Selvaraghavan: There is always something new to learn in filmmaking
Filmmaker Selvaraghavan discusses his latest directorial effort, Naane Varuvean, and why he believes filmmaking is a craft that perennially keeps teaching something new
Selvaraghavan is notoriously reticent, making the filmmaker’s psyche a tough one to peek into. There is a general seriousness that pervades the room in his presence, although he seems calm and composed. Three days after his latest, Naane Varuvean hit the marquee, as I sat across from him in his house, I cautiously avoided indulging in casual exchange to ensure I could get as much as possible on the record. I kickstart the interview with a question about a rather expansive topic. In the 20th year of his filmmaking, has he made peace with the fact that each of his films are judged by lakhs of people in a few hours. “That’s how it is,” he replies. Does he find the nature of his work stressful though? “Definitely. It is highly stressful, but again, that’s a part of the job.” He reveals that he hasn’t seen the film with the audience yet and plans to catch it soon.
The filmmaker, in fact, adds he finds the D-day scarier now than 20 years ago when Thulluvadho Ilamai got released. “As we accumulate experiences, we grow mentally strong. It is a human thing, and it doesn’t apply only to filmmaking. I was naturally nervous when Thulluvadho Ilamai was released. It was to decide whether I would sustain as a filmmaker or end up roaming on the streets,” he says, as though he were talking about something trivial. “I found myself being even more nervous about Naane Varuvean.”
Naane Varuvean might be his fourth collaboration with his brother and actor Dhanush post the highly memorable, Kaadhal Kondein, Pudhupettai and Mayakkam Enna, but it marks the first for both of them on one front. Selvaraghavan has co-written the film with Dhanush, and the film is based on the latter’s idea. “We collaborated for the first time; two writers working on a film is a unique experience for me,” Selvaraghavan says. Summarising his style of collaborating with Dhanush, he adds, “We tried writing different versions and then picked the best parts from both.”
For the audience who caught the film’s FDFS, collectively realising that the film is a paranormal thriller, a tautly crafted one, was a wonderful surprise in the first half, facilitated by restrained promotions that revealed little about the film. This surprise and the grounded treatment of the genre make the first half of the film a compelling watch. Selvaraghavan, who also explored the supernatural in Nenjam Marapathillai, believes that simplicity is the key to effective horror. “We tried to keep it as simple as possible. In real life, supernatural elements are quite simple. It is not necessarily a ten-headed demon that scares the life out of people; it can just be a normal white cloth hanging afar. We wanted to stick to reality as much as possible.” As Selvaraghavan says, we never see the ‘ghost’ in Naane Varuvean. The film cares more about the fear and emotional trauma the paranormal occurrences instigate in a family.
The conundrums in the film, however, begin to arise in the second half with the introduction of the cold-blooded Kathir (Dhanush), who derives pleasure in mercilessly hunting people. The film’s popular ‘Veera Soora’ picturises Kathir in all his cold-blooded glory, and at one point, we even wonder if the film is celebrating his menace and savagery. The glorification feels more problematic because we see a kid witnessing the violence. Selvaraghavan, however, denies that the whole sequence was shot from the child’s perspective. “The kid is just a part of the scene; we didn’t intend to present the scene from the kid’s vantage point; it is his [Kathir’s] perspective. From the beginning, we establish that the forest is Kathir’s territory; he belongs there and is the son of the forest. So, when we see him hunting, we felt we needed to hear his theme music.”
One of the criticisms that came the film’s way is its refusal to explore the character and their flaws in depth. While we are told that Kathir is a problem child right in the beginning, the root cause is never explored. “If we have to explore the root of everything, we have to conceive a Ben-hur (1959). Especially at this age, the time we have is limited. If we can condense five scenes into one scene, we should. Even if I can convey the story in one shot, I should go for it. If I spend ten to fifteen minutes explaining what pushed Kathir to become what he is, it will affect me in the latter half. That’s how times are.” The filmmaker, however, doesn’t consider the reduced attention span of the audience as a restriction. In fact, he sees it as progress. “If I was a software engineer who insisted on using a decade-old technology, I would be considered outdated. This is how it is now. I have to update myself.”
I ask him to point out one new learning experience from Naane Varuvean and he posits the most poignant response in conversation. “The beauty of filmmaking is that it presents so many things to learn every day. That’s what makes it one of the most beautiful and hard crafts to maneuver. One cannot reach a point where they can confidently say they have mastered it all or a certain percentage of it. Something I did might have worked but the next day when you are on set, you will be wondering how to crack it,” he says, adding that he hasn’t planned his next directorial yet. “I have been begging my wife to take me on a holiday; that’s the only plan I have right now,” Selvaraghavan says, laughing. “I never had any plans. The more you plan, especially in this field, the more probability is for it to backfire. I don’t plan in life either.”