Indian filmmaker Arun Karthick’s filmography revels in the realm of the senses with its languid, meditative focus on landscapes (both natural and urban), still life, silence, and quotidian existence. His films don’t seem to search for the extraordinary within the ordinary; for him, beauty—and terror—exists in the ordinary itself.
These themes are touched upon in his first short film, The Backwaters (2010), in which a boatman recalls the story of a young girl to his passenger in a wordless flashback executed through the to-and-fro movement of the boat along the backwaters of the south Indian state of Kerala. The girl, when we first see her, looks hopeful and happy as she embarks on a journey to meet someone. On her return journey, she is disheveled and distraught; perhaps she has been abused. And these actions are repeated day after day. Her inner turmoil and change of fortune is juxtaposed against the serenity of her largely unchanging natural surroundings. Nature remains indifferent to her suffering.
The Strange Case of Shiva (2015), Karthick’s first feature, is a nearly completely silent film whose protagonist Shiva spends his days and nights looking at a woman’s blurry image that he once accidentally took. Centered on Shiva’s daily routine while his voyeurism grows from its serendipitous origins to a deliberate obsession, the film contrasts Shiva’s complex inner life, which is always in flux, against his stagnant, humdrum existence.
This act of dwelling on everyday rituals is further unfurled in Nasir (2020), which premiered this year at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Based on “A Clerk’s Story” by Dilip Kumar, Nasir follows the titular character, a salesman at a garments shop, as he goes about his day while a communal storm is brewing. He lives a poor Muslim neighborhood with his wife, his elderly, cancer-stricken mother, and a nephew. He wakes up every day at 6:03 a.m. as the neighborhood mosque announces the call for prayer. After dropping his wife at a bus depot for her three-day visit to a family member’s wedding, he goes to work, runs a few errands on behalf of others, goes home to take a nap, and prays at the local mosque. The focus on his routine activities is significant in the way it depicts Nasir as any ordinary man with dreams and aspirations—made known to us through voiceover as he writes letters to his wife—without taking his religion away. In doing so, Karthick, a Hindu, deeply empathizes with his protagonist who, for centuries in India, has been viewed as the “other.” Karthick understands that Nasir’s socio-economic conditions—and his silences—are a result of this othering. We don’t see a caricature of an angry, kurta-clad Muslim man who is bitter about his circumstances (his day is so busy, perhaps he does not have the time to be bitter). Instead, Nasir is a poet-philosopher who understands that he is just a speck in the universe, that life is about loneliness and silence—ideas that contradict a loudly raging communal, and communalized, living.
In an interview conducted through email, Karthick discussed his foray into filmmaking, the dance of vision and sound, politics in cinema, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
NOTEBOOK: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did 8½ inspire you to get into filmmaking?
ARUN KARTHICK: At 16, I had gotten into this habit of watching old Hollywood westerns and detective films to beat the boredom of academics. One fine day I found an advert in a local newspaper about Konangal Film Society screening a classic foreign film. I was curious, went to the screening and came out gasping. Why were a group of old men watching a strange black and white film which didn’t make much sense? A week later, I was still thinking about a few images that I saw in that film, the lead actor flying from the traffic on a subway, a woman dancing on a beach... I was curious and asked the secretary of the film society, Anand Siga, why I wasn’t able to understand the film. He gently told me that cinema primarily functions on feelings, so not understanding wasn’t a problem, and gave me a set of films that included Bergman’s Silence, The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring, and a few films of Satyajit Ray. I began watching them and what struck me immediately was the myriad ways in which life can be narrated and made to be felt. This excitement fueled me to watch more films and in the span of a few months I had decided that making films would be the most interesting and adventurous vocation.
NOTEBOOK: …and that led you to train yourself as a filmmaker. Do you think you’ve benefited from a lack of formal training?
KARTHICK: When I made the decision to discontinue my engineering education mid-way, I had made two short films that had traveled to a few festivals. I made these films learning the how-to technicalities of the basics from the internet and reading books on filmmaking and interviews of filmmakers. When I saw my films playing alongside those by formally trained filmmakers, I realized that in cinema, your vision matters as much as the way you develop it. It struck me often that I had made the tough decision of not graduating so I better make this decision count. It gave me the drive to go out there and engage with life and make films outside the walls of social and educational institutions. I believe formal training is suited for people who feel the need to learn with a group of fellow students/friends and feel connected to a certain ecosystem. The idea of a teacher guiding us into this rabbit hole! But I had told myself that before my friends complete their graduation I had to shoot my first feature which would be my graduation of sorts, and I managed to do so in 2014.
NOTEBOOK: Your first feature film, The Strange Case of Shiva, is in many ways about ways of seeing. Although the male protagonist is obsessed with the image of a woman, reducing her to pixels, and later voyeuristically spies on his female neighbor, the mood and the feeling evoked are essentially about gazing upon the male body in its private space. How do you convey this feeling?
KARTHICK: From the great works I had seen and felt, it was clear that alchemy in cinema works as a rhythmic dance of seeing and hearing. Feeling derives from this union. How we feel a character or a space is constructed by how we are made to “see” and “hear” their world. Therefore, when I start to imagine or write that world, it begins primarily with how I wish to see him/her, then my collaborators join me and we interpret this imagined reality with our sensibilities almost in an emotional and sensual way. The gaze is not dictated by popular conventions but an amalgamation of our personal expression.
NOTEBOOK: Can you elaborate on your choice of using “The Dancing Serpent” by Baudelaire in the film’s coda?
KARTHICK: That poem inspired me to write this film about how a man imagines a woman! I read a Tamil translation of Baudelaire’s poem by the iconic Tamil poet Pramil. That translation, “Aadum Paambu,” made me read the original poem and thus began my imagination of this man who gets obsessed with the image of a mysterious woman out of his boredom and loneliness. It is his personal act of creation, to fall into the delusions of an ideal muse!
NOTEBOOK: Coming to your latest film, what made you want to adapt “A Clerk’s Story” by Dilip Kumar into Nasir? The short story makes an unusual use of the second person narrator, almost as if the protagonist is being instructed what to do and, by extension, his life is dictated by some external force. How did you navigate your way through such a narrative?
KARTHICK: Dilip Kumar’s story touched me upon first reading. It is almost like a character study, and I like narratives that expand around one person, so I told myself and the author that someday I would turn this into a film. It was in the aftermath of a riot in my neighborhood in 2016 that I realized the depth of this story and immediately the following month started work on what would become Nasir. The first thing I did to navigate such a narrative was to live and work from the Muslim neighborhood the writer described in the story where the film would eventually be set in. The clear geographical markers in the story helped me as I was familiar with these places. But when you decide to make a film, you need to apply yourself much more. Living in that ghetto for two years to develop the film gave me the insights on how these characters and spaces must feel on screen.
NOTEBOOK: I’m particularly interested in your use of the 4:3 aspect ratio with curved edges. You’ve stated in interviews that the idea was to box the character in. To me, it gave the impression of looking at Nasir through a perforation on a piece of film—from the margins itself, as it were. And indeed, the film looks at the margins and de-centers the idea of how a Muslim man is supposed to be depicted on screen. By not looking outward from the center, but instead looking within the margins, Nasir renders its protagonist with a profound inner life.
KARTHICK: Yes, constructing the inner world of Nasir was the main task. Now the “inner world” of a character can be perceived by both his exterior and the interior. What kind of spaces does he inhabit, what are his thoughts like... Having set the character in the heart of a bustling city like Coimbatore, the lure of losing focus on your character was more with the colorful lives in the cloth markets and bazaar streets. So, I wanted to work with this principle of subtraction, what Bresson said, “empty the pond to get the fish.” Subtraction becomes another way of addition in cinema. My cinematographer, Saumyananda Sahi, reinforced this with his "less is more" philosophy. So the choice of aspect ratio helped us make the audience participate more by giving them less information. The 4:3 frame allowed us to carefully choose what we would include and exclude. We chose to include objects, music and details that were part of the character’s inner life.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of music, it’s really interesting that you used Begum Akhtar’s “Kis se pooche” in the background when Nasir is back home for a nap.
KARTHICK: Well, we didn’t have a music supervisor. I took pointers from the short story which characterized Nasir as someone who relates to the pain in the music of Begum Akhtar and Surraiya. I tried to incorporate this as I feel these moments of Nasir’s engagement with the music helps him maintain his sense of calm and gives him pleasure.
NOTEBOOK: Certain points in the film that make a departure from the short story left a lasting impression on my mind. For example, the scene with different customers at the shop does not reflect on the binaries of Hindu/Muslim, but encapsulates various dynamics of interpersonal relationships that exist between the pairs of customers: mother-daughter, sisters-in-law, and siblings. Another scene, which was quite humorous, was when the shopkeeper, after rattling off names of restaurants, refuses to go out for lunch with a client by saying that he doesn’t eat out. How did you write these scenes into a work of adaptation?
KARTHICK: Most of these moments come out of observing the life around spaces where the film was to be shot. The lived experience of a place seeps through sometimes almost unnoticeably and subconsciously if you spend some time lurking in those streets and co-existing with the people there. Some of the scenes, like the restaurant recital and the scene where Nasir goes to deliver coats to college hostel are inspired from other short stories of Dilip Kumar. I liked them and thought I could adapt them into Nasir’s world. I believe a narrative “emerges” from the friction of imagined words and scenes to the palpable reality of the physical space we wish to root it in.
NOTEBOOK: Nasir’s death at the hands of a mob is depicted as a blur in a nearly one-minute long scene and then the final shot (a minute and a half long) of the corpse is shown from a distance. While the ending in the short story is grizzly, here we don’t see blood. Can you reflect on these choices?
KARTHICK: The fact that a man can be unplugged from life without any warning for his identity and thrashed helplessly was utmost violence for me. It is not the blood or how bad his wounds are. The atmosphere around a mad mob where, as an observer, watching with utter helplessness is better expressed with unease. We didn’t want the viewer to participate in the violence of the mob. All we wanted was to reflect on what the mob has done to a man whom they had known through the day! The final shot had to give the time for us to evoke the questions!
NOTEBOOK: The general discourse around Nasir is that it is a “film of our time,” especially given the rise of Islamophobia in India. Do you think cinema is or should be a tool of political reform?
KARTHICK: The purpose of cinema is not reformation. I didn’t make this film to be appropriated for any political movement. Cinema works best when it tries to arrive at the filmmaker’s personal search for truth and meaning through the recreation of life with all its poetic metaphors, its contradictions, its dynamics and conflicts.
NOTEBOOK: How has the film’s distribution and release been affected by the pandemic? Do you think that making the film available online recently through the We Are One festival has been beneficial in terms of access? Of course, the finer textures of the real cinematic experience—the cinematography, the sound design—are lost when viewed on a laptop or a phone.
KARTHICK: We were chosen for about a dozen festivals before the pandemic, now the status of almost half of them are uncertain, including our screenings in New Directors/New Films series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This pandemic has posed a challenge of survival to all of humanity, so this is not the time to complain about individual losses. We are trying to make the film available to as many people as possible through online festival screenings. Recently the film was shown in the We Are One Global Film Festival by MAMI Mumbai Film Festival for 24 hours and about 62,000 people watched the film and overwhelmed us with their feedback. So we try to look at the silver lining and move on.
As a filmmaker you always prefer that the work be experienced in a good theatrical screening with the intended sound format. We have designed this film in mono sound to converge the focus and closeness towards the character. Watching on a laptop or phone might take away some of these finer experiences but I’m of the belief that storytelling in film is beyond these limitations. Something is better than nothing.
The free YouTube release via We Are One did create access for people from all walks of life to watch the film which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible with traditional film festivals which attract only festival-going cinephiles. It was a decision we made to share the story with everyone and show our support in these difficult situations. But our move cost us some noted festivals as they disqualified our selections because we breached their regulations by making the film available worldwide for free. In a way, we were being penalized for showing our support to a Covid-19 relief initiative. Making and distributing films can sometimes be complex, we are learning the trade each day. The film was made to share this story of a common man so we think online or offline, the show must go on!