It's just two days before the release of Vada Chennai and director Vetrimaaran is still at the dubbing studio, making last-minute changes. In between corrections, the National Award-winner takes a break to talk about his long-pending labour of love. Excerpts from the chat:
Two elements of Vada Chennai, North Madras and gangsters, have been coming up on screen fairly frequently. What's the difference when Vetrimaaran takes it up?
I don't know if it's anything special that's being made here. It does not encompass life in Vada Chennai per se, but it is an earnest and sincere effort at capturing the lives of a small group of people who are from there.
Will this film be as anthropological as Aadukalam was?
Yes, to some extent.
Your original cut for Vada Chennai was 5.5 hours long. How does that happen? Let's take an author. He may want to have 50 characters in his book. But he has to pick and choose and limit the scope to a number he can do justice to. Why was this difficult in Vada Chennai?
I usually feel a film writes itself. This time I think it wrote itself longer than I had expected. This is a film about people, about characters. So it needed the space to grow and develop on its own. That's when I realised I might not be able to bring it down to 2.5 hours.
I first thought I could add a sequel. Then it become a trilogy. It then needed a prequel. At this point, I had already written around 1000 pages. Finally, I had to tear off a portion from those pages to start the shoot.
Can you give me an example of how a 5.5 hour film became 2.5 hours long? Did you have to remove entire subplots and characters? Or did you have to practically rewrite the movie at the editing table?
It does not hurt me to let go of my scenes. The problem with this film is that it was not originally supposed to be watched at the pace at which it is now going to be watched. It was supposed to be bit slower. If a scene was written with 15 or 16 shots in it, now I have had to cut it down to just four or five. The cuts were more to do with the pacing, and not from the main story or the plots.
Polladhavan happened in 2007, Aadukalam in 2011 and Visaranai in 2016. Vada Chennai has been in the making for over a decade. What is the reason for the long gestation periods for your films?
I think if one makes four films in 11 years in Hollywood or even in Hindi, it is not considered to be too few. Here, people expect one to make a film every year. I also want to make more movies, but I just don't find the content. I need a script to teach me something. If not, I will lose interest. So I wait.
What was the learning from Polladhavan, Aadukalam, Visaranai and Vada Chennai?
From Polladhavan, I learnt I should never make a film like that. Aadukalam taught me a lot about relationships and the dark side of respect. I learnt that love, or 'anbu' in Tamil, is the most dangerous emotion. Even Vada Chennai's basic plot is about love, love denied, betrayal and then revenge. Visaranai, well the film itself was a lesson.
When you say learning, does it mean what is applicable to your own life?
I'm trying to be a better person. When I'm writing a script, I tend to retrospect. I think of the mistakes I've made and I realise what I did wrong. For scripts, at times, I use these mistakes as a part of it or I use the learning from them.
Are you the kind of filmmaker who wants to say something through his films? Let's take Polladhavan. Was it the incident of bike stealing that appealed to you, or was it something larger?
For me, to tell the story is the primary need. When someone told me about a person who was picked up from his workplace and then taken to police custody for eight months, it was compelling. The irony of life should excite me. That leads to a kind of learning which then takes me to the plot points.
Polladhavan and Aadukalam seemed more story-driven in comparison. Was Visaranai, your most political film till date, the birth of a new Vetrimaaran? If so, is Vada Chennai a continuation?
I don't think Vada Chennai falls into that category. Visaranai is very special. This is again a film to cater to the mainstream and there are two reasons for that. The budget is much bigger and second, my lead actor has a big fan base.
You said you read Lock-up and then you made Visaranai without much of a script? Is there any self-doubt when there's so much improvisation involved? What if you go on set and have a brain-freeze?
I have not come across such a situation so far. I feel certain films like Visaranai need to be approached like that…it needs to be spontaneous and organic. Writing a film like Visaranai might give you a major guilt trip. I don't want to write a script about people planning to kill three men, especially when the motive is not revenge or money. That's why I went on the sets and asked my team and actors what we must do. I wanted to share the guilt, so to say. I wanted them to be a part of the crime.
Is the guilt partly because you're using a person's personal life for your creation?
Not at all. The guilt comes from our silence or inaction in front of major truths and injustice.
I interviewed Aishwarya Rajesh recently and she said dubbing is 50% of your film, and that you work very hard on that aspect. Can you explain this with an example?
I work with actors who can't speak the language. Sometimes I work without written lines or in places where my actors are being mobbed or harassed. Then I just let the cameras roll and get the shot I wanted. I can show you many scenes where the lip sync does not match the final dialogue at all.
So do you discover a lot on the dubbing studio?
I first write dialogues when I'm writing the script. After a point, while shooting, I rewrite those lines. On set, I might feel it's not working so I change a few words on the spot. And later, I might feel like changing it again when I'm dubbing.
This is also because I give a lot of importance to dialects. I have actors like Samuthirakani and Ameer who're originally from Madurai, set in a place like Vada Chennai. I also have Andrea who took 25 days to dub her parts. It takes a lot of effort and time when everybody is willing to push themselves to get things right.
Can you give me an example of a line that was changed in the dubbing?
I can tell you something with reference to Visaranai. While I was editing the film, there was one thing that wasn't falling in place. I realised non-Indians watching the film might not understand terms like 'AC', 'DC', 'ruling party', 'auditor' and more. I had a montage scene where the boys are washing the car, so I made two cops stand behind them. The cops didn't have any lines so I just asked them to say whatever they wanted…so they spoke about the shoot and why it was taking so long.
Later, on the dub, I used this scene to add lines explaining terms like 'ruling party' and 'auditor'. If you mute that scene and watch it today, you will realise that the lip sync does not match what they're saying.
What about the actors? Are they always ready to dub again?
They are. All my actors are just a call away. I can send a line to Dhanush on Whatsapp and he will record it and send it back to me.
When making a film drags on for as long as Vada Chennai, is there a danger of doubting the material or getting bored with it?
To be frank, the material for Vada Chennai has been my bible. I have made everything so far from it. Certain scenes in Polladhavan are from this. Characters I left out of Vada Chennai have made it to Aadukalam. Even the relationship between a mentor and his disciple was originally meant for Vada Chennai. In Visaranai, the encounter scenes too are from that material. But the more I took from it, the more it became full.
You and Dhanush are getting to be like the early Scorsese and De Niro. An actor and director who have a high level of comfort, who are also friends. Is there a danger when you know someone too well and therefore might not be able to surprise each other?
Honestly, I don't want surprises. I'm just happy if I'm not disappointed. I'm sure Dhanush will do the things I want. At the same time what's exciting about him is that you can put him in any situation and he'll come out of it, even if it's traumatising, both emotionally and physically.
Do you have arguments because of the closeness?
The maximum he would say is that a scene is not working for him. I'll explain and we'll go ahead with it. In Polladavan, he had three misgivings. But that was the early Dhanush.
He said it didn't work for him how the story is being narrated by two people. He felt people wouldn't get it. Then he said the first 20 minutes after the interval felt like a documentary. He also said he didn't understand that scene where Selvam (Kishore) comes to the hospital. I told him that the first two things will become our USP and that the hospital scene is the film's best.
He then watched the film in a theatre and noted how people were reacting to those scenes. He said he didn't realise how much people liked the detailing. He has not asked me many questions after that.
What about the pressure to not let him down at the box office?
Dhanush is very smart with choosing his content. I asked him to read Kaaka Muttai when he was busy shooting in Delhi. He took 10 minutes, read the first 10 pages and agreed to go ahead with it. I feel his instincts for good content is strong. If a film has gone wrong, it's probably because of other factors.
A couple of years ago, you said you were making a film based on a poem by Na Muthukumar. What's the status of that project?
It's something I still want to make. It's light-hearted but it's also a dark film. It's a satire that is based on a poem from his first collection. It talks about a funeral that gets photographed so the pictures can be sent out to the deceased's NRI children.
Your films are very masculine, for lack of a better word. Would you be interested or able to make a movie where the woman is the protagonist? Let's say, tell Aadukalam from the Anglo-Indian girl's point of view?
I am seriously working on doing something along those lines. I am trying to incorporate female characters that play a big part in the growth of the story. I think I have started making changes from Vada Chennai.
Vada Chennai received an A certificate. It has gore and profanity and intimate scenes, all factors that are typically thought to be turn-offs for the family family audience. You said that even your mother likes good endings and after Visaranai, she wanted you to make the Vikraman type of films. Can one be a successful filmmaker without pandering to the various segments?
My mother really likes Vikraman and wants me to make heart-warming films. With Vada Chennai, I feel I must appreciate the regional officer because she respected both the content and the idea of the director. All she wanted me to remove was a stock shot of MGR's funeral and a word that we had used a lot. If we'd asked for U/A, there would have been close to 25,000 words and 30 scenes I would have had to cut.
Can you make big films without catering to a particular kind of audience?
We don't have that family audience any way. I don't want my daughter to watch Vada Chennai. I don't want her to watch Visaranai till she's 20. This, may be she can watch when she's 16.
When you received the National Award for Aadukalam, you said 'I don't think I deserve it.' Without being modest, has your estimation of your abilities changed?
Tamil cinema has only had two people we can really call filmmakers. Only they have had the command and control over the film language. One is Balu Mahendra and the other is Mani Ratnam. I don't even call myself a filmmaker.
If you talk about Balu Mahendra sir, it's the coherence with which the words, the camera lens, lighting, performances, come together to gives you an emotion. It's not just one aspect or the other. It's a holistic experience that makes you feel what they wanted you to feel.
It's the same with Mani sir. His knowledge about film language is immense though he talks like he doesn't know much. Compared to them, we're all just trying to make films.