Thrillers have always been a staple fare in Tamil cinema. From nail-biting suspense movies like the 1967 Athey Kangal, which hinged on unmasking a killer on the loose to south India’s James Bond Jaishankar’s Yaar Nee with its unexpected plot twists and to Bharathiraja’s 1981 thriller Tik Tik Tik to the more recent Pizza, cinema-goers in the south have always enjoyed a good, edge-of-the-seat whodunit.
Hemant Madhukar, director of the much-anticipated Nishabdham or Silence, which was recently cleared by the censors, revels in this particular genre. His debut film was a Bollywood horror thriller, The Flat, which had its share of chills and scares with a white-gowned female ghost on the prowl. Starring well-known actors like Sanjay Suri and Jimmy Sheirgill, the audience had to wait till the end to grasp the motive behind the ghost’s bloodthirsty quest for sweet revenge.
After a Telugu film, Vastadu Naa Raju, a playful entertainer with Taapsee Pannu as the heroine (a newbie back then and yet to make her mark in Bollywood), Madhukar’s second outing with horror happened with Mumbai 125Km. This 3D film about a group of five friends, who encounter supernatural occurrences on a spooky highway, was replete with haunted houses, creaky doors and ghosts with eerie eyes!
In an interview with The Federal, Hemant Madhukar reveals, “Why am I attracted to this genre? Frankly, thrillers and horror movies are more challenging. It’s a great opportunity to showcase your technical talents. A south Indian director like Ram Gopal Varma thrived in Bollywood because of his horror films. M Night Shyamalan got recognised in Hollywood after his spooky thriller drama Sixth Sense.” Well, that is one way of looking at it.
His latest directorial venture, Nishabdham, starring, R Madhavan, Anushka Shetty, Anjali and Hollywood Kill Bill star Michael Madsen, is also a crime story set in Seattle in the US. It centres around an NRI couple and a murder (and this film too has a haunted house!). Nishabdham has been entirely shot in America.
A whiff of Hollywood
How did he manage to sign up a Hollywood star for a Tamil film? Madsen, is a well-known actor having played the prominent role of the assassin Bud in the acclaimed Kill Bill series, who memorably meets a gruesome end – bitten by a black mamba! Madsen is a regular in most of the films made by the renowned American director, Quentin Tarantino.
Madhukar recounts, “I spent a lot of time in America scouting for locations and signing up actors like Michael Madsen, who plays a cop in the movie. Naturally, it was extremely difficult to meet Hollywood actors, let alone sign them up but we enlisted casting director, Renee Gracia to help us connect with Madsen and another American actor, Olivia Dunkley.”
The tall, burly Madsen was sceptical at first, he admits. “Madsen was clueless about south cinema. Indian movies mean just one thing for them: Bollywood cinema. He had never heard of Madhavan or Anushka and was wary of me,” he says candidly.
But, Madsen, was apparently convinced by Madhukar’s passion and his script narration. Later, Madsen got friendly with the entire cast. And, after shooting was wrapped up for the day, he would read out his poems to Anushka, Madhavan and the rest.
“He’s a great poet and has published books. Madsen is a sweetheart and like all Hollywood actors is very professional. They listen and obey the director at all costs, I had no issues directing him,” explains Madhukar.
Working with an American technical crew was like a dream. “They were extremely focussed and one person did the work of 10 technicians in India,” he says. But, Madhukar who completed his shoot in 70 days, claims American technicians wait for hours to get the perfect shot, while Indians improvise. “We don’t wait around for a drone to arrive for example, we shoot from the top of a car,” he says.
OTT vs silver screen
There’s a lot hinging on the success of this ₹30 crore multilingual film, which has been shot in Tamil and Telugu and dubbed in Hindi and Malayalam, reveals Madhukar. The title of the film in Tamil and Malayalam is Silence with the film’s protagonist Anushka Shetty playing a mute character.
“It was originally meant to be a silent film but the stakes were rising as we had signed up stars with a significant screen presence and had spent a lot of money shooting the film in the US. We could not take risks,” points out Madhukar. It is for the same reason the producers are reluctant to release the film on an OTT platform.
Diving into the ongoing debate about releasing films on OTT platforms, the director says, “Nishabdham is made for the big screen. And I would like to release it on the silver screen. If I want to make a film for OTT, I will do it but that will be an OTT film. I have seen a few Netflix originals and they are on par with movies. They are also willing to fork out big amounts to the tune of ₹200 crores to make a film. Madhavan did a web series Breathe for them, he said, it was a good experience.”
OTT is turning out to be tough competition for cinema, he ruefully admits, hoping that he may not have to compromise and see Nishabdham debut on OTT. However, currently only small-budget, heroine-oriented films are being released on OTT platforms, he points out.
The Tamil film industry has always been able to pull off bringing mega- international stars like Jackie Chan or an Arnold Schwarzenegger to Chennai for launches of big films. Or cast a Vietnamese actor Johnny Trí Nguyễn in Suriya’s 7Aum Arivu. But, this is a coup of sorts to cast a known Hollywood actor in a Tamil film.
Madhukar admits that he roped in American actors because he wants to make universal, crossover films. “My dream is to make a Slumdog Millionaire,” says the director, who has grown up watching the movies of his favourite directors, K Balachander and Mani Ratnam.
“I had also wanted Taapsee Pannu for the film but the producer Kona Venkat had already spoken to Anushka,” adds Madhukar. Anushka, however, was extremely sweet and you would not know she was on the film set.
“She would sit in a corner. Simple and hardworking, she learned the American sign-language for six months. If you don’t get it right, critics will tear you to pieces,” he says. Though he had wanted Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra to play the female cop, Anjali more than made up for it, he says with a chuckle.
Tête-à-tête with Tarantino
Before wrapping up the interview, we ask him if he had an opportunity to meet Quentin Tarantino. Madhukar replies with a laugh, “Madsen used to talk to him daily so I got to speak with him on the phone once. He was extremely polite as I gushed about his work and told him that I had loved his Hateful Eight. And, he spoke to me about the challenges of shooting in sub-zero temperatures in the Rocky Mountains for the film.”
Madhukar, who comes across as an audaciously ambitious director, may want to rope in the academy award winning director Quentin Tarantino for his next venture. Yes, I want him to launch the release of Nishabdham in the USA! he replies.