ZEE5’s Tamil web series Kallachirippu (Fake Smile) cuts right to the chase. Within minutes of the thriller’s first episode, a newly married woman stabs her husband in self-defence after a heated argument. She then promptly wipes her blood-spattered face and calls her boyfriend to clean up the mess.

Rohit Nandakumar’s eight-episode series has several such surprises. Produced by Karthik Subburaj, Kallachirippu was released on the streaming platform on July 23.

The idea of the show was to turn the typical portrayal of women in Tamil cinema on its head, Nandakumar told Scroll.in. “The women in my life have been very practical, but the women represented so far in films have been very impractical and seem romanticised,” Nandakumar said. “I wanted the woman to be very cold and a hard pill to swallow for the audience. That is the kind of human beings we meet in real life.”

The series follows 24-year-old Mahati through a series of misadventures that begin after she is forced into an arranged marriage. It stars Amrutha Srinivasan, Vikas, Rajalakshmi, Uma, Maheswaran and Nandakumar.

Kallachirippu (2018).

Nandakumar, who wrote and acted in one of the six short stories in the Tamil anthology movie Aviyal (2016), was approached by Subbaraj for a web series soon after the film was released. Subbaraj’s Stone Bench Creations had produced Aviyal, and the Tamil filmmaker liked Nandakumar’s work. Subbaraj later gave Nandakumar the option of converting his idea into a feature film, but Nandakumar was happy to stick to the web.

“The first intention was to do a story that revolved around a woman,” Nandakumar said. “I knew that that itself was a huge roadblock in terms of markets at least in Tamil cinema, sadly. I knew that if I wanted to a woman-centric film, I would need to give in to certain market pressures to make sure that the film comes out the way I want. The market dictates certain things.”

The show’s expletive-spouting Mahati, played by a brilliant Srinivasan, is in almost every frame of the show. The director said her character was a reimagining of Tamil cinema’s revered heroes.

“Every commercial film in our country has a hero who actually has a negative shade,” Nandakumar argued. “But we look past it because he is a man. We overlook it because of either the background score or his aura. Whether I am showing a man or a woman in a cool light, I wanted the audience to overlook it without any gender bias.”

Kallachirippu. Image credit: Rohit Nandakumar.

The series also includes a heartwarming love story between a gay couple. Nandakumar said he wanted to move away from the offensive portrayal of homosexual relationships in Tamil cinema, where they are often reduced to being comic relief. “It is so ingrained in our mind that the perfect image of cinema is a straight romance,” Nandakumar said. “To break that perfect image also I wanted to explore the homosexual angle.”

Nandakumar chose a non-linear narrative structure for Kallachirippu, which he said offered more creative freedom. “The advantage of the non-linear technique is that I could actually make it seem like we were reading a random page of a book to know what is happening in a next page,” he said. “It is like a footnote for a word, which gives a backstory. All these elements came into the picture when I was writing the dialogue. I realised that the nonlinear technique can give me so much leeway to convey the politics in my mind organically.”

Nandakumar found inspiration from a range of sources for his directorial debut, from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity to K Balachander. “I wanted it to be entertaining and politically correct,” he said. “That is where the influence of cinema helped me.

The director-actor will next star in Karthik Subbaraj’s upcoming film with Rajinikanth, but he is not done with the digital medium. “This will not be my last web series. It is a very liberating experience. I am probably spoilt right now and do not know how the feature experience will be.”