Producer/Director karthik subbaraju interview

“70% of the locations we’ve shot in have never been shot before”, ‘Penguin’ producers Karthik Subbaraj and Kaarthekeyen Santhanam in conversation for their upcoming release

From its promising catalogue of direct-to-OTT releases, Amazon Prime Video brings the much-awaited psychological thriller – Penguin which releases on 19 June 2020. A Karthik Subbaraj, Stone Bench Films and Passion Studios production, the film stars National Film Awards winning actress Keerthy Suresh in the lead. The producers of the film- Karthik Subbaraj and Kaarthekeyen Santhanam are excited for the Amazon Prime release and have a lot to tell, ahead of its release.

Tell us about your vision for the film. Why did you choose the project, what were your concerns, the challenges?

Karthik: So, basically apart from the films and myself directing films, when we started Stone Bench, the main idea was to produce good content. And the primary idea is to sort of produce films for the new, first time directors. That’s what we actually aimed at. So, our first production was also with a first-time director. So, our idea is to produce good content and kind of unusual scripts and also for first time directors. We wanted our production house to be a place where new filmmakers look upon and feast their ideas. The first production was also with a new director. So, then we produced my film, Mercury and after that we decided to go for production. Eashvar actually pitched this film to Kaartekeyen and they just told me an idea about the film and I quite liked the plot of the film and also because it’s more of a woman centric thriller. There is a strong female character, but it’s not preachy. But it’s more of a thriller but with a strong woman character, so that’s the thing I liked. The entire narration and the entire treatment of the film was very unique for me when the director narrated the whole film. So he actually gave me a complete narration, we could actually visualize what is there in the film. It was like the suspense was maintained till he revealed what was the film’s end. We thought it would be a good film, so we got into this production.

Kartekeeyan: In terms of message, the film talks from a mother’s perspective which eventually becomes women-centric. Then you have a thriller and mystery component adding to it which also talks about a slight social aspect. So when you put everything across to it you know, the deeper laying message that anybody can take from it just makes sure to keep your feet safe even though you have the closest of it but always keep them protected.

Penguin is a very interesting name for a film but what made you decide on it?
Kartekeeyan: When it popped up it was very unique for me. Why penguin? But in the Tamil language, “pen” is “women” and queen is queen so it’s like saying that it’s, “women queen” not literally translating but gives you that effect of “women queen”. So that is the one reason which really made me feel okay from Tamil perspective. It is giving me a new perspective of the title … So, if somebody asks what penguin is, I’m going to say it’s not English penguin but its “pen” is “female” and queen is queen so we are running a show with a female-centric, women, mother, so this is what the Tamil audience will take it. But on the contrary, when we talk about the other language audience, Eashvar always had a background which we would’ve told about- of Penguins which are so protective about their kids and it goes to any extent. I just love that it also has something to do with Tamil language. And, we said let’s go for it. … And the story also starts with, like you’ve seen mom talking to her kid, telling a penguin story and it ends with that, so it’s all connected.

So, Keerthy Suresh was your first choice and she hasn’t done the role of a mother before so how did you feel this would be the right role for her?

Karthik: Yeah because I think the director had very few names as an option. But as soon as he told Keerthy, we all felt she would be the right choice for this. And then I think after seeing her performance in Mahanati, she carried the entire film, and delivered a superb performance. We definitely thought she could pull this off.

Kartekeeyan: Adding to this, the moment the director narrated the story, we were exploring options. But if you look at it from performance point of view, after Mahanati, which Keerthy got the National award for, she was in the hearts and minds of all the people because of her performance. She was one of the heroines who came at very early stages, like 20-21 and before 24, she was the name in Tamil and Telugu movies. So that, nobody has achieved but from a performance point of view that was completely different and Mahanati was completely different. So, when we were discussing, I was telling Eashvar, “Eashvar we need a great performer. What Keerthy did in Mahanati was out of the world so I’m sure I think we should take the best on Keerthy here and today I would love to go about it.” To be honest, when I made this decision talking with Eashvar, I wasn’t even thinking about markets of Telugu or anything. I was only looking at it as a Tamil film at the time.

How was the experience of shooting? So, tell us more about the setting and some of the concerns while you were doing the entire process of production? What did you start out with and does the finished product exceed your expectations?

Karthik: As far as my involvement is concerned, I am more involved with the initial creative process of the film, and then once the production starts, it was Kaartekeyen who took care of everything. But what I actually told them was, when we actually listened to the story, it needed to be a visually brilliant film, and it needed to be a visually strong and technically brilliant film. So we made sure we got the right technicians on board. As far as the genre is concerned, the technicality of the film needs to be very strong. Karthik Palani, the DoP, I know him because he worked on my film. So, I know him, I knew he would turn out to be very good DoP. And once he was on board, I was sure it’ll be visually good. And location wise, the entire mood of the film needs to be what was written and a lot of credit goes to the director and his team. They found the location and all that. During the shoot and in between they just showed me a one minute footage of what they shot and I was really happy and I could see the film was coming out really well and what we expected was coming out in the right way. And after that I saw the final, not the final, but the dub cut, and we were all very happy about the film.

Talking about the location, how did you decide on that? How did the team come along on that?

Kartekeeyan: So basically, when it comes to hill stations in Tamil Nadu obviously, you know, we have Kodaikanal and Ooty, the two promising and prominent hill stations over here. So, the first thing is, most of the shoots happened in Ooty. We said let’s not go to Ooty because the cinematographer was very keen about the fact that he really wants to find locations that have never been shot because Ooty has been explored a lot actually. The other film which we’re going to make had the same location. So, we chose Kodaikanal and I would say the whole credit goes to Eashvar and the cinematographer who actually made their way to Kodaikanal along with our executive producer, and they made sure that they got a very nice location. I’m sure like 70% of the locations we’ve shot in have never been shot before.

Apparently, it was 30-40 kilometres away from where these guys were staying and they were driving every day to the location but it was really beautiful. Being professional comes in the picture when we have a professional team. We believe in pre-production actually, so the pre-production with the flow is going to make you feel that post-production and production are a cakewalk for you because we take a lot of time in making sure that we do the pre-production and I always treat these 7 major parts of technicians to be, I call them the ‘magnificent 7’, so I said anything that goes into the flow have to have the approval of the magnificent 7. Even if one is concerned, then it has to be discussed and the concern has to be met. So, I think the credit goes to the entire team for that actually.

The film is now premiering exclusively on an OTT platform like Amazon Prime. So how is this change for you guys, now that it is going to be on Prime video?

Karteekeyan: See to be honest, we are very happy about the fact, what’s happening. I’m not denying the fact that the film was not made for theatre. Of course, the film was made for theatrical experience because that’s how it started. For me theatre, OTT, my input and the way we’re going to shoot the film and the amount of budget we’re going to spend on the film is always going to be the same. The product is a baby. For me, it’s about delivering the baby the right way, keeping the mother safe and keeping the baby safe. That’s what is more important for me. So obviously, we don’t look at any differences between how we’re making the content so it brings the standard which is the benchmark standard that the production house has set up. So, when we had this situation come into picture, to be honest we were really happy. We toast to Amazon because one, they have chosen a great product because they didn’t go with all the products. Across the entire nation they have chosen only 10 products and the product when it is on Amazon, it helps us in getting that name out in the world. Second thing is, now it has become a three languages film. Initially, it was supposed to be Tamil, Telugu only now, we have to explore it to become Malayalam as well so the number of eyeballs that’s going to watch the film is going to be much much bigger than what we could’ve even imagined when we had the film release in the theatres and then come to Amazon. So, putting it across together, there is a certain checklist that has been achieved. One is, number of eyeballs. The baby is being delivered to the right platform, and Amazon exclusivity is something which is happening for the first time, so being part of this journey for the first time makes it really special.

We heard that everyone was very clear, that this has to be entertaining and a message is something that comes organically from it. What was your intent when you started out?

Karthik: Yeah, because when Eashvar actually first told me about this, he just told it like more than a thriller, it’s actually a story of a mother. It’s a mother’s story. And so, I think the emotional connect was there throughout the script. A mother’s connection to protecting her child and then whatever and how far she would go to save… that emotional centre is there right throughout the film and I think that I feel would be the most, the audience would be able to connect to it.

The film is at par with any International production just in terms of cinematography, in terms of styling, even in terms of performance delivery. Is that a conscious decision, is that something that you sort of thought about and said we want to go down this route?

Karthik: No, I mean when we initially had discussion with Eashvar and he actually told us the look and as I said, there was a visual thing I could actually visualize when he narrated. And initially even the photoshoot came out of Keerthy’s first look and all, and everything was right from the costume and feel. I somehow felt they were right. The director has the vision and I think he was pretty much the director was keen to bring out the development. When he actually even narrated, it was very unique and I somehow asked him, see this has to transform into screen the way you narrated, and I think they have done a very great job in bringing that out. Because I was keen on bringing the thriller but when you actually connect to the psychology of the protagonist, the trauma and all that, that’s all very unique which we don’t often see in films. I mean, our issues are constrained because she is also pregnant and she has to push forward to find out and save her kid and all, so there are a lot of constraints to the protagonist and that I felt is really good. And even the scene with the dog also. I personally have very bad experience shooting with animals so when he actually told the script, I told, see that’s going to be the challenging part for you, because we are casting only good performers so they will definitely give good performance, but you never know about the dog so, and he has written extensively for that thing. And then he said, I think that’s the director’s own pet. So he was pretty much confident that he could get that from him, so that was actually the good part.

So, this is actually also a psychological thriller, right? So, did you dive into any reference material, talk to anyone? How did you build up to that kind of a psychological thriller space?

Karthik: So, my part was basically, I had some lengthy discussion with the director after the film was shot and I saw the first cut and then we actually discussed how the sound element has to play a very important role in the film and also the music. And also, I had a very long discussion with Santosh. He was seeing the first cut of the film and was clear what sort of music has to go in. His way of treating the background score is going to be more International and sort of… merging with the sound design, and silence and all that and that was a varying part. And the way they worked out and brought it out, that actually sort of enhances the experience of the film because Palani has done his part in the visual, but bringing it out and enhancing it more lies with the sound designers and the music director. So, I think they both, Santhosh and Kurian Thomas have done an excellent job there.

We heard that the music was actually done while the lockdown was on. So, it would be one of the first albums produced within the lockdown.

Karthik: So, it was all done during lockdown. Usually the director sits along with the music director for the background score and they sort of plan. This was more of a video conferencing and then discussing and all. But it was all pretty much of a new experience for all of us.

Why did you particularly choose the Charlie Chaplin mask for the antagonist?

Karthik: So again, it was the director’s choice to bring that out because when he initially told us that it would be a mask used throughout the film for the antagonist and all that. And then when he said it’s going to be Charlie Chaplin’s; I sort of liked the idea because we have seen Charlie Chaplin is like a legend in comedy and we all like him and love him for his comedy. And then sort of making that particular… the image assets to carry… that itself was a new idea and I also told him, if it works out that’s a bigger thing. They have done a lot of clown faces being used in horror faces and all that. So, using Charlie Chaplin was a great idea and it also worked out very well.

We also see the umbrella and the use of the colour yellow very significantly, right? Again, was there a thought behind that?

Karthik: For the umbrella, I think the visual assistant’s internal decision with the DoP and the director made that possible. They have brought out that colour palette and all very well. Especially in the background of the forest, it was very stark. It really stood out.

Shooting in a forest must have been tough. Can you tell us what went behind it?

Karthik: The way the entire crew has shot this film I think because shooting in a hill station like that, it’s sort of challenging and then there are a lot of night shoots. When they actually shot, it was sort of very cold but these guys took a bit of more risk because there were some shots which I heard, there was one scene in the film where the antagonist won’t be seen clearly but has to be standing at a distance. I was not there during the shoot but these guys said it was a very risky shot because they had the camera quite in a distant place and all the entire crew was here. After a point, I think from the forest, some animals really started coming out and then he started screaming there and said okay just shoot whatever you can in 30 seconds and I am going to run from here and then he came out running. So, we have taken quite a risk in shooting some sequences and all.

The mystery psychological thriller ‘Penguin’ 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. As the makers put it, Penguin is the story of motherhood and is scheduled to release on 19 June 2020 exclusively on Prime Video.

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