Lokesh Kanagaraj: We can achieve anything with a performer like Karthi
Ahead of the release of Kaithi, the director talks about working with stars like Karthi and Vijay (for Thalapathy 64), and how he plans to marry his arthouse sensibilities into commercial cinema
Around two years back, Lokesh Kanagaraj, fresh off the success of Maanagaram, said something interesting. He said offbeat cinema would reach a wider audience if stars chose to collaborate with younger directors. Flash forward, Lokesh has just finished Kaithi with Karthi and is working on Thalapathy 64 with Vijay. Ask him about it, and he laughs. "When I signed Kaithi, first thing Nithilan anna (director of Kurangu Bommai) told me was, 'Vitturaadha maapla'! If people like this, it will open many doors," he says.
Excerpts from a conversation:
Maanagaram, your first film, was a story that happened over 48 hours. Kaithi is a story that happens in the span of a single night. Do you like writing stories that happen in restricted periods?
I can't exactly say that; it is what the story demands. I had earlier worked on two other scripts. But I chose this because this was right up my alley, while those scripts needed more work. I wanted to make a film that is in the same zone as Maanagaram, but in a different genre. And we settled on Kaithi, a complete action film.
Perhaps we can call it your comfort zone?
Maybe (smiles). I guess writing and execution come more naturally to me in such stories. It might sound easy to write a story that unravels over a small duration, but in reality, it is tough. We shoot for 60-61 days to tell a story that happens in six hours. Imagine how precise we need to be about continuity. That is quite a challenge.
You have mentioned that the spark for Kaithi came from a newspaper clip. While one may come across several stories and ideas, what makes an idea worth expanding into a film?
It began as a funny thing. I had seen the report and was just talking about it with my assistants. But by the end of the day, the story had become just a little bigger. When I discussed it with a few more people, I heard them going, 'Nalla irukku la?' That egged me to work on it.
You have shared that you are an admirer of 'intense' films.
Yes, I do like such films. But more than a genre or an idea, it is about what excites you. Whenever I go to shoot or work on a film, the excitement the team and I feel about a project is crucial. We should feel it at every stage -- on paper, during narration, while shooting, and finally, on screen.
Another similarity between Kaithi and Maanagaram, at least from what we have seen is that the universe seems populated with many characters.
Yes, that is another challenge I enjoy. If you take Maanagaram, for example, it is a story that mostly happens over one night. Now, I wouldn't have pondered much on their backstories, but the struggles they face should seem fair to the viewer who should empathise. This will happen only if the writing is potent. I want this to be a part of all my films, including Kaithi. To tell the struggles of many characters in a way that the audience feels it, in two hours and thirty minutes, is a challenge. And as I said, one that I enjoy.
You also seem to enjoy your secrets. In Maanagaram, you never revealed the names of the main characters. In Kaithi, it is said there is a strong influence by a female character but she does not seem to be shown.
I could have chosen to show her but I felt that the project shouldn't just pose a challenge to me, but to everyone involved in the team. For cinematographer Sathyan, it was a task to shoot in forests and give the night a different tone altogether. This challenger extends to actors as well. We know the actor that Karthi sir is; we can achieve anything with him. So when I suggested this, he also loved it, and we decided to go on with this idea.
The last time we saw Karthi playing a villager was in Paruthiveeran. Any apprehensions about comparisons?
We put in a lot of effort to make Dilli (Karthi's character in Kaithi) unique. But the first day when he stepped out in costume, we could not but be reminded of Paruthiveeran (laughs). The film is a classic and they have created something that cannot be unseen. But Dilli will be a new person, a fresh character.
When a star steps in, along come in the burden of expectations. Even Kaithi's script, it is said, was tweaked after Karthi stepped in. Do you look at this as an added responsibility?
It is, for sure, an added responsibility. Avaru idhu varaikkum ivlo pannirukkaaru, avara vechu idhellaam pannalaam nu onnu irukku. But I will stay true to my script. Just because a star has stepped in, I will not add songs or a love story. With Kaithi, it was whacky at the beginning. But it morphed into a solid script at the end. It was SR Prabhu's idea to narrate it to Karthi and he liked it. He just wanted to know what kind of dialogues the character will have. I only had a month left before shooting. So I told him that I would write something for him and that only strengthened the character arc. The female influence that we were talking about? All that needs to be on the paper. Those are the tweaks we did and yes, it is a responsibility.
When a director, known for offbeat cinema (even if based on a single film), collaborates with a star, it usually ends up being a work that neither belongs to the star nor the director. What is your take on this?
Adhu apdi solla mudiyathu. At the end of the day, people come to the theatres to watch their stars. When that star backs good content, fans like it more. I look at it as strength. Fans will appreciate stars more in content-driven projects. More than being a 'star film' or a 'director film', it should end up as a good film (smiles).
Do you think you will be able to return to offbeat cinema after Kaithi and Thalapathy 64, which are big projects in terms of scale?
Why not? The scale you are talking about is the market size. But creatively, the effort I put into a story is the same. So after finishing Kaithi and Thalapathy 64, if I get such an idea, I would definitely do it. In fact, after Maanagaram, I was about to make a short film. But for some reason, it didn't happen. Maanagaram gave me confidence and I wanted to immediately start another project. But when that didn't happen, vettiyaa illaama short film pannalaame nu yosichchen. At the end of the day, passion is what matters.
Here's the video interview: