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'Katrina was very much against doing a Tamil version'

January 16, 2024 09:39 IST
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'It would have made (Producer) Ramesh Taurani very happy if I taken two Bombay stars, but the reason why I kept mentally rejecting the regular sort of casting was to discover this excitement, you know, can I crack it?'

IMAGE: Katrina Kaif in Merry Christmas. Photograph: Kind courtesy Katrina Kaif/Instagram

Sriram Raghavan's office is like his movies.

It has a distinct retro element, with original film posters of old films like Jugnu (1947), Saraswatichandra (1968) and Kaajal (1965), taking up a chunk of a wall.

The wall also has pictures of cinema halls of Pune, the city where Sriram grew up, from a bygone era.

"This is Westand. This (picture) is from the 1950s but I have been to this hall and have so many memories," Sriram, 60, tells Ronjita Kulkarni/ excitedly. "That's the film institute from 1932. Now if you see this area, you will not recognise it."

As you enter his office, the Godfather stares at you steadily from a bookshelf.

A bobble head of Alfred Hitchcock stands on his big, cluttered desk, almost nodding in acknowledgment to Sriram's brilliant thrillers.

Especially his latest one, Merry Christmas.

The film, starring Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi, is getting rave reviews, much like his previous films, Andhudhan, Badlapur, Johnny Gadaar and Ek Hasina Thi.

Sriram likes his t-shirts to have a say too -- he wore the classic thriller Madhumati at the premiere of Merry Christmas -- and today, he is wearing a picture of French film-maker Eric Roma.

"He's a student of Hitchcock. He's written a book on Hitchcock, but his films are just like people talking," Sriram explains.

"They are not easy films to watch because if you're looking for an action plot, you won't find it. But his films give you a very happy feeling at the end of it. In fact, I have thanked him in Merry Christmas because I have never done a movie like this where two people are talking a lot till the thing happens. He gave me the inspiration to do it."

IMAGE: Katrina Kaif with Sriram Raghavan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sriram Raghavan/Instagram

When I spoke to you after Andhadhun, you had said that you wanted to make a war film next. Why hasn't that happened yet?

After Andhadhun, we started work on Ekkis. We did all the research, meeting people, the officers... It's a film on Arun Khetrapal, the Param Vir Chkra winner. We met two of his tank-mates who survived.

We were getting into the script and doing the storyboards, when the pandemic struck.

After that, it was so uncertain, there was so much protocol in terms of shooting... And that is a big film, with big crowds. There will be like 200 people on set every day. So I didn't dare get into that and then get stuck. If you begin and then get stuck, it's very bad.

You must be having a lot of scripts. What did the script of Merry Christmas have that made you choose it as your next film?

No, I don't have so many.

I just have sort of a few, like paragraphs, or a basic one line, sometimes it's up to the interval and then I don't know how it's going to take off.

I had loved this story. It's a thriller, but very different from what I've done before.

There's also a hint of romance and tender obsession.

I wanted to break away from the Andhadhun zone.

When I used to narrate it to people, they would get hooked even though it had not been cast.

IMAGE: Katrina Kaif with Vijay Sethupathi in Merry Christmas. Photograph: Kind courtesy Katrina Kaif/Instagram

Who are your sounding boards?

I have got two brothers, one of them is a writer (Sridhar Raghavan).

I also sound off with my unit; they have been with me for a long time.

I have a bunch of 10-12 people who I narrate to, including actors like Vinay Pathak.

Your brother Sridhar has written films like Pathaan, War and Tiger 3. These are full-blown commercial films, not thrillers. The two of you have such distinct tastes in cinema.

No, he also likes this and I also like that.

We tried to co-write during Agent Vinod, but he realised my methods were so unorthodox... In the sense, I'll go with five scenes but the next day, I'll say, 'Let's change this opening.'

So he said, 'I'm going to run away from you!' (laughs)

Is this why you have never collaborated on a film?

We had collaborated a lot on television; we had done a lot of CID episodes, but not in films as yet.

But I always get his feedback (on scripts). I show him the rough cut. I do all that.

IMAGE: Katrina Kaif in Merry Christmas. Photograph: Kind courtesy Katrina Kaif/Instagram

Katrina is terrific in Merry Christmas, but what made you cast her?

The story demanded a unique pairing -- it's about two people who spend the evening and night together. I wanted something fresh in that zone.

Katrina had met me a few years back and wanted to do something different from the kind of films she was doing. I was like, definitely.

It was one of those polite conversations that you just have.

But then when Ikkis got pushed, I said, Okay, why not do that story? So I met her and said, Okay, this story is there.

She loved it and asked, Who's the guy?

At the time, I had met Saif (Ali Khan) and he had liked the story.

But when I was fleshing it out, I felt that I need something... something else, I don't know how to describe it.

So I had to go to him and say I'm sorry, I'm not able to see you two together.

Katrina and Saif have done films together, like Race. That was mounted on a bigger scale.

I thought a fresh pairing would work better.

But it's very tough to tell an actor (no)... It was a pain but I had to do it.

Why did you pick Vijay Sethupathi?

I cast Vijay a year after this fiasco.

I had met him during a film festival, and seen some of his films.

I do watch Tamil films, at least the ones people tell me to see.

So I had seen Vikram Vedha and Super Delux. But when I saw 96, he was so different.

His roles in these three films are so varied, he's like Sanjeev Kumar. He can play a father, a boyfriend... he's got that kind of versatility.

Katrina and Vijay are from different schools of acting. How challenging was it to bring them on the same page?

IMAGE: Katrina Kaif and Vijay Sethupathi in Merry Christmas.

It would have made (Producer) Ramesh Taurani very happy if I taken two Bombay stars, but the reason why I kept mentally rejecting the regular sort of casting was to discover this excitement, you know, can I crack it? So that tension is there and it will eventually help the film.

Katrina has done it. She's absolutely fine in the movie.

Vijay, if you see films like Master, he's very aggressive and macho there.

Actors can mould themselves, but the big stars largely don't do it because they don’t want to change their image too much.

Of course, there are actors like Tabu, who don’t care as long as there is a meaty role.

Why is the retro element so big in your films?

Because this is my childhood!

It's something I love; it's fish to water type.

Ikkis is set in 1971, so we had to create that period. A lot of it is in Pune. We have a sequence in this Westend hall, which no longer exists.

There's a bit of the yearning for what is gone.

In Andhadhun, I remember we were shooting in a house, where all those houses were beautiful, old constructions but they all get sold by the builders, who build these huge things.

Like, see what's happened to Bandra?

There are expensive, 20-storey buildings, but no place to walk.

IMAGE: Radhika Apte, Ayushmann Khurrana and Sriram Raghavan on the sets of Andhadhun. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sriram Raghavan /Instagram

Rajesh Khanna appears in a weighing machine ticket in Merry Christmas. Are you a Rajesh Khanna fan?

Yes. I had once come from Pune to Bombay without telling my parents, to watch his film Red Rose (yes, a thriller!), because movies used to come later to Pune; they would come after two weeks.
I was desperate to see that film.

I left my house at 7 am, and said I have to go for some special tuitions, caught a train, went to Chitra cinema (Parel, north central Mumbai), saw the film and went back.

Kamal Haasan features on the ticket in the Tamil version.

I'm definitely his fan.

When you get a chance to use an actor on something like a weighing machine ticket, these are the cheap thrills we get.

You have made Merry Christmas in Tamil as well as Hindi. How comfortable are you in Tamil?

See, I can speak Tamil. I'm a Tamilian. But I only talk to my mom in Tamil. All the serials she watches are my sort of education.

Do you speak to your brothers in Tamil?

No. We talk in Hindi.

So yeah, I don't have too many Tamil friends, I have not studied in a Tamil school and have not lived in Chennai. But I have visited Chennai; I have relatives there.

I am a 'Bombay Tamilian', whatever that means.

IMAGE: Sriram Raghavan with Tabu. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sriram Raghavan/Instagram

So what made you take up this challenge?

The challenge was for two reasons. One is being a Tamilian, I should make a Tamil film just to be happy about it.

Here I got that opportunity because I had a well-known Tamil actor. And it is a small film.

Also, we had delayed our film a lot. We had made a set but due to COVID, we had to bring it down. That money doesn't come back and it does not show in the film either. It's money down the drain.

So I thought if we have another film that will have its own life...

Did you think of this because Vijay came on board?

No, when Vijay and Katrina were cast, it was meant to be a Hindi film only. But then these delays happened.

Then I met (Director Thiagarajan) Kumararaja, who's made Super Delux, and he said, why don't you do it, here's your chance!

He encouraged me.

It was fun when we thought of it, it was fun when it got over but while doing it, it was a little crazy because what happens is, you finish a scene after 20 days and then you have to do the same thing again with a different set of actors (the supporting cast).

So you wonder, should repeat the same camera angles and do the same thing or do we change something?

So we have done a bit of both.

IMAGE: Katrina Kaif in Merry Christmas. Photograph: Kind courtesy Katrina Kaif/Instagram

Was Katrina okay with doing a Tamil version?

She was very much against it (initially), you know, this is not what I agreed to!

Deepa (Venkat), who is an accomplished dubbing artist, did the Tamil dub, but Katrina still had to say the lines and match the lip movements.

We had devised a sort of gibberish language by stringing together some English and Hindi words to match Katrina's lips (with the Tamil dialogue). Of course, the emotion has to be of her character in the film.

We have tried all the tricks in the book to make it easier for her, but it's to Katrina's credit that she managed to stick on.

Thrillers have always been your go-to cinema.

I mean, all kinds of films.

But I remember on the way to school, there would be these film posters put up and we would try to decipher the story from the poster. And if there was a gun, maybe for a boy, it was more exciting.

But when people think of Sriram Raghavan, they say, 'Oh, he makes amazing thrillers.' Doesn't that put you in a box?

Which is why I'm doing Ikkis. I'm getting out of that trap.

Ikkis is a war film. It's a drama, not a thriller.

What do you do when you are not making a film?

I read.

Watch movies.

Think of my next movie.

I don't have many other things to do.

What are you reading now?

Now, I'm too busy (with the promotions).

But (German film-maker Werner) Herzog's autobiography has just come to my house, so I keep looking at it and reading pages.

I end up buying more books than I can read. I think all of us do that.

I read fiction and non-fiction. But I read fiction with a vested interest that maybe I will find a good plot.

Yes, most of your movies are adapted from books.

Except Andhadhun; the kernel was taken from a French short film.

Ek Hasina Thi also had shades of Sidney Sheldon's If Tomorrow Comes. But it's not like I read the book and decided to make it. The script was already ready.

Also, a woman in prison is a genre by itself.

You are one of the few successful directors who remains so modest and accessible. Is it because you used to be a journalist (Sriram started his career at Stardust magazine)?

I don't know. Everybody's different.

I'm not even saying I'm modest.

I am a thug also (laughs).

What's the update on Ekkis?

Agastya (Nanda) has been training. We are sending him to a regiment so that he can familiarise himself. He is training to become a soldier.

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