In this Deep Focus interview with Baradwaj Rangan, Karthik Subbaraj talks about the making of Mahaan and the ideation behind the personality and names of the two central characters. Edited excerpts below:
At the beginning of Mahaan, there's a quote by Gandhi. 'Freedom is not worth having unless it includes the freedom to make mistakes.' When did you first read it?
I completed writing my script and it was centred around Gandhi and his principles. When we talk about Gandhi, the first thing we obviously remember is freedom. But when you watch the film, you will see many characters who Pseudo-Gandhians. They are not actually Gandhians, they are Pseudo-Gandhians, right from Mahaan's father who forces the kid to live based on his rules. Right away, he raises his child devoid of freedom.
So it occurred to me that Gandhi would have told many things about freedom and I read a lot of it. That's when I came across this quote and it kind of summarised the entire movie. I felt very shocked to find such a quote. This whole movie is about a person who is devoid of freedom and at one point, he decides to be free and what happens after that is the crux of the film.
Vikram's character is celebrating his 40th birthday and he has that fantastic conversation with a beggar in the temple. After that, he wants to enjoy that one day the way he wants to. He is like how it would be if he hadn't been restricted so far. It's almost like you are mixing a Gandhi quote with something, not at all associated with Gandhi. Did it ever occur to you that some problem or censor issue might arise?
Usually, after I complete my script, my wife and dad read the script. My dad was a little worried about the title. But I believed there would be no issue because it is not a problematic film. We are talking good things about Gandhi and his beliefs.
When we talk about Gandhi, Karl Marx, Periyar or Ambedkar, there are some people who own their principles more than the leaders and start forcing. So we are talking about them, it is about Pseudo-Gandhians. So I believed that we were saying good things and no problems would arise.
After watching the film, everybody felt that there was nothing against Gandhi. Even when you see the teaser, we have introduced the Gandhi Mahaan thing. Right from the first content, we wanted to make it clear. Luckily, there wasn't an issueand now after its release, people are understanding what our intention was.
I had a little fear when the film went to the censor board; that they might say no to use the word—Gandhi. So I thought if some issue comes up, then the alternative for Gandhi Mahaan would be Karthi Mahaan because then there will be no issue with lip sync.
When Vikram's character separates from his wife and child, he yearns for his son. But there isn't much yearning for his wife. I felt that even though you didn't stress on it, maybe because she was always very nagging and forceful, it felt that they didn't lead a happy married life. Is that what you had thought?
Yes. From the beginning, you could see that they are not a happy couple. It is not like he never liked her, but then he feels like he is being crushed in his life like there is no space to breathe. When he drinks one day, he pleads to his wife to forgive. If she had forgiven that one day, then nothing would have happened.
But she was very adamant. She took her son and walked out of his life. At one point, his wife's brother also gives an invitation saying that she is ready to get married so don't interrupt her life. Only then does he realise it did not work for them from the first. He enjoys freedom and he doesn't want to force her. He understands that they both are not meant for each other. But the affection towards his son is different and he always misses his son.
When you were writing the draft, did you ever think of having another love interest for Vikram?
Yes, Vani Bhojan's character was the love interest. But we couldn't keep it due to shooting restrictions and we couldn't complete the arc of the character. So there was a character but I couldn't keep it in the film.
Is there any significance to the names of the characters like Sathyavan, Gnanam?
Yes. The central character is named Gandhi Mahaan. So Gandhi always talks about truth – Sathyam, which is more related to your heart. Gnanam – it is more related to the mind. When you see character-wise, Sathyavan is close to Gandhi and he is close to heart. Gnanam is always a mind guy, he is crooked from childhood. He would want to cheat, he was more like a mind person. So we named them Sathyavan and Gnanam.
I loved the echo scene. The things that happened in their childhood will echo to the present. Sathyavan says that 'Nanban drogam senjutaan' (The friend cheated). The same thing happens in the last part as well. How did you plan this echo?
The scene that happens in their childhood was very important because that's what happens in the entire second half. Like the one-minute childhood sequence is the one-hour drama of the second half. So that scene is very crucial. As a dialogue, earlier there was a dog named joker. Here we relate Dada (Dhruv Vikram) to Joker, more like how he uses him like the dog. So the same game happens here. The Joker is also related to playing cards. This guy is more of a joker because he has the power to change everything.
In the childhood sequence there is this line, 'En joker ah avan kalavaandu vechirukaan, una thokadichathaan adha kudupaanaam' (He has stolen my Joker. He says only if I defeat you, he will give back my Joker). That's what actually happens in the second half.
And Nachi is Velu Nachiyar. Since their family had freedom fighters, all their names were kept after freedom fighters and reflects their freedom and patriotism. The same applies to naming Dhruv, Dadabhai Naoroji.