It’s often a germ of an idea that sparks a creative work. The crucial ‘one-liner’ that directors often develop a script from – either inspired, or drawn from real life, like the recent Theeran Adhigaram Ondru, which was based on a true incident of crime that happened in Tamil Nadu – become layered over the course of filmmaking. The climaxes become dramatic, the chase spills over just so, and humour is often prone to hyperbole.
One such film – which was based on a real-life event – eventually becoming a critical and commercial success, was Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom, a 2012 comedy that revolved around a man who loses his memory, days before his wedding.
Cinematographer-turned-director Premkumar Chandran, whose brush with memory loss inspired the film, recalls the events that led to its making and the cinematic liberties that turned it into a crowd-pleaser.
It was early 2010 when cinematographer Premkumar Chandran had a visitor at home. It was a friend of his; and unusually so, with a bound script in hand. Balaji Tharaneetharan, a batch-mate from his DFTech days at MGR Government Film and Television Training Institute, wanted to talk about an idea that he had.
Premkumar only vaguely remembered being a part of it. He’d been married for a few of years then, and had a two-year-old daughter, Veda. The script’s characters bore the names of people he knew intimately. His friends – Bugs, Bhaji, Saras – were all down there in print, in Balaji’s neat writing, as was Prem’s wife, Dhanalakshmi. The event described in the script though, eluded him as only memories can. It narrated an incident that seemed to have occurred right before his wedding: When he got hurt on the head while playing cricket. To Premkumar, a cast away pouch at home, a toilet kit carrying the name of the hospital was the only relic from the time. “I would often wonder who’d been to Ramachandra and why it was lying around here,” he laughs.
A couple of years later, Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom (2012), about a bunch of friends, one of whom loses his memory after falling while playing cricket, released to great reviews. The critics loved the film, and the audiences did all they could to support it. It was what they called a ‘runaway success’. A textbook version of it. Indeed, for a film with new actors (Bugs played himself) and crew, made on a budget of less than Rs 1 crore, and sold for just a small margin of profit, it made Rs 12 crores at the box office. And, Premkumar was its pivot; the guy who loses his memory a few days before his wedding, his friends having to scramble an alibi – sometimes with the bride herself – to make up for lapses in his behaviour. It made for eventful, larger-than-life comedy, some nice escapist entertainment – no-questions-asked.
In NKPK, the period of Prem’s memory loss was tweaked for a merrier adaptation, but the cinematographer – who’s now directing a film with Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha in the lead – assures us that he was well and conscious through his real wedding.
“The first half of the movie is what that happened in real life,” he says when we talk cinematic liberties, “it happened almost 10 days before my wedding, not two as is shown in the movie. My friends were worried, they couldn’t take me home; they had to lie to my parents and my wife (then fiancée). She found it strange because I would talk to her even when I was busy with work.” Premkumar was assistant cinematographer then, on the sets of Vaaranam Aayiram. “They had come up with crazy excuses, even told her that my phone had run out of charge.”
Vijay Sethupathi, the actor who played Premkumar in NKPK, had just gained a footing in the industry. After essaying the lead role in Thenmaerku Paruva Kaatru in 2011, Sethupathi’s 2012 movies also included Karthik Subbaraj’s Pizza – yet another low budget film that was received well. “He was well-built and muscular then,” says Premkumar, “so he had to lose a few kilos to play me.” The actor, Premkumar declares, was spontaneous, breezy and organically worked in some of his mannerisms into the character. “I would pet almost every stray dog on the road, randomly practice bowling with pebbles on the road… he wove all of that into the Prem that you’d seen on screen. People felt like they were watching me on screen.”
A dialogue of Sethupathi’s, a now famous refrain which occurs through the movie, wasn’t inspired script work. Sethupathi begins with an innocuous ‘Ennachu [What happened]?’ followed by a replay of the incident, and an almost medical explanation for his condition.
“My friends told me later that I was repeating those lines all through the night,” recalls Prem, “I grew up near a medical college in Thanjavur, our neighbours were all employees at the college and I would often help one who worked as an organ harvester.” Prem would help harvest hearts, intestines and brains, dunk them in formaldehyde. “I wasn’t squeamish or scared. Once, when we were harvesting a brain, I heard about its physical and cognitive features; the parts that control eyesight, memory, conscience… it’s strange, it was something I thought I’d forgotten, but it’d been there all the while, and surfaced at the time when I couldn’t remember much else.”
Premkumar did not forget his bride, of course – not during the wedding, anyway. An instance in the film involving the theft of his bike was steeped in reality as well. “I got back my stolen bike on the day of the reception. I hadn’t shaved or gotten a haircut when I went to collect it from the Perambur police station.
Something else had happened on the day in 2010 when Balaji Tharaneetharan brought home his script. Premkumar’s wife of four years got to know about her husband’s brush with memory loss, so did his parents. “My mother didn’t like the film when it released,” Prem says, “She thought I was being made fun of. She had gone home and cried, probably the only person who’d cried after a watching a comedy.”
“But nothing was normal about NKPK,” laughs Premkumar. “It was the first movie for the director, producer and many people acting in it. The introduction of the heroine would happen only towards the end. There were no songs, and all four characters were leads. And since there were so many leads, the budget naturally came down.” And, as it was inspired by real life, the team decided to shoot it on a handheld camera rather than a tripod-mounted one.
“We were struck by the fact that none of the real life videos that we see are perfectly-shot. News footages and home videos would all be shaky, blurred in some places, not perfectly positioned. So we chose a 5D [Canon EOS 5D Mark, a digital SLR still camera] camera. Also, since we knew we cannot exceed Rs 1 crore, we had to do some reverse thinking.”
The sets were minimal. “My house in the film was a place in North Madras – to get that old Madras look; Bugs’s home was the one featured in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaya as Simbu’s house. We rented a mandapam in Thanjavur to shoot the wedding scenes, but in hindsight, realised there wouldn’t have been much of a difference had we shot it in Chennai.” Artistes were told to memorise entire lines; “So even if we had to shoot a different scene because of weather or other reasons, they needed only 10 minutes of prep.” The film was dialogue-heavy, with several ‘single’ shots, or ones that featured conversations. In the end, the shoot was wrapped up at a little over Rs 75 lakhs. “We sold it only for a small margin of profit, but it earned Rs 12 crores in the State.
It was weirdly successful, says Premkumar, “Tell me, which producer would be okay with a film that began with the line ‘Nerame seriyilla…’”
In December 2015, Premkumar, who was stranded at home like the rest of the Chennai population, thanks to the incessant rain and the subsequent floods, wrote the script for 96 – amid bleak weather and power-cuts. “The title refers to the year in which a class had graduated – in this case, it is the Class 12 batch of 1996. The film focusses on the present lives of those characters, switching between 1996 and 2016.” It’s a romance, says Premkumar, “Not a romantic comedy. It explores the characteristics of romance in that decade. The 90s love stories had a very Idhayam quality to them…”
96 stars Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha in the lead. “Sethupathi did not warm up to it initially; probably thought it was a rehashed Korean script, but he was quite impressed when he got to know that it was my own. He wanted me to direct it.”
Calling Trisha a superstar, Premkumar says he was quite nervous about their meeting. “It’s easier to narrate to a hero than a heroine,” he smiles, “She was filming Kodi at that time, and agreed to meet me for a couple of hours. Namakku romba bayam [I was quite nervous], but she liked it as the script gives equal importance to both leads.”
The final schedule of 96 is set to go on floors next month, and the team is looking to release the film a few months later.
The Premkumar Chandran interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.
Photos: Premkumar’s Facebook page