'I was quite surprised to see the reaction for Kaithi in the theatres'
Writer Pon Parthiban talks about working with Lokesh Kanagaraj in Kaithi and what it takes to be a screenwriter in the industry
Writer Pon Parthiban was roped in for Kaithi after Karthi was signed to play the lead. Originally conceived with Mansoor Ali Khan in mind, director Lokesh Kanagaraj decided to get the help of a more experienced writer when Karthi stepped in. “It was Karthi sir who recommended my name to Lokesh. He had liked my work in Kaatrin Mozhi,” says Parthiban, whose dialogues in Kaithi has been much appreciated. The writer is eager to point out that it is a collaborative journey. “You know that story they say about making a doll? 'Kannu oruthan vechan, dress oruthan thechan. Uyir oruthan kuduthan.' If you ask who the doll belongs to, what can you say?” he asks. He adds with a laugh that now he doesn’t even remember which line came from whom. “It doesn’t matter. The credit ultimately goes to the director, because even if I write it, he is the one who chooses to retain it.”
Parthiban began his cinematic journey as an assistant director to Hari, with aspirations of becoming a filmmaker himself. “I don’t know anything else other than cinema. Director Saran is my uncle, so I had exposure to filmmaking from a young age.” This experience, he says, is what enables Parthiban to understand the cinematic requirements of directors. “After ten scenes or so, I begin to hear the heartbeat of each character. Those initial scenes might be difficult, but my vision and the director's vision eventually find common ground.”
But no matter how frequently you collaborate with a filmmaker, Parthiban says the style changes with each project. “While Radhamohan might have wanted humour for his earlier film, you can't even think of it in his current film. You understand their sensibilities, but we create new things with each project.” The idea, he says, is to have references, not inspirations. “We call it alavu jacket,” says Parthiban with a chuckle. “At times, when we can't comprehend the progression, we ask for an alavu jacket.”
Kamal Haasan’s Virumaandi, one could say, was one such ‘alavu jacket’ for Kaithi's Dilli. Lokesh had earlier admitted that the character was one of the inspirations for Dilli. Compare the scenes where both characters talk about their wives, and you can sense the spiritual connection they share. “The dialogue in Virumaandi is even more beautiful,” admits Parthiban. “One of the biggest similarities we shared was that we believed there was a Tamizh cinema, and there was a Kamal cinema. We watched Guna, Thevar Magan, and Kuruthipunal in theatres, and those films pushed us closer to cinema. Andha padangal paththi silagichu pesiye indha edathuku vandhutomo nu thonum.” That's why it was easy for Parthiban to get into the psyche of the character when Lokesh gave him the Kamal film reference.
For Kaithi, Parthiban admits that they didn’t have much time. On reading the 45-page explainer that Lokesh had, he understood the mood that the director was aiming for. “I usually give multiple options for the director to choose from. After all, you can’t ration what the scene demands. The director picks what appeals the most to him.” There’s a lot of back and forth that goes behind making the final choice. He says that sometimes, it came as a surprise even to himself. He cites the scene where George Maryan asks the students, ‘Engineering padichuma ipdi kudichitu sutharinga”, to get the reply “Adhunala than ipdi sutharom.’ “I had written in length for that scene but Lokesh used what was necessary. I was quite surprised to see the reaction in the theatres.”
One of the much raved about aspects of the film is its understated humour, mostly delivered through witty dialogues. "It depends on the character sketches and their purposes. If they don't belong, it will seem forced." Most of his work is aimed at being organic. The more dialogues seem like conversations, the better they are, he says. “It was announced that Thalaivar and Thala's film will release on the same day, on the day I was writing that scene. These are small things that make the film feel fresh.”
Parthiban also includes visual cues as he writes, describing how a character moves and behaves. “In the first scene of Irumbuthirai, we know that the man is contemplating suicide. But his wife doesn’t. She asks him if he wants to eat and goes to make chutney. I had included a blender running in the background, as an indication of the characters’ mental state. Mithran chose to keep it.” The attempt to create a shared experience is where writing for cinema becomes different, says Parthiban. "There's a unique grammar to screenwriting. Reading a novel is a personal experience, while cinema is a shared one. You have to make the entire gathering laugh or cry, or else, the moment gets lost."
It doesn’t bother him that some of his ideas don’t make it to the final version. “The director is the boss. Just like an actor shoots several takes till the director is satisfied, we give him many options. An actor can't ask why a certain take was canned, can he?” he says. “Endhu undhu apdingardhu mind la irukaadhu. I only keep checking if it flows right.” However, Parthiban is conscious of not going overboard with this never-ending process of ‘merugetheradhu’. “I remember what Na Muthukumar once said. He rewrites his songs a few times. And if you ask for tweaks after the song has come well, he would say "romba konji kozhandhaya kondrathinga." That has stayed through the years,” he says.
Unlike in other languages where employing writers is common, Tamil cinema has long taken pride in the writer-director tag. Given the many responsibilities of a director, Parthiban looks at his role as someone who shares the workload. “An extra brain is always an asset. Even when I direct in the future, I would like to have a separate writer.” He observes that had writers like Bhagyaraj and Visu hadn’t stepped into direction, it would have been a different story for writers in Tamil cinema. “The common credit back then was story-dialogue-direction. One could say that the word screenplay got a lot of attention after Bhagyaraj sir. Visu sir, who made Samsaram Adhu Minsaram, also wrote the screenplay for Nallavanuku Nallavan. This is the talent of a writer. And it is something that we have missed tapping into in the past few years.”
But he believes this trend is changing. He says directors, increasingly of the younger generation, are now opting to use writers. Parthiban has worked on Mithran’s Hero and is working on Lokesh’s upcoming film, Thalapathy 64, where he shares writing credits with Lokesh and Rathnakumar. “Only when we delve deeper do we realise what a mass phenomenon Vijay sir is. It is a proud moment but also a huge responsibility. Like what Spiderman says.”