A journey with Sethupathi
SU Arun Kumar discusses his journey, working with Vijay Sethupathi and about how Sindhubaadh is a travel film more than anything else
The plan was for director Arun Kumar and Vijay Sethupathi to do one film together—Pannaiyarum Padminiyum—before they would both move on to other projects and collaborators. But they didn’t anticipate that it would not do well at the box office. Arun couldn’t comprehend this failure at first. Some attributed this to the release timing; after all, Rummy, with the same lead pair in similar get-ups, had released the week before. “Some others asked me why I removed the Koodamela Koodavechi song from the film,” he says.
But Arun Kumar doesn’t believe all those theories. “You can’t blame the audience. I might have made a mistake somewhere; it is only because of that,” he says, with conviction. All of 25 years old when he made the film, Arun took this humbling rebuke in his stead. He remembers that he was so young that many didn’t believe he was the director. “They would keep asking if I was the director. ‘Full padathukumaa? Illa, AD, associate madhri-a?’ they would ask," he recalls. This mindset changed only after he showed people the rough cut of Pannaiyarum… after ten days of shoot. “They realised it was a different kind of film.” And yet, this film, brimming with rural charm and endearing innocence, did not do well, causing Arun to recognise the importance of commercial viability, and thus was born his second film with Vijay Sethupathi, Sethupathi.
Vijay Sethupathi suggested they do one more film, and this time, Arun Kumar felt the strain of making a commercial film. “In fact, he didn't even know the entire story until he began dubbing for the film. He would act based on the situations we told him. Bayandhu bayandhu panna padam adhu,” he remembers. He wasn’t sure if the film would work, but it did.
The young filmmaker accepts that there is pressure to conform to commercial expectations, but he tries not to let it affect his creative process, or his quest for variety. “Had Pannaiyarum Padminiyum become commercially successful, Sethupathi would not have happened. I would have gone to make other feel-good films,” he says. “After Sethupathi, if I had been able to think of another cop story, I would have gone for it, but it didn't happen. Also, if I had made a sequel, I would have got stuck within a formula. I don't want that.”
He defines his third project, Sindhubaadh, as a travel film—think of it as his version of the original Sindhubaadh. “The Sindhubaadh we know is from Kanni Theevu. If you collate all those bits and pieces cohesively, you can identify his 'thedal'. This film embodies that.” The film began with an image that he remembered from one of his dreams—one that haunted him for days. Subsequently, he came across as a real-life incident, and thus was born this film. There’s a commercial element here too: The quirky love story between a man who has hearing issues and a woman who speaks loudly. “I fixed the thesis for my film, and only then, began working on my characters.”
But no matter what, Arun Kumar won’t have certain elements in his films-- like choreographed songs, bar scenes, dialogues that disrespect women, or even dialogues that refer to a bigger star to get easy applause. All the audience want is an interesting story, he believes. “People, for instance, don’t care how many songs or fights a film has. However, people who come to buy our films still ask these questions.” A film’s budget is also often determined based on answers to such questions. “A film like Pannaiyarum… cannot be made with technicians who demand a certain salary as it cannot make as much. We get told, ‘Indha budget ku indha padathula onume ilaye.’” This is the reason for the growing scale of his films; it is not a barometer of growth, but just a consequence of accounts. He views growth differently. “When I make a film like Kaaka Muttai, that’s real growth.”
After Sethupathi’s success, Vijay Sethupathi and Arun Kumar decided to follow on with their plans to work with others, and Arun began narrating Sindhubaadh to other heroes. “Eleven of them,” he remembers. “Some of them liked it but couldn't do it. Also, it is a big-budget film, and we needed someone with good market pull.” People also asked him why he wanted to come out of a successful combination. As this went on, Sethupathi returned to check on him. “I told him I was still looking for a hero. He said we could work together again, and we ended up launching the film in the next two days.”
Arun Kumar thinks of Vijay Sethupathi as family. He calls Sethupathi’s wife, Anni, and says Surya (Vijay Sethupathi's son) is like his son. “It was my decision to bring Surya on board. I know him for around eight years, right from the age of five.” He had Surya in his mind even when he was writing the script—at a time when he didn’t know Vijay Sethupathi would get on board. ”At first, they thought I wasn’t serious. Anni didn't agree and Suriya himself wasn't sure. But we convinced them.” Surya then apparently became so comfortable that he almost became an AD on the sets. “He is spontaneous and has the ability to act in any film,” he says. Like a certain someone, it is tempting to offer, but let’s wait for this Thursday.