[T]hiagarajan Kumararaja’s Aaranya Kaandam is not another gangster film coming from the south, it is a tour de force of cinema. With the perfect mix of style and substance, the debutant director has gone on to create an indigenous and rooted film of the neo-noir genre, which has a universal appeal.
Aaranya Kaandam won the Grand Jury award for Best Film at the South Asian International Film Festival in 2010 and garnered much critical acclaim after its worldwide release in June 2011. Kumararaja talks about the film in a telephone interview with Nandita Dutta:
Tell us about your background.
I enrolled for the Visual Communications Course in Loyola College, Chennai for my undergrad, but I dropped out halfway through. Then I worked as a freelance photographer for newspapers. Later I did a couple of ad-films. I wrote dialogues for the Tamil film Oram Po.
How did it occur to you to make your feature film debut with a neo-noir film?
My original idea was not to make a neo-noir film. I wanted to make a racy film with multiple storylines. And climax is the raciest gripping part of a film. So I felt one climax was not going to be good enough, and I went for three climaxes.
Subbu is the only female character who is caught up in a situation; beaten by the don and hit upon by several men. What happens when she tries to escape would form one climax.
Pashupathy is the don’s aide who is climbing up the ladder. When he has issues with the don, what happens to him? Will he be killed or will he become something would form the other climax.
The third was of Kaalaiyan and Kodukkapuli ; they are the village rich who have lost their wealth. Their future and the fate of their family depends on one rooster fight. What will happen to them would form another climax of the film.
Singa Perumal was once a powerful don whose power is now fading. His dysfunctional libido depicts the beginning of an end. And Singa Perumal is the thread which connects all three stories.
The fulcrum of the film exists outside these stories: it is the drug deal that involves the gangster brothers Gajendran and Gajapathy.
Aaranya Kaandam being your debut, was it difficult to get producers on board?
S.P.B. Charan was the second producer I approached. I narrated the story to him and he agreed instantly. The only conflict we had was regarding the choice of music director for the film. Once he agreed with me, I went ahead with him.
I went to many other producers, but something or the other didn’t seem to work. One wanted the rights to the script, another wanted me to include a comedy track in the film. Someone else wanted to cast certain actors; the regular problems that one faces with producers.
Where have you located the film? One doesn’t get a sense of the city while watching it.
The film has been shot in Chennai. But I have consciously avoided reference to any specific location, specific time and any identity of class or creed. This was my way of making it timeless and universal.
We had approached many actors in the South who would fit the role. But they were not ready to play a character who would get killed by a smaller actor, and would be portrayed as impotent. Some of them wanted a song number for themselves. So I decided to try someone from the Hindi film industry and called up Jackie Shroff. He agreed to play Perumal at once and said that people were going to laugh at his expense on seeing the film.
When you were making Aaranya Kaandam, did you believe Tamil film industry would be open to such experimentation?
Honestly, I didn’t think about anything. I thought I will just make the film the way I want.
The background score of the film is outstanding! What specifications did you have in mind?
We originally wanted to compose the background score of the film in western classical. We wanted to have a live orchestra for the music and planned to record it in Budapest. But due to budget constraints, we had to forgo the idea. Aaranya Kaandam was a gritty, grimy and raw-looking film. I asked Yuvan Shankar Raja to compose a background score that would balance it out and bring sophistication and relief to the film. The film doesn’t have any playful moments, so I wanted the music to be playful.
Which filmmakers inspire you?
I am a sucker for moving images. All good works inspire me. My biggest inspiration is Illaiyaraaja’s music; I have grown up listening to it. The speed at which my characters walk and talk is inspired by his music, the highs and lows of it. There were times when I took many retakes of a shot while the others thought it had gone perfectly well; because I felt they didn’t hit the right note, the right tempo.
So, what do you like in contemporary Indian cinema?
To be honest, I don’t particularly follow contemporary Indian films. I haven’t seen much of world cinema either. Most of the times, all I do is walk around the city. But Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, Korean director Park Chan Wook, Japanese directors Akira Kurosawa and Takashi Miike; and Tarantino , Anderson, Scorsese from Hollywood impress me big time.
Which is your favourite genre—gangster films or film-noir?
Regardless of the genre of the film I like whatever is exciting.
Is there any possibility of Aaranya Kaandam being remade in Hindi?
Yeah talks are on, though nothing has been confirmed yet.
Will you direct it?
Yes, If all goes well, I would certainly direct the Hindi remake.
What are you working on now?
Thinking of another story.
Is that going to be a gangster film too?