A director is never off duty

Posted on May 31, 2014


On the eve of the release of his second Hindi film, “Holiday,” AR Murugadoss talks to Baradwaj Rangan about remakes, violence, and returning to his hometown to watch films with friends and family.

Half an hour isn’t much when you think about it. It’s just thirty minutes. But to AR Murugadoss, this is time he doesn’t have. He doesn’t have thirty minutes to spare during evenings and nights, all the way till dawn, because he’s shooting a schedule of Kaththi, his film with Vijay, at Pushpa Gardens, Valasaravakkam. He doesn’t have thirty minutes to spare during the day because that’s when he’s doing the other things – you know, the things we do when we’re not working, like sleeping. So when I finally wrangled thirty minutes of the director’s time, after almost a fortnight of texts and calls, it felt like a minor victory. It became more minor when he said he’d rather talk on the phone.

There’s something disquieting about interviews on the phone. You don’t see the person. You don’t register the way he looks at you or looks away, so you cannot really decide if you want to push further or move to the next question. You don’t see him doing the things he normally does, the things that add colour to your copy. (“AR Murugadoss removed a wad of chewing gum from his mouth and stuck it under the cup of chamomile tea he picked up…”) It’s just a disembodied voice. But I have to give him this – despite the fact that he’d rather be doing something else, despite the fact that he badly needed to sleep, he was engaged throughout. The word that comes to mind is “sincere.” You know the student who doesn’t want to go to school, but if forced to go, he’ll tell himself that he’s there anyway, and so he may as well pay attention and take notes and raise his hand in class and make an impression? Murugadoss seems to be a little like that. It’s not just about doing something. It’s about doing something well.

This is also how he approaches remakes – not just making the movie all over again, but making it well. His first Hindi film (and the first Hindi film to vault over the Rs. 100-crore barrier at the box office), Ghajini, was the remake of the Tamil film of the same name. But it wasn’t the exact same movie. After a film is released, you listen to what people say. You hear them talk about what worked, what didn’t. Sometimes, you see the film with the audience and see how they respond to each scene, where they cheer, where they groan. Murugadoss did all these things and incorporated all the “feedback,” as he calls it, into the Hindi version, which he thinks is better. Some of the changes are big, broad, instantly visible. The Tamil film had two villains. The Hindi film had only one. Some of the changes are more delicate. The Tamil film had an exuberant duet, Rangola hola hola, towards the end, and a lot of people felt that this didn’t fit in with the doom-filled direction the story was headed. Hence, in Hindi, this song was replaced by an emotional number, Kaise mujhe tum mil gayi, a little earlier in the narrative. It helps the film immeasurably.

Hosted by imgur.com

Now, Murugadoss is ready with his second Hindi film, Holiday, which is the remake of the Tamil blockbuster Thuppakki. I asked him if perfecting a product based on feedback – how like manufacturing this sounds! – was what made him take up remakes. He said it was also the excitement that comes when you see how the same scene is transformed by different actors, different locations, a different language. The language is still a problem, but not that big a problem, as he has a good translator and a good assistant on the sets who is alert to modulations in the dialogue delivery. He admitted that he might have a problem if he chose to make a Hindi film that was set in a rural area, because there’d be a dialect you need to get right, and there’d be cultural specifics you need to be attuned to. But Holiday, like Ghajini, is an urban film, and he said that people in all the metros are pretty much alike, give or take a fashion choice here, a live-in relationship there.

His cross-metro team in Holiday kinda-sorta proves this theory. The music director, Pritam, is from Mumbai. Murugadoss chose him after asking around who churned out hit albums most consistently. But the process of making music was the same as in Chennai. You explain the situation. You get a rough tune. You say whether you like it or not. You ask for additions, modifications. Murugadoss sounded happy with the album he got, especially the bouncy Tu hi to hai number, which is the one you’ve been seeing on TV for the last couple of months, the one where Akshay Kumar in cut-offs and orange sneakers keeps hounding Sonakshi Sinha as she tries to prove that she’s the world’s best sporting all-rounder. The number was choreographed by Shobi Master, from Chennai. The Shayarana number, shot in a desert, was choreographed by Sridhar Master, also from Chennai, and the cinematography for this song was by Sukumar, whose credits include Kumki and Maan Karate. Holiday is the first Hindi film for these technicians.

Where the difference between Tamil and Hindi cinema really lies, Murugadoss said, is in the logistics. With Hindi cinema, you get bigger budgets, more prints, more theatres, the opportunity to reach audiences all over the country. I asked him if these audiences come for him or for the stars, for Aamir Khan and Akshay Kumar. I asked if he thought he could make a movie with newcomers, with his name the only known one, the only draw. He said it’ll probably take two or three more films for him to get established as a brand name in Hindi cinema. He works with experienced stars because he makes movies based on heavy subjects and newcomers cannot carry this weight. But he is thinking about a Hindi film that will feature newcomers. Then he said he wants to work with Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, whom he termed “the two legends of Tamil cinema,” because you cannot claim to have truly arrived unless you’ve worked with them. These were his dream actors. I asked him if he had a dream film. He said something generic at first, that he just wanted to make a “nalla padam,” a good film. Then he said he wanted to make something like Avatar, filled with lavish computer graphics.

He thinks big because the director Shankar is one of his idols. He likes to say that he is not from the city – he likes to use the word “ooru,” to refer to where he’s from – and, as a result, his exposure to international filmmakers like Martin Scorsese came relatively late. During his growing-up years, he grew up venerating Shankar. His second film, Ramana, was practically a Shankar film, with its story of a man suffering a personal tragedy and turning vigilante to bring down corruption in society. What Shankar taught him, Murugadoss said, is to think big – not just in scale, but also in terms of the scope of the issue at hand. The corrupt officials in Ramana, the sleeper cells in Thuppakki – these aren’t specific to a family in the film; they affect us all. There’s something deeper here, something more than just the Shankar influence. There is a YouTube video where Murugadoss says that, in his years at Bishop Heber College in Trichy, he had thoughts of turning into a terrorist or a Naxalite or a politician. He was greatly troubled by the wrongdoings around him, and he did not know what to do. Should he pick up a gun or write a poem or make a movie? He chose the latter, and then he speaks of the power of the image, about how the Vietnam War came to an end after the picture of a naked girl fleeing her napalmed village made its way around the world. Murugadoss told me that some of that anger still burns in him, and that’s why his films are violent. When innocents are killed by a bomb, you don’t want the perpetrator to be arrested by the police and subjected to courtroom interrogation and locked up in jail. You want to break his fingers. You want to make him suffer. That, he said, is more impactful on screen. It’s the whole layman-wish-fulfillment thing. I asked him if the same “more impactful” principle was at work in the gruesome scene in Ghajini where the heroine is killed – not by a bullet, but by a knife stuck into her spine, after which some sort of sledgehammer bashes her brains out. He said yes. Her death needed to have a big impact. The audience should not forget how she died, so that they could root for the hero when he avenges her death.

His other idol is Mani Ratnam, who taught him that it’s important to use all the tools at your disposal – sets, cinematography, costumes, makeup – to create a singular vision, what he called a “class presentation.” He mentioned Nayakan when I asked him to name his favourite films. (The Shawshank Redemption is his favourite Hollywood film.) He saw Nayakan when he was in school, and he said he liked the film because it’s really an action movie but it does what action movies rarely do, which is to make us feel so much for the protagonist, which is why it is so much better than The Godfather. He also loves Pithamagan, and he used a curious word, vibration, to explain why. He said that a film should have a perfect vibration between the characters and the audience. If the characters smile we should smile. If they cry, we should cry. Pithamagan, in his opinion, had this vibration to an amazing degree. If this connection snaps, Murugadoss said, we say we’re bored.

This is how Murugadoss likes to analyse films. He likes to see why films work and why they don’t. He likes to see how audiences respond to films. He likes to get a sense of their taste. But he said he doesn’t believe in following trends, making a movie because a similar movie became a box-office hit. That’s no use, he said. He’d rather make a movie because there hasn’t been a movie of this type or in this genre for a while, which probably explains his affinity to 7aum Arivu, with its mix of sci-fi and thriller and martial arts tropes, all topped with a sprinkling of spirituality. (There’s some unintentional humour too, if you consider the name of its dubbed-in-Hindi version: Chennai v/s China.) That’s his favourite film from his work. Thuppakki comes next. He said that the most important thing while watching a film is that we should not be able to guess what the next scene is. We should be surprised. This is the biggest challenge in writing a screenplay. He spoke of K Bhagyaraj’s screenplays, how they had all this great content and how this content was expressed in great style, and how every single scene was oriented towards the central plot, and how all this was coated with a humorous sheen. He called Darling Darling Darling the equivalent of “a Hollywood film.” He said that if Bhagyaraj had come on the scene today, he’d be world-famous.

Murugadoss keeps thinking about cinema all the time, and he doesn’t have time for what he calls “small things.” One of these things was the pretty big decision he needed to make about how his name would appear in the opening credits of his first film, Dheena. The numerologist who was advising the unit declared that “A. Murugadas” wasn’t right. The period between the initial and the name had to go. There needed to be two initials. And the name had to end with two s’s. And so the period went. An extra letter was borrowed from his father’s name, Arunachalam. And two s’s were slapped on at the end. Murugadoss made light of this incident – he said he was too busy with delivering a good film to be bothered with all this – but with his remarkable hit ratio, he’s become an unwitting poster boy for numerology. But little apart from the name has changed in the boy from Kallakurichi, in Vizhuppuram district. He told me that, as long as he was there, he used to watch movies all the time because there was nothing else to do. There were two theatres, Govindarajan (which no longer exists) and Raja. If you want to meet Murugadoss, you may want to consider heading to Raja theatre on a Sunday evening. Even though other theatres have sprung up in Kallakurichi, he insists that the films he directs or produces should be screened in Raja. He’s in Chennai on the Friday the film is released and on Saturday, to track “feedback,” but on Sunday evening, he’ll be at Raja theatre watching the film with friends and family. What a plot for a movie. The boy who makes it big and doesn’t forget his roots – is there an audience in the world that won’t respond to this vibration?

An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.