Cinematographer-turned-director Prem Kumar C, who began his career as DoP with Balaji Tharaneetharan’s Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom, makes his debut with a romantic drama, a genre, which he confesses, he has never really found exciting
It was ‘beginner’s cold feet’ that stood between C Prem Kumar and his directorial debut for a long time. “I had several stories in mind,” he explains, “I would imagine them being made into scripts and films, but I never quite had the heart to sit down and write a script. I was nervous.”
Then, in December 2015, when Chennai flooded and people were stranded in their houses for days together, he finally wrote down that perfect maiden script. “I was stuck in my apartment in Valasaravakkam. There was no power or connectivity. If I had to go out to buy grocery, I had to swim. And I was the only one who could swim in my entire apartment. In those twenty days, I wrote 96.”
Centered around Ram and Janu, two high-school sweethearts who meet after two decades, 96 is a “mature love story” set to some hearty music — the soundtrack composed by Govind Vasantha brilliantly elevates the film’s mood. 96 brings together Trisha Krishnan and Vijay Sethupathy, two most sought-after stars in Kollywood.
Prem Kumar admits that if not for this particular story, he wouldn’t have opened his career with a romantic-drama. “I don’t think I am a romantic in real life. I am someone who learned cinema by watching movies of Spielberg. I am a sucker for action-adventure films.” But he felt connected to this tale, or rather, to the two lead characters.
Early in 2015, his high-school friends organised a re-union that he had to miss due to prior commitments. Later that day, he met a few close friends who shrugged when he wanted to know about the reunion. “They said it was boring. I was surprised. How could a gathering of friends from good old days ever be boring! Everyone seemed to agree that adulthood had turned them mundane — leading similar ordinary lives.” But then, he was hooked to what they said about two of their classmates —a man and a woman — who stood out from the group. “They were not a couple. I got in touch with them, and spoke to them. They were normal people, yet there was something unusual about the way they looked at life. I imagined both of them caught in different situations, and narrated the tale to my wife. At one point, she said, ‘Hey! this is a movie material!’”
Of course, he had to tweak the characters and situations. First, the story was conceptualised to unfold over a week. Then, the time period was shrunk to 24 hours, and finally to a night. Ram, the character played by Vijay Sethupathi, was initially imagined as a person leading a lacklustre life. Later, Kumar remodelled the character — into an artistic person with some quirks.
“Devadarshini’s character that you see in the trailer is based on my sister. Trisha’s Janu has traits of many women I have known in my life — my wife, friends… Especially Subhashree Kaarthik, my costume designer.” He asked Subhashree to style Trisha for the movie. “I asked her to lend a personal touch to the character. See that yellow kurta and the pair of blue jeans? That’s her,” he laughs.
Prem Kumar calls his wife, Dhanalakshmi, his closest creative companion. “While writing this script, I narrated every scene. I have always been fascinated by the women in my life. When I started writing 96, I didn’t have to think twice to decide who the story should belong to. I wrote it from Janu’s perspective. It’s her point of view that I narrate through the film. These women helped me understand Janu better,” he says.
Prem Kumar has known Vijay Sethupathy for years. Both of them started their career together, through the same movie that became a sleeper hit in Tamil Nadu. Prem Kumar has closely witnessed Sethupathy’s ascent as a superstar in the industry. Yet, he was reluctant to approach the actor when he had the script ready. He knew no one else could play the role, but Sethupathy.
“These two actors (Vijay Sethupathy and Trisha) were on my mind right from the beginning. Finally, I gathered confidence and narrated the script to him. I must say it was Trisha who really surprised me. I had assumed it would be quite a task to get in touch with her, let alone sign her on for the film. However, her professionalism blew me away. After I narrated the script to her mother, Uma, on phone, I was told that they would get back with a response in two weeks. I had almost abandoned my hopes, but then exactly after two weeks, I got a call from Trisha who readily agreed to play the part. For a debut director like me, it’s a privilege to work with an actress who has been around for over fifteen years in the industry,” he says. “She has largely been a mainstream film actress all her career. But here, she plays a role which requires her to perform realistically, express emotions very subtly. She delivered really well.”
“The film has something to do with music,” Prem Kumar adds, explaining why he chose to release a song teaser before everything else. The teaser that released mid-July went viral on social media, garnering far more attention and love than what the team had been hoping for. The teasers and the extended trailer are slickly cut, by Karthik Swaminathan, who also worked as the film’s spot editor.
The film has a rich soundtrack comprising six songs including the now-popular ‘Kaathalae‘. Govind, an acclaimed instrumentalist and composer, is one of the founding members of Thaikkudam Bridge music band. Prem Kumar describes him as a ‘prodigy’.
“Govind and I have been friends for over five years. He had worked in Naduvule Konjam as a keyboard programmer. The situation was such that he had to compose background score too, in addition to his designated job. Balaji and I could see how talented he was, and we decided that we would hire him as the music composer in our next project. Thus Oru Pakka Kathai happened. For 96, I narrated the entire script to him, explained to him the song situations and the mood they demanded. The rest was cakewalk to him,” he says, adding, “I wanted my film to have great music. My father loved Mohammad Rafi songs, while my mother played Tamil film songs at home. I was a fan of Michael Jackson. So at home, in every room, we had different kinds of music playing.”
His favourite track from the film is ‘Anthaathi‘. “That’s like a theme song. It doesn’t come within the movie. For some reason, Govind struggled with this one. He would keep pushing it to the last, but finally, it turned out to be the most interesting song in the entire album.” ‘Anthaathi‘ ends with a piece of poetry recited by Nasser and written by Prem Kumar. “The part I wrote was initially a rough draft. But Karthik Netha (lyricist) and Govind said we could use it in the song. I was reluctant though. I didn’t want to be an overbearing director who sticks his nose in everyone else’s job.”
96 is scheduled to release in September.
The Prem Kumar C interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.