You started off as an actor, but when things didn’t take off on the commercial acting front, you took on character roles. How did those initial few years prepare you for your career as a director?
I acted in a fi lm which never released – it was directed by my father, and my uncle composed the music for it. I don’t know why it never saw the light of day – it was in 1995-1996. Back then, my life was a major struggle. I became an actor, but then I realised that I never wanted to be a hero, I only wanted to remain an actor. I chose fi lms where my performances were character roles. I never thought I would make it as a director so fast – it was such a sudden thing! I wanted to become a director and wanted to write, yes, but it all happened so fast. It was, though, only because of Charan that I could direct my fi lm. I must say that acting helped me a lot because it let me see an easier way to explain my vision to artistes. In fact, in Biriyani, Karthi would tell me to act fi rst so that he could gain an insight into the body language and my own ideas. He wanted to integrate his ideas with mine. My struggles have made me stronger. I believe that I can survive anyhow. My experiences have ensured that I remain grounded and taught me not to attach too much importance to success. See, I don’t overdo it when I am successful, and don’t worry too much when I am not. We should know that when we go up, we have to come down. Only very few can stay on top. Nothing is in our hands at all – life and its trajectory are all things in the hands of the scriptwriter up there (points skywards).
Your fi lms have a near cult following. Did you ever see that coming?
Never! I just wanted to make entertaining fi lms that audiences of all age groups – from six to sixty – would enjoy watching. It feels good to have such a following. People say that I am a different kind of a fi lmmaker. It is disheartening that people don’t take comedy very seriously when in reality it is the toughest thing to do. It is easy to make people cry, but very hard to make somebody laugh. People think it is not good enough to award a comedy picture as the best fi lm of the year. When I did a game show for a television program, a person asked me when I would do realistic fi lms. I told him that Chennai 28 was realistic, and that people liked it because it was so. When you show something sad and people suffering – that is reality, defi nitely. But reality is subjective, and reality is also about people who enjoy and celebrate even if they don’t have enough subsistence for a day. The thing is, melodrama is always hyped, to the point that all else is secondary. We are all fi lmmakers but they categorise us. All of us make different kinds of fi lms, but ultimately, cinema is cinema.
Take us through the most memorable and diffi cult moments in your career so far…
Everyday is a memorable day for me. Shooting is fun. While on the sets, we fi ght and argue a lot. But we have fun all the same. When my fi lms release, I love the fact that people come up and appreciate my work. On the day that Chennai 28 released, I was surprised at how it opened to packed houses. It was a fi lm made with new faces, and I never knew it would be that big!
I think my most diffi cult period was the time I spent convincing producers to say yes to my scripts. My style of fi lmmaking is different. I focus a lot on the visual experience. For example, to tell the story of Chennai 28 was hard. It was heavily visual. A producer has to understand that it would work, and then back it up. In Mankatha, the second half was a chase entirely. It was hard getting it out in words to explain to the producer.
It is also challenging to work with a lot of people crowding around. In Saroja, the accident scene had a huge traffi c pile-up. We went through hell while shooting with Ajith in Dharavi. Dharavi is the most populated Tamil area in Mumbai. We took Ajith there – he is such a huge star, and naturally all the attention was focused on him. We could only shoot in bits and pieces. We shot a few takes in Hyderabad and matched it. It is also hard working on a multi-starrer. It is a big deal to convince two big stars. For instance, Ajith and Arjun had to be convinced of their roles in the fi lm. Arjun had doubts where his role in Mankatha was concerned, even before it released. He would ask me if he was even there in the fi lm as his role was small. I have known Arjun since I was very young – and he calls me Prabhu even now, after having seen me as a kid. After seeing the fi lm in the dubbing stage, he saw that I had executed onscreen, all that I had promised him. That fi nally convinced him of his role. With my boys, though, it is easier – they don’t ask questions, but just do whatever I tell them to do. Big stars tend to ask a lot of questions, as they need to know very clearly, where they stand in the fi lm.
What is your creative process like?
I don’t know! I do agree to things, but I tend to second-guess myself. So I need to ensure that I really like something before I agree. I ask myself a lot of questions. I write my scripts in Auroville. Being a Mother devotee, I go to Auroville quite often. I think that is my creative spot. I don’t have a process though. I do work on lines, and build an ethos surrounding that line of thought. For instance, say, a bank robbery. I would build on it with back stories and such else.
You seem to be repetitive in your casting – even if not entirely your whole cast, most of them. Why?
They make it much easier for me. And they also charge me much lesser…
Your brother Premji’s best roles are in your fi lms. Why do you think he isn’t able to shine so much under other directors?
Premji is not like Santhanam. You can’t compare them both. Santhanam writes his own dialogues and delivers his comedy. Premji is more of a character-oriented comedian. I think that is why it has worked well with our combination – I identify that and work with that. When I write a character for him, I know that it needs to be a mix of a funny situation and a funny character. Others expect him to write his own dialogues. Premji and Santhanam, themselves, though, share a great rapport. They are planning to do some work together in the future.
What’s happening right now?
I am taking it slow. It has been a long time since my movie hit the screens. People who liked my style have been missing my movies. It’s been one and a half years after Mankatha, so now I am looking to fi nish Biriyani as soon as possible. I might come up with another project this year. But I don’t want to keep it big as none of the big stars are available. I want to make a boyish fi lm – something that would be enjoyable, and liked by everyone. I may even do a romantic comedy. I haven’t done one yet, and a lot of people seem to be asking me when I would do it. I don’t know, because I don’t have a script ready.
So are you thinking of a multi-starrer with your usual cast? Or are they all going to be new faces?
It could be my boys, or it could be someone new. I don’t know, really! Once I fi nalise the script I’d probably know if it would be a multi-starrer or one with a huge cast. I really want to do something small, which is what I love.
Mankatha was a huge hit. What has been your biggest take home from the experience of directing Ajith?
The responsibility was higher because of the fan following that Ajith has. He is a cool guy, and he was a friend even before we started Mankatha. He is like a brother to me. I acted with him in a movie called Ji, and from then, we always wanted to work together after Chennai 28. Working with him was a pleasure. He has no hang ups, he doesn’t behave like a superstar, and he simply made life easier for everyone around him.
You seem like the kind of person that isn’t afraid of taking risks. Do you think that is a good thing?
I think people want fresh stuff, and we are just catering to them, the audience. Everything should be fresh for them. They need a new experience each time they go to the theatre. If you don’t take a risk, you can’t give them that. Everything is already done, at some point or the other. It is all about how you present what’s already done that matters. It gives you a thrill when risk pays off. Only a producer who can understand and believe that it will work can help you take that risk and back it up. I will be starting my own production company to do whatever I want to, myself. I fi nd that it is much easier to explain my ideas to myself than to another person. I may do it this year. I may call it Black Ticket Company. I will make my own fi lms to start with, and later I might – I haven’t planned this yet – listen to scripts from outside.
Is there a dream project you want to pursue? What is it?
That would be a children’s fi lm – a fi lm with kids and for kids. It won’t be about kids going through a hard time in life, but a celebration of what it is to be a kid. I want to do something with magic or fantasy as the theme.
You’ve always wanted to work with Ilayaraja…
He is a legend! I am proud to be his nephew – he is my uncle, my father’s older brother. I am a die-hard fan of his and I hope to work with him in the future. That has always been my dream. I want to do a fi lm where he and his music will play a huge part. His music has soul, and it is experiential. I grew up listening to his songs, to the point that even when I get music from Yuvan, I always use his father’s songs as a comparison. We work on a composition or raga and try to emulate his skill. For the song “Vaada Bin Lada” from Mankatha, we used a raga that the maestro used in Durgamahendralu, directed by my father. I wanted a similar raagam, and Yuvan made the song in that raga.