Edited excerpts from an interview between R. Parthiban and Baradwaj Rangan.
Your career can be divided into two halves. The kind of films you made before Sugamana Sumaigal and after. The only exception to this, when you made a film that's truly your style, was Houseful. Though the other films you made after this had your unique signature, I think Houseful came closest to your style.
I was confused as to what kind of films I should make after Ulle Veliyai became a hit. I made Sa, Ra, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ni in a similar commercial format, with four songs and double meaning jokes but that too didn't work. This was a period when I kept trying to make a certain kind of films but I kept failing. But Houseful was different. I was unsure if it will become a commercial hit. In fact it wasn't. But I was sure I wanted to make a film that would satisfy me. Not many people know this but Houseful is a film I made without a script.
No script at all?
There was no script at all.
So how did you manage on the sets?
I'm still amused at how we managed to make such a movie without a script. I had a bare idea in my mind and I had not written it down. I approached Vikram and Subalakshmi with an idea about what would happen if a bomb was found inside a movie theatre. But that's all. I had no idea how I would turn that idea into a film. I always need a challenge to make a film and that's how I approached Houseful too. But people today don't believe me when I tell them I made the film without a script.
So you'd go to the sets and start writing?
Yeah. As and when we were going to shoot a scene. But I had an order for the scenes in my mind but I never wrote it down.
What about the dialogues?
I'd just prompt the lines that would come to my mind on the spot and the actors were asked to perform it.
You're known as an experimental filmmaker, but you worked under Bhagyaraj in the 80's. That was also the time when a director like Mani Ratnam made his entry. How did you see his films during that period?
I watched his films with a lot of wonder. I wondered how he managed to pull this off within the constraints of Tamil cinema. I hadn't seen this kind of perfection in each frame. These frames were what we'd only seen in English cinema. I watched Nayagan when I was very disappointed with all the producers for not giving me a film. But when I watched it, I realised that I'd achieve something extra ordinary if I could last in this industry for five years. I realised that we could no longer make ordinary films after Nayagan. It created that fear in me. Not just me but even Bhagyaraj sir and Bharathiraja. We were all astounded at how this level of perfection could be achieved within the budgets of Tamil cinema. Our idea then was to just shoot two scenes every day.
It's from his films that we'd first heard of a director waiting for the perfect sunlight to shoot a scene. We heard of how an entire day's shoot was called off because Rajini sir couldn't get a step right, with Mani sir asking him to take the day off to practise it. That's when we realised that were such directors around in our industry too. We learnt a lot of such things from him.