In this exclusive interview, Sarjun speaks about the backlash he received for 'Lakshmi', his interest in women-centric films and more.

My film with Nayanthara is an emotional horror flick Maa director Sarjun to TNMFacebook/Sarjun KM
Flix Interview Tuesday, February 06, 2018 - 14:26

At 31, Sarjun is among the Tamil film industry’s most exciting young directors. His first feature film Echcharikkai is yet to hit the screens but he’s already a familiar name, thanks to his much talked about short films Lakshmi and Maa. The first is about a woman who has an extramarital fling while the second is on teenage pregnancy.

The director has just signed a film with Nayanthara in the lead role. To be produced by KJR Studios, which gave us Aramm last year and the Pongal release Gulebagavali, the film is expected to be a horror flick.

Speaking to TNM, Sarjun shares his journey in the Tamil film industry, the controversy surrounding Lakshmi, and his desire to continue doing short films even as he steps into the big league.

From what we’ve seen of your work so far, we have high expectations about what you’ll bring to the table with the Nayanthara film. So can we expect something different within the horror genre?

Definitely. It will be a horror film with emotions. It won’t just be scary. It’s an out and out horror film but with emotions.

How did this project happen?

Rajesh, the producer, called me and said he liked Maa very much and asked if I had any story to narrate. I asked him what genre he had in mind and he said it’s fine if it’s a horror film. So I took some time and pitched a line to him. He really liked it and told me that he’d get me a sitting with Nayanthara.

I gave an hour’s narration to Nayanthara and she liked it very much. She liked Maa also very much and she spoke about it. It’s not the usual horror film, so she gave the go ahead.

How did you get into the film industry?

I’m an engineering graduate but I later studied cinematography in Mindscreen under Rajiv Menon Sir. Just as I was finishing, Mani Ratnam Sir was in need of an assistant director for Ponniyin Selvan. So I joined him, but for some reason that project didn’t take off. I continued working with him in Kadal. I finished Kadal and I did a couple of independent projects like music videos.

Then I worked with Murugadoss on Kaththi. I joined only after the first schedule of the film was done. When that got over, I worked on the post-production for Mani Sir’s OK Kanmani. That’s the last work I did for anyone else. After that, I’ve been trying to pitch scripts – which ended with me doing Echcharikkai. The film is over and is set for release in March.

Both your short films, Lakshmi and Maa, revolve around women protagonists. What draws you towards such stories?

Probably it’s the influence of women from my own life – both good and bad. I don’t know how far it’s possible to do it in a feature film here. There are many restrictions in mainstream films.

Short films give you that freedom to think whatever you want. My first feature film is not women-centric, it’s a proper thriller. So I have broken out of that... but yes, the second will center around Nayanthara’s character.

So when you have the freedom to think, you are drawn to telling the stories of women?

My first influence is my mother. She’s a very independent woman. She’s a retired teacher now. My friends’ circle, the way I have been brought up, the environment around me – all of this I’d say is a little progressive from whatever I’ve seen. So I thought why not tell stories from here.

When I made Lakshmi, I didn’t really think all that much. It just became big after I made it (laughs). I pitched Maa to Gautham Menon Sir and he really liked it. He told me that it’s a sensitive subject and that I should handle it properly.

Are you worried about mainstream cinema limiting your creativity?

The genre I’ve selected for the Nayanthara film is horror. There are a few templates for horror and we can’t break that. But within that, what better can I bring is the question. I can explore sub-genres within it. I’m coming with a prepared mind about how to go forward in the industry.

How did you deal with the backlash that you received for Lakshmi?

I took Gautham Sir’s advice to not open my mouth (laughs). He told me that it’s the best thing to do. Because if I say something and it gets twisted, it will be worse. But I have to say that though there was backlash, I also got many positive responses. It was equal. So I didn’t want to feed the backlash.

Gautham Sir told me to speak about it after I do my next project. That’s why I decided to speak after Maa.

What kind of feedback did you get for Maa?

For Maa, nearly 95% of the responses I got were positive. About 5% was negative but I thought that was okay. Any work you do, there’s going to be negative stuff. It’s not necessary for everyone to accept it. Even if you make a classic, there will be people who like it and don’t like it. I’m also like that. There are many films which people have liked which I haven’t. And I’ve criticised those films, too.

Did you do any research when you made Maa?

Yes, a lot of research. I wanted to know how prevalent teenage pregnancy is. In fact, we had a press show for Maa in which we had statistics in the end. But we thought it might look like a “message” movie if we kept it, so we took it off in the YouTube version.

So I did do research on the prevalence of teenage pregnancy, the consequences for women of that age and it was only after this that we started writing it.

Did you feel constrained at any point when you were doing Maa because of the backlash you received with Lakshmi?

Yes. I did feel constrained. When I got this idea, I did have doubts. I went and met the Ondraga team which has Venkat Sir and Reshma Ma’am. I told them that I didn’t want people to think since I made a controversial film, I wanted to make another one like that.

I did ask them if I should do it. They told me not to be worried and that this film won’t be seen that way. It’s only after their encouragement that I told myself I could do it.

Echcharikkai is releasing in March. Can you tell us more about it?

It’s a kidnap thriller. Satyaraj Sir is doing the role of a retired cop. He has played a cop in many films so I wanted to ensure that this is different. That’s why I made him a retired cop who doesn’t wear a uniform at any point. The film has a lot of twists and turns, and ends with a very emotional climax.

Some people have been saying that from the looks of the trailer, it seems to have been inspired by Taken?

The thing is, we cut the trailer so it looks like Taken. But what you see in the trailer is not the film. In the trailer, it looks like Varalaxmi is Satyaraj Sir’s daughter but that’s not the case at all. The story is different but we cut the trailer so it has that similarity.

Taken is a VERY famous film. I don’t think I can take from Taken and do it (laughs).

How hard is it to make it big in cinema?

The struggle is very big. We only see the names of people who’ve made films. But there are hundreds of people who find it difficult to get someone to even listen to their story. If you ask why, it’s because the number of quality films that release are less, the number of artists is also less, but the number of people who want to become directors is big. So that competition is there.

It’s a huge task to get a producer or artist to listen to your story. And after that, if the film goes on the floor, it’s a big achievement, given the current situation. On top of this, if the film runs, it’s a miracle. Apart from the creative side, there are many more aspects to this struggle.

Now there are more platforms, like YouTube for example, and filmmakers should realise that you’re not a filmmaker only if your film releases in a theatre. Then they can continue to tell their stories.

Does this mean you’ll continue to make short films?

100% yes. I watched Anurag Kashyap’s short film (The Day After Every Day) and I was thinking how someone who’s made 5-6 mainstream films has made a short film.

For a person who has done a feature film and is coming back to do short films, the approach will be different. From the shots to the thinking, it will be different. It will be much better and more people will watch it. You can explore genres – people here don’t do it but I will.