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February 10, 2000


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'The only thing I wanted to do was direct films'


Saran At first sight, he could be director-producer Ramgopal Varma's twin.

The suggestion makes Saran -- the latest hotshot kid on the Tamil block -- laugh. There was, he tells me, this actress who used to stand up whenever he entered a studio or set she was on. Finally, he asked her why. "'Oh,' said the actress, 'I thought you were Ramgopal Varma!' So I guess I do resemble him, maybe," Saran grins.

Saran is in the news thanks to Amarkalam -- a gritty, hard-edged story of life on the seamy side, starring Ajit and Shalini.

He had earlier made Kaadhal Mannan, which didn't prove too hot at the box office. Amarkalam, though, was a different story. An out-and-out superhit, the film has the industry buzzing about this hot new talent in their midst.

Saran met Rajitha at the office of Serene Movie Makers, the production house that had a hit recently with the Prashant-Preethi starrer Hello, and which is now producing Parthen, Rasithen, the Prashant-Simran starrer that will be Saran's third film. Excerpts from the interview:

Could you begin by telling us about your background?

I come from Coimbatore. My father worked with the directorate of examinations and many of my relatives are teachers. I finished my visual communications diploma from the College Of Arts And Crafts and became an instructor in textile designing. But, even as a child, the only thing I wanted to do was direct films.

When I decided to take up the job as an instructor, my father couldn't make sense of it -- I was earning about six hundred bucks, whereas others from my class went into advertising and made big money.

But I had a purpose. The institute I taught at was in Kodambakkam, where all the films happen, I wanted to be there, to breathe in that air, that atmosphere.

I worked as instructor for a year and, during this time, I did some work with a lady called Mohana who was art director for K Balachander. KB was the one director I admired above all others. I hoped this relationship would be my key to get to him.

At the time, KB was making Unnal Mudiyum Thambi with Gemini Ganeshan and Kamal (Haasan). I went over to meet him and he told me I was too raw. He said I could work with his television company if I liked. I turned that offer down, said I only wanted to work on movies, that too with him.

From then on, I kept sending him cartoons based on the theme of my asking him for a chance. Then I sent him a letter in drama form. I was the accused and the judge pleads with KB on my behalf, asking him to take me on not for my sake but because it was his first case! I took this to KB's house and handed it over to the gardener. Then, I went over to Mohana's house.

I must tell you that my life is intuition-guided. As I reached Mohana's house, the phone rang and my intuition told me it was a call from KB. It was and he asked me to come over. That was how I joined him and got into films.

By then, I was also a cartoonist for Ananda Viketan. I would do this work at two in the morning, sleep for a bit and get back to work with KB by 7 am. Finally, I gave up working as a cartoonist because assisting KB was too demanding. And then, my first film happened...

To go back a bit, what is it about direction? You said that, even as a child, you wanted to be a director. At that age, what could you have known about this job that you chose it for your career?

When we saw movies starring Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, whoever, my parents would talk, they would tell me how it was a K Balachander movie or a Sridhar movie, whatever. So the names of directors seeped into my mind. In time, I became a director's fan, rather than a fan of the hero.

Tell us about your first film.

Kaadhal Mannan was a love story. I was wondering what would happen if a girl, who is engaged to a particular person, falls in love with someone else. What if they meet for the first time on the engagement day itself?

I thought it had interesting possibilities, so I developed the idea into my first film. Ajit was hero and MS Vishwanathan, who is legendary in the field of Tamil film music, actually acted for the first time in that movie.

But it didn't do too well....

Saran, Ajit and Shalini in Amarkalam Actually, all things considered, it did very well. At the time, the industry was on strike. Ajit had a series of flops, so his market was low. The distributors refused to pick the movie up outright, they insisted on distribution only. My first copy was Rs 22 million, but it sold only for Rs 16 million. The producer lost money, yes.

Also, the movie was slated for release in February '98, but that was when the Coimbatore blasts happened. So it was postponed by a month. March is exam time when youngsters are preoccupied with their studies. And mine was a young film, so we lost that audience. Despite all this, it ran 80 days and more at some centres, so you can't call it a flop, not really.

So how did Amarkalam happen?

Venkateswaralayam, the banner that made Kaadhal Mannan, had lost a lot of money on the film. Ajit wanted to help them out. I had two other offers but I refused both -- I believed that since my debut had caused losses for that producer, I had to help out. I couldn't ditch them and make a film for someone else.

So Ajit and I got together to make this film for the same banner. I approached Shalini, who was studying at the time and refused. But I kept after her, pursued her for nearly three months and finally got her to sign on as well. What's more, she actually sings a song in her own voice in the film.

I've seen that film on video, but that Shalini song is not in it. Also there is this lovely SP Balasubramaniam number, Megangal ennaithottu, which is on the soundtrack but not in the movie...

That was a sad incident. The movie was scheduled to release on August 15. We shot these two songs by the end of July. But there was some error made in the colour lab, as a result of which a white line appears throughout those two songs.

Venkatesh, the cinematographer, and I were in tears, honestly. We couldn't reshoot, there wasn't time and we didn't have Shalini's dates anyway. So we released the film with the flawed songs. You saw it on video, those are pirated prints and they thought it was a defect in their prints so they cut it out. But in the theatres, those songs appear with the white line running through every frame.

The Ketten, ketten song by SPB is delightful...

Yeah, Bharadwaj, the music composer, is someone I introduced in my first film and the song Unnai paartha pinpu thaan became a hit. In Amarkalam, I wanted the tough hero to have a soft centre -- say, a musical leaning.

We had to do this with care, we had to work that soft element into his character, because only if the audience was convinced of this would they accept the fact that the girl, from a family of top policemen, could actually fall for him.

Around that time, I saw a poem by Vairamuthu, the thoughts seemed to fit the concept I had in mind. So we, Vairamuthu and I, discussed the scene and the idea and, in about 10 days, he gave me 180 lines. I chose 89 of those.

Around that time, Shankar Mahadevan's Breathless album was released -- and here we had SPB doing something on those lines, singing in the 'breathless' style. It all just happened, really; everything fell into place.

That song has captured the imagination. What do you think is special about it?

I think what really works is that every person who hears it will find at least one, two lines touching a deep chord inside him. He will be conscious of having thought the same things, felt the same longings, the same desires and dreams. You empathise intensely with the thoughts in the song and I guess that is why it worked so well.

You write your own stories, don't you?

Yes. But, more than that, I think I would prefer to be appreciated for my screenplays. The stories aren't great in themselves, it is the treatment, the screenplay that makes them work and I want to be a master in screenplay.

Saran and Shalini on the sets of Amarkalam How intense is your preparation? Do you go in with a complete script or do you improvise as you go along?

I am very flexible. My concept is ready, but my climax is not fixed. I have a certain amount of screenplay written. But I have improvised at "composing." A snatch of music can inspire something in me. Often, at music sessions, thoughts flood my mind.

On the sets, depending on the work I get from my artistes and the developments while we work, I improvise, let the story tell itself. Sometimes, a small character from my script gets more flesh and blood on the sets.

I am open to constant change.

You have a movie theatre as the backdrop for your film -- where did that idea come from?

I love cinema halls. The atmosphere, the feel of it. Plus, if you use a movie theatre, you have the luxury of using the films of, say, MGR or Shivaji or Kamal or Rajini (Rajinikanth) as part of your background.

Srinivasa, where we shot this film, is a 'second run' theatre. At first, we were apprehensive. We thought we wouldn't be able to shoot in peace. But the owners must be thanked, they ensured that everything went off very well.

We often shot while a show was on. The foyer shots for instance, when people are standing in line for tickets, or getting into the theatre for a show, those were shot live. Scenes on the roof, or in the hero's room, we shot while shows were actually on.

Today, people go to that theatre and say, hey, this is where that scene with Ajit was shot, this is where Dhamu was standing, this is where Shalini parked her car... almost like it is a museum or something...

These days, one sees many new young directors -- people who assist in one, two films before getting into direction on their own. What do you think of this trend?

It is very welcome, really -- I am one of those who got into directing films quickly after being an assistant. But I am not sure every director coming along thinks cinema is finally a "visual" medium. Also, I think audiences have changed, their expectations and values have changed too.

Firstly, they don't to the theatres in droves. Appreciation is lesser these days, they easily condemn a movie. The VCD invasion is also a cause, my audiences prefer wait for a month or so and see it on VCD instead of going to the theatres.

Ten years ago, there weren't so many channels or so many magazines or reviews. The movie makers then didn't get the kind of scrutiny, the flak, we face now. Those days, if a big director gave four flops, the trade would have hope in his fifth. But today, a director gives four hits and follows it with one mediocre film and the industry is ready to write him off.

So delivering hits becomes a fact of survival, and that means more pressure on everyone. Luckily, these days, you don't have too many upma companies...

What's an upma company?

People launch a movie, shoot for a few days, then shelve it. Sometimes, people with money want to make a movie without knowing how to go about it. They get into the hands of conmen and lose everything. Others want to use the launch to get close to a female star.

That has changed. Today, movie production is like an office job. Nobody misbehaves with the lady star. We respect an assistant director. A cameraman is given due respect. Everything is so much more professional.

Your film was talked about also because of the real-life romance between the lead stars, Ajit and Shalini.

Truth is stranger than fiction, really. I was the middleman. I knew Ajit before, and also Shalini. Earlier, when Shalini kept refusing the offer to act in the film, Ajit began to get impatient.

He called her up personally, but she said no to him too. And he got miffed. He kept saying perhaps we could get Aishwarya Rai, why is Shalini so pricey?

Finally, we began shooting. The first scene we shot was the one where Ajit storms into Shalini's house and grabs the film reel. And there is a small scuffle and Ajit throws a knife. But the blade of the penknife slipped off and really nicked Shalini.

For a second, we thought Shalini was acting very naturally when she was hurt. Later we realised she was actually hurt and Ajit felt bad, he was apologising all over the place. She was very nice about, she didn't fuss at all, but Ajit kept going sorry, sorry at her.

Ajit and Shalini in Amarkalam The way she handled herself then impressed Ajit. At some point, he fell in love and proposed. She was peeved and came to me saying, how can a co-star behave like this? I found it partly amusing, partly embarrassing.

Ajit is a good friend and here he was falling in love with her and she was upset about it. The developments, some of the personal details, I can't divulge but, to us, the movie is so special. Today, when I see it, I recall things like hey, by this time, they were actually in love...

Strange, isn't it? Shalini, who refused to do this movie -- she needed so much persuasion -- and finally, she agrees, falls in love with her hero and now they are going to get married for real. It was all pretty magical, really.

What are you working on now?

We've begun work on this film, Parthen, Rasithen, starring Prashant and Simran; there is also a film called Alli Arjuna starring Manoj, it is a Bharatiraja production.

Actually, I must tell you about my titles. Gemini Ganeshan, in his heyday, used to be called kaadhal mannan. But there was no movie by that name, so I chose that for my first film.

Amarkalam is a very popular Tamil word which, used colloquially, means something was "very good, first class." When I was working in K B's Duet, I was in A R Rahman's studio one day. A song was being recorded and, after it was over, Rahman came out. And SPB, who had sung the song which was being recorded, asked him how it went. Rahman said, 'Amarkalam.' Somehow the word stuck with me and became the title of my next film...

Do tell us what you think of this interview