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Interview Tamil

The relevance of Nasir is something to be ashamed of: Filmmaker Arun Karthick

Winner of the NETPAC award at the Rotterdam film festival this year, Nasir is being screened at the We Are One global film festival on YouTube today.

Shriram Iyengar

In 2016, fresh from his first film, Sivapuranam (2013), filmmaker Arun Karthick set up a small coffee kiosk in the city of Coimbatore. In September, the communal riots that broke out in the aftermath of the murder of an extremist Hindu leader saw his shop being looted and broken down, along with many others. But it was the communal nature of the riots that shocked Karthick into his next project.

"I saw for myself the fuming communalism that had been brewing," the filmmaker told Cinestaan.com. "Even before that, we had been reading about things that were happening in different parts of the country, Now, it showed up in my city and I had seen it for myself. I thought I should be expressing this. The moment I thought of that, I went back to the short story."

The short story he is referring to, Dilip Kumar's A Clerk's Story, was transformed into Nasir. Nominated for the prestigious HIVOS Tiger, the film won the NETPAC award at this year's Rotterdam International Film Festival. Nasir is being screened today at the We Are One global film festival on YouTube. Click here to watch Nasir.

Nasir is a touching film about a quiet man, poetic in his silence and kind in his behaviour, who finds himself caught in this growing fervour around him. Despite his efforts, in the end, it consumes him without mercy. This senselessness is what Arun Karthick seeks to emphasize through his film. 

"There is a randomness in this violence," the filmmaker said. "This randomness is, for me, the most violent part."

In many ways, Karthick's journey to Nasir mirrors the journey of Dilip Kumar into his short story, Written in the late 1990s, the short story was triggered after Dilip Kumar learnt about an old friend being killed in a riot. "He took inspiration from it," the filmmaker said. "When he was working in a cloth shop in the 1970s as a boy, he had a person like Nasir to assist him. He [Dilip Kumar] later moved to Chennai and became a writer, and one day learned that the man was killed in riots. If you look at the chain, in the 1970s, 1990s, 2014-15-16, it keeps happening."

In 2020, the film still strikes the viewer as true and relevant. Almost guiltily, the filmmaker said, "I don't want to feel happy that the film is so relevant. It is something to be ashamed of. I would be happy that it is well told. But relevance is a tragic reality."

Well told it certainly is, with an impact that is not easy to overcome. With the film set to be premiered on YouTube today as part of the We Are One global film festival in the midst of a pandemic, Arun Karthick spoke about the process, the ideals, and the need to make Nasir in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:

Nasir is a beautiful, layered film. Before I start with the questions, tell us about the opening montage. It is a wonderful moment that captures the sounds, silence and calm in Nasir's life.

This film is an adaptation of a short story by Dilip Kumar, and the short story begins with the line that shows this man sleeping. I liked the idea of beginning the film with that point. The whole form of the short story inspired me. I also thought it was a nice way to understand what his neighbourhood looks or feels like. I sensed that it was much better to capture it with the quiet. To capture him sleeping, with the azaan [Muslim call to prayer] functioning like an alarm clock, an integral part of his life.

Even when I read the story, it was with the azaan. I wanted the azaan to have a rhythmic playout. Even though the shots were dark, it helped to make people understand what kind of a neighbourhood it is, and who Nasir is as a man.

When did you read the short story, and what drew you back to it?

I read the short story in 2013, but I made a different film, Sivapuranam. In 2016 September, there was a riot in Coimbatore. A right-wing leader was killed, and to avenge his death, about 700 or 800 people went on a riot breaking shops. I had a small coffee shop on the same road, which I had started a month ago. Then one morning, a mob destroyed the kiosk. I saw them destroying a lot of other bigger shops. I saw for myself the fuming communalism that had been brewing.

Even before that, we had been reading about things that were happening in different parts of the country. Now, it showed up in my city and I had seen it for myself. I thought I should be expressing this. I went back to the short story. The story had kept haunting me because it expresses this communal hatred in such a poignant way.

A key moment that really holds you is the shopkeeper discussing starting a riot, while Nasir watches on. It feels like a very ordinary thing to them, yet it is something so wrong.

That is the more frightening part. These extremist groups have brainwashed the middle class and upper middle class, who are otherwise honest working people, with a certain non-existent hope. They have brainwashed them into thinking that there is a sect of people who should be hated, and the development of the country depends on it. This is happening on an everyday level through normal means.

For us to make a statement requires us to go through all those details, not to talk about it on the peripheral level from a bird's-eye view.

The soundscape of the film is one of the elements that perform this task on the ground level. It opens up the disparity between Nasir and the world around him. Did you have a clear conception of the soundscape when you started out? How did it take shape?

When I started imagining the film in my head, I thought of Coimbatore as a bustling city. We wanted to follow Nasir and stay with him as he goes about his day. The sound does a similar job where the closeness of the character is reflected. It should converge into the character, not diverge away from him. That's why we designed the film in mono. Our sound designer and cinematographer suggested that the format is interesting where the idea of laying tracks itself is more like composing. When you have five or six layers to coordinate sound, it is different. But when you have everything on one layer, you become very choosy about what you want the audience to hear and what not.

With regards to the announcements [in one scene Nasir walks across from his Muslim neighbourhood to a street with an extremist announcement taking place over a loudspeaker], that was actually a real announcement that we recorded. It is a case of actuality, where this is how it is. Two streets away you will step into a right-wing Hindu neighbourhood where every celebration is amplified into speeches or pre-recorded speeches. It is very clear what the intention is. In fact, our recordings were much harsher. I only took what I needed to make the point.

It is very interesting that they co-exist as well. Within these few streets, there is a stark contrast. Yet, there are no riots. Such hate speech has become normalized.

I believe this co-existence is what makes the story that much more effective...

In cinema, there is a tendency where, for heightened exaggeration and dramatic quality, we need to call out the enemy. Life does not work that way. Even though we might hate a certain person, we talk to them and work with them. Nasir works with the people in the shop and passes off their comments and tries to look at their other sides. The blacks and whites and greys form the palette.

Most of us go through life without having our identity questioned most of the time. For a Muslim, to always be under the radar or be looked down upon, for such a person to not spit the venom out and to internalize it and be okay with it or have no complaints about it is quite interesting.

Talk to us about the casting process.

The pre-production of the film took about three years for me. All those years I was living in the neighbourhood. In September 2016, the idea of making the film happened. Immediately, I went to the neighbourhood and took up a house there. That is the house Nasir lives in. I wanted to live there and get a feel of life there. Before I can talk about my character, I wanted to know what it feels to live like them. I started absorbing faces and the unique characters. That is where the visual effect comes from. I did not want to be a tourist.

Most often, I preferred actors who had never performed before and that's how I found the rest of the cast. But every time I had to go to pitch the story to producers, the question would be 'who is your protagonist?' because this is a make-or-break film with the protagonist. So, a friend recommended Koumarane to me. I had not seen him. I had known him as a theatre director. I immediately googled him up and could see from the first image that this was Nasir. Immediately after speaking with him, I knew I wanted him. He is also close to Nasir, in that he has qualities that you want to bring out.

A key quality is silence, the pauses that Nasir dwells in, throughout the film. Was that a key part when you were planning the film, or did it develop as you progressed?

No, it was planned. How do you bring out the dignity of a character? You let him have his moments. In everyday life, the moments when you are by yourself — having a smoke, drinking tea, or sitting quietly — doing things by yourself when you are not being a slave to anyone, that is when you see the character. All these pauses are where the character's sanity is validated. 

In the short story, there was a clear description of how many beedis he smokes in a day. He smokes 10 beedis a day, at different intervals, has four cups of tea. I liked that specification. If you take that out, I don't know what Nasir would be like. He wouldn't be the same.

Like the Ilayaraaja song 'Pani Vizhum Malarvanum' in the morning, and the ghazal in the afternoon naptime...

Yes, these moments... that's the idea. How do you transfix the ephemeral into the real?

You began working on the film in 2016. In 2020, we have only seen an increase, if anything, of the communal atmosphere around us. In such times, how do you view the film? Do you find a change in audience reaction?

It is almost tragic, I would say, that the movie is becoming more and more relevant. I would like to see the day when the film is no longer relevant but just seen as a thing of the past. Even then, whatever you feel would be there, but the political situation should not be recognizable. That's what it should become. [But] more and more you can recognize the problems the film reflects.

We are in a really bad state. I did not expect all of these things would happen when I read the story. Even before the whole scene I explained, we knew about mob lynchings. The idea for me came from the short story itself. To look at it through a character, a single person.

The writer, Dilip Kumar, had written it in 1999 in the aftermath of the Coimbatore bomb blasts. He took inspiration from it. When he was working in a cloth shop in the 1970s as a boy, he had a person like Nasir to assist him. He [Dilip Kumar] later moved to Chennai and became a writer, and one day learnt that the man was killed in a riot. If you look at the chain, in the 1970s, 1990s, 2014-15-16, it keeps happening. We don't want it to happen. I don't want to feel happy that the film is so relevant. It is something to be ashamed of. I would be happy that the story was well told. Relevance is a tragic reality.

It is well told. The little nuances, visual and sound, draw you to invest in Nasir's character, though he is someone you would ignore if you met him on the street...

Exactly! He is not a hero. There are so many people like him. If you walk past him on the street, you would not even notice him. That's why more than 100 people have been lynched so far, and most of them we do not even remember their faces, or where they are from. When telling the story of such ordinary people, even though the context might be larger, you cannot make heroes or martyrs of them. 

The climax is an interesting factor. When you meet people for financing, they often say, "Oh you will be showing a riot! You will need a lot of people, there will be action and all." They get a kick out of it. Sometimes, as a filmmaker, you, too, will be drawn into making an action scene out of it. To set up the enemy.

You have to realign yourself and see what happens in life. In reality, you never know the mob is there unless you walk into them. There is a randomness in this violence. It has to be told in the right way. This randomness is, for me, the most violent part. Which is why we did not want to show how they beat him up. It is about how helpless we are watching it on our mobile phones or from a window in the neighbourhood.

When adapting a short story to a film, how do you choose what to leave out?

A lot of people who have read the short story would like to film it. It has a nice form. When the short story inherently has a nice form, you wouldn't want to change that unless there is a very good reason to. The translation is a very exciting thing for me and my cinematographer. The written word is locked in a different language that needs education to free it. The cinematic image is far more universal. It is the art of illiterates (laughs). A person who knows nothing will also be able to look at our images and feel the same.

The technology for it is available everywhere today. We bought a custom-made camera, a digital Bolex. It is a very interesting thing to replicate the look of a super 16 film, which exaggerates colours. I did not want the reality that I see to be exactly reflected on the screen. It is an imagined reality on the screen. Similarly, with the sound. It shouldn't be realistic to the point of the audience ignoring it. We were very conscious that we are telling a tale. It is not direct life.

The HIVOS Tiger is a huge recognition and appreciation. Was the film's reception in Rotterdam a surprise?

The minute I read the short story, I knew everybody would understand it. Regardless of religion or language, everywhere the worker is looked down upon. Especially if he is a marginalized person. Every society has a marginalized people, and it understands what we do to them in terms of violence and hatred. This aspect, and also the way the short story was written. There was no political point of view. It was about life, his family, his wife, a very universal thing.

It is probably why we got all the support we got. Right out of the book, we can see what is happening.

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YouTube MAMI Mumbai Film Festival Rotterdam