Penguin Director Eshwar Karthik Interview

With Penguin, debutant director Eshavar Karthic wanted to show, “Regular women and how they rise to extraordinary circumstances”

Amazon Prime Video brings the much-awaited psychological thriller – Penguin which releases on 19 June 2020 from its catalogue of direct-to-slate OTT releases that were earlier scheduled for a theatrical release . A Karthik Subbaraj, Stone Bench Films and Passion Studios production, the film stars actress Keerthy Suresh in the lead. We speak to the director Eshavar Karthic who marks his debut with Penguin, ahead of its release.

What made you choose this particular story for your directorial debut?

Actually, I never worked with anyone before. This is my first time, I have never done any short film or worked as an assistant to anyone. So, before that, I actually am from a theatre background. From there, I just came to this film industry through a different script but at the last moment I thought that I want to try with a woman centric film. Because here currently in the South Industry and all over India, it’s getting unnoticed. That is why I started with a woman centric film and then I got to a point where I wanted to put a normal woman into an extraordinary situation that’s just what I wanted to show that how a girl can get into an unfamiliar situation to save herself. So that is the key point which I wrote in the script.

Is this finding through your theatre work or films, that there is not enough around this subject?

It was not like that, actually I have a lot of hero centric subjects so I thought that I can make it with a women centric at the last moment and at that time, my wife was pregnant, so I thought I should give a shot with a pregnant woman character because of that. So, I just wanted to put her in a very dedicated situation I was not specific about the character so for starters, I had only two points in my mind. But I really wanted to portray Stockholm syndrome in a different way, like what is a child feeling about his own mom, so that is what helped me write the script and I thought I don’t want to have a hard and fast rule when writing the script so all the violent and gory scenes… I just wanted to keep it like that because more women centric films don’t have that violence value. I just wanted to treat her like a normal housewife where she is going to face the problem. So that is the key point in this film. Regular women and how they rise to extraordinary circumstances.

We heard that it was the 8th draft that went into filming and that you wrote the script in 18 days. How was the journey from the first draft to the eight draft?

Usually for writers, the first draft is a blueprint so I just got all the characters ready. Then after the discussion with my direction crew, I just came up with some points because the first draft was too emotional and the thriller point was very less, so next draft was completely changed and I just made it a thriller then.

Penguin is a very interesting name for a movie but what is the reason behind it?

There were actually two points as to why I kept ‘Penguin’ as the title. Firstly, in real life the penguin clan has a different capacity, it looks like a normal bird but usually what happens is in a pack of penguins the other penguin kidnaps the kid of the female penguin. Penguin is a very calm and beautiful bird but the thing is when it loses its kid, it turns into a very violent bird and that is a real fact. And the second thing, I love this title because it is very universal and everyone can relate and understand. It is very easy to connect to people.

You mentioned Stockholm syndrome. Why did you choose to lead with that? Do you have a background in psychology or did you consult someone to build the entire piece?

I had a different script; it was a psychology thriller. So, I was interested and had spoken to many psychologists. I just came up with a lot of points related to that personality so from there I got a point that Stockholm syndrome is a unique one and that was the seed that helped me build this story. I haven’t consulted anyone. I just read many books about that and I just got the key points and how people will react when they have the syndrome and how their behaviour will change. I studied all this and I kept it in the story. The audience will find out once they see the film.

How was it working with Keerthy Suresh?

She has a very good knowledge about the ongoing process of filmmaking and she’s very clear about that. So that was very healthy for me because after the first seating, she agreed to the script. I had just narrated the story to the producer and he just gave options. The first option was Keerthy Suresh. Here I wanted a housewife, that’s it. I just don’t want to see an action lady, nothing like, she has to be very soft. This is not a glamourous role also and it’s kind of a simple housewife, how she is going to take care of her family. That’s why I thought Keerthi Suresh would be a very apt person to do this role.

You cast your own pet dog for the role as Cyrus in the film. How did that happen?

Actually, his real name is Maddy. Because he knows my body language and I know him very well, that was the reason I thought why not him. I know each and every movement of his. Right before two days, I just picked Maddy and I just took him along. So, he’s also a one take artist. We didn’t use a mic or any audio system while performing because the entire crew understood the difficulty of shooting while the dog was performing. We would be on the final and I would always communicate with him and he’ll start performing and we’ll start with the camera.

You travelled 6 kilometers to the shoot spot into the forest and 30-40 kilometers further to get there. What were the challenges?

Actually, I should thank my cinematographer and crew because without them it wouldn’t be possible. The thing is we were very planned because the entire film was ready; the entire film was made into the storybook; the entire booklet. So, we were clear- what shot we are doing and how many shots we are left with. So, for that reason actually we are very clear that we have to set up light and everything. The team will go to the spot 8 hours before and they will set the light. There were snakes, bison and a lot of stray dogs in the forest actually. And, once they were trying to attack us actually so the forest rangers covered up our entire crew for almost half a kilometer. They surrounded our entire crew and with their help only one day’s shoot happened so almost 12-16 rangers came and they acted as security.

Tell us where the inspiration for the character, umbrella man came from.

I was not planning with any mask, actually. But in the old story, I just thought to keep the antagonist, the villain who would be loved by the kids. We have never seen Charlie Chaplin in this figure, as a cruel man. It really worked out very well actually for us because the kids had started screaming actually during the shooting process. We just got out from the take and the kids were standing as audience there. All the kids were running and they ran away actually…. it went that well.

Any personal experiences you incorporated into the shoot? As you mentioned your wife being pregnant at the time when you wrote the story. Is there anything else that you brought from your personal life?

Actually, I don’t know because I always live in a fantasy world. So, all the characters are fictional hence I didn’t bring anything from my personal life. I worked with a bank before actually. I worked there as the city head for almost 8 years previously so mentally that helped me understand the psychology. I have done a lot of interviews in my life. I’ve taken almost 10,000 to 15,000 interviews so I know the psychology of different kinds of people so I just used that experience.

With the film, is there something new or different that you attempted to do that hasn’t been done before?

There are two things- trust the actor’s spontaneity, ambience and that they have just performed and they will come with a new point. So, I would add that while shooting because every day was different. We faced a lot of rain and fog. For example, we had an eight hours long day but we would have productive shooting only for four to five hours. Rest of the three hours we’ll be simply standing inside the mist or we’ll be just covering ourselves from the rain.

Is the mist in the film the actual mist and not from a smoke machine? Significant part of the film consists of that.

I had appointed a separate cameraman actually from the camera team to cover that. I asked them to shoot all the mist wherever they see so that’s what we’ve used. Everything was the real mist actually we’ve worked with. For the nightmare sequence also, we’ve shot only in the twilight time every day. 5-6 was the perfect time for shooting the this one particular nightmare sequence so we’ve only shot that for one hour. Every day, one hour was dedicated only to that sequence. We would be waiting for that light and then we’ll start shooting the sequence.

Any behind the scene fun sequence that you can recall and share with us?

One is that no one from even the crew knew who the villain is actually. Everyone was jumping in and when we were shooting the climax scene because they were so keen. One day, one of the team members from production was duped for a villain. He was randomly picked and he confused the entire crew actually like he’s the villain. And, the fun part is he thought he’s going to come through in the film. He doesn’t know he will come for a second. He was doing his entire performance which was one fun moment to see.

The other one actually, there was a particular set-up. That one, actually Keerthy was seeing for the very first time. She could not breathe in the room. It was very gory. She would always take a 10 min break to go out and then come in. Another interesting thing is that only the first 45 minutes of the film has been used in the teaser and the trailer. Rest, 1.20 hours has been kept as a secret portion which will only come out once one watches the film.

For the music in the film, you have a very stellar composer. How did you decide to work with him and how do you think the music added to the whole movie?

Entire music was composed through video calls amid the lockdown. Even till now, I have not met the music director. The entire post production was completed through phone.

The mystery thriller film is directed by Eshavar Karthic which is also his directorial debut and is being produced by Karthik Subbaraj. The film stars Keerthy Suresh, and was simultaneously shot in Tamil and Telugu languages. ‘Penguin’ is scheduled to release on 19 June 2020 exclusively on Prime Video.

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