At the young age of 27, Tamil cineaste Arun Karthick has already taken Rotterdam twice. In 2016, his debut feature The Strange Case of Shiva found a slot in the festival’s Bright Future sidebar, and followed a young designer obsessed with the photo of a girl snapped in mysterious circumstances. It was a minimalist piece of filmmaking that showed a keen eye for everyday rituals captured largely through close-ups. Four years later, by the time we find a quiet spot to chat inside de Doelen, the epicentre and headquarters of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, that unassuming, modest register has coalesced into a work of beguilingly simple beauty, and Karthick can celebrate his return to IFFR with Nasir, his sophomore feature and official Tiger Competition entry.
Based on a short story by Dilip Kumar, A Clerk’s Tale, Nasir chronicles a single day in the life of the Muslim fabric shop salesman it’s named after, and unspools at his own becalmed and contemplative pace. It’s a film of small, everyday gestures that brim with the glow of revealed things – a reverie replete with all sorts of textural pleasures. Shot by cinematographer Saumyananda Sahi in a saturated 16mm, all the myriad colours shimmering from saris and pastel buildings burst from the frame, while the 4:3 aspect ratio boxes you in with the man, a choice that both amplifies all the warmth that permeates Nasir, and the pain of the punch in the gut the film delivers in its closing scene.
For the quiet, dreamlike tale Karthick conjures is short-lived, and all the entrancing lulling of Nasir’s daily meanderings shatters in a finale of unspeakable violence. As I prepared for our chat, I read that the film cribbed from a real-life accident, which Karthick witnessed in 2016. Under India’s PM Narendra Modi’s virulently nationalist rule, religious-ethnic tensions between Tamil Nadu’s Hindu majority and Muslim minority have heightened, resulting in several clashes and fatal lynchings. Karthick, a Hindu man, was busy running a coffeeshop in Coimbatore when he witnessed hundreds of Hindu extremists ransack all the Muslim shops in his street in what he described as “an eight-kilometre-long riot”. Nasir sponges up the pestilential stench of the xenophobia fuelled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, but for the most part of its breezy 79 minutes, it lets that violence and hatred echo from some distant, nebulous region. All around town, loudspeakers belch out slurs against “the Muslim scum”, and people in Nasir’s Hindu-run shop carelessly toss racist remarks. Yet the tension never seems palpable, as Karthick focuses on his self-effacing, unassuming hero – played by Koumarane Valavane with what feels like genuine affinity – as he attends to his daily chores, interspersing them with moments of solace, reflection and poetry. It all contributes to turn Nasir into a powerful hymn to empathy and humanism, and a stupefying ode to the beauty in everyday, random things. And for a sophomore feature to elicit all those charms, this is no small feat.
Can we start by addressing that sense of ordinariness that transpires from Nasir’s life? I fear that calling your film “low-key” would be particularly misleading. Yes, it’s the story of “someone random”, as he’s described by people around him, but there’s so much beauty in his everyday routine.
Oh, that’s what we ended up talking about the most, my editor, my cinematographer and I. We didn’t want to make a hero out of Nasir. He isn’t exactly someone who’d catch your eye in the street. He’s just so ordinary, so normal. But his ordinariness was already there, in the short story, which was written with an interesting literary technique: it’s in the second person. And that got me thinking: how could we get the film to elicit that same degree of closeness, this involvement which the second person brought about in the text? And we thought the best way to address that was to avoid sensationalising the subject – until the end, at least.
As well as embracing that second-person perspective, that short story also has this diaristic dimension, which makes it feel like a chronicle. We literally start with the protagonist getting out of bed: “The clock shows 6:03. Your name is…” And it’s interesting because that same chronicle-like feeling is also something that’s very prominent in your work.
Reproducing that chronicle-like structure took plenty of time. We spent pre-production trying to raise funds, while I kept working on the script. And to truly get your story to sound like a chronicle, the telling has to be strong. You need to sort between what you want and don’t want to include. Choose points, things that may stay with the audience. It was all largely guided by the short story itself. We realised we were telling the story of a very simple man, and we wanted the film to reflect that, to evoke the man’s sensibility and dignity. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t fight…
I remember reading your film being billed as a portrait of a second-class citizen. But he’s really not one!
He’s not! At least, we don’t present him that way. He’s just a human being. Yes, he’s definitely reduced to a second-class citizen in the end, but until then, we really just see him as a loving man.
There’s also an interesting ethnographic flair to your film. You get the sense that this is the kind of film only someone who’d been immersed in that community could have put together. And of course, that was your case.
That’s right. I lived in that Muslim neighbourhood we shot in for two years.
How difficult was it to gain access to that community? I’m curious about how you went about explaining your presence to those around you.
Well, I live in the same city [Coimbatore], about 15 km away from the place where we shot. That area is in the middle of the city, where the market streets and bazaar are. Most Muslim folks work in those shops, and around them are Hindus, and other communities. And the school I went to was in that part of town, which meant I’d have to travel there every day. So I guess I’ve been well versed with the city and its communities since childhood. I know the streets where the story happens. In fact, the short story was written in those same streets. This is also why I like that text so much – because I could recognise the streets and places. But knowing is one thing. Being there is different. And sure, you can never be them, but for a while at least you can try to belong. I think if you go about making a film in a place that’s not your own, that’s the first thing you should try to do. And this sense of belonging is nothing abstract: you have to physically be there. When I decided to make this film, the first thing that came to me was: I should take up a house in the area. I could have never been happy with just being a visitor. And the house I moved into was so tiny it didn’t even have running water. Everyday I’d have to queue to the local pump, and there I’d meet all sorts of people, queueing with me in the early morning. Of course at the beginning it was very irritating, because you’re not used to it, but you just need to do it, and in the end you start to embrace it. You get used to the ritual, and the place. Plus you have to bear in mind this is a very volatile location, an area that’s been plagued with bombings, and riots. I can’t just show up one day with my camera and shoot. I have to be there, and people have to know me. They were very suspicious when I first showed up. I was the only non-Muslim guy who took up a house in the neighbourhood, and who clearly did not belong to their class. I’d tell them I was a researcher, writing about the market. And then I slowly started hinting at the fact that the story I was working on might have turned into a film. And they began to trust me. I could go visit different houses. Do some location scouting. Had I not been part of that community, to some extent, I could have never done any of that.
Did you end up casting some of the locals?
We recruited people from the area. Not Muslims, though. Bear in mind that this is an orthodox community, and for them cinema is haram, forbidden. But around the place we found people whose faces intrigued us. Mind you, about 90% of the cast comprises non-actors. A few of them had acted in short films, but none had feature-length credits.
What about your lead, Koumarane Valavane? I understand he’s a Franco-Indian theatre director. How did you bump into him?
I’d spent a year and half looking for the right protagonist, when a friend mentioned his name. I’d heard of Koumarane before, but it was only when I googled him and his face came up that I knew he was the right guy. It’s nose, his face…
It’s so gentle! There’s something so wise about his eyes. It’s as if he exuded this sort of becalmed, peaceful aura.
Which is why I liked him. You either have those qualities or you don’t. And this guy most certainly did: he’s never acted, but he’s a theatre director. And he’s also a professor of particle physics in France. And he’s translated Baudelaire and Victor Hugo in my language, Tamil.
A true Renaissance man.
Oh, yes! [laughs]. And yet you’d never know about any of this unless you did your own research. He doesn’t talk about this stuff. And won’t give you that intellectual vibe once you meet him. He’s just the way you described him: a happy-go-lucky, becalmed man.
So how did it feel for you to direct a man who up until then had only been behind the camera?
He’s a very humble guy. He understood the medium, what his role involved. And he was extremely generous. He would tell me: “you’re the director, tell me what I have to do.” Which really is the best thing anyone could ever say.
How long did the shooting last?
Twenty days. We’d planned to shoot for twenty, and we finished right on the twentieth.
And I’m assuming you had a very small crew with you?
That’s right, there were only 15 of us. I would have liked to trim it down a little further, but we needed at least three people for sound alone, plus one assistant for the cameraman, and so on. I kept things to the bare minimum.
This is a film of tactile and visual pleasures, and your reliance on close-ups only amplifies that. Your feature debut, The Strange Case of Shiva, also featured plenty of close-ups, and I was wondering where that penchant for that particular visual grammar came from.
I love close-ups, especially when used for the right reasons. I remember Claire Denis saying the best way to decide where to put your camera is to choose whether you want to look at your characters or with them. I think about these things a lot. Say I’m asked to frame you for a certain emotion. I start to think about what the emotion is, and how it could come out best, and what I want to say in that particular moment. I really love old films a lot, classical films if you like, and my cinematographer has that same edge, too. He’s also fond of closeups, and I think it comes from a certain taste for certain masters.
I’m really not surprised to hear you mention Claire Denis: so much of her cinema is made of little rituals, of simple gestures – removing your shoes, dressing and undressing, daily chores… And your film behaves in a very similar way.
That’s right, this is very much a film of rituals, as well.
But there was another film I was jolted back to while watching Nasir – Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson.
Ah! [laughs] You’re not the first one to draw that analogy.
And I’m sure I won’t be the last either! There’s a very similar contemplative pace, sure, but also a shared interest in uncovering the beauty in everyday, banal routines. Plus, Nasir is an aspiring poet too!
Sure. I mean, Paterson is a little bit more flamboyant but… well, you can call Nasir a Paterson from South India [laughs]. I love Jarmusch. But I guess the main difference is that I see Paterson, the character, as having some sense of literary ambition. He wants to be published, at some point. Here, our protagonist is possibly even more humble, more simple. He has none of those aspirations.
And yet he says something very telling in one of the poems he recites: “What is life if not loneliness and silence”. I was trying to square that image with his life, as you portrayed it. And yes, there’s plenty of solitude and silence in Nasir’s routine, but it doesn’t strike me as negative or overly depressing.
Which is why I like that short story. Even though he has financial problems, no kid of his own, and a somewhat difficult life, he’s never complaining. Not once. And that’s useful when you want to capture something as obscene as the injustice he suffers: as a good person, the anger you feel for his tragic fate only grows stronger.
I was also quite intrigued by the use of loudspeakers in the film. The ones from the mosque seem to only reverberate reflections on the Quran, while the ones from the Hindu side of town spit out all sorts of vitriolic racism and xenophobia.
But that’s just the way it is, in reality. I recorded those slurs myself. You see, when you’re a minority you’re only allowed to be radical up to a certain point. So even the Mosque just cannot cross a certain line. It’s not just a mere contradiction: I wanted it to be just like the way it is.
How have things changed since that riot you witnessed in 2016?
It’s all gotten worse, actually. Since we wrapped production, the number of public lynchings and shootings has increased. Have you heard about India’s new citizenship law? A lot of people are protesting against it, especially from this region, and recently the police reacted by opening fire on the crow, and a bullet hit a man who just happened to be around, walking his kids. He was killed.
Did you think of Nasir as a potential answer to all this? Not just in the sense that it offers a portrait of what is happening right now, but also a call for empathy?
Yes, that’s really what we thought with this film. That we could get people to think about what we’re doing to such people. I loved the story, and I really wanted to make a film out of it. I’d first read it before I made my first film, and went on to do other things after that. But it kept coming back to me. Until I realised that the time was right something like this to be told. And now, somewhere inside cinema’s history, there’ll be a place for a man like Nasir, and people will be able to know what people like him have suffered in this particular moment in time. But this is not a political statement. It’s a story about this person, and about his simple life.