Arun Karthick is a self-taught Tamil filmmaker from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, who made his debut with the 2015 film The Strange Case of Shiva, which premiered at International Film Festival of Rotterdam. His 2020 sophomore release, Nasir, won the NETPAC award at IFFR. The film was also part of “We Are One: A Global Film Festival,” a 10-day event co-curated by over 20 film festivals from across the world that took place between May 29 and June 7, 2020. Nasir follows a day in the life of the titular character, who works as a saree salesman and lives with his wife, son and old mother. The film underlines the difficulties faced by an individual from the minority class in India as he silently swallows all the prejudices. The narrative plays with the masculine tensions brimming from the immediacy of the violence and the gentle strength of persistence. According to American artist Robert Rauschenberg, “The artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history,” and Karthick does exactly that with Nasir, as his images vividly document hatred in our society. The film evocatively portrays the fate of an ordinary individual caught in the quagmire of an unfortunate event that is beyond his control. The subtle framing and measured juxtaposition of shots accentuate the violence that has become an integral component of our society. Nasir is meant to prod people into thinking that continuing on this current path of intolerance and hatred could spell the destruction of India’s pluralistic ethos.
Dipankar Sarkar: How did making short films on the digital platform Cinema Obscura help you hone your skills as an independent filmmaker?
Arun Karthick: According to me, cinema is a practice. I did not go to a film school, so when I was in college I began understanding that I need to make short films to strengthen my relationship with cinema and understanding of the practicalities of filmmaking — such as how to choose locations, how to write a screenplay, how to set up shots in location, how to improvise, talk to and work with actors and performers of the film. So, all this small nitty-gritty of filmmaking you freely improvise in the form of a short film where there is not much pressure on you. There is no huge kind of investment that is kind of reminding you that this is how it should be done. Short films give you the freedom of taking your time to do it. So, these short films that I made on the digital platform Cinema Obscura were instrumental in forming my foundation for the films to come.
DS: Share your experience of making your first feature film?
AK: I wrote a screenplay that could get me started working with other collaborators for a potential feature film. So, once I had finished it, I took it to a lot of producers, people I thought would invest in independent cinema. But finally, a small-time businessman from my city Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu produced the film for $20,000. So, it is through my debut film Sivapuranam [The Strange Case of Shiva, 2016] that I understood the spirit and value of collaboration, and with a small but highly specialised crew which includes my current collaborators from Nasir, cinematographer Saumyananda Sahi and editor Arghya Basu. Several other aspects of independent filmmaking took a stronghold of me. I learned that it is not only about the screenplay but every part of the process that helps in shaping the film. So, it was a lot of fun making the film. We completed the shoot in eight days. The film had its international premiere at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam, 2016, under the section Bright Future. Whereas, the Indian premier of the film took place at Mumbai Academy of Moving Images, 2015, under the section India Story.
DS: Nasir is based on the short story The Clerk’s Story by Dileep Kumar. So, what was the approach taken to adapt the story to structure within the milieu of the film?
AK: The thing that I had liked in the short story was its form. It would start in one particular day and end in the latter part of the same day. So, there is this one whole day in the life of the person unfolding before us, which I found quite interesting. It was a challenge for me as a filmmaker — how I am going to narrate the story within a day and explain about the friends of his yesterday and also tomorrow? The film should also narrate the life he has lived and the life he is living. At the same time, it should also provide an insight into the life he would potentially live. With such aspects on my mind, I started working on the screenplay. I lived in that particular location in Coimbatore, in a Muslim neighbourhood, and I picked up details of everyday life and realign the story to the present day. The story was published in the year 1998 based on a character the writer had met in the 60s or 70s. So, by staying in that location helped me to understand how the present-day salesmen work and also understand the middle-class Muslim society.
DS: The film is constructed around lots of quotidian activities. Could you speak about the pace of the film?
AK: The quotidian activity also gives a structure to the day in the life of the protagonist. What I had liked in the short story was the writer’s sense of detail in expressing how many beedis the protagonist would smoke in a day, how many cups of tea he would drink, how he would take care of the mannequin at the shop, etc. So, all this intricate detailing gives a sense of orderliness in the person. Because the protagonist is a trustworthy person, he has to reach the shop early and clean things up, while the rest of the employee would turn up later. So, there is a pace in how a person goes about his day. Also, my lived experience in that space helped me to choose — not to skip — these activities because they are part and parcel of life. It also gives the characters the time to root in reality and makes them alive. It further gives a measured slow movement to the film, so that the audience can follow with the character.
DS: Is the off-screen blaring of provocative and hate messages towards the beginning of the film, from the loudspeakers, used as a narrative device to prepare the viewer for the mayhem that takes place at the climax?
AK: Yes, the provocative hate messages from the loudspeaker are used as a narrative device. Firstly, to describe the geographic position of the protagonist in the city. He lives near the market, streets surrounded by several communities, mostly Hindus. Secondly, to elucidate our political positioning in the film that one community in the society is provoking the other through hate speeches. These were the speeches we recorded on our location while shooting the film. I have only chosen a portion of the speech, whereas in other parts it is highly inflammatory. It also gives us an understanding of what changes is happening in our country in the last decade. The tolerance between communal forces is highly fed with fire.
DS: What is the symbolic use of fish in the film?
AK: Not much as symbolic but it gives us a closer understanding of the inner world of Iqbal, Nasir’s son, because he is a differently-abled person. In the short story, there is a segment where Nasir and Iqbal talk about fishes. Sabari is a non-professional actor, and it was very difficult to make him talk, and I did not want to force my dialogues on him. Rather, I thought that the use of fishes and toys in the house would become a different way to communicate how he spends his day inside the house. So, his relationship with the objects becomes an important tool for us to communicate with the character.
DS: Does the protagonist express his angst against society through the use of poetry?
AK: No, on the contrary, this is a character that doesn’t complain about life or society. He accepts the realities and the differences between the people ,and he tries to make a sense of that in his way. He is a kind of a happy-go-lucky kind of a person. He is very spirited about his today and tomorrow and does not complain too much in the film. By doing so, he brings a strong sense of strength in his resilience.
DS: The guard at the hotel stops Nasir from smoking but later both of them smoke together. What is the irony behind the scene?
AK: There are certain rules in life sometimes you do not connect with. You don’t want to oblige all the time. Sometimes you connect more with a person –once you are connected, you are okay to relax these rules. The guard — even though he wants to do his job — connects with Nasir’s disappointment and frustration of not being able to sell the blazer. The guard thinks that now both of them can relax and have a smoke.
DS: What was your purpose to use the voice-over of the protagonist, which sounds like a letter to his wife?
AK: The letter was already an important device in the short story. While I read the short story, it gave me an insight into the mind and thoughts of Nasir. How he feels about his wife and the emptiness of the house after his wife has left, a few hours ago. While we were shooting and constructing the outer world of Nasir, we also felt that, through images, we should reflect on his inner world. So, the use of words in the letter gives us an insight into how does this person thinks, in a defined manner. So, I re-wrote the letter from the short story, divided it into three parts and used it at different scenes of the film, as a voice-over.
DS: Why was the film shot with an aspect ratio of 4:3?
AK: We did not want to make a film about the last day in the life of a man. Instead, we wanted to shoot the film like one day in the life of the man. So, there is a sense of a telling, like a chronicle, which needs to emerge through the observation of reality. So, shooting the film with an aspect ratio of 4:3 brings us close to the character. It gives a space to breathe with the character for a while and focus on lots of objects of his life. All of this closeness, we thought, would work better as a narrative perspective.
DS: Why does the camera movement become frenzied during the lynching scene?
AK: That is how we wanted to show the madness of the faceless mob, because the mob does not have a singular face. They are just too many people kind of mobilising together. We did not want to set up this mob, because we wanted to follow what would happen on a real day when we walk with our protagonist. He doesn’t know his fate until he takes the next turn. So, the camera movement was used to express a sense of helplessness and participate in the violence.
DS: Lastly, the final scene of the film is a static shot of nearly two minutes. Why did you make such an aesthetic, or rather a political, choice?
AK: To reflect why this has happened to this person and understand and feel what we had just witnessed, not in a melodramatic way but through our ideas that what are we doing to such people. “Why did this happen? — a question that each one of us should ask. And it is time that we needed to share this gruesome tragedy, which is part of a reality we live in today.
Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.