Rajini Sir Constantly Improvises on Set: Petta’s Karthik Subbaraj
Petta, starring superstar Rajinikanth is set to revive the Thalaivar of the 90s. Director Karthik Subbaraj gets candid with The Quint on whether working with Rajinikanth is truly worth the hype, and on the curious choice of casting Nawazuddin Siddiqui as a Tamil movie villain.
The film starring Vijay Sethupathi, Bobby Simha, Simran and Trisha is set to release on 10 January in Tamil and Telugu and 11 January in Hindi.
How’s the feeling?
Karthik Subbaraj: Very nervous, but also quite excited because I’ve finished everything. All the work for the film is done. I’m eager to see how the audience will react.
Watching the trailer felt like reliving Padayappa, Muthu, Arunachalam...basically Rajinikanth of the 90s. Was this is a conscious decision even before you started to write the film?
KS: Yes. Even when Thalaivar asked me if I had a story, the first idea I shared with him was along these lines. Like you, I too grew up on Rajini Sir’s Padayappa and Arunachalam. I was clear that was the Rajini I wanted to see.
True! I haven’t seen that Rajini since 2007, with Sivaji. The films were all good, but they didn’t feel like ‘Thalaivar’ films.
KS: Yes! In fact even Rajini sir told me that after Kabali and Kaala, he wanted to do a film like the ones we spoke about.
Aren’t you nervous that the audience has outgrown the plot? After all, Lingaa bombed, and it had the typical hero entry, flashback, etc.?
KS: No, this will be a film with a very beautiful story to tell. And it’s been told in the current language. So I’m sure the audience will relate to it.
Were you, as a crew, fanboys throughout the shoot? The trailer felt so!
KS: Actually yeah. There were many scenes where we’d go, ‘this one is going to make the audience go wild’. It was written and shot like that.
Tell me about the cast. Did you write with the cast in mind or found the people according to the characters you wrote?
KS: For this film, I wrote with the cast in mind. When I narrated the initial idea to Rajini Sir, I had decided on Vijay Sethupathi, Bobby Simha and Nawaz Sir. It’s a Rajini film, so it’s very enjoyable this way.
What is? Writing with the cast in mind?
KS: No. Because it’s a Rajini film, I get to write with the cast in mind. I know they’ll all be on board.
Ah! You have that luxury with a Rajini film. No compromise.
KS: Yes, absolutely none.
How did you handle it? You’re used to working within a limited budget. How does suddenly working on a big budget film with absolutely no bar feel? Even Francis Ford Coppola lost it with Apocalypse Now, right?
KS: Actually I handled it well. He didn’t ask for any set that I didn’t use. But I was able to write and shoot with this scale thanks to the budget. For example, I wouldn’t have thought of shooting in such a large college/hostel if I didn’t have this budget.
Which part of this whole experience was tough for you?
KS: Shooting in Darjeeling. That was actually our first schedule. I had to shoot there because that’s where I got the kind of college and ambience I was looking for. But I was told no one ever shoots in that season, due to the rains. I decided to go ahead anyway and we did it. Every time it rained, we had to wait for it to subside and then finish the shoot. It was really tough.
Are the legends about Rajinikanth true? You’ve worked with him at close quarters, does he live up to the hype?
Absolutely! More than 100%.
He’s always on time and so we all have to be. If there’s any delay he’ll ask us ‘why the delay’. So we avoid delays to avoid that question! And we had rigorous shooting schedules, which would go on through the night. He’d never go into his caravan during shoots and would stay on set and constantly prepare. He must have read the bound script at least five times! Even at this age and this stage, he’s completely involved, never saying ‘this much is enough.’
Does he improvise on set?
KS: Constantly! We’ve changed a number of lines of dialogues. He’ll keep coming up with suggestions and new ways of saying or doing a scene. He has surprised me a number of times. I would explain a scene to him and he’d say okay. But because he’s been preparing for it over and over, he’ll do it in a totally new way.
Does he stay in character or do you have to coax it out of him?
KS: He is his character. I explain the scene and the emotion, but his character’s mannerisms and body language are always constant.
Nawazuddin sticks out as a casting choice. Why him?
Even before Petta happened, I had decided that I need to bring him into Tamil cinema. I’ve followed and admired his work over the years, and somehow feel that his face is more relatable to Tamil cinema. I’m sure people who don’t know him in TN will not think of him as a Hindi actor. He has dialogues in Tamil and it’s brilliant. He’s also someone who keeps surprising me with his performance. He comes totally prepared, then does something amazing when we shoot the scene.