Caution: Potential spoilers ahead about Suzhal – The Vortex.
Pushkar-Gayatri are familiar names to followers of Tamil cinema. When Vikram Vedha is released on September 30, they are likely to become well-known among Hindi-speaking viewers too.
Their remake of their Tamil film of the same name stars Hrithik Roshan as a gangster and Saif Ali Khan as the police officer who pursues him. Ahead of the theatrical release, Pushkar-Gayatri have served up a tasting menu of sorts in the form of the web series Suzhal – The Vortex.
The Amazon Prime Video series has been written by Pushkar-Gayatri and directed by Bramma and Anucharan M. Bursting with telling detail and beautifully performed, the show examines crime, rebellion and retribution in a town in Tamil Nadu.
A cement factory catches fire on the same night that the teenage daughter of the plant’s union leader goes missing. The police investigation runs parallel to Mayana Kollai, a folk festival dedicated to the goddess Angala Parameshwari. Amidst the festival’s propulsive energies, policeman Sakkarai uncovers crimes both new and old.
Sakkarai (Kathir) follows the bread crumb trail laid out by his boss Regina (Sriya Reddy), only to learn a few uncomfortable truths about her. Nila’s father Shanmugam (Radhakrishnan Parthiban) is both fierce unionist and difficult parent. His elder daughter Nandhini (Aishwarya Rajesh) plays a key role that reveals itself at the end of eight nerve-shredding episodes.
Suzhal was originally meant to be a full-length movie, Pushkar-Gayatri told Scroll.in. The couple, who live in Chennai, had embarked on the project in 2014.
By then, they had already made the Chennai-based comedies Oram Po (2007) and Va – Quarter Cutting (2010). Vikram Vedha, which starred Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi and became a box office scorcher, was still three years away.
“We started writing Suzhal as a feature but we soon realised that we couldn’t go into the depth of each character within two hours,” Gayatri said. “We thought the theme would work better in long form. At that time, the streamers hadn’t come in yet.”
In the meantime, they developed Vikram Vedha, returning to Suzhal after meeting representatives of Amazon Prime Video’s creative team. “We took a year-and-a-half to write the screenplay and dialogue,” Pushkar said. “A lot of time went into researching the festival and relating its myths and metaphors to the main story.”
Suzhal is brimming with symbolism – fire and water, burial and excavation, masking and revelation. The narrative’s febrile, hypnotic atmospherics are provided by the Mayanna Kollai festival, which means Pillage of the Graveyard. Each of the episodes corresponds to the festival’s rituals over a nine-day period.
The belief that the goddess Angala scours cremation grounds for concealed demons is directly linked to the missing teenager’s sister Nandhini, who confronts secrets locked away in the recesses of her mind.
The festival wasn’t initially a part of the plot, the filmmakers said. When they were introduced to the event in a town near Vellore, “that was the X-factor for us, the over-arching metaphor”, Pushkar said.
Folklore powerfully reveals aspects of the human condition, the filmmakers added. “The ‘eureka moment’ was the belief that Angalamma hunts for demons buried in the cemetery,” Gayatri said. “We could connect a story of deeply buried memories with this myth.”
Suzhal operates within the template of the crime drama while frequently stepping outside it. A strong strain of progressive thought runs through a genre that often moralises and condemns.
The festival’s followers include marginalised people who seek comfort in Angala’s undiscriminating embrace. Among them is a trans woman who gently corrects Sakkarai’s understanding of gender identity. The emphasis on open-mindedness runs through other moments – Regina coolly tosses back a drink or two; an extra-marital affair is presented without judgement.
The constantly shifting perspectives is captured in the scene in which Nandhini points to two kinds of shadows thrown by a boom box, Gayatri said. “It’s easy for people to stereotype a person to make sense of things,” she added. “If you show [a different perspective], it might in a small way open up things.”
Pushkar added, “The essence of Suzhal is about how perspectives changes when you start to see people differently. The truth is somewhere an amalgamation of different perspectives, which leads us to the social commentary. As a society, we end up judging people way too rapidly and get stuck with singular perspectives. That is a point of concern for us.”
Viewers have caught on to Suzhal’s subversions. Pushkar-Gayatri have received messages on the lines of, every time I suspect somebody, Suzhal shows me my own prejudices.
The series had a few more layers and characters that were eventually excised. How did two creators who have only ever worked on time-bound narratives adapt to long-form filmmaking?
“There is beauty in brevity, but long form also gives us the chance to go into tangents rather than stick to one thread,” Pushkar observed. “When you are looking at a theatrical film, there is a different optics because you have a captive audience sitting in a darkened theatre. You can see emotions right down to that little crinkle in the eye when you laugh. We have to wrote things that are brief [for cinema] to show emotion. In long-form storytelling, as the screen size shrinks, you need to stay on shots a little longer so that the emotions and the story register.”
However, Suzhal also needed the feel of “cinematic television”, which was Amazon Prime Video’s brief to the makers. Suzhal has been designed by Arjun Venjaramoodu and shot by Mukes to resemble “a cinematic experience on the TV screen”, the filmmakers pointed out.
Apart from a greater depth in characterisation, long-form television can also liberate filmmakers to work with actors of their choice. “The biggest freedom that the web space has given us is in casting people who are the best fit for the role,” Pushkar said. They had worked with Kathir, who brilliantly plays Sakkarai, in Vikram Vedha. (Kathir also headlined Mari Selvaraj’s searing caste-themed film Pariyerum Perumal in 2018).
“We have seen everything Aishwarya Rajesh has done,” Pushkar said. “And we have known Sriya [Reddy] for years – we knew the kind of screen presence she has. There was no pressure on us to cast in a certain way for market value.” Some of the actors, which include first-timers and non-professionals, were suggested by the directors Bramma and Arunacharan.
Pushkar and Gayatri met as teenagers at Loyola College in Chennai and have been together in a personal and professional capacity ever since. After working in advertising for a brief period, they enrolled in American universities to study filmmaking – she at Northwestern University in Chicago; he at the University of New Orleans.
Their collaboration spills over from their workplace to their home. “Most of the time we are sprawled on the bed with one laptop between us and talking about scenes and putting them down,” Pushkar said about their writing process. “We talk about a scene, one of us types it up and the other person looks at it and makes corrections. We haven’t gotten into a strict schedule.”
Gayatri added, “We’re not disciplined writers. We are a little slow and a bit lazy.” Vikram Vedha was written over seven years in fits and starts, even while other projects, including Suzhal, were gestating.
They have encountered a different working style in Mumbai, where they have been shooting Vikram Vedha. The Mumbai film industry is “very systematic and professional in the way [filmmaking] departments are organised”, Pushkar said. The pay scale is far better in Mumbai too, they observed.
“It’s very specialised, which takes a lot of the pressure off from us,” Gayatri added. Meanwhile, the Chennai film world runs entirely on passion, the filmmakers pointed out.
“Everybody bends over backward to get a film done,” Pushkar said. “That might not always be the healthiest way of working, since some people end up overworking because they are so deeply committed to the project.”
The Vikram Vedha remake reportedly had a different set of leads. Various reports over the years claimed that Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan were cast, only to pass on the two-hero production.
“The film went through a lot of things, but that didn’t bother us – when it happened, it happened,” Pushkar said. “We are very good at waiting. It’s our natural way of doing things.”
Hrithik Roshan, who replaces Vijay Sethupathi as Vedha, was the “first person from the Bombay film industry” to congratulate the directors after the Tamil release. “Somebody had organised a screening for him, he got our number from somewhere and he called us,” Pushkar said. “We were in the middle of a function. I saw an unknown number, answered the phone and he said, I am Hrithik.”
What Roshan saw in 2017 will soon be revealed on September 30. Until then, viewers can familiarise themselves with Pushkar-Gayatri’s vision through a series that serves up a folklore-inspired ethics lesson in the guise of a police procedural.