Edited excerpts from an interview between Baradwaj Rangan and Lokesh Kanagaraj, shot just days before the release of Vijay's much-delayed Master:
BR: You'll have to make a general script into a "Vijay script". You have to think about fans, what Lokesh Kanagaraj needs, think about whether you should put political dialogues for the star and many such considerations when the film is for such a big star. How do you handle the balance?
Everyone thinks that there's a lot of pressure on me. Truth is, it's impossible to make a film under that kind of pressure. Secondly, the relationship should be mutual; the hero should love the director as much as the director loves the hero and this has to be obvious on screen. When I went to Vijay sir before shooting, he said, "do the film you want to do," so there was that creative freedom. After he said that, I also have responsibilities because he's a big star, like you said he has a lot of fans, so I can't completely take it for granted and make an experimental film. I decided to keep the meter 50-50 so when people come to watch the film the opening is for Vijay, and we have to do it properly. If the film does well then I can increase the meter to 100% so that the actors completely go according to my creativity.
I didn't mean that you give pressure to the actors because a lot of the time it's the pressure we imagine. What I meant is for any A-list star, won't you have to do scenes for their fan base? Maybe not for OTT but for theatre we'll definitely have to do it. So in your initial story did you have such scenes in it?
Yes I had it.
So you knew that would work?
Yes because I knew only a big star could do it. It's not the larger-than-life aspect but in the films we have watched, we'd listen to what this person says. And while writing the script we'll think about what fans and the common audience would like and how critics would take it. We try to balance it after thinking about these things.
In one of your earlier interviews you said that the consumption pattern has become different and that's why the audience accepted a film like Maanagaram. Would you make major changes for a Vijay movie? Without songs or a heroine for instance…
It's like what I mentioned before. The reason I bring up the 50-50 factor is because I got the platform now. I tell my friends in the industry to be prepared because they may get a call. It's just like when you interviewed me three years ago asking what would happen if Vijay sir called me after watching the film. It's like that. I can make a film I want with him but the problem is the market surrounding him and the size of the business cannot be immediately changed. If the audience likes the 50-50 aspect and receives it well, another step has to be taken to slowly change that ratio. Crores of money is behind this so it cannot be done immediately.
In Maanagaram, the heroine is part of the cast and the role is minor. There is no heroine in Kaithi. This is the first time you're writing a heroine in Master. What is a Lokesh Kanakaraj heroine like?
She's again going to be the part of the film, not as eye candy or for a song. First of all, there is no part that makes her go to the set, cut it and go to another place for a song. Even if it is a dance number, we have done it as though it is unorganised and people come together without changing costumes. In that way, the heroine role will be new. Malavika Mohanan is an important character in the story and I had told her before starting the film that "you're the heroine but it's not like the way you thought and you'll be in the story." She has also done a good part.
Vijay Sethupathi is another attraction of the film. Usually in a film with an A-list actor, the villains are seldom equal to the hero. One thing I've noticed in your films is be it Maanagaram or Kaithi, Karthi is strong and Naren is the brain. So even Naren's character has equal importance and you also like writing multi-starers. Will this film also have the multi-character flavour?
Exactly! I think instead of writing a villain, he should have a backbone and be strong. If there is no balance between the hero and the villain it would be a one-sided film and it'll be clear that the hero will win. That's why villains should be written strongly. In my previous films a prominent villain was not necessary and would be there according to the situation. In Kaithi, Karthi sir is not the villain, it's because of his placement in the situation that others take him to be the villain. But this film is a story of a hero and a villain. While I was writing it, I decided there had to be another hero and hadn't decided who it would be. The character should stand against the hero and has to be extremely evil. Before approaching Vijay Sethupathi we had other actors in mind and after watching all his works it felt wrong to approach him and I know him very well. But when I mentioned his name to Vijay sir, he wondered if he would agree because he has been the hero in several films and also if he would want to play a character so evil.
When we were not going to ask him and began to think of other names, Vijay Sethupathi called me. He asked, "Why are you hesitating da? Come and tell me." I went to him directly and narrated the story and he said I believe in it and I like Vijay so let's do it. That was the conversation, and I immediately went to Vijay and told him that Vijay Sethupathi said okay. He was surprised and asked, "really?" and decided to do this.
The reason I look at Vijay anna as a special person is that his quality is something I'm unable to understand. When we made the first poster and sent it to him, he asked for some changes in one or two texts and asked me to call him. When I called him he said, "Along with Thalapathy Vijay, add 'and' Makkal Selvan Vijay Sethupathi in the poster." I told him it's for the first poster and he said that for the first to last poster, anything Makkal Selvan should be added along with Thalapathy Vijay. He cares a lot about these things.
With multiple characters how do you hook a viewer to a scene?
When it comes to hero and villain there will be two tracks, and there are so many people in the film apart from Vijay anna, Sethu anna and after watching the film you might see that Vijay anna has given space to several other actors. Without him there are scenes with other actors which will elicit claps and he has enjoyed it.
Maanagaram is 2 hours 15 minutes, Kaithi is 2 and a half hours, and Master is 3 hours. Has Lokesh Kanakaraj become more ambitious?
Not really sir but I felt like telling this story like that. There are 2 heroes, their life has to be shown and if we cut half an hour of the story it would feel like there is no slowness in the film. I feel slowness is necessary. And people have been waiting for this film for 10 months so I believe they will enjoy it. It's not a big deal if we cut it to 2 hours 40 minutes or 2 hours 50 minutes but I felt like it needs some time to tell the story, hence the duration.