Edited excerpts from an interview between Lokesh Kanakaraj and Baradwaj Rangan.
You are now making a film with Vijay. Is it possible for you to make a movie without using elements from the superstar template?
Let's talk about Kaithi. Karthi is an actor who has done both mass films and content-oriented films. Where does such a film fall? An actor's film or a director's film?
After Karthi sir came onboard, the size and scale of the film became much bigger. But they didn't ask me to make any changes from the production side. In fact, they even used the phrase 'no compromise' when they insisted that I make the film exactly like I wanted to make it. There are many other important characters, each with their own layers. So I would call it a director's film, supported by a strong performer.
So when does a film become an actor's film?
When I started working on Kaithi, it didn't begin as a Karthi film. I had two or three scripts which I had planned on doing after Maanagram but I couldn't get into them because I felt they required more time to research. I also didn't get the stars I needed for those films. So I lost around 2 years since I was on the sets of my own film. I didn't know what to do, that's when I was with my assistant and I came across a newspaper report. The same day, I sat up and started working on it and by the 10th day, I had worked out a small one-liner using that incident. As we kept working on it, the excitement got bigger and I pitched it to SR Prabhu sir, who had produced Maanagaram. At that time, I kept telling him that the face that was coming to mind when I was writing it was Mansoor Ali Khan. That too worked with them. But as I kept writing it, the lead character kept getting bigger. That's when he asked if the script would work with a bigger star. I too was doubtful of approaching a star with this script because it didn't have a heroine or a song. I was confused so I took a break and went home to rethink the whole idea. That's when SR Prabhu sir said he narrated the one liner to Karthi and said he had liked it. I came back to Chennai and narrated the script. We spoke for a couple of hours and he liked it. That's when I realised it wasn't such a barrier to not have a heroine or a song in a commercial film.
That's why it's both an actor's film as well as a director's film?
Exactly. I would have said another answer if it was a script written around an actor's person or star status.
When we talk about a star, there will always be a couple of signatures he or she has that the audience love. That's why we call them a star. So when Mani Ratnam made Thalapathi, he too incorporated Rajini's trademarks into what was his film. Shankar too has done that. So for a film that was written with Mansoor Ali Khan in mind, did you have to make any changes for Karthi?
I made a few changes. In the beginning, when I was writing for Mansoor Ali Khan, the script had that wacky element you'd associate with him. But when Karthi sir came onboard, I wanted to change the character arc to include some of the things we were familiar with, even though he was fine with the original characterisation. So I took another 20 days, rewrote his character without removing anything that excited him during the narration. He liked the new arc and how he behaves. We didn't change any major scenes or plot lines for it, though.
Can you give me an example of what changed?
Mansoor Ali Khan's character had more of a devil may care attitude. As someone who doesn't understand any body else's perspective. Kind of like the way he behaves in interviews. But when it comes to Karthi, you could bring in a sense of ambiguity to his performance. Is he right or is he wrong. Is he honest or is he crooked. That's something you could add for Karthi sir. In a sense, you knew you could do anything with him.