Chennai: In a blood-soaked action scene in the recent Lokesh Kanagaraj-directed Tamil movie Vikram, Kamal Haasan fights off deadly villains as he boils milk for his infant grandson. As he kills opponents coming towards him in the kitchen, he even remembers to check the milk’s temperature by pouring a few drops into his mouth.
In another of Kanagaraj’s movies Kaithi, the hero Karthi uses an M134 mini gun even as his lackeys quickly read up the manual on how to use it.
Kanagaraj is Tamil Nadu’s Tarantino — his films are not only replete with gratuitous violence of fingers breaking, heads cracking and people blowing up into pieces, but also rich drama and dark humour. And he is attempting to do what the Marvel comics universe has done with Spider-Man, Iron Man and Captain America — bringing together a host of iconic characters and franchises with their own stories in a giant multiverse to vanquish a common villain.
Fans are calling it the formidable Lokesh Cinematic Universe, more fondly known as the Lokiverse.
Also Read: Robin Hood or thieves? ‘Tamil Rockerz’ gripping insight into piracy in Kollywood
Tamil Nadu’s Tarantino
After the runaway success of Kaithi and Vikram, the third installment of the LCU called Leo starring Vijay will be out later this year. In fact, Kanagaraj, 36, is hoping to stick with this universe for another decade.
He was also at the helm of Master, starring both Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi. Though it was released after Kaithi, it was not part of the LCU.
Kanagaraj has mapped out with Lokiverse every age group and has guaranteed hits as he’s picked heroes that appeal to specific generations and across fan bases — Karthi, Vijay, Surya, Kamal.
Many fans are now speculating about a future film which will bring all these big stars together.
Like American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction), Kanagaraj has a love for using “old songs, heavy violence and a hyperlink-style screenplay,” said Rathna Kumar, director and writer for three of Kanagaraj’s films, adding that there is definitely some inspiration.
With four feature-length films under his belt, the last three being multi-starrer blockbuster hits, and a storytelling style rich in action and drama, Kanagaraj is a Kollywood sensation. And now he is one of the most sought-after directors in Tamil cinema.
“In Tamil cinema, action is not really a genre,” said film critic Baradwaj Rangan, adding that Kanagaraj’s films are changing the concept of action films in the industry.
“His action sequences are quite spectacular because he believes in participating in the imagination of the action. They are both written and staged well. The camera work and editing are all running in his head as he is shooting,” said Rangan.
His genius with foreshadowing is on display in Vikram. There’s a teasing glimpse of a domestic worker’s character, Tina, early in the film. She is later revealed to be an undercover agent. It’s the way she catches a falling cup that gives the audience a clue.
Kaithi’s chase sequence is a great example of his adeptness with the camera, which travels from inside an SUV to a lorry to a van with goons, all the while capturing the action taking place in each vehicle.
The continuous camera movement gives the audience a new view of the action.
Also Read: Dhanush steers Vaathi to the shore with his swagger and moving performance
Action all the way
Unlike the Marvel universe, heroes of the Lokiverse don’t have superpowers — they are ordinary mortals. A truck driver in Kaithi, a member of a government covert unit in Vikram, and in Leo, the hero is rumoured to be a chocolate factory owner or a baker.
While there is no romance, there are strong emotional arcs in all his films. Kaithi starts in an orphanage with a daughter waiting for her father who she has never seen. The film follows this father’s journey to meet her.
“To him, a physical conflict is not simply a punch after a punch, he tries to bring a narrative into it. That is what stays in the mind of the audience,” said Rathna adding that for Kanagaraj, action is the major part of the film.
Also Read: What Shah Rukh Khan learned from Tamil Nadu cinema and put into action for Pathaan
Kanagaraj grew up in a small village outside of Coimbatore. His father was a bus conductor and he has said that the family struggled when he was growing up. He moved to Coimbatore to do his bachelor’s degree in fashion technology and went on to do an MBA in Chennai. He worked at a bank in the city for four and half years until his film journey began.
His first project was the short film Acham Thavir in 2012. In 2016, he directed a short for the Karthik Subbaraj-backed anthology Aviyal. He made his debut as a feature film director in 2017 with Maanagaram.
It was a hyperlink thriller about four people whose lives intertwine when they move to Chennai. The fast-paced story follows how each of the characters gets affected by the other’s actions. There is a good amount of bloodshed as well.
The two lead actors in Maanagaram remain unnamed. “It was intentional. Anyone should be able to connect to the character,” said Rathna.
In Master and Vikram, the hero’s entry is never immediate. Agent Arun Kumar Vikram (Kamal Haasan) first appears on the screen halfway through the film. “To even pitch an idea like this to a very respected and senior actor is indicative of somebody who very clearly knows the kind of movie that he wants to make,” said critic Rangan.
Rangan added that with three big hits, “Lokesh has become such a brand that people are just willing to go with his flow”.
Calm and cool
Kanagaraj’s actors describe him as a calm and cool person on set, who lets his actors follow their instincts, but his enthusiasm goes off the charts during scenes that contain violence.
“He lets the actors decide how they want to do it. It is nice to have creative freedom. It truly feels like a collaboration when you work with Lokesh,” said Gayathrie Shankar who played Fahadh Faasil’s wife in Vikram.
Anish Padmanabhan, another actor who worked with him in the film, said that though the scenes and sequences are planned in advance, there is always room for improvisation. “Lokesh and his trusted partner Rathna take inspiration from their surroundings and are always open to innovation. That creates the real magic on screen.”
Improvisations based on what we see around us make a world of a difference, said Rathna. Kanagaraj is very particular about his locations, but any change is taken in stride and his staging is improvised to showcase the new place’s strengths, he added.
“Master’s climax was initially planned on a cliff. But it was changed to a meat factory at the last minute. He masterfully weaved the hanging meat into the staging of the scene,” said Rathna.
Those who have been on his sets say that action and gore are what pumps up Kanagaraj the most.
Gayathrie, whose character in Vikram has her head chopped off in the film, recalls how on the day of the shoot, Kanagaraj was the most enthusiastic. He is generally behind the monitor but that day he came right up to me and started explaining where he wanted multiple cut marks,” she said.
She laughed that all these memes about him disliking romance and liking gore and actions are kind of true.
Gayathrie narrated how at one point he even took the spray bottle from the makeup artist and started doing her make-up.
This is not unusual for Kanagaraj, the director was also Kamal Haasan’s makeup man.
“His interests are infectious, stunt directors and camerapersons have a lot of fun,” said Gayathrie.
He is known to do in-depth research on the guns that are used in his movies. “He becomes a cowboy around guns,” says Anish.
Kanagaraj, who crossed the Rs 400 crore club with Vikram, used the film to establish the Lokesh Cinematic Universe. He has hinted at a sequel for Karthi as well and also a standalone film for Suriya’s character Rolex who had a cameo in Vikram.
“For the next 10 years, I’m settled,” Kanagaraj said in an interview.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)