RJ Balaji, who has made films such as LKG, Mookuthi Amman, and most recently, Veetla Vishesham, is bringing alive the concept of a democratic writer's room or kathai ilaaka in Tamil cinema today. The actor-turned-director and his team of writers—NJ Saravanan, Surendhar, Jagan Krishnan, Karthik and Kumaran—open up to Vishal Menon about their working style.
Tell me when did you feel the need to put together a writer's room?
RJ Balaji: I would not say we are the first people to do this because earlier, in the 50s and 60s, filmmakers had a kathai ilaaka or a writer's room. Every major production house had a big team of writers who would write not only one film, but multiple films at a time. So, when we wanted to do LKG, we didn't want to have proper assistant directors or co-directors in the film. So, I collaborated with people who have worked with me in the past in different capacities.
For instance, I worked with Surendhar in a lot of online campaigns, where he used to be a social media influencer. Jagan is a stand-up comedian. Karthik aspired to be a filmmaker and wanted to get into a good team. Kumaran, my friend, is very new to our team, and Saravanan sir is the only person from a cinema background. We were a mixed crowd with different backgrounds, and so we didn't want to involve the hierarchy of a co-director or an assistant director because that will hinder somebody's freedom to express. We write together and make the film together, and so, in every movie, you'd see 'RJ Balaji and Friends' in the credits. It has worked out for us. In Mookuthi Amman for instance, we've given 'RJ Balaji Kathai Ilaaka' as the credit, as we wanted people to know that we are very serious about our writing.
When you found these writers, did you decide to work with them because of a quality that you saw in each of them?
RJ Balaji: Two more people aren't here in the room. A few who were with me in my previous films, have moved on. For example, there's this boy, Gopi Krishnan, who was the associate editor for this film, Mookuthi Amman and also LKG. He is still a writer in my team, but his passion is in editing. He joined RK Selva, who was the editor for Pariyerum Perumal, Sarpatta Parambarai and also Veetla Vishesham. These are the people I am comfortable working with. They share my interest and enthusiasm. So, we try to do this as a disciplined job. We start at 7:30am in the morning every day, and we write till 1 – 1:30pm, post which we break for lunch and move on to other work such as meeting people. I believe that we can do a creative job only with people we are comfortable with. That's why each of these writers is here. Our common interest and ability to adapt to new things is what brought us together.
Jagan tell me one thing — you are from a different field. Of course, the day starts at 7:30am, but what's a day in the writer's room usually like?
Jagan: Generally, it goes as a discussion. First, it'd be a vocal discussion. To discuss our scene, we'd start the audio recording, and then the scene narration will start. Balaji will start narrating the scene and it'll naturally flow with dialogues and such. We pitch in whenever we feel like we want to change something. It's a collaborative effort. Once all of us are satisfied with the scene, we revisit the scene 2 or 3 times. If we can add something valuable to that, it'll go on, if not, if we are happy with that, we'll lock the scene. Post lunch we'll share the responsibility and we'll start typing the scene.
As a writer's room, when someone tells you that you're doing a remake, do you guys feel disappointed? Since you are all creative people who work on your own scripts.
Surendhar: I don't think it was that way. The first homework we did once we decided to do a remake was to see the negative comments of the original from the public and critics' side. Once we analysed that, we realised it wasn't an easy task.
RJ Balaji: Here, the difficult part was to make the remake a rooted film. And to also take away the unnecessary bits that we thought the Hindi one had. It was only a 2-hour film, so we had to think of what else to add. So, when we started adding things (to the script), the work got more interesting and we didn't think it was a mere remake anymore. We had another script that explored the idea of pregnancy, which retained the Mookuthi Amman family as part of a cinematic universe. The idea was for the mother to get pregnant for the fifth time. But when we got this offer, we knew that if we had said no to it, they'd do the remake with someone else. So, we decided to take up this film and make it our own.
What was the most complicated scene to remake?
Karthik: Writing the interval scene was the most difficult because we didn't know where the interval was in the original. It was quite difficult deciding where to place the interval scene in the film.
Eventually, it's very nice you have a democratic setup where everyone is giving ideas. But you also need someone who is controlling the situation. So, who is running the show in all of this?
RJ Balaji: It's mostly me as I steer the conversation. When people bring ideas from different places, it's entertaining to see where the conversation goes, but I'll take the job of asking someone to stop. Saravanan sir also does that silently. But mostly what happens is that all of us come to a point where we think we've done a great job. For example, for the climax chunk in the maternity ward, we had written around 9 jokes. But while editing, we had to cut around 2 jokes. We reached this conclusion together.
To end on a lighter note, who has written the Vijay script?
The first ten to fifteen days (of writing the script) were difficult. But as I told you, we as a team like that responsibility— a big responsibility passing on to us. And we grabbed it with both hands. Since we were going to tell the story to someone like Vijay sir, we needed to hit a sixer in our first shot. So, we put our heart and soul into it. The first half came out extraordinarily. We still had time, but I told them let's not do the second half in a hurry in 15 days, and that we can ready the second half if they liked the first half.
He (Vijay) expected a comedy film that we could start shooting immediately. We told him it'd take at least a year to make the film, because imagine, it might take around 150 crores to make the film. So, we'd need that much time to get everything right for a film of this magnitude. So, when he asked us if there was something else we could do in a shorter time, I told him that we were not in any hurry—it can even be his 77th or 87th film, so we have a long time to go. Vijay sir trusted us to come up with a good script, and we wanted to do justice to it. Him appreciating our work itself was a big moment for us. I'm not saying we have made cult classics so far, but we as a team are proud that we can write genuine emotions in Tamil cinema today.