The characters in Dhuruvangal Padhinaaru (Sixteen Extremes) keep forgetting things. The protagonist, Inspector Deepak, forgets his mobile phone at his office. His understudy, the constable, forgets his cap at the crime scene. And the film’s director, Karthick Naren, forgot that he was just 21 when he shot this slick murder thriller.
Everything about his debut feature film released in December 2016, defies Karthick’s age and experience. A taut screenplay that time-travels from the present to the past with practised ease, the story, told through the eyes of different characters, rarely loses cogency and the narrative, with a montage of visuals, keeps the audience riveted to their seats. One would expect this kind of craft from a veteran with half-a-dozen hits—definitely not a debutant in his early 20s.
Karthick has no film legacy behind him. Nor did he apprentice under any big names. “In the first year of my mechanical engineering, I felt I didn’t belong here. Only when I made a short film, with an eye to bag the Rs 1 Lakh prize money in a film contest, did I realise my actual calling. The film could not qualify for the competition as only one entry per college was allowed, but my college mates liked it when I screened it for them in a nearby theatre,” remembers the slim, tall Karthick with a smile.
That first film on a friend’s brother’s suicide was made without even a scribble on paper. “I had the story in mind and would set the scenes on the spot and shoot. It was a crazy way to make a film. Luckily I evolved and for the next short film had a basic script on hand. Otherwise I learnt about film making mostly from the internet. My dad too recognised that I was made for films and did not protest when I dropped out in my third year,” says the Coimbatore lad.
The textile city was the natural choice for ‘D-16’, as his film is popularly known. Karthick knows Coimbatore, its moods and sounds. And it reflects in the frames: An old house gets made over as the police station—no red brick walls. An apartment complex, one of the crime scenes, has a tenant shifting in even as the cops knock on doors for enquiries. Even in Ooty, where the inspector has retired after losing his leg, the sounds of repairs can be heard in the background. “That is Mani Ratnam’s style—use the atmosphere as a character, not a mere setting,” says Karthick
The misdirection that Karthick weaves keeps the viewer wondering how the story would untangle. The masked murderer from the opening scene, the rich spoilt kids involved in a hit-and-run and the paper delivery boy with his own spin, cleverly camouflage the real ‘villain’ who gets revealed only in the last few frames.
Karthick was sure about two things admittedly—the opening and the end of his thriller. “I’m a fan of Christopher Nolan who insists that the ending is what should remain in the viewer’s mind—that they take some time to process it and implant it in their minds forever. My ending would surprise but not underwhelm you. You’ll not forget it,” he explains. And the twist in the tale does linger. No wonder film critic Bharadwaj Rangan wrote in his review of D-16: “With his first film, Karthick Naren the filmmaker has arrived.”
Among Indian filmmakers Karthick loves the visually rich method of Mani Ratnam and Gautham Vasudevan Menon’s stylised portrayals of police men. Gautham was so impressed by the young film maker’s story telling that he decided to co-produce Karthick’s next film Naragasooran. “Happy to be a chapter in the journey of a brilliant young filmmaker,” he said. The bound script of Karthick’s second film is ready waiting for actor Arvind Swamy’s dates. “I finish my script, keep it aside for a few weeks and then pour through it to get a fresh look at it before shooting,” is how Karthick goes about his work process.
Another filmmaker Karthick adores is Anurag Kashyap, probably because he too came with no filmi background and fought his way up. “Comparatively I was luckier,” Karthick admits. “I would have watched his Gangs of Wasseypur a dozen times. It hurt me that Anurag’s Bombay Velvet did not do well though it was one of the most stylishly made period movies in Indian cinema.” So as a tribute, Karthick had one of the jazzy songs from Bombay Velvet playing on a car stereo in his hit-and-run sequence.
For someone unschooled in film production, Karthick has packaged a technically sound film. He scouted for the technical team only through Facebook. His father, a top special education needs consultant, agreed to bankroll the project (Rs 3 crore) and even deputed his office manager to be the production manager so his son could focus on the film. “I was firm that the film should not look low budget,” says Karthick. “We used the best of equipment. Even the sound was recorded in Dolby Atmos and we devoted six months for post-production, though the shoot was over in 28 days. A lot of attention was given to detailing.”
As for the cast, Karthick was certain it would be Malayalam-Tamil star Rahman for the lead. “He was unconvinced at first but after hearing the script he plunged wholeheartedly. For the rest of the cast, I chose unknown faces, as I wanted the viewer to see the character and not the actor with whom he was familiar with.” Rahman plays an uncharacteristic yet suave inspector who mouths lines in English. According to him, Inspector Deepak was one of his best roles. “Even as I unravel the plot, I become part of it. That is not an easy one to portray,” he said.
Did Karthick know that he was going to be the youngest film director in the history of Indian movies? “Actually I would like to look a few years older,” he replies. “On the first few days, my boyish looks had everyone on the sets doubting if this guy really knows what he is doing. After the fourth day, when they saw a pattern to the way I worked, the team jelled together. Yes it is a disadvantage arriving very early on the scene.” But that got offset by the commercial success of D-16. It has crossed Rs 10 crore in collection and it was one of the few Tamil films whose screen presence increased by sheer word-of-mouth publicity. It’s showing at a Chennai multiplex even after a hundred days from release.
The real test, Karthick admits, would be his second film as the burden of the first one’s success would rest heavily on him. But he remains charmingly confident. The story boards are ready, the bound script is lying inside and the theme would be ‘faith.’ It was ‘karma’ for D-16. The third film would complete the crime trilogy and the only assurance he makes is that his next two films would have absolutely no shades of D-16. “For a film maker the hangover from a previous film can be disastrous. And I want to avoid that at all costs.”