Thiagarajan Kumararaja is back after a gap of eight years with his second film
Super Deluxe stars Vijay Sethupathi, Fahadh Faasil, Samantha Akkineni and Ramya Krishnan
Thiagarajan Kumararaja is constantly in a state of waiting. Ask him about recent Tamil films, and he claims he hasn’t caught up. “Mostly, I am waiting," he says. “Got to finish the edit, I am waiting. Dubbing must get over, I am waiting. Waiting for shoot. Waiting for the set. When you are waiting, your mind isn’t relaxed enough to watch a film." Of course, he manages to watch a film or two in between, but he will be in that space only when the work on his sophomore film—Super Deluxe—is done.
Super Deluxe—its trailer betrays nothing except that it is a return to a neo-noir setting—comes eight years after his debut film, Aaranya Kaandam, hit the screens. While the 2011 film didn’t score big at the box office, it developed a cult status of its own. The new film also has big names in the writing department—along with Thiagarajan, there are Nalan Kumarasamy (Soodhu Kavvum), Mysskin (Pisaasu, Yuddham Sei) and Neelan K. Sekar (Alibhabha).
Will he have time when his much-anticipated film hits screens this week? He says it will take longer. He is also a producer, there are collections, there are answers to be given. Relief will be in sight only in May.
Thiagarajan is practically anonymous on Twitter. He doesn’t remember why he called his handle “itisthatis". His name is written in small letters, almost as an afterthought, his account is unverified and he follows an assortment of fans, parody accounts, meme creators and erstwhile bloggers. He says he is more of an observer.
A 2016 interview in The Hindu claimed that the director of Aaranya Kaandam travels on a bike. Thiagarajan arrived for this interview on his two-wheeler. “I like to be in that space, the same middle-class man. Otherwise, you become completely detached from reality," he says. He thinks stars pay a huge price when they lose their privacy and it tends to affect their perception. “Not to belittle them," he clarifies. It reminds him of Sunset Boulevard (before remembering the title, he prefixes it with “our man’s film", in a reference to Billy Wilder). He is sympathetic to Norma Desmond—the faded silent movie star in Wilder’s film, who is deluded into believing in her current-day relevance—and describes those circumstances as dangerous.
So, has he consciously avoided this? He laughs, “I am not that famous for it to require any effort!"
His neo-noir gangster film Aaranya Kaandam is one of Tamil cinema’s most cherished films in recent times, a treasured keepsake in modern Indian cinephilia. His new film boasts of a galaxy of stars from the south—Vijay Sethupathi, Fahadh Faasil, Samantha Akkineni and Ramya Krishnan. The hype is real. But, he says, “I think a small bunch of us think there is hype." He feels it is an echo chamber. Like only a handful of us watched Aaranya Kaandam? He agrees: “Yes, exactly! It’s true. I believe we can count the number of people who have watched Aaranya Kaandam. The same bunch of us."
How does he picture that relief in May? What will be different from the immediate period post-Aaranya Kaandam? He is confident. “The film will do well," he says. “But I don’t think it will demand a change in my lifestyle or anything like that."
Would he have traded Aaranya Kaandam’s cult following for a box-office hit? “I’ve never thought about it. We all make films to be hits. It would have been a nice thing. The producer would have got his money. There wouldn’t have been a bad name."
Some shots in Super Deluxe remind you of the 2011 film. The images of high electric poles from a moving car, for instance. Even the colours seem like a throwback. Thiagarajan agrees; parts of both were films were shot in Ennore, north Chennai. Do they share a universe? A character from Oram Po (2007), Thiagarajan’s first attempt at cinema as dialogue writer, makes a fleeting appearance in Aaranya Kaandam.
He feels this is the bane of having directed just one film before. If there were 10 films in his oeuvre, these talking points wouldn’t come up. “But there is only one film for reference, so people keep returning to it. It’s too early in the career to talk about themes or shared universes."
Thiagarajan says Super Deluxe was the title he wanted. What about the title announced during the early stages of filming, “Aneethi Kathaigal (Unjust Tales)"? “I originally wanted the title to be ‘Non-Fables’. I thought, let me be grammatically incorrect or invent a word." But he wasn’t keen on “tales" and “fables" because they come with predefined notions. He wanted something as innocuous and unglamorous as “Ramesh-Suresh". The audience, he believes, shouldn’t assume the film is an anthology. That’s why, even though three other directors have written portions of Super Deluxe, he won’t tell you who has written which part.
Asked if Netflix and OTT platforms are a boon for film-makers like him, he says he will always make films for the big screen. Not for scale but for community. Thiagarajan is steeped in the Tamil way of consuming cinema. “If you laugh with even 10 other people, it is more satisfying, it feels better." He loves the distinct southern charm associated with film-watching, the hoots and comments that accompany a bad moment. In the early 1980s, he saw three women in a theatre go into a trance during a devotional film.
“This is a film that will evoke immediate reactions, best watched with a crowd." He does accept that the 1980s are a big influence on him. His favourites are from the dramatic myth and folk-tale genres—Sivakavi, Bhoologa Rambai or Aayiram Thalai Vaangi Apoorva Chinthamani. “Born in the mid-1970s, we came of age at a time when Doordarshan became prominent. Whatever they showed, we absorbed like a sponge."
“I am so happy with the actors I got for this film. I didn’t expect Vijay Sethupathi would happen. Once Vijay agreed, I knew Fahadh will be in. Samantha was a surprise." About casting a cisgender man in a trans woman role, especially following films like Peranbu and Aruvi, which have had trans women cast in trans women roles, Thiagarajan says: “I don’t know, I didn’t expect this debate would come up. It’s all just part of cinema, I thought, that was my understanding."
What about the festival aspirations he had for Super Deluxe? “We seek festivals for two reasons—either to create buzz because it is a small film or to find unexplored markets outside India. Maybe it will find an audience in the Czech Republic or Poland. I had that idea but after four years of making, if I ask for a festival run before theatrical release, I’ll be damned! Ultimately, we don’t need it. We make films with Ajith and Vijay. The film is our festival, an event."
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