From Pizza to Mercury: The several faces of Karthik Subbaraj

“You have an unusual talent for cinema” says director Prathap Pothen looking at a younger Karthik Subbaraj — this was the before the finals of the reality show for short-filmmakers, Nalaya Iyakunar. One of the judges critiquing Karthik’s work for the show, Prathap was backed by the other judge – cartoonist, film critic and writer Madhan. “Very confident and consistent,” he calls Karthik. Better words couldn’t have been used to describe Karthik — for he is consistent with interesting films and confident enough to make them without many compromises.

In the same video, we get a glimpse of his short-filmmaking team which has Alphonse Putharen, Manikandan, Bobby Simhaa and Vijay Sethupathi. All stars in their own right now, Karthik was the first to take the leap to the big screen from that set of filmmakers. His debut film Pizza, which also turned out be a good break for Vijay Sethupathi, was a commercial success. A horror/heist film, Pizza’s success was not in the horror. The film didn’t scare the daylights out of us, but we were engaged and were also presented with an intriguing surprise — the first big-screen manifestation of his skill to skirt around genres intelligently. These are not story arcs that you would encounter normally. A pizza boy who is used to deliver an illegal consignment? A gangster who wants to act in a film and a filmmaker who turns to violence? A filmmaker who chooses to steal idols to tide over his financial crunch? It is easy to dismiss them when they are robbed out of their context — because that is what Karthik’s films are about. The context of how his leads triumph over their ‘limitations’ if you can call them so. Pizza was about a scaredy-cat enacting a convincing horror tale; in his own words ‘he knows how to scare other people the best’. Jigarthanda was the story of a gangster who was repulsed by people laughing at him, making his peace with laughter, seeing it as joy and not ridicule. Iraivi was about women freeing themselves of the emotional baggage that their men gave them. He gives us complicated, layered characters in, not neat, but intricately embellished packages.

In an old interview with The Hindu, Karthik admits to not choosing to stick to particular style. “I haven’t yet found out. I don’t want the film to say it is a Karthik Subbaraj film because anyway, they will come to know when they see my name in the credits. I am not fixed about anything. I start writing with an open mind without thinking about genre and realise only after writing, that it falls under many genres,” he said. But we recognise Karthik in his creatively inclined characters (Ramya is a writer in Pizza, both Iraivi and Jigarthanda had filmmaker leads, Pooja Devariya plays an artist in Iraivi), his dark humour and the social commentary that comes with it (“I cover politics and Eelam,” says Sidharth’s reporter uncle and pat comes the reply, “Both are the same”.), in his fleshed out characters and his visual and aural filmmaking.

All this makes Mercury his most genre-merging film yet. We have a film with a core that stems from a social issue, but the film won’t be ‘talking about it’. As someone who enjoys his writing, a no-dialogue film from Karthik Subbaraj is a thing of curiosity in itself. Love his films or hate them, but you can’t deny that they are always interesting. And, that is the mark of a confident, consistent filmmaker with an unusual eye for cinema.

This was first originally published on You can find it here.

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