In Tamil director Karthik Subbaraj’s sixth feature Jagame Thandhiram, Dhanush plays Suruli, a gangster from Madurai who tussles with British criminals in London.

When Suruli encounters crime boss Peter (James Cosmo), “their lives change forever,” Subbaraj told Involved in the fray are Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants. Key characters include the singer Andrea (Aishwarya Lekshmi) and the gangster Sivadoss (Joju George). The movie will be out on Netflix on June 18.

Jagame Thandhiram deals with xenophobia, migration and the fallout of the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam within the trappings of a gangster film, Subbaraj said.

“The film speaks about man-made boundaries and whether homes unite or separate,” the 38-year-old writer-director added. “We are looking at how people are not allowed to stay in one place, continuously pushed out of and forced into camps. It’s a tricky world the film deals with. A lot of research went into understanding this world.”

Dhanush and Aishwarya Lekshmi in Jagame Thandhiram (2021). Courtesy Netflix.

Subbaraj picked the title, which means a world of deception, from the song Sambo Siva Sambo from the Tamil movie Ninaithale Inikkum (1979). Inspired by his favourite American gangster films, Subbaraj set the first version of his script in New York. He pursued the legends Robert De Niro and Al Pacino to play Peter. Budgetary concerns and problems with access compelled Subbaraj to shift the plot to London and cast Cosmo as Peter.

Subbaraj’s early films Pizza and Jigarthanda offered genre fare with characteristic twists. He began to weave social issues into his movies starting with the feminism-themed Iraivi, followed by Mercury, inspired by a real incident of mercury poisoning in Tamil Nadu.

“My films originate from characters whom I then put in an unusual situation and if that takes them towards a social issue affecting a large number of people, I ensure that I explore it the right way without making a propaganda film,” Subbaraj said. Even Jigarthanda was no different, he argued. “Ultimately, that film says that real triumph comes not in evoking fear in people, but laughter.”

Humour is a constant in Subbaraj’s movies. The language barrier between a swaggering Tamilian and his British counterparts automatically creates space for comedy, Subbaraj said. The challenge was to balance the Tamil and English dialogue so that “a Tamil-speaking person, without knowing English, would definitely understand what’s happening in every scene even if he did not get each word”.

James Cosmo in Jagame Thandhiram (2021). Courtesy Netflix.

Across six features, Subbaraj has maintained a knack for upending audience expectations, which he attributes to his fondness for renowned Tamil writer Sujatha’s stories.

“Actually only two of the films revolved around proper twists, one being Pizza and the other being Petta,” Subbaraj explained. “The rest of the time, I try to make individual scenes unpredictable but not the whole film, like the moment Assault Sethu in Jigarthanda is expected to get shot in the toilet, but I introduced the drunk character to make the moment stand out differently.”

The music for Jagame Thandhiram is by Santhosh Narayanan, who has worked in every one of Subbaraj’s films except Petta. Some of Narayanan’s best soundtracks are for Subbaraj’s films “not because he is my good friend”, the director said. “He is inspired solely by the script and the visuals.”

Five of Narayanan’s eight songs are in the movie, but not the immensely popular Bujji because Subbaraj couldn’t find the right place for it in the film. Similarly, Nethu and Aala Ola had to be dropped in order to maintain the storytelling rhythm.

Jagame Thandhiram (2021).