1991). My uncle asked me why I was annoyed. I pointed out that Juhi Chawla dies in the film, and their child dies too. “Yaarayume kaapathala na edhukku Thalaivar?” I asked. He’s always a larger-than-life persona. You can’t bring him down. Having said that, I also love his performance-oriented films like Mullum Malarum. In Kabali, for instance, the scene in which he reunites with his long-lost wife is the highest point for me. Yet, I missed that ‘Thalaivar element’ in the film. I’ve tried to achieve a balance in Petta.
Just when some of us had decided that you and Santhosh Narayanan were a combination set in stone, you’ve gone and worked with Anirudh for this film.
Well, why not? There’s nothing wrong in new combinations, right? Thalaivar’s last two films had music by Santhosh; so he wanted to work with Anirudh for this one. I also felt it’d be interesting because Ani is super-talented. The script has much scope for music. I told Ani we’d have at least five-six songs and five-six themes. I’d compare this film with Jigarthanda in terms of its musical scope. He had barely a month for the BGM, and has done a superb job. He’s really broadened the scope of the film with his music.
Having now worked with Rajinikanth, what do you think is underrated about him?
Everyone talks about his mass appeal, but he doesn’t get enough credit as a performer with a great eye for the details. After Mullum Malarum and Thalapathy, he stepped into a different zone of films, but even in those mass films, there are some great performing moments. In Kabali, for instance, everyone talks about Neruppu Da, and the stunt scenes, but what about that reunion scene? I still struggle to understand how he performed it. They should study it in film schools and dissect his performance. What about the emotional moments in Annamalai? In every film of his, I can tell you a scene in which he was terrific.
Does this deification of an actor affect smaller films that don’t have a star?
I won’t deny that there are problems with big-budget films. As an audience, we love heroism. I think it’s in our genetic makeup. Our gods, for instance, are heroes. We believe they will rescue us from problems. I think we should just try to ensure that films riding on larger-than-life stars have good content. The problem is when filmmakers write a lazy story and try only to cater to fans of an actor. But such films are failing these days. If you take filmmakers like Tarantino and Coen Brothers, though they work with big actors, you’ll never call their work a ‘masala film’. That’s because of the content. I think we are moving towards a point where strong content will become the baseline. Thalaivar himself, by doing films like Kabali and Kaala, is showing that he’s willing to focus on content. It’s time other stars did the same.
What do you hope the average viewer will get out of this film?
The excitement of having got their 90s Thalaivar back.