Interview Tamil

Wanted the film to give people hope: Madhumita Sundararaman on KD

Filmmaker Madhumita Sundararaman speaks about creating KD, the film's original ending, and the accidental discovery of its eight-year-old star, Nagavishal.

Shriram Iyengar

It was at the 10th Jagran Film Festival in Mumbai in October that we managed to watch a wonderful little film called, simply, KD.

Directed by Madhumita Sunderraman, KD tells the story of an 80-year-old man on the run from his family who want to end the long wait for his death. Along the way, he meets an eight-year-old orphan, Kutty, and thus begins a journey filled with laughter, kindness and life lessons.

Sweet and charming, the film went on to earn its eight-year-old debutant Nagavishal the Best Actor award at the festival.

Speaking to after the festival, director Madhumita Sundararaman revealed that the idea for the film sprang from the experience of watching her 90-year-old grandfather still exhibit excitement for travel in his last years. "That's when it hit me," she said. "It is about the life in his eyes. At 94, bedridden, they haven't had time to look at themselves as individuals. It is only in their last moments that they start to wonder who they are as a person, something we take for granted."

After pitching the concept to Saregama's Yoodlee Films, the director sat and penned the script in four days. "It was all there in my mind. It was just a matter of putting it down on paper," she explained.

This spontaneous work is transformed on screen through the performances of its two leads, Mu Ramasamy and Nagavishal. While the former is a 70-year-old theatre veteran and professor, the latter is an eight-year-old novice who was not even interested in films.

KD review: A journey back into childhood with two fantastic and lively characters

Speaking of Nagavishal's audition, the director revealed, "It was funny because he had only come with his mother to accompany [his older brother]. He kept commenting, 'He is never going to get it. He is not going to make the cut.' So I said, 'If you are so confident, why don't you give it a try?' And he said, 'No, I am not into cinema. I don't want to get into all of this.' I found it very refreshing and honest, and realized that was Kutty."

With the film set for a theatrical release on 22 November, it will be interesting to see how the audience reacts to a film that walks away from the fanfare of stars into a more heartfelt and emotional story. Excerpts from the interview with Madhumita Sundararaman:

Talk to us about the idea and how it came about. To make a film about a ritual to euthanize old people and then turn it into something positive is a unique twist.

My grandfather was in the air force. He had had several accidents and had retired early on. So when he slipped and fell in the bathroom, he broke his hip. They had given him 3–6 months, where he was bedridden all the time. I had read about these rituals a while ago, but I had never realized how to make it into a film.You need to know what is the perspective you take on the film, whose story is it. It is a very dark subject.

I wanted to be the kind of filmmaker who expresses both sides of the opinion. When I met my grandfather, he was drifting in and out of consciousness. At one time, he asked, 'Will you take me to Indonesia?' That's when it hit me. It is about the life in his eyes. At 94, bedridden, and they haven't had time to look at themselves as individuals. It is only in their last moments that they start to wonder who they are as a person. Something we take for granted, as people of this generation. In that generation, all they were taught is that if you are man, you have to take care of your family. It comes first.

Considering the origin of the concept, and the story, was it always the idea to treat it in a lighter vein, with humour?

I got the concept and the perspective of the film. I wrote a synopsis of two pages and took it to Saregama. They loved it and asked for the script. Now, I didn't expect it to get greenlit so quickly. I wanted to find a writer who was more rural for the dialogues and rituals. I have grown up in Chennai and abroad and didn't really know the rural side to add that element of authenticity to the culture and way of speaking.

Saregama, because they liked the concept so much, kept asking me about the script. One day, out of sheer frustration, I sat down in my apartment in Goregaon [in Mumbai] and wrote it down in four days. It all came out since it was processed in my mind, and it was [simply] a matter of putting it down on paper.

The original ending was actually KD returning to his family, signing the will and agreeing to the ritual. We cut to black with the sound of him drowning in the water. I sent it to my dad, and he had tears. I sent it to my husband, and he thought it was brilliant. But the one feedback I got was that the end made them feel I was approving of the ritual.

That's when the change happened, when I decided I need the film to give them hope. Their life is worth something. While I am sure it would have done great at festivals, I didn't want to make an ending for the sake of that. What was organic for the film was the hope the characters keep giving each other.

It is particularly enhanced by the chemistry between Kutty and KD. Despite the age gap between them....

Yeah. When I was narrating the story to Mu Ra sir, instinctively what comes to him was 'Kutty is a grandchild'. That instinct is something I had to correct every time. I told him, 'You need to stop seeing him as a child. You need to start seeing him as a friend.' In fact, it is the other way round.

It was interesting for me as well. It [the protecting] is what KD would have done as well, in his character. At the same time, they are par with each other. He scolds the boy, and the boy scolds him back. That helped bring that chemistry.

How long did it take to find the two actors for these characters? What was the audition process like?

The bigger struggle was the business angle of it. We considered a lot of things; for instance, casting Dhanush and having him play an older character. Or getting a yesteryear actor, like Mr Sathyaraj or Prakash Raj. But the story was so real that I didn't want to blemish it with this inauthenticity. Mu Ra sir is about 70 years old and in terms of the ageing factor, we spent time not on his makeup but on his body language. He is actually very fit and walks every morning and all that. He is a professor at a university as well. So we worked on slowing him down.

The biggest challenge was that he would walk very fast, by instinct. The scene where he is escaping from his home took 10 takes. I had to keep telling him, 'Walk even slower. You have just woken up from a coma.' Those little things were a challenge.

We are glad both actors are exactly as they were imagined. A film will attract the kind of energy it needs. In that way, this film is fantastic for me and has attracted all sorts of positive energy.

Nagavishal (R) with actor Manoj Bajpayee at the 10th Jagran Film Festival

For Kutty, we auditioned in Madurai. It was the older brother who was auditioning. It was funny because Nagavishal had only come with their mother to accompany him. He kept commenting, 'He is never going to get it. He is not going to make the cut.' So I said, 'If you are so confident, why don't you give it a try?' And he said, 'No, I am not into cinema. I don't want to get into all of this.' (Laughs.) I found it very refreshing and honest, and realized that was Kutty.

I might be overreading this, but female filmmakers do capture vulnerability in their characters better than male filmmakers. Is that observation correct?

Thank you, that is an interesting angle to look at. The one thing my father always said was never aspire to be anyone else. Be yourself. Even in high school, I was a physics and chemistry student who didn't enjoy anything about science. I was always in my 60s–70s. The moment I went to college and studied filmmaking, I was getting straight A's. It was about going into the right stream, I suppose.

I realize that there is a dearth of female filmmakers, much as I hate to use the term. I don't think a person's gender has anything to do with filmmaking. But there is so much more space for female filmmakers to come in and show their perspective. If I am considered one of them, I am happy to be that.

The chemistry between KD and Kutty is also helped by the dialogues, which are sparkling. Was that all written or were parts of it improvised?

Of course there were improvisations. I must say my dialogue writer, Sabari Vasan, fantastically brought in the humour. My screenplay had a gist of the dialogues. But my thinking happens in English; Sabari brought in the right accent and local jokes. That adds to the authenticity of the film.

I believe in improvisations. I don't believe in showing my actors. It is a collaborative process. I explain the characters to them enough. I need them to bounce back with how they are envisioning it. Then we fine-tune every piece. For those actors to contribute, for the dialogues to happen, what was the most instinctive movement for the characters to come up with. If it matches with how I imagined it, great. Otherwise, we work on fine-tuning it.

The music also contributes a great deal to add an emotional layer and subtext to the incidents on screen. How long did it take you to get the music right?

As far as the music is concerned, Karthik (Karthikeya Murthy) had worked with me on my previous film. We are great friends as well. When this film happened and I told him the script, he told me, 'You are not going to anybody else.' He loved it.

He would send me tunes, as far as the songs were concerned, and I would point out the zone, the mood, and the tone. We wanted to use as many rural instruments as possible. The entire film was scored, including music, with live instrumentation. A lot of it is actual instrumentation. He created some instruments and sounds through things that didn't exist.

Vijay, my editor, we do a rough cut of the film before going into the scoring phase. We put in some temp [temporary] scores to understand the scene. From that point onwards, Karthik would create music through the emotion the scene is inducing.

Filmmaking is all about emotion for me. It is not about the craft, the language, or anything else. At the end of the day, if I can communicate this emotion to the audience, then as a team we have succeeded. We spent over a month recording live instruments, and that is what is adding a touch to the film.

The film has been to quite a few festivals, and has been received well. Were you surprised at all by it?

To be honest, no filmmaker ever sets out to make a bad film. All of us, when we make a film, there is a sense of insecurity about whether the audience will relate [to it]. I have produced films myself. My first two films were produced inhouse. I know what it is like, and that concern was there. Like my husband keeps telling me, 'Your job is to make the film. What happens afterward is the fate of the film.'

Sounds very spiritual.

It does, right? (Laughs.) He is not very spiritual at all, but he is quite knowledgeable like that. He married me, didn't he? (Laughs again.)

Jokes apart, that is all we set out to do. To get the emotions across on screen. Everything else comes later.

One of the biggest challenges, I think, is identifying the right crew. My two biggest areas of concern have always been my cinematographer and art director. I had never worked with Mei [Meyyendiran Kempuraj, cinematographer] before. Sabari, my dialogue writer, says it all the time, this film is so honest and authentic that it has attracted the right people throughout.

Every screening I sit in the audience, I am still nervous. I think, 'Why aren't they laughing here when they should be? Or vice versa.' Each audience is different. In the UK, people were laughing out every few seconds. In the screening at Jagran, while there were laughs, it was more chuckles and not loud laughter. I am always surprised by how an audience reacts.

With a subject like this, it is always important to find a producer who is supportive. What was the initial interaction with Yoodlee? Were there any changes suggested?

The great thing about Yoodlee is that they know what kind of films they want to make. A producer who believes in the script and wants to back it is a huge challenge. I am appreciative of the fact that they believed in the script from the beginning.

As far as the process goes, whatever the differences of opinion were, and there will always be with every project, they were discussed before we went for the shoot. At the script stage, all the arguments and contentions were sorted out. The day I went for shooting, there was no interference. There have been times before when producers have arrived on the set with suggestions.

Are you excited about the theatrical release?

Yes! The challenge for a film like this is that although there are quite a number of non-star films releasing in Tamil cinema, the struggle to get theatres is just as hard. The idea is to have a smaller release and then as word of mouth spreads increase it.

Are you looking at OTT platforms?

Absolutely. The producers are already in conversation with them, and one has almost been locked. The producers would be the right people to talk about that.

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Jagran Film Festival