- Shridhar Raghavan
- 03 August 2017
KARTHICK NAREN: The Wonder Boy of Tamil Neo-Noir
Interviewed by Shridhar Raghavan
Karthick Naren shot straight into the limelight with the fabulous gritty sleeper hit, Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru (D-16) earlier this year. A cop film that veers between past and present to a twisted conclusion (its available on Amazon with subtitles), D-16 was shot in 28 days, written when he was 20, released when he was 22! By a youngster who literally had zero cinematic background but a psychotic level of energy, confidence and determination and fabulous parents.
Today Karthick is in an envious space, his next Tamil feature is being produced by acclaimed director-producer Gautham Menon, the Hindi remake rights have been picked up by a major star.
We randomly caught up at the English Tea Room in Chennai, while he was busy in the pre-prod of his next.
He’s a superbly self assured, focused and courteous young man and an absolute pleasure to interact with… and we spoke a bit about his journey, what drives him, and so on…. It’s a free wheeling conversation.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity…. But the words are all Karthick’s…
I interact and work with a lot of youngsters and it’s a sheer pleasure to come across someone so self assured and confident and honest and passionate. Hopefully there’s something here in the conversation that will motivate other youngsters to embark on the same crazy journey that Karthick did, and to convince parents that sometimes their seemingly crazy kids are actually quite sorted.
Shridhar: So, I am just highly curious….. how did you even get into the business? Did you ever assist anybody?
Karthick Naren: I was studying Mechanical Engineering and one month into college I realized, okay, this is not for me. It too me some more time to realize that okay I can’t stand this anymore. You know there is a breaking point for everybody right, so I just told my dad, “Dad this is not working out”, and what he told me was “Okay, so what are you going to do?”
Basically I am brought up at Coimbatore, so I don’t have any cinema background, how people get to know each other, that kind of a thing. So I told my dad it’s okay, let me go to Chennai, let me meet few people. Maybe something will, you know, click.
Shridhar: But how did you even know that Film is what you want to do after Engineering? At what age did you figure out that this is you want to do? Or is it that you were always writing stories, doing something in a similar space before?
Karthick Naren: I had this love for cinema from a very young age.
Shridhar: [laughs] What do you mean by young age? You are already still at a very young age.
Karthick Naren: I mean since the age of 16 or 17. I was like really into films, I appreciated films but didn’t know to what extent I could consider this as a career. Because when it comes to filmmaking, people usually point at example of people who didn’t quite work. Maybe a director, he really tried but he didn’t succeed.
So beyond a point I just thought okay let me carry on with the mainstream, let me do engineering. May be after that somewhere down the line if I get a calling I will go into filmmaking. That’s my passion, where I want to be. That was the idea. But there was a short film competition in college at first year, the cash prize for the winner was one lakh. And more than the short film, that was the one which really got us into this thing. I just told my friends that see if we actually win this competition we will be getting one lakh cash prize so why not try, let’s just go for it. So that’s how everything started.
As soon as I took my first shot in that short film, that was when I realized that okay this is where I belong.
Shridhar: And you did this with no experience?
Karthick Naren: No experience, nothing. I was even the cinematographer for that short film, I was the editor, the thing is that I didn’t even have a written script for that. I didn’t have anything, I just went out there with a couple of friends.
Shridhar: What about editing? You can’t just wing it!
Karthick Naren: Absolutely no idea about that. Everything was trial and error. After taking that first shot I thought, okay this is what I want to do for the rest of my life because I was so into it. From Shot One! So that is how it started. My love towards filmmaking, and after I made the film unfortunately it didn’t get selected. There’s a lot of politics not just in the feature film industry, it starts right in college. They told me, “Karthick we can select only one short film from our college since our college is conducting the program, we can’t select multiple short films which our students did. But they were kind enough and told me, we can’t screen it a part of the competition but if you want you can just call your friends and you can have the screening in the opposite hall. So I just called all my friends and that was when I got the response, you know, first audience response kind of a thing, and I was mind-blown by it. And honestly, I thought I made an amateurish kind of a film but at the screening many people from the audience came and told me you have something in you and if you work on it, someday you’ll become a good filmmaker.
Shridhar: Is it on YouTube?
Karthick Naren: Yes. Everything is there on YouTube. But I suggest you please don’t watch it [laughs]. Okay please don’t watch it. I didn’t delete it because a filmmaker’s track is very important right? Only when we look at the point where we started can we actually know, okay I have learnt a bit and I am at place where I actually know something about filmmaking. So that’s why I didn’t delete any of it. Everything is there on YouTube right now. You can find all of my short films under my channel named Karthick Naren.
Shridhar: How old were you at that point of time?
Karthick Naren: 18 to 19.
Shridhar: After this how come you straight away jumped into a feature? Tell me about the process of that. You wrote a script first, you wrote 10 scripts first? How and why did you choose this idea? Were there other scripts that you rejected before Dhruvangal Pathinaaru (D-16)?
Karthick Naren: I had a lot of scripts before D-16. I made a short film called Pradhi, about a guy who is suffering from Fregoli delusion, a thriller with a very complex screenplay. I actually made a 25 minute pilot film of it so that I could pitch it to producers and get the actors on board.
So after listening to the script a lot of people told me that Karthick this is way too complex for a first film. So first make a film that will introduce your way of narration and filmmaking to the audience. Maybe after getting to know that, audiences will connect to this film better. So that was the feedback that I got and that’s when I started to work on D-16. I thought maybe a couple of films down the line, after registering my way of storytelling, maybe I can experiment with this one. That is when I started writing D-16.
Shridhar: Okay, now we’re seeing everything in hindsight. The film is complete, the film is ready, its out, its done well. But when you started writing it, what was your entry point? What was your first thought which said this could be something interesting?
Karthick Naren: It was a very strange event because when I was studying in college, usually I go to the terrace to study and my mom she obviously knows when I go alone I won’t be studying. So when I go up she would be near me just to make sure okay I am studying. During that time we had a few very rich college kids rash driving their cars late night in our area. One night when I was actually studying on the terrace and my mom was with me, I just heard a loud screech. My mom said, I don’t know who hit whom now and what happened. She said these exact same words. That was the starting point for D-16. If you look at the screenplay, that’s the first event in the film. That a couple of college kids would be driving, they hit somebody and they’ll just put him in the dickey, they’ll just start driving. So that was the starting point of D-16. From that point onwards I just wanted to incorporate all the different characters in the film,. Now my dad works in Education for disabled people. And that is why Rahman Sir (the lead actor) is a disabled guy in this film. I took a small element from what I saw in my real life and I put that in the film. In fact, the names of the three characters - Fabian, Melvin and Mano - they are my friends and classmates. Mano is a timid guy and can easily be bullied. So that’s why character Mano in the film is somebody who can easily be influenced or brainwashed. Fabian is like the boss of the gang. So that’s how it all started.
Shridhar: When did you decide the cop angle? This past present structure? Things like this, when did that come into play?
Karthick Naren: Basically I like cop stories. I am more into thrillers and when it comes to world cinema I have followed the works of Hitchcock and David Fincher. That explains a lot about my taste of cinema. And when it comes to story-telling and narrative, I have always followed the Nolan school. After watching Prestige, that was when the love for screenwriting took place. After watching it, I told myself, okay, here’s a guy who made a movie about magicians. And actually the magic trick is on the audience who are watching the film. I saw in one of his interviews, the audiences have seen everything before, so I like to shake them up. That was my agenda going into the script.
I just told myself, when it comes to a crime thriller or an investigative thriller, obviously audiences will predict it and tell themselves that this is going to happen. I just told myself that okay, I shouldn’t give them that space, I wanted to put it in a way where the audience is in the shoes of the detective.
That’s how the Narration style came in.
Shridhar: How many drafts did you do?
Karthick Naren: Three to four.
Shridhar: And if you look at the first draft and last shooting draft what all changed? Were you building on the earlier drafts, or were you trying totally different variations, let me try this and this and that? How did you go about process?
Karthick Naren: Until I know where the film starts and ends, I don’t start writing the script. I just make a “hints” kind of thing and be sure that I will follow this.
Shridhar: So you are saying you map the script out?
Karthick Naren: Yes. I map the journey of my protagonist. And when I don’t have any story to tell after a certain point, that’s where my film should end. Without that clarity, I don’t start my script. So when I started writing D-16, I roughly had the entire script in mind. But I usually don’t follow the three acts structure. I just told myself, okay, let me take my protagonist through these series of events and I will end it at a point. After I start writing the script, I usually finish it in 10-15 days. I am an over enthusiastic person. Gautham in the film is me. I am this hyperactive kind of a kid and I have multiple set of things at hand. But once I start writing I make sure that I end it. Before I get an orgasm out of the script, I have to finish it. So I travel with the script. At certain point of course, I will be stuck. I may run out of ideas. But I take it to the finish.
Shridhar: Fab… you’ve got the discipline to reach to the end. I’m very curious about one thing. When you talk about your career it almost sounds picture perfect. I mean you decided to start working from here, you do this, you do that, you’re passionate and everything works out right and the film gets made and it’s a success. So for many people this sounds almost like ‘whoa this is so easy’. It’s not. You haven’t assisted anybody. You haven’t written before, and you are arguing about structure and everything. How did you manage to pull this off? How did you manage to convince other people? Where is this confidence coming from, like I can break into this business. Like this? Billions of people have tried and they didn’t succeed. I don’t think this is just luck. I think it is also hard work, talent, perseverance, lots of multiple things. Just damn curious about this aspect.
Karthick Naren: So first and foremost, the only people whose opinions matter to me are my mom and dad. So as soon as I decided that I want to drop out of engineering, I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t share that with anybody. I didn’t even inform my professors that I am going to drop out of college. I just went back from college, had a chat with my dad, told him okay I don’t think this is working out, let me put an end to this. If I keep going to college I will just keep piling up arrears. My dad asked me, ‘Are you confident that if you venture out in filmmaking you’ll be a successful director, so what does your guts say?’
I just told my dad that I don’t know whether I’ll be a successful director or not or to what extent I can keep making films, but this is where I want to be for the rest of my life. Even if my first film fails, I will keep on making a couple of more films. Till I get a rhythm and tempo of storytelling I will keep on making films. So that is what I told my dad and he initially said ok. I can’t believe he said that but he said ok. That too when he is in the Education line (he is a double PhD holder and my mom is a PhD holder).
My dad said okay, but moms are obviously more difficult to convince (laughs). So I really had to convince my mom, she said Papu (they call me Papu at home) think twice before you take a call. Because this is a very big industry, look at all the people who didn’t work. And I was like, Mom, why aren’t you looking at all the people who did work? Why aren’t you looking at the directors that actually worked? So my mom said it’s kind of a long shot, so just be prepared. I just want to make sure you are prepared for that. Even if you don’t succeed, don’t blame us that we didn’t warn you. I told her it’s okay I know what you guys are trying to do and I am okay with it.
Shridhar: Didn’t they tell you to join a film school or apprentice someone or something?
Karthick Naren: They actually did. They were like, maybe you can go to Chennai after completing the degree because that is what most Indian parents do. Because the Degree for most parents is something like a status symbol in the society. They can tell their friend that my son has a degree in this or that. But luckily my parents didn’t have that.
Shridhar: They didn’t ask you to get a degree in filmmaking?
Karthick Naren: They did. I told my father I am not a classroom kind of a person. Let me go out there, experiment and learn filmmaking through trial and error because when it comes to filmmaking no matter how much theoretical knowledge you have, everything comes from execution. And I just told my dad okay let me burn my hands and maybe after that I will get to know the craft better. That is how I convinced my parents. And at this point I came to Chennai.
Shridhar: You have extremely supportive parents. I haven’t come across such supportive parents in this business. That’s awesome.
Karthick Naren: That was when the feature film opportunity came to me …. But I couldn’t complete the film. My dad just called me and asked what is your problem. He made it sound so funny. He said, it seems like you like dropping out of things. First you dropped out of college, then this film. What is your problem? I told him I think I can now make a feature film. Obviously we can’t learn 100% about filmmaking. It takes lots of years. But while starting my first film I kind of knew at least some percentage, maybe 50%..... of filmmaking. So let me go out there and make a feature film. I told my dad before leaving Chennai, I told him very politely, thanks for all the help, but now I don’t need your financial support. (laughs) And when I came to Chennai, Reality hit me hard. It was a KO, a knockout. But after coming out of the feature film project, I decided I would send my script to producers.
Shridhar: And how did they react?
At the first sight of me the producers’ reaction was “Did you lose your way to school? What are you doing here?” That was the reaction I got and I was scared. Initially I went to a producer, super confident about my script and I just told myself if I narrate the script he will be mind-blown by this and I will get to make the film. The first thing that he asked me was - What is your age? How old are you?
That was the first question he asked me.
And I was like, what has age got to do with filmmaking anyway.
I told him I was 20, he just observed me for a couple of seconds, he didn’t say anything, just observed and then asked “What do you have”. I narrated one scene from the script and obviously he didn’t like it. Because he found it that like it is not a mainstream potboiler thing. And he said I will get back to you after a couple of months. Same thing kept happening for next 5 months. Everybody looked at me as a college dropout kid.
Shridhar: How did you even manage to meet them? I’m just amazed because half of the time people can’t even reach these guys!!!
Karthick Naren: Okay. Anybody listening to this please don’t do this at home. I basically googled Production houses in Chennai. I just sat next to the landline and made out a time-table, that today I have to call 10 production houses and tomorrow another 10 and so on, I just keep calling them. As soon as someone picks up the call I get to know that this production house is still there, it has not gone bankrupt. If somebody answers, I know that somebody is there in the office, so maybe even if I cannot meet the producer, I can get to know the receptionist or anyone who would pick the call? So what I used to do was go meet them without taking an appointment if somebody picked the call. Of course, nothing worked. I was just too young!
Shridhar : You didn’t try aging yourself? The beard, the moustache etc?
Karthick: On top of beard and moustache, I got this huge specs, broad frames like 70 or 80 year olds wear. I wore those to make myself look old. I did all the tricks but nothing worked so that was when I put a full stop to all this. After 5 months my Dad knew that it is going nowhere and he called me and asked, “Okay Papu what’s the status? How is it going?”
I told him, dad, I need to grow old to make a film!
So he asked me what is the budget of your script. I gave him a rough number. He didn’t ask for anything, and said okay I will produce it. Before I left for Chennai, he told me, “ apu think twice, because this is a huge responsibility and a huge task and since you have committed to filmmaking you can’t turn back.” So I basically told him what he had once told me. “Dad this is a big commitment, you can’t turn back, are you really fine with it?” He said it is fine. Since nobody is ready to produce your film, let me do it. If I don’t back my son, how can I expect a producer to?
Shridhar: And your father is not from a film background? It’s not like you are a producer’s son or something loaded like that?
Karthick Naren: No not at all. He’s in Education. He is in fact a first generation learner. My grandparents are farmers. So it’s not like they’re from a strong financial background. My father put his entire life’s earning for this film. That is how this film got made.
Shridhar: And he has no idea of the film business? Distribution, exhibition and he says okay I will back you? I don’t think I have ever met anyone like that!
Karthick Naren: Yeah. Because for him what matters the most is to start the dreams of his son. Let me give him a platform and where he goes from there it depends upon his talent. My dad just wanted to give me a platform. Because my age was just becoming a huge problem, coming in my way.
Shridhar: Okay tell me something. You’re a newcomer. Not only in writing/direction but also the production. How on earth do you convince the cast?
Karthick Naren: I just contacted Rahman Sir’s manager and I just told him I have a script and I would like to pitch it to Rahman Sir. They obviously thought it would be some sort of a supporting role because people won’t pitch a protagonist’s role to Rahman Sir of late because he is sort of retired. I said that Rahman Sir is the hero in this film. So he arranged the meeting and next day I went to his house where he had given me a half-an-hour appointment. He told me okay narrate the entire story in half an hour.
I started narrating the script and it went on for almost two and a half hours. One hour into the narration he just paused and told me Karthick wait let me just go to the washroom and after coming back he just asked me are we near the climax. I just told him Sir we just finished the first half. And I narrated the second half. He said Yes. We didn’t go that much into the the structure or anything but he said yes. And because he said yes, I didn’t have problem in convincing the rest of the cast.
Shridhar: What about the technical crew? People whom you knew, you admire, how did you approach them?
Karthick Naren: When I was staying at Coimbatore, I did all the work by myself. From the cinematography, sound design, editing. Coimbatore is a small place where you don’t have many studios where you can get exposure for films. So after making a set of short films I decided let me go to Chennai and meet people. Maybe that way I can get to know about feature filmmaking. It’s a myth that people say short filmmaking is different and feature film making is different. So I thought let me go to Chennai, meet a lot of technicians and get to know about the craft. I told a technician who I had worked with on my short film, that I am making a feature and my dad is producing, can you listen to the script? He was skeptical because a 20 year old guy is making a film and his dad is funding it and well, that is how most bad movies are getting made. If the dads are rich, sons will just go to them and they’ll tell about their wish to make a film and they will immediately produce it without having any knowledge. They saw me like one of those guys. Maybe from a very rich background and the father doesn’t know what to do with the money so he wants to make a film, that kind of a thing. But the actors saw potential in the script. We have to assemble the right kind of people and then this film will work. So that was the confidence which they gave me. So it was not difficult to find the technicians and the artists.
Shridhar: So throughout the process, did you have any hiccups issues or were you confident enough that okay I know what I am doing?
Karthick Naren: On the first day, I was very scared. I was the youngest one on the set. And I am supposed to be the director of the set, I am supposed to be commanding it!! It was difficult because I was getting such looks like, “Seriously!!!!? Are you the director of this film?!!”
Obviously they didn’t mean it but subconsciously people do give you that look.
Eventually they got to know me and that is how I managed. On day 1 our Light officer had not joined. On the second day, he joined us. Before the shooting started I went up to him to inspect all the lights and props and everything, He was taking the chart paper around and I was inspecting it. As soon as he saw me he was like, “Eh boy can you please pass me on the clips?” He didn’t know I was the director, assumed I was the assistant or something. I was completely cool and I passed on the clips and someone standing right next to him said, “he is the director”.
After I came out of the set, he came running after me and told me “Sir sir I am very sorry Sir”.
So this is how I had to manage on set. [Laughs] This went on for a couple of days and after that everybody was comfortable.
Shridhar: How many days did you shoot for the movie?
Karthick Naren: 28 days. 8 days at Chennai and 20 days at Coimbatore and [incomprehensible].
Shridhar: Did you stay within the budget?
Karthick Naren: I won’t lie, we went a bit above the budget. Everything was planned but people tend to loot you (laughs) .
Shridhar: When did the business start realizing that you had made a good film? What I find interesting in the Tamil scene in that every week there are so many releases …. how does a small film break through and stand out? There are 4-10 films releasing every week, and reviewers are going to be biased to a film which has a bigger cast or setup. When did the industry start feeling confident about D-16? What point did they realise that something interesting is coming up?
Karthick Naren: The biggest challenge for me while making the film was to stay away from all the negativity. When people come to the set, what matters the most for them is the hero. They asked me who is the hero and when I proudly said Rehman Sir, they gave me this look, he is older, he is not into mainstream cinema of late. Or they’ll ask me about the story. How many song scenes, how many fight scenes, how many comedy scenes because they judge the success of any film by these parameters. I just said none. I told them it has none of that. So they were kind of worried. They saw me as a guy wasting his father’s money.
Once the film got over, after the film was shot, when the news started coming out, no matter what they wrote about the film, good or bad, the headline would always be “21 year old director’s film”. And that was when we figured out okay, maybe we have something to help us market. What was my negative aspect before making the film, a 20-21 year old guy who didn’t know anything has come up with a film, now I could maybe use that aspect as marketing strategy, use it for my good? “21 year old director” headline got the attention of people. After looking at the trailer people realized the quality of the film. After watching the film, people got to know about the technical aspect of the film, and that’s when they really started noticing it.
Shridhar: You followed your dream, you managed to achieve it, you managed to kick down every door that came in the way, that’s perseverance, that’s confidence, that’s awesome.
Karthick Naren: I am a very adamant person. If I want something, I make sure that I get it. That is what I actually do all the time. Even when it came to the release date, everybody was against it. People told me Karthick you are taking a very big risk because New Year is not the time to release a small-budget film . So they told us that a mass hero film was releasing on December 16th so we can get the release date for January 26th because it is Republic day and a four day long holiday kind of thing and we can bank on it. As soon as I heard that, I said no. I have no idea about how distribution works, what sets off the audience, nothing. But all of a sudden I had this kind of gut feeling. I just told them that Sir that is a very wrong date because since it is a four day weekend all the big hero movies will be targeting that weekend. So we don’t stand a chance against those big hero movies. The thing with small budget movies is that everything has an expiry date. You can’t keep pushing it for a very long time. Big films can do that, it doesn’t work for small budget films. I told the producers, let’s release it for new year, December 30th. Everybody immediately said no. They said “With all due respect, you have no idea how distribution works. All the films that have released for at new year have bombed on the box office because everybody is in the mood to celebrate. They won’t come to the theatre to watch a film. That is a very bad idea.”
They told me as a director if your first film doesn’t work well, it gets very difficult to get producers for the second one. I told them I am okay with whatever my intuition has told me so I am okay with whatever happens. I have trusted my guts and my guts say this will actually work. I just said let me have a word with my father and then we will go ahead. I called him and told him that everybody is telling me it’s not a good day to release a film so what should I do? He asked me one simple question, “What do you want to do?”. I told him if it gets pushed to next year it will become an old film. Irrespective of the box office, let’s go with this date. He was like say no more, go ahead. I even told him that if this film doesn’t work, we will face financial loss as it is a small film. He said I didn’t venture into films because I wanted to make money or get into the film business, I just wanted to finance your project because no one else did. I am not worried about the outcome. If you want that date, just go for that date. I cut the call and told the producers that okay let’s go for this date.
Shridhar: And what about buzz? Advance screenings and so on to create word of mouth?
I never had screenings for any of my short films. Your friends and family don’t have the heart to criticize your film. And false appreciation can kill you. That’s why on completing a short film I just put it up online. Social media is a place where you can just go bash anyone. I just wanted that kind of response. So I kind of matured.
We went to the film on day 1, and as soon as the title sequence came, I saw the name Writer/Director Karthick Naren, and everybody started clapping!! That was when I realised that they were clapping for a 21 year old who had directed the film. Initially the screens and shows were very low. First week we just got one screen one show, but on second week they gave us 20 shows. So I called the producers and asked whether it was a good decision to release when we did, they agreed.
Shridhar [Laughing]: Okay I am going to ask you one last question. What would you advise people your age who want to get into this business?
Karthick Naren: You should stay away from all the negative issues. You shouldn’t feel disheartened. There will be struggles, anything without struggles will be boring. I felt so emotional that day for D-16 because I wanted this film to work and also because of the struggles I had to face. If it was a walk in the park, I wouldn’t have felt this way. So all the negativity and criticism, you should stay away from that. People thought that I was going insane when I told my relatives about my filmmaking. My Dad just told them, I know what our son is doing. He made it sound like a “so smooth ‘Leave us alone’” kind of a thing.
Shridhar: What now?
Karthick: I thought that after making a good first film, maybe things will be smoother for me. But it’s life, when you accomplish something, it throws something even harder your way. As soon as we announced the next project, the kind of vibe around the film and expectations are very scary. When they came earlier, they didn’t have any expectations. For a director the second film is more important, because if that doesn’t work, people will forget about your first film, deem it a fluke. So now that is one my biggest fears. Like for a claustrophobic getting stuck inside a lift, that’s my biggest fear. There is nothing worse for a director than calling him a one hit wonder. This second film should at least be par.
Shridhar: You are too talented and motivated and hard working to be a one hit wonder! I will just end it on one note. I have two young kids. I would be delighted if they manage to get 10% of your confidence. And they would be lucky if I turned out 10% as supportive a dad like yours. You and your family are quite amazing.
Karthick Naren: If you really want something the universe cooperates with you.
Shridhar: I am a bit of a cynic, I don’t believe in all those things, I think its hard work and perseverance which gives you the confidence to be who you are.
Karthick Naren: That’s what my Dad told me…. if I am not going to believe my son then who will.