Madhumita Sundararaman’s KD, short for Karuppu Durai, draws its inspiration from a controversial euthanasia procedure practised in rural Tamil Nadu. The film’s focus, however, is on life and not death, Sundararaman told Scroll.in.
KD follows Karuppu Durai (Mu Ramasamy), an ailing 80-year-old who leaves home to escape involuntary euthanasia in his village in Tamil Nadu’s Virudhunagar district. While on the move, he strikes an unlikely friendship with eight-year-old Kutty (Nagavishal). The film follows the duo as Kutty helps Karuppu Durai complete his bucket list.
A core theme is how an encounter with death triggers a will to live, Sundararaman said over the phone from New York. “While the film starts off with the idea of death, it is more about living life,” she said. “I chose to centre the story about life and living.”
The Tamil-language movie will be screened at the ongoing New York Indian Film Festival on Saturday after being premiered at the UK Asian Film festival in April.
The idea for KD came to Sundararaman when she read in a Tamil magazine about thalaikoothal, a form of euthanasia where renal failure and fever are induced through excessive oil-massages followed by cold baths and coconut water ingestion. The practice is followed in more than 40 villages in Tamil Nadu, according to a report in The Week. Families euthanise ailing elders ostensibly to put them out of their misery, but the practice is illegal and often involuntary.
Sundararaman used this as a starting point for an examination of the lives of the elderly. “As people grow old, they almost become like a child,” she explained. “Usually the older people are the ones imparting wisdom. Whereas in this I imagined the film with an insecure 80-year-old and a street-smart, mature eight-year-old boy. We wanted to put them together and see how they play off each other.”
Finding the right person for the protagonist’s role was a challenge: “I was looking for an actor who could pull off a frail old man and at the same time someone who has a sudden burst of energy in life.” After multiple auditions failed to yield the right match, a friend recommended theatre actor and playwright Ramasamy (Joker).
The theme of a friendship that transcend age barriers has been explored in cinema before, including in Balu Mahendra’s Thalaimuraigal (2013) and Takeshi Kitano’s Japanese film Kikujiro (1999). Sundararaman said hers is a new perspective. “The good thing about having seen these films is that I wanted to stay away from that as much as possible,” she said. “There is also this misconception that festival movies are art-house, non-commercial films. I want to make it a point to establish that that was not true with KD.”
Born in Chennai to Tamil parents, Sundararaman moved to Indonesia when she was a child. After graduating from the New York Film Academy, she went back to her roots to make her directorial debut at the age of 21 with the Chennai-set Vallamai Tharayo (2008). She followed that up with the comedies Kola Kolaya Mundhirika (2010) and Moone Moonu Varthai (2015), which was also released in Telugu as Moodu Mukkallo Cheppalante.
Working in the Tamil film industry required a lot of unlearning and patience, she recalled. “I wanted my characters in films to have urban sensibilities,” she said. “But In Tamil Nadu, the sensibilities were more slightly conservative.”
As a female director in a male-dominated industry, she also struggled to be taken seriously. “Men in general find it very hard to take instructions from a woman,” she elaborated. “Everyday I was made to feel like I had to prove myself during my first film. But after the first week, I knew exactly what I wanted. The authority that the crew naturally gives to a male director has to be earned by a woman.”
The filmmaker now wants to make Hindi-language films and has two scripts in development. “I always start working on characters rather than stories,” she said. “I want to create characters that you will remember.”