Sound is a character in 'Mercury': Karthik Subbaraj on making a silent film

Karthik Subbaraj says that he wants to make films which make people think.
Sound is a character in 'Mercury': Karthik Subbaraj on making a silent film
Sound is a character in 'Mercury': Karthik Subbaraj on making a silent film
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In less than six years, Karthik Subbaraj has come a long way in Tamil cinema. After making a name for himself with a series of short films, he went on to make highly acclaimed feature films like Pizza, Jigarthanda, and Iraivi, and now his latest film, Mercury has captivated everyone’s attention. After all, it’s been a long time since any contemporary filmmaker has made an attempt to make a ‘silent’ film and on top of that, Karthik has turned it into a thriller.

The film narrates the story of a bunch of friends who go to a village, for a reunion of sorts, and how an event triggers a lot of things in their lives. Ask Karthik if he has been toying around with the idea of making a silent film for some time now and he says, “I’ve always wanted to make a film without dialogues. And writing a screenplay for such a film is a huge challenge. Apart from the idea that I was excited about, a big inspiration to make this film is the aspect of corporate exploitation and how incidents of chemical poisoning take a huge toll on generations altogether living in that area. We have seen that happen in Bhopal, and there are numerous other instances in countries all over the world where after an accident, there are several protests, but then everyone moves on, except for people living close to the area of the accident. They aren’t aware that such things could possibly happen to them, and they don’t deserve to go through all that pain. Mercury also touches upon an emotional aspect, but it’s a thriller first.”

The director acknowledges that he didn’t have too many references to bank upon since he was making a thriller, unlike comedies and dramas of the silent era.

“Charlie Chaplin’s films were a big source of inspiration, and I was always amazed with his ability to convey emotion with just his expressions. Pesum Padam is another popular film which I loved, but since I was making a thriller, I couldn’t bank upon these films. I must clarify that Mercury isn’t an experimental film. It’s a thriller right from the first scene and that’s what got me excited about it,” Karthik clarifies, adding, “I suppose each film of mine so far has had some sort of shock value. If it doesn’t come across as a shocker to me first while writing it, I don’t enjoy the process. So, when a silent film excites you, it’s a good thing. Isn’t it? (laughs)”

Apart from Prabhudeva, the film also stars Sananth Reddy, Deepak Paramesh, Shashank Purushotham, Anish Padmanabhan, Indhuja and Gajara in lead roles. Karthik says it was a deliberate decision to cast lesser-known actors since he didn’t want their personalities to overshadow the characters they were playing.

“It’s just the perception of people is quite different when you cast popular actors. I had to make it more believable, and all the actors have done a fabulous job. We got an acting trainer on board and each and every scene was choreographed and rehearsed extensively for nearly a month. Prabhudeva plays an antagonist in the film, and it’s unlike what he has done so far. When I met him, I told him that I didn’t have any references about how I wanted to play this role, but he understood what we were trying to do. He has done a phenomenal job.”

Although Mercury is a silent film, it banks a lot on its sound design and music to convey the story, apart from the actor’s performances. In his own words, Karthik Subbaraj says, “Sound is a character in the story. For a silent film to work, the actors’ performances have to blend well with the visuals, music and sound design. Kunal Rajan, sound designer, has worked on the film, and when Santosh Narayan, music director, saw the first cut, both of them decided to work in sync with each other. Mercury isn’t like a regular film where music and sound effects were done separately. We had a lot of discussions about it, and the post-production itself took a long time to complete.”

Interestingly, the director reveals that since he knew what he wanted to make, the biggest challenge for him was to figure out a way to convert the script to visuals.

“Dialogues convey a lot of emotion, but we cut it out completely. This means that actors have to be spot on with their performances, the sets had to be designed in a particular way to convey a particular type of sound to make that scene more effective. When we shared this idea with the team, all of them became quite excited. Everyone had to be more responsible about their craft. I’m glad we pulled it off,” he adds.

So far, each film that Karthik Subbaraj has made has triggered debates on social media and Jigarthanda, in particular, achieved a cult status among moviegoers. His most recent work Iraivi made news for its portrayal of women and relationships, and now Mercury too is expected to capture people’s attention to its themes of exploitation.

Ask him about all this and pat comes the reply:

“As a filmmaker, I feel that a film’s success lies in not just entertaining people, but also giving people a lot to think about. That’s when it is complete. There’s nothing wrong with making entertaining audience, but I want films to create a conversation or debate with each film of mine. I know that we aren’t going to change anything or create a revolution or change a person overnight, but it feels great when you hear how much a film has had an impact on people’s lives. For Iraivi, there were a lot emotional feedback. There were a lot of men who confessed that they’re going change their attitude towards women. That’s how I measure the success of a film and I’m hoping that Mercury too will fall in that zone.”

This year, Karthik is going to direct a film with Superstar Rajinikanth and post that, he’s expected to do a film with Dhanush. It feels like a dream when you think about how far the director has come in such a short span of time, but he remains firmly grounded.

“It’s too early to talk about these two films, but I’m glad that these two films are happening. I was supposed to make Dhanush’s film after Iraivi, but it got delayed due to various reasons,” he says.

For now, all his attention is on Mercury and he believes that it’s going to make an impact.

“Since it’s a silent film, we felt it can cut across regional and language barriers. Anybody can watch and relate to it,” Karthik signs off.

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