Actor Siddharth, who made his debut with the Shankar film Boys in 2003, has come a long way. From being the "chocolate boy" hero to producing his own films, projects that he believes need complete freedom, Siddharth's has been an interesting journey.
The actor's Aval, which he has also produced, will hit the screens on November 3 in three languages – Tamil, Telugu and Hindi.
Ahead of Aval's release, TNM caught up with Siddharth to talk about the film that's touted to be on par with Hollywood flicks like The Conjuring.
The trailer for Aval looks super scary and people have been calling it Tamil cinema's The Conjuring. You've co-written the film with director Milind Rau. What can we expect?
What we started out wanting to do with the film is exactly where we've ended up with it. That's something very rare you can say about a film. We set out to give the respect that this genre deserves.
I grew up watching horror films and we all loved getting scared in the cinema. So this was one effort to do that. But having said that, it's not just a gimmicky scare fest. It's not just loud music and scary faces, extreme close-ups or weird camera angles. It's not that. It's driven by a very, very real narrative.
So you are happy with comparisons to The Conjuring?
In a sense, we wanted to compete...I think that's the right word...we wanted to compete. So when someone says 'Oh have you made the Tamil Conjuring?', I'd like to believe that that's a compliment. Because that could go either way. We've seen the kind of high with which people come out of the theatre after watching an international horror film. We wanted to create a homegrown experience of the same level of sophistication, the same level of being scared.
Since it's an independent film, it's without comedy, it's without any of the other crutches that people use in horror films.
You say you are a fan of the genre. Which horror films did you grow up watching?
Milind and I both come from very strong influences of horror. So we both grew up on Hollywood old school horror films like The Exorcist, The Omen...because all of these big franchise horror films were a huge draw in Chennai back in the day.
But we also grew up on VHS. From Evil Dead to The Hills have Eyes, all those films are fresh in our minds. And in the last 20-25 years, a lot of Japanese horror films. I remember I was in college when the Ringu series came out in Japan. You weren't a film fanatic if you didn't have some version of the original film by Hideo Nakata.
Milind is usually into South Korean films. So, you know, we have a lot of influences of filmmakers who've inspired us.
What about Indian horror films?
Back in the day, there was this trend to run video libraries from your house. It was a way to make quick money. When you went to people's houses, if you looked under their bed, there would be a video library.
I was first introduced to the Ramsay Brothers through that system. Most Hindi horror films they had then were exploitation films. All of the Ramsay Brother films were huge on sleaze and with very campy make-up effects and really loud music. But some of them were very good. Because they came from Indian folklore.
For example, Veerana is one of the films I'd never forget. Because Veerana is the first Indian film I saw which I felt was horror. And then when Ram Gopal Verma made Raat, that really, really impressed me. And then eventually, when the Zee Horror show started on television, it was a huge jump for horror... the theme music, if nothing else, remains the most haunting theme music ever.
Speaking of the film's title - Aval - is there a reason why filmmakers are so fond of casting women as the ghost or avenging spirit?
I'm also a feminist and I like the fact that we gave the film a female title. Having said that, I don't see it as a cliche or stereotype. Also, any of these questions would have ginormous spoilers if I answer them.
It is a very relevant title. Is it a horror cliche? Absolutely not. It's part of a much larger script franchise that we've written. There's more to come after this.
When you look at the film and the performances, both Andrea Jeremiah and Anisha Victor have turned in, as the producer, as a writer, as a co-writer, I'm very proud that I have super strong female characters in my film.
I'm not a big fan of women being either objectified or shown to easily to faint in a horror film. As somebody who is quite feminist in my views, the film could not be something that doesn't represent that.
Is it hard to make an all-out horror film in India?
It's not because of a lack of ability or talent. It's because they're told to dilute it down.
In the US or Japan, they've kept trying to make horror films better and better and the industry also grew with it. So prosthetics grew, the technology and production of shooting horror films... all of that happened. In India, that hasn't happened.
A lot of film productions have made horror as a shortcut genre, it's a quickie. You just need one house, it's economies of scale. We haven't tried to do that. We've given it whatever the genre deserves.
So we've spent a lot of time and resources on prosthetic make-up, we have a National Award winning make-up designer, Preetisheel Singh - she brought her own design framework. She also brought a sense of preparation and professionalism to the whole experience of prosthetic make-up.
When this catches on, everyone is going to want to know how it was done. And then what Preeti does will become the norm.
With visual effects as well, we had them from the script phase. We're independent film producers, we made sure that it's not a bloated VFX film. We had a visual palette that was locked at the script stage, for instance.
Similarly with sound. I think people are going to talk about the sound of Aval for a while. Because as much as the visual is spectacular, the sound effects take it to another level.
Does doing a film like this make you look over your shoulder when the shoot is done?
I don't think any person, no matter what they tell you, is a 100% sure about their beliefs and non-beliefs. Because your beliefs are tested only in a moment of extreme adversity, right? Whether you believe in god is something you'll find out only when you are close to death.
When Milind and I were writing the film, we'd constantly keep changing hats. So one week, we'd play people who have some form of agnostic thought. Then one week, we'd play people who totally believe, and one week we'd be extremely rational.
That said, the most frightening experience I've had in my life is making a movie. Making a movie and praying that it gets seen. It's like delivering a baby. Because so many things can go wrong no matter how prepared you are. And that's the scariest thing and that's what makes us very vulnerable as people.
You've been in the industry for close to 16 years now. How would you describe your journey?
I feel fantastic. 16 years is a long time. I have many friends who haven't been in the same line of work that long. So, I think I'm doing a pretty good job of a) Making a living and b) Doing what I love doing. As long as it's economically viable and I feel good doing it, I will keep going.