Tamil singer and lyricist Arunraja Kamaraj, who made an impressive debut as a director with Kanaa (2018), is awaiting the release of his sophomore project Nenjuku Needhi, the Tamil remake of the hit Hindi film Article 15 (2019).
Article 15 was also critically acclaimed for its hard-hitting commentary on caste-based discrimination. It revolves around a police officer (Ayushmann Khurrana) who investigates the case of a missing Dalit girl in a remote village, after two Dalit girls are found hanging from a tree.
In the Tamil remake, actor-politician Udhayanidhi Stalin will be reprising Khurrana’s role. Nenjuku Needhi also stars Aari, Tanya Ravichandran, Shivani Rajashekar, Yamini Chander, Suresh Chakravarthi, Ilavarasan, Mayilsamy, Ramesh Thilak and Sayaji Shinde.
Ahead of the film’s release on Friday, Arunraja speaks to Silverscreen India about choosing a remake as his second directorial project, what the film means, and more.
“I was working on other scripts, and I also had a prior commitment with another company. At that time, I got an offer to work on this film, back in early 2020. I also came to know that Udhay sir was on board. I thought we could finish it in six months and so, I requested permission from the company I was associated with. Then, I began to work on the script and the project took off,” he says.
On having Udhayanidhi play the protagonist, Arunraja says he purely considered him as an actor and his political background did not come into play. “As far as cinema is concerned, he is a producer with a big banner and he has also acted. Even before Kanaa, I had been trying to write scripts for him. When I got the opportunity to collaborate with him on my second film, I was thrilled.”
The director notes that a team was formed to design the look of Udhayanidhi’s character’s and transform the actor accordingly. “We roped in look transformation artists and got several ideas. Anu Vardhan ma’am, the film’s costume designer, was also involved in the process. She worked with Udhay sir to achieve the appropriate look, including shaving his mustache and trimming his beard, which he had been a bit apprehensive about. However, once the look was achieved, both he and the team were satisfied.”
Although Article 15 does not directly refer to any real-life incident, the film primarily set in Uttar Pradesh is loosely based on the 2014 Badaun gang-rape case and the 2016 Una flogging incident. Arunraja says they have kept the essence of the original intact in Nenjuku Needhi, while making a film of their own. “It is definitely not a frame-by-frame remake. We’ve made significant changes to adapt it to the local culture. The remake will feature scenes taken from Article 15, but they won’t be exactly the same. We have also made changes to the screenplay.”
The director has once again collaborated with his crew from Kanaa. Nenjuku Needhi is shot by cinematographer Dinesh Krishnan and edited by Ruben. It has been certified U/A. Dhibu Ninan Thomas has composed four songs for the film, with lyricist duties shared by Yugabharathi and Arunraja himself. “More than my songs, I value Yugabharathi’s. I am a fan of his work. His writing is simple but content-driven. That is what was needed for the film.”
Arunraja, who has also sung for the film, feels his creativity comes out best through writing and directing. “If I am working for another director, I need to learn their requirements and deliver accordingly. When it’s my own film, I have the freedom to write and structure scenes as I see fit. My foremost wish was always to be a director, and my journey has just started.”
While the film was being made, Arunraja faced a great personal loss. His wife Sindhuja succumbed to Covid-19 complications in May 2021. Asked how he managed to navigate through this while making a film with such an intense subject, the director says, “It is a state of mind which I don’t know if I can express. She wanted me to become a big director and if I was too hung up on my feelings, I knew it wouldn’t happen. At least to fulfil her dream, I had to come out of my grief. She was there with me during the first shoot schedule and was aware of the project.”
Nenjuku Needhi is Arunraja’s second outing as a director. Asked if he sees himself developing a signature style and voice, the filmmaker says, “Kanaa and Nenjuku Needhi fall under very different genres. There is no specific thought process that goes into it. I prefer to take up a subject and work towards delivering it right.”
Nenjuku Needhi tackles issues surrounding caste and discrimination. Lately, Tamil films addressing such issues have been gaining wider recognition as well as facing more pushback. One tackling a sensitive topic like this in the film, the director says, “We are not discussing someone’s personal life. When it is not about that, it is not a sensitive issue. It is something that needs to be discussed. The essence of Article 15 of the Constitution is to not discriminate against someone on the basis of their caste, place of birth, or race. Discrimination is a common issue that we face in our lives, every day. We need to speak out against it. While the issue is sensitive, the law that talks about it and acknowledges it, cannot be sensitive. We need to voice out against such punishable offences.”
Arunraja hopes that Nenjuku Needhi creates conversations on the topic, which will be a move towards progress. “This is not just a story for the oppressed. It is against the law to refer to someone or degrade them by their caste; this applies to everyone. So this cannot be written off as just a film for the oppressed. The way I see it, anyone who causes harm to anybody else, is ultimately wrong. Like our film’s tagline says, we are all ‘Born Equal’.”