'What if there were a Hitler in Chaplin?'
asks director Eashvar Karthic, as he discusses his debut film, Penguin, starring Keerthy Suresh, and what it means to get a digital release
A 'cinema paithiyam'. That’s how director Eashvar Karthic, whose debut film Penguin is up for a digital release this week, describes himself. “I grew up being transfixed to the screen,” says Eashvar. Amid the stars he grew up watching was his favourite, Jackie Chan. “I couldn’t believe people could make action films like Rumble in the Bronx, or Who Am I,” he gushes with admiration. Young Eashvar was enchanted but didn’t yet know he wanted to be part of the magic--not till he watched Mani Ratnam’s Idhayathai Thirudathe on television. “To create such a tragic yet fresh narrative between two characters had me spell-bound.” That was when he decided to partake in the magic of the cinema universe.
Surprisingly, the first stop on that bus was trying to become an actor. “I quit my cushy bank job to give acting a shot,” he shares. His decision took him to the doors of theatre, where he honed his writing skills as well. “In theatre, I was pushed to write my own material several times. That helped me get a better grasp on emotions.” With the help of the internet, Eashvar began studying the craft of writing more. His six-year journey in the industry also fetched him a few roles (Magalir Mattum, V1) but it wasn’t always the kind he wanted. “I wasn't able to land the kind of roles and characters I wanted. I felt I was knocking on the wrong doors. Thankfully, I then realised my true calling,” he says.
Being an outsider, Eashvar admits that it wasn’t always easy to get opportunities. “For more than two years, nothing truly materialised. I was on the verge of quitting, when my friend Linga (who has also played an important role in Penguin) introduced me to Vijay Sethupathi.” He had narrated a different script to Vijay Sethupathi, who was impressed. “At that point, I had told him about my struggle in the industry. I have no background as well. He asked me if I had any other scripts, and I told him this one-liner of a woman-centric film.” It was Sethupathi who asked him to reach out to Stone Bench Films. "They liked the idea, and things progressed from there.”
It isn’t surprising that Eashvar, who grew up watching Tamil films, quotes one as his inspiration for Penguin. “Faazil's Poovizhi Vaasalile has given me many scary nights. I have always wanted to do a film like that.” The core for Penguin came from a simple thought: What if a normal homemaker were to face an extraordinary situation? “Veetla kaaikari narukaravanga, oru periya killer a face pannaa epdi irukum? I was really excited by that.” This was fleshed out into a much bigger story, and the name Penguin fell in place during that process. “As peaceful as they are, these birds are also some of the most protective mothers on the earth. I felt that this symbol best portrayed this mother.”
Eashvar admits to being a tad apprehensive about approaching Keerthy Suresh, who hasn’t played a mother before. “We had options, but Keerthy was our top pick,” says Eashvar. But the National Award-winning actor immediately agreed. “She is a great listener and has a good knowledge of scripts. I was apprehensive, but she said yes. In fact, I have asked her why she agreed,” he says, laughing.
Penguin’s trailer and teaser hints at a slasher flick, and our films have traditionally featured women protagonists in such slasher flicks. Eashvar assures it isn’t the case here. “This film is an emotional thriller. The core is about a mother's emotions, not thriller elements. It is a balance of both. I wanted to stay true to my characters and genre, and let my monster be a monster.” He also justifies the other trope in the film, a hill-station setting, with a similar reason. “I could have never made this story in a city. The locations are also characters here -- the forest, the lake, the water bodies. The story revolves around these, and this location became mandatory for my story. Most of our stories in Tamil start with 'Oru oorla oru raja'. The English equivalent of that is, 'In the deep woods'. This is something like that,” he says.
The masked villain in the trailer is another talking point, with the mask being likened to Charlie Chaplin. “Personally, I often get confused between Chaplin and Hitler. If both their photos looked solemn, they seem the same to me.” It is this quandary that Eashvar wanted to explore. “There could have been a Charlie in Hitler and a Hitler in Charlie. It is a recurring thought of mine and I wanted to use that. If you look at Charlie's mask here, there is no smile. It is neutral, so I didn't give a name to it,” he explains.
Traditionally, thrillers are well-suited for the theatre experience: The silence, darkness, and the gloomy soundscape. Eashvar admits to feeling a tinge of regret on missing a theatre release, but believes it is a blessing in disguise. "Streaming platforms will bring good creators to the forefront. With theatres, one doesn't have the option of taking a break. But here, the audience will stay only if they find the content interesting.”
The director also reveals that work on the music began only after the decision to have a digital release was made. “I felt that Santhosh sir would get a better idea of the soundscape if we showed the visuals to him. Thanks to the lockdown, we had to work through conference calls and video calls. Nevertheless, Santhosh sir’s music has elevated the film.”
Despite having a film ready for release, Eashvar very much believes he is an outsider in Tamil cinema. “I am new here and don’t know too many people.” He has three-four scripts ready in hand, some of which were written during the lockdown, he says. “I hope Penguin turns out to be the visiting card I need."