'The response to Karnan comes as a huge validation for my acting'
...says cinematographer-actor Natarajan Subramaniam as he talks about working in Karnan, his role as Kannabiran, balancing his two careers, and more
Tamil Cinema has had its share of iconic villains cutting across various shades of villainy. Some are despicable, some are depraved, some are dastardly, and some are simply diabolical. Once in a while, a character generates such a repugnant response that then gets transferred to the actor who portrayed the role. Cinematographer-actor Natarajan Subramaniam aka Natty experienced this after playing the ruthless cop Kannabiran in Mari Selvaraj-Dhanush’s Karnan. “I have had people call me and ask why I beat up people. I was forced to say, 'Dhanush sir kills me in the climax, but see, now I’m talking to you,'" says Natty with a hearty laugh, adding that such calls and messages are reflections of the impact Mari Selvaraj has created with this film. “As an actor, this validation is a big award.”
Although he plays the primary antagonist of Karnan, Natty doesn’t really see Kannabiran as an out-and-out villain, and feels that the outburst of violence was a reactionary thing. “Kannabiran starts off as someone who genuinely feels for the people wanting a bus. It is only the culmination of his perceived humiliation in the village that turns him into this vicious person. They threaten to break the police car; they lie to him. These conflicts bring the 'police attitude' out of him,” argues Natty, pointing out that in Mari’s writing everyone’s actions have a justification. “In this film, everyone has a heart and a want. When that desire is unfulfilled, the reaction changes. It is important to understand where each character comes from.” But doesn't this seem like a justification of custodial violence? If Natty’s character in his breakout film, Sathuranga Vettai, was at the receiving end of this violence, his Kannabiran in Karnan metes it out. “As a layman, I only know so much. Here, the aggression is a result of disrespect. Police have their own approach. Mari Selvaraj has simply presented what’s happening in our society. Also, police are generally seen as heroes by people. When I wore the khaki for the first time, I developed a sense of pride. I believed I was the saviour, and a friend of sorts.”
Karnan marked Natty’s second collaboration with Dhanush, the first being as the cinematographer of the latter’s Hindi debut, Raanjhanaa (2013). Natty remembers being awed by the actor's talent even back then. “I assumed that Dhanush would take multiple rehearsals and takes to nail that UP dialect. I was mentally prepared to adjust the lighting slowly. But, after just one rehearsal, Dhanush aced it in the very first take. I had to up my game as a cinematographer to keep up with his skills!” And now, when co-starring with Dhanush in Karnan, Natty recollects the immense support extended by the two-time National Award winner. “My first scene in Karnan was with Dhanush sir. I was a bit apprehensive but he injected confidence in me. Supporting a co-star and guiding them is something he excels at.”
An acclaimed cinematographer, Natty reveals he is an accidental actor whose performances are shaped by his experiences behind the camera and the kind of stars he captures through his lens. But interestingly, Natty, the cinematographer, has always worked on big-ticket films, while as an actor he is invariably seen in comparatively 'smaller' films. “Even Rajinikanth started off his career by opening a rusty gate in 1975. When he did a Sivaji, it was the culmination of a 30-year-old career. Stars like Ajith and Vijay too shaped their careers one film at a time,” says Natty, adding, “Sathuranga Vettai and Muthukku Mutthaaga might have been small films, but look at their reach. If I had started my career with a 20-crore project, the audience would laugh at me. But now, from my humble beginnings in Milaga, I have reached a place where I’m acting with someone like Dhanush sir. Isn’t that a decent career graph?”
Natty, who is set to play the lead in a couple of upcoming films, recently finishing working on a web film that is headlined by him. He feels the development of various mediums for the consumption of cinema was bound to happen. “It is a progression of science, and all we can do is take it as it comes. Why think so much about the medium?” asks the actor, who is also returning to cinematography after a forced break courtesy the pandemic. “I made Chal Mohan Ranga in 2019, and in 2020-2021, we know what happened. There is a big Hindi project coming up. The thing is I take up DoP duties only when the film ticks a few boxes. It has to be a script I know I can contribute to. It has to be backed by a production house that ensures I get the necessary equipment,” reveals Natty.
He is equally picky in his choice of acting assignments. And instead of being bent on only playing the lead, he accepts solid supporting roles like the ones in Karnan and Namma Veettu Pillai. “I have seen some of the biggest Indian superstars do such roles. Salman Khan walks in during the climax of Shah Rukh Khan’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Actors like Ajay Devgn, Sanjay Dutt, Saif Ali Khan do such roles too. They don’t have an ego. I want to be an actor like that. The audience should know that when I come on screen, there must be a reason for it. They must believe that my presence is going to change things up. There must be a wow factor… a surprise element. This curiosity in every role is what drives me,” signs off Natty.