As a child, Karthi spent his holidays in his mother’s village of Koundampalayam, near Mettupalayam. During the summer break and the December holidays, he would head there from Chennai and soak in the rural ambience. “The wells would run dry in the summer, but once the monsoon hit, the fields turned green. They raised tobacco, cotton, banana… I made friends with the cows and oxen, tried transplanting saplings, and walked about with the sense that I was helping in doing something important.”
As he grew older, he started to think what it would be like to rely on farming for a livelihood. Kadaikutty Singam directed by Pandiraj, which releases today, explores an aspect of that thought.
“We shot the film in the fertile fields of southern Tamil Nadu and Pollachi. We have read that paddy cultivation is a three-month process, but do we even know the work involved, know how the farmer coaxes the land to yield? A family’s ability to spend is determined by how good the harvest is. And, do we know that to be a farmer one must have a large heart. Farmers love giving; love sharing the produce from their field. And, their needs are so few,” he says.
The film portrays a prosperous farming family. “Farming used to be a community exercise; people shared equipment and labour so that everyone’s farm was tilled, planted and harvested. It is a different kind of life,” he sighs.
As a performer, how does it feel to slip into a relatively less-intense role? “It’s peaceful,” says Karthi. “You can be yourself, be casual… idhuvum oru azhagu (there’s a beauty in this too).”
That is almost understandable, considering he walked into this film after Vinoth’s hugely draining Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru, the riveting cop drama that saw Karthi immerse himself into character. “We wanted Kadaikutty to showcase how farming can be a healthy, profitable profession, something that is feel-good,” says Karthi.
The film is important as it comes at a time when farming and farmers don’t get the respect they deserve. “An entire generation that was spurned ended up sending children out of the villages, because they did not want the next generation to suffer. Luckily, many people are falling in love with the land again. I hear stories of former IT employees tilling the land now,” says Karthi, also an engineer, who grows lemon, amla, banana and pomegranate on his organic farm near Sathyamangalam. “Every time we get a bunch of bananas from there, my mother loves sharing it with all, saying it’s from our farm,” he laughs.
The film also sees him teaming up with an experienced director after Mani Ratnam’s Kaatru Veliyidai; Karthi is otherwise known to work with relative newcomers. “With Pandiraj, there was a certain ease. There are very few directors who can narrate what we call a ‘village story’. It’s difficult to write a film with five sisters, five brothers-in-law, and lend each one of them a unique trait and relationship dynamics. You need to know that life to write about it. Maintaining the drama with 15 people on screen is not easy. The best part is that Pandiraj is a great problem solver; he never allows the stress to get to you,” says Karthi, who is just back after promoting the film in Kerala. “You don’t even need to dub the film there. So many love watching Tamizh movies, they seem to love our action sequences…” The film also releases in Telugu, where he and brother Suriya command a good market.
Karthi is working on his next, Dev, a coming-of-age movie with a heavy dose of adventure and romance. “Let’s say it’s in the Paiyaa zone.” That film set a benchmark for romance that Karthi has never been able to take further. “I have hopes for this one,” he says. There’s music by Harris Jayaraj, and the director is newcomer Rajat. “His writing is young and exciting, and the film has a lot of travel – from Europe to the Himalayas.”
Over the years, Karthi has associated himself with certain causes. Recently, he spoke about Thoothukudi and the proposed eight-lane highway to Salem. “These days, people associate your personal image with your onscreen character. I think it is important to be real. If I think I know enough about a subject and am convinced, I speak. But I am particular about not peddling half-truths or commenting about things I don’t know much about.”
That brings up the AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes)-Women in Cinema Collective issue. “When the actress was assaulted, we got in touch with the Chief Minister of Kerala from the Nadigar Sangam (he’s the treasurer), and he told us he would take care. It was our responsibility to react to it. Even today, we are willing to help when required.”
In between his various responsibilities, Karthi tries hard to find time for family and his young daughter Umayaal. The actor repeats a dialogue from Kadaikutty Singam that speaks of the need to earn the love of relatives when one is young. “As I grow older, I realise that I can’t use work as an excuse. I have to make the time.” After all, he says, “If appa (Sivakumar) had not come to Madras when he did, we would have all been working on a field somewhere.”