Edited excerpts from an interview between Selvaraghavan and Baradwaj Rangan:
Your last release was Irandam Ulagam, back in 2013. You’ve made a film after that but it didn’t release. How do you handle this down phase? Does it take time to recover from such setbacks?
It takes time. We move on because a filmmaker’s life is like that. It takes a year to go over a failure. We give our heart and soul to it and when it doesn’t work, it hurts. Then I made Nenjam Marapathillai. And because I’m not responsible for its delay, I try not to worry about it too much.
In NGK, the biggest selling point in your coming together with Suriya. But this is a meeting of two very different worlds. Your films are deep and take a psychological overtone. But Suriya’s zone is more light and family friendly. Is NGK a Suriya film or a Selvaraghavan film or it somewhere in the middle?
He wanted to work with me for long. NGK is a script that we could mould well. But working with Suriya is a delight. He is a performer and if you ask for 20 takes, he wants to give more options with each one of them. We loved working together.
How is it to direct stars? Because there’s a difference between working with actors and stars and apart from Dhanush, you’ve not really worked with a star, because even Karthi was starting out in Aayirathil Oruvan.
Both Suriya and I shared a superb experience. Even when we were dubbing, he’s always trying to make it better. I liked him and he liked me. We became friends. When you become friends, we don’t have problems.
Is it very difficult to work with an actor like Ravi Krishna, where your inputs need to be more?
Not necessarily. If a versatile actor comes to you, he will be forthcoming, he will do his homework, and we can try out new things with it. With newcomers, you have to say everything. But that does not mean that all newcomers don’t know how to act.
You needn’t tell us the story of NGK. But is it also the personal journey of a character like most of your films?
I want to explore how ideas form to become films. Can we trace it through your films? Let’s start with NGK. Where did its idea come from. Did it come from the headlines in the newspaper, or did it come from reading something?
Politics was something I always wanted to make a movie on. Like science fiction, its more than a genre. It’s a topic. I want to do both. We hinted at politics in Pudhupettai apart from it being a gangster story. Ideas can come from anywhere. When I’m in the shower, when I’m walking. It clicks in the brain. When you get ideas, always make a note of it. Because you tend to forget. Instinctive ideas are gold. So one shouldn’t keep it for later. Make a note then and there because screenplay writing is the toughest job in the world.
Some ideas maybe gold but some may not work out at all…
You always crucify ideas to see if they will hold. They come from a thought process and tend to be original. Even if its not great, something original I feel will always have a value.
What kind of writer are you? There are novelists who let the story take them to where its going. Then there are others who start with a rough arc and then start writing. What about you?
I write in the screenplay format. I write it like how the screenplay format, including how the camera moves. It’s a screenplay and not a stage play so it’s usually 120 pages, with plot points and everything.
Will the DOP have the freedom then to make changes?
It’s not that everything is pre-decided. We might be wrong with so many things. In NGK, Siva, the DOP has a phenomenal brain about lighting and framing. So I’m blessed to work with him. Its like a team; so the director might suggest ideas, but they know better if it works out or not. The lens, the exposure, every craft is different. I’m only worried about the filmmaking. Not any other department.
You’re talking about lenses. Where did you learn all that?
It comes from experience. I’ve been here for 20 years. You need to have an eye for it. The same emotion can be conveyed in very different ways. We have 10 different lenses and if you shoot it in 10mm, it means something. In 24mm it conveys another meaning. In closeup, you come with a pan. In some lenses, the background will be blurred, but in wide, you get a certain silence.
In our industry, most of the writers are directors. So when you write first, do you focus on the writing, or do you worry about the shots as well?
No I don’t think about shots. Screenplay itself is so difficult to do. The time you spent on it is just good enough to be worrying about the script and its many points.
Your use of colours is sensual and unusual. Are they there in the script or are they decided on the sets?
Some are a part of the script, some are also created on the sets. In Kadhal Kondein, Dhanush dances in the end during a fight and it is supposed to be Dhanush fighting Sudeep. But on the sets, we decided to shoot a fight along with a song. So we played the theme on a tape recorder and choreographed a dance around it. A dancing fight, so to say. I follow my instincts.
What about the opening of Pudhupettai? Green light inside the prison and the red light outside.
It is Arvind’s idea. I wanted the jail to be green. Wanted the film to have a colour and we chose both red and green. But the credit for these decisions goes to the filmmakers, but it should go to other people as well. I wanted red and green because they’r both violent colours. Violence is red. That he’s done a lot. Green was a I chose tone for the prison.
In Pudhupettai, there’s a shot when his father stands in one line in front of Dhanush. At this point, Dhanush’s head covers most of the screen. It’s an interesting choice for a shot.
That shot was about superiority. It’s to convey that those people are at his mercy. He’s a don and when we keep a shot behind him, along with a low angle shot, because he’s going to kill the father. I could try out weird angles because we had a super-35 camera we were trying out. We had lots of choices and a lot of people are afraid to keep those angles. We also used an 8 mm lens which allowed us to move closer to the artiste.
Suriya spoke about his love for your craft. Digital versus film is on ongoing debate when it comes to that…
I think digital is a blessing. We make errors so digital allows us to work freely. Lighting too is much easier in digital. If you make a mistake, you have the option to correct it in DI. You’re otherwise worrying about underexposing or overexposing. Digital also allows people to make films, even on a mobile camera. But the writing is still difficult. But film has its own beauty. The texture, the colours… my first five or six films were shot in film and they have its own beauty. With digital, we cannot match it, but it has become expensive.
When you’re writing do you worry about how the audience will take to it? People seem to like a certain kind films especially if you’re going by what’s happening on Twitter.
Writing is all encompassing in that sense. I even forget my family and my food when I’m writing. When you’re so immersed, you cant think about the audience. I don’t follow the public, if its good people will watch it. Super Deluxe, too was nicely received.
My favorite film of yours, 7G rainbow colony. Stalking, MeToo, people are talking about. Now you cannot judge older movies, with current standards. Now will you make it different?
Obviously I won’t make the same film today. There was no phones back then and no Whatsapp. I guy couldn’t just ask out a girl on the phone. So he had to go behind her. I will change the script if I were to make it now. You have to be socially responsible.
What about characters like Kokki Kumar? Do you stay true to the character and or do you worry about being socially responsible?
People should learn to separate films from reality. It is entertainment. But I too feel like smoking when I watch a film where the hero is smoking. So you have to adapt that. But in a different genre, a gangster film, for instance, we have the freedom to do something else. Because those characters don’t form our majority. But I feel like it might influence the audience.