Nithilan Swaminathan speaks fast but it is with innate coherence — just like his film Kurangu Bommai. The debutante filmmaker who has wowed critics and the audience with his first film starring ace director Bharathiraja, Vidharth, Elango Kumaravel and Delma Davis chats with indianexpress.com about his entry, Kurangu Bommai and the kind of films he would like to make.
We don’t know much about Nithilan before Nalaya Iyakkunar. When did you first aspire to make films?
I have always liked watching movies but can’t really identify a moment when I decided. Back then, there was this notion that only the rich could enter the cinema industry. I am from a small village. I didn’t have a proper mentor. In fact, I had wanted to get into the military as my relatives had gotten into the same. But, I used to write poetry at school. Maybe it was due to these habits, I leaned towards filmmaking. At the beginning, I started learning about cinema by watching Kamal (Haasan) sir’s films and his interviews. In Chennai, I discovered that I could study about cinema and that there are diploma courses for the same. I couldn’t get a seat so I ended up studying Visual Communication.
How did your short films experience aid you in creating a film for the silver screen?
I discovered what I could do and what I couldn’t by making short films. It taught me how to deliver content and also handle practical things on set. I got my basics from my Visual communication course, but short films proved to be a major learning curve. We could see within ten days whether an idea worked or not. We get an idea, we complete shoot in 3 days, post-production happens for two days and we get to see the output. It taught me a lot about myself.
How did Kurangu Bommai come about?
Kurangu Bommai is a very simple story. If you look at its one liner, you could say it’s a story from the era of MGR-Shivaji era. What I wanted to do is to be true to the content I take; infuse things from our normal way of life on the screen without disturbing the story. One of my first short films, Puthir had this idea of a ‘play’ in its story. The basic concept is from one of our school exercises — ‘match the following’. We correlate the wrong answers at the start, only to figure out the right ones at the end. The main story thread is however from the newspapers. If you read the papers today, you can find a similar news story.
One of the most appreciated things in Kurangu Bommai was the ambient details that were incorporated — like the broken clock that Ganja Karuppu uses. While they aren’t necessary, they add a lot of flavour to the character. Tell us about those.
As I said earlier, I love to infuse interesting things from our ordinary way of life into my stories. There will be lot more in my next films. We can’t say everything in one movie. The main concern is that it shouldn’t be obtrusive to the main story. If you see the movie again, you’ll discover a lot more details. And you’ll discover new things each time you watch the movie. I first saw the clock and the carrying the number plate idea from videos on Facebook. I found it interesting and added it as a small part in my script.
Let’s talk about the consistency in Kurangu Bommai’s characters. For instance Elango Kumaravel’s love for cricket is constant throughout the movie and percolates to other things he does.
There are two ways to make a film. First, a story is written or a real life instance is chosen and the movie is made. Second, to first write a character and develop a story around it. If you see in a few of Scorcese’s movies, there will be a limitation to the character and situations are created out of the character’s attributes. This is a reflection of that. I decided that he likes and plays cricket, so those aspects kept coming along while his core character doesn’t change.
However, it wasn’t the characters that I decided first. Kurangu Bommai’s crux is how it’s people react when they meet with difficult situations. Does he stay in the white or cross over to the other side? Every character has a need. When there is a need and he encounters a situation that can satisfy that need, does he still stay righteous? This struggle is there in every character of Kurangu Bommai. Ekambaram is a rowdy but he tries to rescue a friend in trouble. Vidharth is supposedly a good guy who runs after pickpockets, but at the end he cuts off the arms and limbs of the villain. The point is no one is always a textbook good individual. They are all on the run to satisfy a need, including Bharathiraja sir’s character. He could have easily refused to smuggle that idol, but he didn’t owing to friendship. So this struggle was the initial point. Then came the narration style from Puthir, together forming Kurangu Bommai’s script.
The film just runs about 106 mins. Was it planned? Were there any doubts about the short running time?
The first edit was around 2 hours. Then we cut a few portions before Censors. Subsequently, we edited with music and further trimmed it down. Thus, it wasn’t planned. But for a story like this, it will become tiring if it is too long. Nevertheless, it’s the director’s flair. A director can make a movie for 5 hours and still keep the audience engaged. But I felt this was enough.
Both Bharathiraja and Elango Kumaravel are in avatars we haven’t seen them in before. How did you decide upon casting them?
The faces we see with actors on screen are just a part of the entire skill set. It is the director’s responsibility to use them. For example, how would it be if Rajini sir does a movie like Cyclist; How would have Kurangu Bommai been if Rajini sir had acted in it? When you think along such lines, you get a different dimension. It was one such thought trail that led me to Bharathiraja sir. I didn’t have anyone in mind while writing the story. But after a few scenes, I was sure that he should do it. The other example Kumaravel is one of the 5-6 people I wished to cast myself. Uthiri Pookal Vijayan, Elango Kumaravel, Radharavi sir, Aadukalam Kishore, Aaranya Kaandam Soma Sundaram, the late Alva Vasu are some such artistes. Even in my forthcoming movies, I will continue to showcase actors in a different light.
What kind of movies would you like to direct in future?
A love story with some drama, maybe. But nothing has been finalised yet. Talks are on. I’ve been approached by many people but it is an important decision considering it is my second movie.