Two-film old director Krishna Marimuthu is thanking his stars to have been part of a remake like Dharala Prabhu (Vicky Donor being the original) where the producers have trusted his creative vision unflinchingly. The unanimous reaction to the film has proved that the makers weren’t wrong about entrusting the reins of an edgy subject in the hands of a young, vibrant team that has delivered what it promised. Though the film’s successful theatrical run was brutally cut short due to the lockdown, Dharala Prabhu has only brought more smiles to the people associated with the film. Here, the filmmaker in a no-holds-barred conversation with LetsOTT.com opens up on his craft and the making of Dharala Prabhu...
The decision to pay a tribute to Shoojit Sircar with the note in the first frame of Dharala Prabhu was heartwarming. It’s rare and first-of-its-kind for the director of a remake to pay an ode to the original maker…
I did this movie only because it was a remake of a Shoojit Sircar film. Since its inception, his name was a key inspiration and I thought it was important to pay homage to him in the very first frame. I approached this project as an opportunity to retell his story. I have been a very big fan of his ever since he made Piku. While I truly loved Vicky Donor, it was Piku that made me stand up and take notice of his craft.
What made you choose a dark revenge-drama like Yuddham Sharanam for a debut?
I connected a lot with the script. Though it wasn’t my story and it had come to me through someone else, I liked the lead characters connect to his family and how normal his life was. There was a boy-next-door relatability to it, which made me resonate with the character, eventually prompting me to take it up.
The key difference between Yuddham Sharanam and Dharala Prabhu (beyond the poles-apart stories) was your ease with the establishment of the backdrop. Dharala Prabhu felt so rooted in its Chennai setting, but it wasn't the same with the former...
Madras is home for me and it has been 28 years – I know every nook and corner here. The comparison is slightly unfair. Yes, it was a little outlandish for me when I did a Telugu film. I had a lot of help in setting the backdrop though. The kind of staging that we went for in Yuddham Sharanam was more dramatic too. If you had noticed the antagonist’s world, we chose red backlights and didn’t go for a realistic tone. It may have been the reason for a viewer to feel alienated. Yet, it was a creative call that I and my DOP had agreed upon, being big-time video game fans. It was a nice platform for us to try out what all we wanted to do.
Dharala Prabhu had an organic quality to it and was fairly mature in its approach than Vicky Donor…
The producers had given me this opportunity to remake Vicky Donor at a time when I was pitching one of my original stories to them. I had told them that I needed some time to get back on it because it was a film that released 7 years before. I knew the story had to be revisited and not merely be remade. I was sure that the second hour of the film needed a different approach to work in the South. Vicky Donor came out as a breezy, indie film when it had released and it got accolades much later. Dharala Prabhu was staged like a mainstream film.
Krish and A L Vijay have been extremely versatile directors who’ve handled a gamut of genres within a short span of their careers. What was your experience working under them and how did they influence your filmmaking sensibilities?
Krish and A L Vijay have been major influences for me as a filmmaker creatively but our approach to choosing stories is different. From Krish, I had learnt the power of writing and how to tap one person’s emotions – his form might be very different from mine, but our origins are similar. I started working with him in Vaanam and had a great revelation in writing characters with him. Krish and I were more friends than a director and an assistant director and the work culture was rather informal. He felt I had to learn the ropes of filmmaking from a taskmaster and that’s when he had introduced me to A L Vijay.
A L Vijay was a person who wouldn’t waste even a second on set and made the most of a shooting day. When we shot Thalaivaa in Mumbai, the technicians were spellbound – they weren’t used to seeing the director being the most active person on the set. He respects people’s time a lot. Even on a day when it’s raining and the actor can’t make it to a set, he uses it to shoot something – it’s his perseverance I tried to imbibe. I had worked with him on two films completely – right from the day the project was completed to its final shot. As a filmmaker, he is very good at capturing emotions and inter-personal relationships.
A reviewer had pointed out that Dharala Prabhu was a film about sperm donation that you can take your family to. Was it tough to handle an edgy subject within the family-entertainer space and still not sanitise it?
It was not a worry but we didn’t want to make it on a level where we diluted the essence either. At some point, we had to tell that sperm donation was not a big deal. There were two ways to approach the sperm donor angle – we could refer to it over and over again and not make a fuss about it. The other way was to explain its meaning, offer a basic idea of what the characters were talking about. ‘Don’t look at it as a sperm but as a life-giver’ was what we had wanted to suggest. The reason we had given it a connotation like ‘uyir’ was to clear the air, the social stigma and the dirtiness with which one tends to associate it with. We tried to suggest it wasn’t dirty after all. We had deliberately avoided the use of its Tamil translation ‘vindhu’.
Dharala Prabhu underwent a major narrative change in the latter half with the adoption angle where the revelation about the protagonist’s past (as a sperm donor) to his wife was rather underplayed. As a writer, did the drift from a formula that worked exceedingly well in the original seem a risk at any point of time?
It was a risk but even if it wasn’t for the adoption angle, I was sure that the second half (of Vicky Donor) it needed some tweaking to work in the South. The stakes had to be higher in the second half and we knew it needed something vigorous in the third act, i.e. an additional layer to strike a chord in our brand of cinema. In filmmaking terms, we refer to the term ‘plot coupon’ – you introduce it in the first hour and can bring it back later in the narrative. The sperm donation goes on smoothly until he loves Nidhi and wants to marry her. He wants to wrap up everything before the marriage. In Vicky Donor, the revelation comes when the man isn’t ready to take a fertility test. I thought it would be interesting to bring a burden from the past-life of the protagonist as a conflict.
I felt the fertility test alone couldn’t have been enough in the remake. The adoption angle (and the fact that the adopted daughter was a daughter to the protagonist) made the job tougher for the character to reveal his past. All said and done, the expectations from an original Hindi film and a remake in Tamil are completely different. When Vicky Donor released, the awareness on infertility clinics, IVF and surrogacy was limited. Now it has become a thriving business across every street in most cities. People aren’t ashamed any more to go to infertility centres (as they were before). The reaction to the film may not have been unanimous, had we not normalised the issue. The girl’s father in Vicky Donor too asks the daughter to be a sport about it and be broadminded about the idea of sperm donation. That the couple chose to adopt a girl wasn’t only interesting, it also lent a cinematic flavour to the proceedings. It was a risk for sure, but one that helped me bag the film. The producers didn’t have any second thoughts after they heard my synopsis. The third act was my ticket to get the film.
The subtle tension between Kannadigas and Tamilians was rather deftly handled in the film (probably even better than the Punjabi-Bengali clash in Vicky Donor) …
The school in which I had studied was full of groups that spoke Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. We have many Tamil people who are brought up in Bangalore and Kannada people who are brought up in Chennai. Thankfully, we were part of a generation where we were allowed to make fun of our cultures. The humour was in good jest always. Kannadigas and Tamilians fight about coffee (it had stemmed from personal experience), the IPL has given us a newer excuse. There are graver issues between the two States, but I thought people would take the tension in good spirit. Love was my medium to build that bridge – it was my exposure to both the cultures that made it possible.
It's impressive how you cyclically connected two sequences about a father ignoring their child at a public place while talking on a call. The first time around, it’s Harish Kalyan who gives a mouthful to the father, while he’s at the receiving end later. It gives an interesting spin to fatherhood..
One of the many things that excited me about the third act introduced in the film was about Harish Kalyan being a young parent. Though he’s a stress-free guy and is responsible enough to take up a job to start a family, he doesn’t get fatherhood completely. Younger people find it easy to poke a finger at the elder lot about parenting, pass the blame and how they shouldn’t have done things in a certain way. It’s easy to say than do – a very basic emotion which we wanted to bring into the film.
The Tamil and Telugu film industries’ attitude towards employing casting directors has been rather indifferent to date. What made you consider a casting director (Sharanya Subramaniam) for Dharala Prabhu?
Casting directors play a very important role in the filmmaking process. It’s not just another technician who takes care of things – he/she is another person through which you understand one more layer of the character. Casting is generally done by the direction team – the director asks his assistants to supervise the actors we may need (beyond the lead actors) and takes the final call in the process. However, when a person is sitting with a pad and a pen and asks what kind of actors you may need for a character, the process makes you more aware of their quirks. The direction team was still very much involved in the process here, but having a casting director helped us get a reality check – that’s how we had new actors coming in and taking up important roles.
The role of a casting director is ignored because many don’t want to take that up as a profession. From a production angle, it’s often dismissed as another form of additional expense. ‘Why need a specialised person to take charge of it when we managed it ourselves before?’ is a question that always arises from a producer’s perspective. The problem with this culture is the fact that you begin to focus on cost-cutting and plan to do it all by yourself. I am really glad we chose Sharanya Subramaniam as a casting director. She brought in new faces and even a veteran like Vivekh sir was extremely appreciative of her casting decisions. That was a validation coming from him!
Do you think the lockdown experience will have any impact on film-watching in theatres? Or is it too early to talk about it?
The film viewing experience has gradually changed with the onset of OTT platforms in recent years. On the theatrical front, there is going to be a change because it’s a communal experience that brings together people from all walks of life. Things will change for the better for the digital medium, especially on the financial front. Even with Dharala Prabhu, many are enjoying it on OTT from what I’ve got to hear. However, comedy is best enjoyed when you watch and laugh with an entire theatre.
I had viewed Dharala Prabhu more like an OTT film until I sat with the audience and watched it in theatres. Vivekh sir kept telling me during the filming stages that it’s important to keep the audience reacting. I understood it when people really went berserk in theatres listening to the one-liners – things like ‘kizhe irukkara bell buttona amukkunganu sollama poyittane’ made a big difference. From a directorial perspective, you may look at it differently and think one-liners go beyond the cutting point of a scene. I had learnt my lessons in the theatre from the audience reactions.
Directors still are particular about the theatrical experience over digital viewing…
I am open-minded about the viewing form. If I seek more creative freedom and wouldn’t want to compromise on a certain story I’m trying to tell, I would rather choose OTT. I at least don’t have the pressure of adhering to the galleries. But when you make a film for the galleries, the high is different. You have to strike a balance. I am an 80s born 90s kid, so theatres are extra special for me – you can’t take that out of me. However, OTT is an evolution and a change towards a newer future – you can’t ignore that either.
(Dharala Prabhu is available on Amazon Prime Video)