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Gayathri and Pushkar — Duo behind Suzhal-The Vortex, the Indian thriller going global

As South Indian cinema breaks language and OTT barriers, Asia’s ‘only husband-wife filmmaker couple’ is creating waves.

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Tamil cinema and series have been making leaps and bounds in Indian entertainment — be it acting, plot, storytelling, production, or experimentation. This year has been extra special so far, with Kamal Haasan making the biggest comeback with his blockbuster Vikram, and the first Tamil original series Suzhal-The Vortex making a global splash.

Suzhal, which is streaming on Amazon Prime Video, was created by the director-writer duo Gayathri and Pushkar. They are said to be the only married couple filmmakers in Asia. The two earlier created the critical and commercial success Vikram Vedha in 2017, which had actors Vijay Sethupati and R. Madhavan play the leads. The movie questioned the criminal justice system of the country and how it is vulnerable to manipulation and corruption by the powerful.

The duo’s foray into OTT has been a long-cherished dream, they told ThePrint. They were clear–they did not want to go for a TV drama, they wanted a bigger medium for their story, which could be watched on a big screen, home theatre system preferably, Pushkar said. Amazon Prime approached them, and the rest is history. India now has a thriller with worldwide success.

From directing the black comedy Oram Po (2007) to acing crime thrillers like no other, Gayathri and Pushkar have traversed a long way. The experimentation has paid off, both in terms of commercial success and critical reviews. Their motto, “local is the new global”, fits perfectly now, as South India shatters the language barrier and stands as a robust competition to Bollywood.

Also Read: Haven’t diluted ‘Vikram Vedha’ to reach wider audience, say directors Pushkar-Gayatri

Myth-making in Vikram Vedha and Suzhal

One trope that Gayathri and Pushkar have employed successfully in both Vikram Vedha and now Suzhal is the use of myth. In Vikram Vedha, it is the use of the tale of Vikram and Betal. Betaal Pachisi was written in the 11th century by Kashmiri poet Somdev Bhatt about the stories told to the wise king Vikramaditya by the witty ghost Betaal. At the end of each story, Vikramaditya had to answer a question about the story, often moralistic but also morally ambiguous. In Vikram Vedha, Vedha takes on the role of Betal while the cop Vikram plays the king. The learning? That there is no good and bad in absolute terms.

For Suzhal, the myth is a local one. The duo had started thinking about working on long-form content in 2015. Gayathri and Pushkar learned about the Mayana Kollai festival when they travelled to the village of Vellore in Tamil Nadu. Mayana Kollai literally means ‘pillaging of the grave’. The festival intrigued them and eventually, it became the inspiration behind the web series.

Pushkar says, “What draws us is the grey, and mythology also highlights that.” Be it Vikram Vedha or Suzhal, this greys colour every character.

A still from Puzhal-The Vortex

Mayana Kollai is celebrated a day after Maha Sivaratri, in the Tamil month of Masi. Goddess Angalamman is worshipped, and the colourful rituals and processions end with paying respects to the forefathers at the burial ground near the Palar river.

For Suzhal, the festival simultaneously becomes the backdrop and the crux of the narration. Just as the festival begins, a teen girl Nila disappears, and the single source of income of the town of Suzhal, a cement factory, burns down. What follows is the story of a town and its inhabitants confronted by versions of themselves they didn’t know existed.

Gayathri says, “It is also about memories—the demon is hidden in your memories, and you have to find it.”

Myths help encapsulate the universal. They form the basis of every culture, and at the core of it, they have similar tropes and ideas. The duo wanted to make a show that is as local as it is global.

Also Read: Sriya Reddy on ‘Suzhal – The Vortex’: It’s a regional story mounted on international scale

Thriving between black and white

In Gayathri and Pushkhar’s content what stands out is the painstaking attention to detail. For instance, in Vikram Vedha, the first interrogation scene between the ‘good’ cop Vikram and the ‘bad’ gangster Vedha has Vikram dressed in white and Vedha in black. As the story progresses, and Vedha disrupts Vikram’s absolute world of black and white, their attires change colours too, into shades of grey.

For Suzhal, it is the very well-placed close-up shots, be it of the people, gods and goddesses in the festival shown, or the characters themselves playing various roles, depending on which person they are interacting with.

A still from Vikram Vedha

There is constant unease in the air created by the background score and the visuals, and you are in a race against the show, trying to figure out what happened, and mostly losing.

The interplay of perception and deception makes Gayathri and Pushkar stand out. Crime thrillers with mind-games make the experience strangely surreal and yet eerily familiar at the same time. Despite having not directed the series, the writing ensures it is a trademark outcome.

The Hindi remake of Vikram Vedha is set to release on 30 September, and there are innovations reportedly being brought in to have a completely different take on the much-acclaimed characters. It remains to be seen how they can better near perfection, but for Gayathri and Pushkar, it is probably all in a day’s work.

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