A dream realised: The Black Sheep team interview for NNOR
We catch up with director Karthik Venugopalan and actors RJ Vigneshkanth and Ram Nishanth, as they, between jokes, discuss the making of last week's release, Nenjamundu Nermaiyundu Odu Raja
It is hard to have a serious conversation with the team of Nenjamundu Nermaiyundu Odu Raja, which is well-known for pranks and jokes on their YouTube channel, Black Sheep. The group has become arguably the country's first YouTube team to make a feature film, and this excitement flavours the whole conversation.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Was making a feature film always the end goal?
Karthik Venugopalan: We always had the dream; during free time, we would sit together and develop the script. After some time, we began taking it more seriously. Once the script got backed by Sivakarthikeyan Productions, the dream came true.
Considering your team is known for trolling, was there any apprehensions about your content from Sivakarthikeyan's company?
RJ Vigneshkanth: The film is a small political satire. We were clear that we should not imitate the kind of content we do on YouTube because the theatre audience is quite different. The film has been made in a way to ensure that even those who don't know us, will enjoy it. So Sivakarthikeyan brother did not have any inhibitions. He told Karthik that our team was doing well with clean humour and that it would be enough to win.
How different is acting in a feature film?
Ram Nishanth: Ivangalukku nadule okaara vechu, intha kelvi kekuringe pathingala? (laughs) Just like we work as a team in our office, we did it on the sets. My team would stand behind the camera and give me instant feedback and suggestions to help me.
KV: And he would ask us to shut up in response.
RN: No, no. The truth is, I could not find any great difference between YouTube and cinema. Now I'm working with Vaibhav on a film with a new team. It feels like I've joined a new school.
RJV: I try to differentiate myself with each character I play. Apart from just being a comedian, I want to establish myself as a character artiste, similar to Manivannan sir who could pull off any role. He could be a comedian, a villain, or a character that could make you cry. I try to pick films in which my character can make a difference. The only issue is, when we shoot for 15 days, sometimes, only five days of content makes the final cut (laughs).
Directing a feature film must have been a whole new game, right?
KV: In YouTube, people have the option of choosing different videos, but those who come to the theatre don't. They have distractions on the phone; so, we have to keep them engrossed. When it comes to the big screen though, this idea is differently executed. Thanks to our experience with YouTube, we know what constitutes a 'lag'. Confidence is also crucial, and I got that from my team.
RN: (wipes fake happy tears)
RJV: Along with confidence, one must also have keen observation skills. I have noticed during the shooting of Meesaya Murukku (Vignesh's debut film), how Karthik would come to the sets often and just observe. We placed our confidence on UK anna (Cinematographer UK Senthil Kumar of Arunachalam fame). We were sceptical if the rest of the cast and crew would listen to a first-time director, so UK anna took charge. And so, Karthik was able to shoot everything as per plan and that gave him more confidence. After a week, Karthik took over the reins.
We heard that the Black Sheep team did not unanimously choose Rio Raj as the lead.
RJV: Rio himself must have said this (smiles). We are criticised for whatever we do these days. When we chose Rio, some felt that he might remind people of his serial character. But when he got on board, those who were against the idea also agreed that he was a good choice.
KV: The story is about a common man and we needed a fresh face. We chose Rio as he is well known to our mothers and sisters, thanks to his serial background. That's why Vignesh recommended Rio.
Ram, your character stood out in comparison with the other characters in the film.
RJV: Actually Ram felt that he could have pulled off Rio's character.
KV: He would call me privately to tell me that he could have done a particular scene better than Rio.
RN: I never did that (laughs). I don't know why they trusted me with such a strong character. Only two people have done such a role in Tamil cinema, I think.
RJV: After narrating the script to the production team, everyone was actually keen on knowing who would do the Mani character.
RN: And because everyone said this, I was nervous. Every day, I would ask them for feedback and they all encouraged me.
KV: Even UK anna was not convinced before we started shooting and advised me to go with a well-known face. But the moment he shot a scene with him, he laughed out loud. No wonder his YouTube fans call him Reaction Star and Inaya Sethupathi.
RJV: Inaya Sethupathi as of now and Idhaya Sethupathi hereafter.
Just like your YouTube videos, your film too has a message beneath all the humour.
KV: Yes. Irrespective of how much fun we have as a team, we are socially conscious. Just like how, in a Black Sheep video, while you are laughing, you would also understand the message, the film also tries to do the same. That's our identity.
RJV: The last phase of the film is a gripping serious portion with no room for comedy. It will be as intriguing as the rest of the film.
Outside social media, the only known faces in the film are Nanjil Sampath and Radharavi
KV: Nanjil Sampath sir's role is that of a politician and Mirchi Sha anna recommended him. At that point in time, LKG had not happened, so we were not sure if he would act. Despite being sceptical in the beginning, he was happy to join us. After his arrival, we tweaked the dialogues and scenes, according to his style. The film's plot moves because of Radha Ravi sir who plays a rich business magnate. We wrote the story with him in our mind. We had previously met him for our Navayuga Raththa Kanneer stage drama and he has a good impression about our team. He was impressed with his role and got on board.
Since you take pride in being socially conscious, was choosing Radha Ravi, despite all the recent allegations against him, not strange?
KV: I don't know how these allegations affect him career-wise. Moreover, we wrote this script two years back. After seeing him as a character, in like a film like Pisasu, one cannot think of any other actor for the role.
We understand that your next film will be a take on Sherlock?
KV: Yaaru sonna?
RJV: Naan dhaan (laughs). That was actually Karthik's first script but then, we decided to keep that story aside and first do a Sundar C-style film. Karthik's next will also be a commercial film. From the team, Dude Vicky and Kalaiarasan have each completed a script and we have even hired assistant directors for it. We first pick our ADs, get an office and even conduct a success meet. Adhuku apram dhaan producer (laughs).
RN: My next film will be directed by Prabhu Charlee who worked as an associate of Mohan Raja. The film stars Vaibhav and Vani Bhojan. I play Easwari madam's driver, and just like in NNOR, it will be a different character.
RJV: I have got Kalavani 2 coming up. I am still in awe at how Sargunam sir gave me such a huge role. It was supposed to have been released a while back but it is releasing this month; I'm glad that I will have two releases this month. I've also got a film called Kappal with Siddharth.
Now that you are a part of the film industry, will your YouTube videos take a backseat?
KV: There will be no changes there. It's our foundation. We already have 77 people in the team and we plan on being a talent-sourcing hub.
RJV: Every company has a vision and a mission. Ours is to source talents and place them in different aspects of the media field — think of it as the network in Ramana.