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Silence Is Golden

Director Karthik Subbaraj and actor Prabhu Deva discuss the challenges of making a silent thriller like Mercury with Padma Iyer

Padma Iyer (PI): Karthik, we haven’t seen a silent movie on Indian screens in three decades. How did you think of making such a movie?

Karthik Subbaraj (KS): I started my journey in cinema making short films. One of the movies I made was Black & White. It was a 10-minute short with just two bits of dialogue – a small phone conversation in the beginning and another conversation at the end of the movie. The rest of the movie rested on just visuals and sound effects.

The response to the movie was very good. I found the whole experience interesting and challenging. It set me thinking as to how exciting it would be to make a full-length, feature film with no dialogue. Cinema is a visual medium and if I am able to tell a story with just the visuals and performances, it would be an achievement for me as a filmmaker and a good experience for viewers as well.

But it was important that the silent element in the movie was not forced or deliberate. I wanted to make a silent movie that seemed natural, so that the audience did not feel the need for a dialogue while watching the film. I took some time before I started working on the concept and story of Mercury. I felt that this was a story I could tell without a dialogue.

PI: The title of a movie usually hints at what it is about but Mercury doesn’t give away much. Can you tell us a little about the film?

KS: The teaser shows an old monument which has a tombstone that says ‘In the memory of 84 people who died in this town due to mercury poisoning’. This story is set in a small hill station, a town which is a victim of corporate exploitation of resources. There was an incident of mercury poisoning in Kodaikanal. The company that owned a thermometer factory was accused of disposing mercury improperly, which resulted in health problems for the locals as well as environmental issues.

The story sort of takes inspiration from here and is the hook for the entire narrative, and hence the title Mercury. There is also an element of fear and intrigue. Mercury is an out-an-out thriller and an engaging one, at that. It will keep you on the edge of your seat. 

PI: Let us talk about the casting. Prabhu Deva, you are an unconventional choice and have never played a role like this before.

Prabhu Deva (PD): I too was surprised when Karthik approached me for this role. I was curious to know why he thought of me. I too want to know why he chose me to play this role in Mercury.

KS: Well, I had always wanted to work with Prabhu Deva sir. Usually, when I write the story and screenplay of a movie, I already have an actor in mind. When I wrote Jigarthanda, I wanted to cast Rajinikanth sir in the movie. Similarly, I had SJ Suryah in mind while writing Iraivi. But when I was writing Mercury, I had no one in particular in mind to play this character. One fine day, I received a WhatsApp message of a video clip about a movie audio launch for which I had given some bites. Coincidentally, Prabhu Deva sir had featured in the video. While watching him, I wondered, why not approach him to play the role? I called him but he was in London then and I told him I had a role for him. He said he would be back in a few days and we could meet.

PI: What transpired when you met to discuss the movie?

KS: I told him that the role was something he had never done before. There were no songs and there was no dialogue. But when he heard the story, he immediately said yes.

PD: I was very intrigued by the concept of a silent film and I asked Karthik how we would go about making such a film. What would such a movie be like? When he narrated the story, I said yes within 10 minutes. And when a director of Karthik Subbaraj’s calibre offers you a role in his film, there is no reason to say no. And his faith in my ability to do such a role made me confident that I could pull it off.

PI: What was the shooting experience like? Did you encounter any difficulties?

KS: Since it is a silent film and a thriller at that, I had no ready references to give him. When there is a dialogue, I can suggest voice modulation or a delivery style. I can offer pointers but here, there was nothing of the sort for me to do. It is all about expressions and emotions. The only thing that Prabhu Deva sir said to me was that he did not want to do rehearsals before his scenes. I am happy we went the way he suggested. He has elevated the character and, in the process, the movie as well.

PD: The experience of shooting the movie was challenging for the first couple of days, but by the third or fourth day, I had become familiar with the character. I knew how he would move and react to situations and people around him. Then, it became a relatively smooth exercise. The reason I did not want to do any rehearsals for the scenes was because I felt the whole thing would become an act; my reactions would seem staged. I wanted to be spontaneous. I wanted to do the scenes without any preconceived thoughts. Thankfully, Karthik understood this; he said I could take my time. I too said that if he did not like the end result, and it was not what he wanted, we could reshoot the scenes.

PI: Prabhu Deva, we have always seen you play romantic and comedy roles. This is the first time you have played a negative role. Did you have any apprehensions while accepting such a role?

PD: Not at all. All I did was listen to what Karthik had to say. He is the director and I followed his instructions. When I am an actor, I do just that, act. I do not try to be the director. And I think being a dancer helped me at the subconscious level while doing this role. Since there was no dialogue, it was all about emoting and my experience as a dancer made the task less challenging.

PI: There seems to be only few characters in the story, at least, that’s what the trailer suggests. What can you tell us about the rest of the cast?

KS: Besides Prabhu Deva sir, there are five youngsters – four boys and a girl, and two more characters. I wanted to keep the storyline as tight as possible.

PD: I have to say the five youngsters are very talented. They are simply superb. Though they are raw as actors, they brought so much to the table. Everything they did was so real and natural, like during the stunt sequences, when they had to fall down or something, it did not look like an act. I feel that when I was their age, I could not have pulled off such mature and impeccable performances. They are hard workers and it shows on screen.

PI: The absence of dialogue in a movie makes every other department more important than ever. How have the technicians contributed to this silent thriller?

KS: For a movie of this genre, the technical aspects are very important. For the performances to have an impact, the visuals have to be engaging. Thirunavukarasu, who has handled the cinematography, has done a fabulous job. Then, there is the music and sound design. Santhosh Narayanan has scored Mercury. He likes doing background score more than songs and he felt this was a challenging project.

Usually, for movies, the songs are composed before or during the filming, but for this movie the work started only after the shooting was completed. Santhosh saw the first edit and said to me, ‘Don’t tell me to do the music in 15 days, I cannot do that. You have to give me the time I need to deliver.’ I told him he could take all the time he wanted and I must say he has done a fantastic job.

The sound design is by the immensely talented Kunal Rajan. He is based in LA and has worked on Hollywood films. Finally, there’s the editing, which was done by Vivek Harshan. When you see the movie, you will definitely appreciate the work done by, not just Santhosh and Kunal, but the entire technical team.

PI: When you think of a silent film, the first genre that comes to mind is comedy, Charlie Chaplin and his movies. For the modern generation, the only reference point perhaps is Kamal Haasan’s Pushpak, which was a dark comedy. What can the audience expect from Mercury, especially since this is a completely different genre?

KS: Singeetam Srinivas Rao and Kamal Haasan made Pushpak a cult film. They made the genre viable and interesting. By making a thriller, I think I have added another dimension and it has been a positive experience. I want the audiences to come prepared to watch an entertainer. It is a thriller, but it also has an emotional connect.

PD: There is no comparison with Kamal sir. He belongs to a completely different level. There is no way I can reach those heights. But I think we have made a commercial film and the audience will like it.

PI: Karthik, how did the Stone Bench, which is your production  company, and Pen association happen?

KS: India is a land of many languages and we make so many movies in all these languages. A silent movie is a movie for audiences of all languages. A painting is an art form that communicates something to everyone, regardless of the painter. There is no ‘Hindi painting’, no ‘Tamil painting’. I wanted to make a movie like a painting that can be enjoyed by everyone. Since that was the plan, we knew that Mercury had to have a wide reach. We showed the movie to Jayantilal Gada of Pen India. He loved it and immediately came on board.

PI: After Mercury, what are your future projects?

KS: For me, it is, of course, the movie with Rajni sir. I have grown up watching him on screen. It was his movies that inspired me to become a filmmaker. I am a huge fan and it was the ultimate dream to work with him. Pre-production work has begun and it should be complete by June.  Since I am still working on the script, I cannot say much about the story and his character but I can tell you that it will make Rajni sir’s fans happy.

PD: In Hindi, there is Dabangg 3 with Salman Khan, which I am directing. Then, there is a mystery thriller Khamoshi with Tamannaah. It is the Hindi remake of the Nayanthara movie Kolaiyuthir Kaalam, directed by Chakri Toleti. In dance movies, there is the T-Series movie that was recently announced, to be directed by Remo D’Souza and starring Varun Dhawan and Katrina Kaif. And there is the Tamil movie Lakshmi with Aishwarya Rajesh, directed by Vijay.

Byline – Padma Iyer

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