In real life, ‘Natty’ Natarajan has all the charisma (and none of the less respectable characteristics) of his most famous character till date – Gandhi Babu from Sathuranga Vettai, the film he credits for bringing him into the limelight.
Despite his many successes – the most recent being his work on Puli, Natty is a pleasing blend of self-deprecation, charm and sound common sense; which make him instantly likeable. He also has an admirable track record when it comes to his film career – he has worked with the likes of Anurag Kashyap and Imtiaz Ali, an integral part of the new wave in Indian Cinema.
Natty has always had an instinctive knack for picking the right people and projects, he tells me. That, or he is very shrewd indeed. “I only take on films that I can adapt to. I must love that idea to be able to invest so much of my time in it. That’s about it.”
He knew very early that he wasn’t cut out for the ‘usual’ life. “I hated restrictions. When I was growing up, I felt stifled in classrooms. But more than that, I loved photography and movies. dy/dx paled in comparison to cinematography.”
Things came to a head when he quit school right after his grade 12 exams. He had no intention of ever stepping into a college. Naturally, pandemonium reigned in his household. “I don’t have much by way of formal education. My father was initially worried about how I’d live my life. But, there comes a time when you have to listen to yourself more than anybody else. When you do that, success will follow. So that’s what I did.”
Natty then took on a series of odd jobs to sustain his love for the camera. “I used to borrow a camera from a friend and scrape together enough money to buy film rolls. I needed sixty rupees then. A while later, I could no longer expect money from my Appa. So I began working in the wedding circuit, taking photos of brides. The next logical step was videography. With a JVG 170, I started earning more money.”
Initially, it was difficult for Natty to make a mark in the industry. After assisting cinematographer Vijayalakshmi, he gave cinema the old college try. “I approached several people to try and get things going. But I couldn’t achieve much as they all wanted to see examples of my work. All I had was photographs and experience assisting a lot of other people.”
A chance encounter with a friend led to an opportunity to work on a documentary. Natty travelled all over the country for the project, making a lot of friends along the way. One of those friends was Shoojit Sircar, director of films like Piku and Vicky Donor, and whom Natty calls ‘Macha‘ with great affection. “Shoojit and I were cinema mad. We clicked instantly. At the time, music videos and commercials were popular. So we ventured into that sphere. I shot for a few videos of Euphoria, and it received very good response.
Though Shoojit has approached Natty many a time to be part of his projects, it didn’t materialize. “I am very much a part of his innermost circle, but till now, we haven’t been able to work together. I did dub for his Madras Cafe though. Appidi ippidi oru 3 characters ku voice kuduthirukken.”
It was through Ram Gopal Varma that Natty met Anurag Kashyap. “I was approached by RGV first, but I couldn’t work with him. But with Anurag, I got to do three projects. Last Train to Mahakali was our first. When that got acclaim, we went on to do Paanch and Black Friday. ”
Their first film together – Paanch, is yet to see theatrical release. Around the same time, Natty was offered Tamil projects as well. First was Youth, in which he worked with actor Vijay for the first time. “Right after that, I committed to work on AR Murugadoss’s Ramana. But just then, Anurag requested me to come work for his big break – Black Friday. Avanukkaga vittuttu poiten Ramanava. But ARM sir understood!”
He has never looked back since. Natty has worked in Tamil films largely as an actor till now. His Puli marks his return to Tamil cinema after a couple of decades. It’s a brilliant feeling, he says. “Dedicated cast and crew. Extremely talented director and of course, Vijay sir. I couldn’t have asked for a better project!”
Natty has worked on the project for the last seven months and is all praise for its lead, Vijay. “He has remained the same person since Youth. But his talent has grown by leaps and bounds. His acting is nuanced and amazing to watch. Almost all days, after he finishes a shot, it has become normal practice for the crew and the 200-odd junior artistes to stop and clap. He has a legion of fans for his mass image, but he is also the most underrated actor out there. And, patient. Thalakonam* schedule mudichittu vandhappo Vijay sir karuppa vandhaaru. That’s the extent to which I’ve plagued him these past months. But he didn’t complain. Not even a little. That’s how dedicated he is. He was an example to everybody on set.”
Conrad Hall is an inspiration of sorts for Natty. “His work on Road to Perdition was amazing. He is the kind of man, an artist really, who put his stamp in the commercial format. Life is not always bright or dark. It’s a mix of both. Through lighting and composition, there are cinematographers who bring realism to films and allow the audience into the story. Those are the people I love. That’s what I aspire to do with every project.”
He likens his job to that of an artist. “When it comes to a film, the way it is presented is very important. The right story needs to have perfect cinematography. See, there are many ways to fake it till you make it. Anybody can fix four lights, add a lot of filters and make a watchable movie. But there won’t be any heart in it. Every story I come across, it has to invoke a feeling in my heart. If it does, then I’d leave all else behind for it. There have been many films that I missed out on due to this.”
That brings him right to his personal motto – Dil se banana. Do it from the heart. This principle has led him to be part of works as diverse as Golmaal Returns, Parineeta and Jab We Met. “Every film I’ve worked on has been game changing. Concept is everything now. I’m very lucky to have met people who had great concepts. It’s been an exciting ride, so far.”
* An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Puli was shot in Arakkonam. It was shot at Thalakonam. We regret the error.
The Natarajan Subramaniam interview is a Silverscreen exclusive