Sarjun KM’s upcoming film Airaa is a horror-laced revenge drama that stars Nayanthara in a dual role. The genre is not new to Nayanthara, who has the back-to-back supernatural thrillers Maya (2015), Kaashmora (2016) and Dora (2017) to her credit. For Sarjun, however, the genre was an experiment.

Airaa is “an unusual revenge story that unfolds backwards,” the filmmaker told Scroll.in. “The reason behind the revenge is very different from whatever we have seen in films before.”

Produced by Kotapadi J Rajesh of KGR Studios, the Tamil film is scheduled to be released on March 28. Kalaiyarasan and Yogi Babu are among the cast members.

Although Sarjun did not reveal details about the plot, it is said to revolve around Bhavani, a woman from a small town, and Yamuna, a city-based journalist (both played by Nayanthara). A clue into the film’s universe is its title. Airaa is short for Airavata, the white elephant from Hindu mythology. “Elephants are said to be immortal, and are known for their sharp memory,” Sarjun observed.

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Airaa (2019).

The filmmaker conceived of the idea when he was approached by producer Rajesh to make a horror film for Nayanthara. “I narrated the film to Nayanthara and the film got approved the same day,” Sarjun said. He began fleshing out the plot with writer Priyanka Ravindran, who also co-wrote his short film, Maa, in 2018.

Nayanthara pulled out all stops to prepare for the dual roles, Sarjun said. “One of the characters she plays is that of a naive woman who has witnessed a lot of hardship,” he said. “I took up the film because it was Nayanthara. It was a big opportunity for me. Nayanthara put in so much effort. I gave her a lot of backstory. The way she interpreted the character was phenomenal.”

Nayanthara in Airaa (2019).
Nayanthara in Airaa (2019).

While most horror films use cold hues such as blue, indigo and green, Sarjun decided to bathe Airaa in reds, browns and yellows.

“Most horror films have blue overtones to depict a sense of eeriness,” Sarjun explained. “But we went in the opposite direction and shot the entire film in streetlight, under sodium vapour lamps.” The filmmaker also drew references from American Westerns for the film’s colour palette.

“It is an absolute experiment and a gamble, and we are hopeful the scares are effective through its colour scheme,” Sarjun said. “We had one screening and a few people said the scares worked for them. We only have red, orange and brown tones in the entire film, even in terms of costumes. That is something that will visually stand out from other films in the horror genre.”

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Airaa (2019).

Sarjun made his directorial debut with the Sathyaraj-starrer Echcharikkai (2018). He was praised for Maa (2018), a short film about teenage pregnancy, and Lakshmi (2017), another short film about the plight of a woman in a loveless marriage. Lakshmi, which stars Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli, drew polarised reactions for depicting an extra-martial affair. The criticisms only pushed Sarjun to work harder.

“I learnt not to stop doing what I want just because people criticise my work,” he said. “It was hard to deal with in the beginning. There has also been a big change in the way people look at Tamil films. The depiction of women in films too have changed. It’s a gradual process.” The filmmaker, who has assisted Mani Ratnam on such movies as OK Kanmani (2015), credited the women from Ratnam’s films as his inspiration.

“I have worked with him [Ratnam] on a lot of scripts, and have been part of many discussions,” Sarjun said. “In all of his films, the women are not only strong, but they are unique. There will be something more than strength that defines them. In Guru, for instance, the decisions of Aishwarya Rai’s character define her. I have also grown up watching Selvaraghavan’s films. The women in his films are flawed, but they are also full of character.”

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Lakshmi (2017).