Kandukondain Kandukondain turns 20. Is it right to call it your biggest hit?
It was surely a big film, but I am not sure if you can call it a bigger hit than Minsara Kanavu, because that was in theatres for 175 days.
When you look back, is there a sense of accomplishment or have you moved on from those good times?
I don't know how to put this, but filmmaking is different now. Certain aspects of storytelling like music, which were important in that era, have changed. That space doesn't exist now and we should do this through a scene. If I were to make Kandukondain today, I don't know how many songs it'd have.
Speaking about how times have changed, last week, when we lost two great actors Irrfan and Rishi Kapoor, the general consensus seemed to be how we lost a great actor like Irrfan. People seem to regard Rishi Kapoor more like an entertainer…
Yes, this is important, because in these times, unfortunately, someone gets labelled as an actor and another one as a star. I loved Rishi Kapoor's performances in Sagar and, more recently, in Kapoor & Sons. I really felt bad after his death because I used to feel that here's someone who's going to inherit the great father space after Amitabh Bachchan.
In the case of Irrfan, he could pull off any role. Be it a Paan Singh Tomar or a dark shade in Maqbool or the incredible guy in The Lunchbox. To me, he was phenomenal, and there was something about him that made roles believable, and he was a great actor.
Kandukondain Kandukondain had an ensemble cast. Todaty, films are more hero-centric or one-person centric, and we don't get to see such a huge cast anymore…
There's a time where actors become so big that writers begin to write for the fans and not for the characters. I feel actors should understand that the audience and fans like their characters in the film and not just them. I believe the role is bigger than the actor.
If you made Kandukondain today, and let's imagine Ajith is willing to play the same role. How do you think the movie would have turned out with a big star playing a small role like that?
The economics will be different though and I don't think Ajith will do such a role. But, if we were to just see it as pure casting, Ajith did a role in English Vinglish because he liked Sridevi. He's a cool guy, and I feel he'd do a role if he likes it.
Were there any Rajiv Menon moments that found its way to Ajith's character?
Moments of the struggle that Ajith's character Manohar experiences in the film are something that I'd faced as a youngster trying to make it in the film industry. In those days, if you couldn't be an Assistant Director, you would have gotten into marriage photography, and that's what I did too. People think that the movie industry is all about a huge mansion and stuff, but reality is that we have to pay our bills too and this struggle was captured in the film.
There was an 18-year gap between Kandukondain Kandukondain and Sarvam Thaala Mayam…
It was very traumatic. I wrote a lot but nothing worked and it was a big pause button on my life. Of course, I do cinematography and I was teaching, but I wanted one story to come and envelop me, one that would attract the industry and audience as well. Until all this comes together, one has to sit and wait on the sidelines.
In Minsara Kanavu and Kandukondain, I saw a slightly more formal quality to filmmaking, but in Sarvam Thaala Mayam, there was a more liberating attitude to it, especially in the scenes between GV Prakash and Aparna Balamurali. Was there a planned style, or have you changed internally as a filmmaker?
(Laughs) I am glad that I've progressed. It was very conscious. In Minsara Kanavu, it is a dream and the writing style was like that. In Kandukondain Kandukondain, it was more real, and Sarvam Thaala Mayam was like that too. So, I guess, I am moving closer to reality in the process.
For the songs in Kandukondain Kandukondain, were there any specific references on how you wanted them to shape out?
Yes. The first song in the film was more about exploration, and with Kannamoochi Yenada we worked with motifs and peacocks. Then, with Enna Solla Pogirai, the reference was Sebastiao Salgado's seminal work on the Indira Gandhi canal. I look at songs in a different manner and I want a visual and audio climax in a song.
There are two theories when it comes to casting. There are people who feel that actors need to know the language so that they can internalise the feelings on reading the script. And there are others who feel this doesn't matter at all as long as the director is able to make good use of the actor. How do you see this?
The biggest change in argument happens when live sound comes in. As long as the actresses' voices are getting dubbed, it doesn't make any difference. When a vivacious Kajol wanted to become a nun in Minsara Kanavu, the audience just couldn't accept it, but if Tabu were to play the same role, maybe, people would've accepted it. So, this would work in a realistic story, and in a comedy it'd work the other way round. The casting is dependent on three factors — the purpose of the story, the characters you've written and the energy and vitality that those characters have in their natural state.
When you look back at your three soundtracks, do you have a favourite?
In terms of freshness, I think Minsara Kanavu was incredible, but in terms of complexity and perfection, Kandukondain was brilliant. ARR was at his peak, and both Kandukondain and Alaipayuthey were huge hits.
You showed Kandukondain to audiences in London, the land of Jane Austin. What was their reaction to you reimagining one of their stories with songs and factors that aren't typical of their cinema?
I didn't expect such a good response. Peter Bradshaw wrote about it. The audience too was very receptive. Of the 600 who attended the screening, around 550 stayed back for the Q&A, and it went on for a couple of hours after that too. It was a wonderful experience.
When are you making the MS Subbulakshmi biopic?
I don't know. There's still some litigation going on.