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July 5, 1997


AB's babies

JD and Jerry who debut as directors in ABCL's Ullasam speak to Rajitha

Ullasam directors JD and Jerry
We were, still are, Amitabh fans.. so getting to direct our very first movie under his banner is a big thrill," says JD, referring to ABCL's first Tamil film, Ullasam, now running in Tamil Nadu theatres to mixed reviews.

Jerry nods emphatic agreement.

Their names, when you first hear them, sound hugely unlikely for a pair of Tamil film directors. Then you learn that 'JD' is Joseph D Sami, and Jerry is Gerald (he never uses a surname), and reconcile to the names.

Another thing that strikes you is that while the film isn't exactly getting the turnstiles into overdrive, neither critics nor fans have a negative word to say for it. In fact, it is positives all the way -- so why isn't that reflected in the box office takes?

Vikram and Maheshwari in Ullasam
Tamil movie buffs are pretty much agreed that the main reason is overkill. Ullasam is essentially a very young, very chirpy story, what its directors term a "celebration of youth". Unfortunately, 'youth' has been the subject of a lot of high profile celebration lately -- the Rajiv Menon-directed Minsara Kanavugal, and the Vineet-Abbas starrer Kadhal Desam (Dilwalon Ka Duniya in Hindi) were of similar vintage, and the audiences apparently figured that three youth-oriented films on the run was a bit too much.

The accident of timing apart, the film boasts a brilliant technical lineup. Music -- from Karthik Raja, Ilayaraja's elder son -- has drawn uniform raves. Interestingly, Karthik had in an earlier interview told Rediff On The NeT that more than tuning songs, his big kick was doing the background score. And every single critic, following the release of the film, has showered encomiums on the score, remarking that in using background to enhance the on-screen events, Karthik has stamped his own personality on the music scene. Not that the songs are anything to sneeze at -- Kamal Hasan, for the first time, sings for a character other than himself, and the roster also includes Pavadharani, Ilayaraja's daughter and Karthik's little sister.

The cast is headed by Ajith, whose earlier starrer Kadhal Kottai won the national award for best regional film; Maheshwari, screen icon Sridevi's cousin, already a hit on the Telugu screen and now shooting for a Ram Gopal Verma film, Raghuvaran and singer S P Balasubramaniam.

Add to this the cinematography of rising whizkid Jeeva (whose credits include all three of hotshot director Shankar's films -- Kaadhalan, Gentleman and Indian), art direction by national award-winner Thota Tharani and choreography by Raju Sundaram, a doyen in the field but, in a pop-oriented age, better known as the father of dancing sensation Prabhu Deva... "We've got us the A team, for this one. And to ABCL's credit, they gave us everything we asked for," says JD.

But even with this line-up, it is the debutant directors who have aroused public curiosity. Naturally enough, I suppose, given that Amitabh Bachchan handpicked them to direct ABCL's first foray into the intensely competitive world of Tamil films.

The two first struck up a friendship while doing their graduate studies in statistics at the St Joseph's college, Trichy. A mutual passion for the screen drew them to Madras, where they made friends with faculty and students at the Film and Television Institute in Adyar, Madras and, thus, managed to wangle their way into film appreciation courses and movie showings.

Another shared interest -- Tamil literature -- led them to converting popular short stories into teleplays, and they have a good 20 such on their curriculum vitae today, including the hugely popular Kanavugalai Nanavakkum Computer (The computer that makes dreams come true), a slick sci-fi effort that rose to the top of the ratings.

Interestingly, ABCL had done the marketing for some of these serials, and this is how the wannabe directors first came to Amitabh Bachchan's notice. JD and Jerry recall with evident satisfaction how Jaya Bachchan met them during the negotiation stage, discussed the storyline with them and then spent time chatting about cinema, both the aesthetics and the business aspects.

Even as they were doing teleplays, JD and Jerry took the first steps to their cinematic goal when they joined veteran southside director Balu Mahendra as assistants in films like Veedu (Home), which won a national Best Actress award for Archana, and Chakravyuham.

Ajit and Maheshwari in Ullasam
It is very obvious that JD and Jerry are new to the publicity game -- they speak with unconscious naivete of their inspirations, an eclectic mix of Coppola, Scorsese, Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mani Rathnam and Shankar. "Of course," Jerry adds hastily, "while we respect their styles, we don't intend to imitate anybody."

The two are very good friends, and their respective marriages appear to have cemented the bond even further, because their wives have now become pretty much inseparable. "A fondness for cinema brought us together," says Jerry, "but it helps that our tastes in most other things are very similar."

So how does each view the other?

"JD is far better than me at handling people, he is also more methodical, very meticulous," says Jerry.

"Jerry is far better at handling situations, very organised and systematic at work," goes JD.

The ideal creative combo, one supplementing the other? "Well," JD smiles, "We like to think so..."

Disagreements, they agree, do tend to crop up especially when they are discussing creative aspects of their work. "Fortunately, we are good enough friends to be able to thrash it out, and to arrive at a consensus," says Jerry, the more garrulous of the two.

So what next? "Well, one movie is complete, so it is on to the next. We do have a few projects we are working on, but it is all at a very early stage so can we discuss them later?" suggests Jerry.

"I guess it's like, we want to make a few movies, our early ones, that are commercially viable. And when we have established an identity, we would like to move on... to make films closer to what is in our hearts and minds..." adds JD.

And, with the coordination that marks their work, the two rise, to signal the end of the interview and to usher me off the set.