Would it be a long shot to just go ahead and divide our generations based on the various Mani Ratnam romances? If you belong to Generation X, you probably belong to the class of Mouna Ragam. And if you're reading this piece on one of your 276 tabs on Google Chrome, you're probably a centennial or a #Kanmani (don't #OKBoomer me). But the people in between, the 90s kids or the millennials (including me), are those that represent the Alaipayuthey generation. We're probably the last generation of people who understand the pain of "landline love", much like Shakthi at that Nadar kadai. All of us, at some point in time, imagined our first independent apartments to be exactly like Karthik (Madhavan) and Shakthi's (Shalini) incomplete pad. Even our fights became a lot like theirs.
But what do you think Karthik and Shakthi are up to now? If they're the future version of where we will be someday, wouldn't it be valuable information to see how this marriage turned out? As Alaipayuthey turns 20, here's a catch-up with writer-director Shaad Ali, who travelled with these characters through the length of two films, Alaipayuthey and Saathiya. (I'd suggest the piece is best read with the AR Rahman album playing in the background.)
Before we get to where Karthik and Shakthi are now, let's keep switching between 20 years ago and the present, like the structure of the movie itself. What's the first image that comes to mind when you think of Alaipayuthey today?
The trains. Originally, it was going to be a Hindi film and I had done a lot of running around on recces in Bombay to find the railway colony and other places to shoot. So trains, especially the Bombay locals, were a big part of the script.
Later, when we started shooting in Tamil, the image became Maddy's (Madhavan) costume for the present-day sequence: the khaki pants and blue denim shirt. We didn't want a continuity goof-up because we had to keep coming back to it. Luckily, I didn't have a lot of AD's responsibilities on it. A lot of Alaipayuthey was me standing between Mani sir and PC (Sreeram) sir, watching how the film was getting made. On Dil Se, which was my first Mani Ratnam film, I had a lot of responsibilities; before I knew it, the film was over. But before Alaipayuthey, I had decided that I won't pick up a single piece of paper. It was about the learning. The other image, of course, is the poster with Maddy and Shalini wrapped up in that yellow sheet.
How clearly do you remember the mood of the shoot?
Madras is not my second home…it's more like my first home.So shooting in Madras is always very special. For Mani sir and PC sir, this film was something else. It's an extension of Mouna Ragam and they were in that mood. They didn't approach this film like they were legends. They wanted to go back to a basic scene and they were mulling if they should even shoot certain parts in PC sir's house like they used to. Even Maddy's house in the film was the old Madras Talkies office on Seethammal Colony, made to look like a house. It was also a film that started with no songs. So I remember the 'Alaipayuthey' track alone playing throughout. I was instrumental in finding that mottamadi (terrace) set-up for their house on top of an apartment building on St. Mary's Road. When I visit Chennai even today, I make sure I stay at The Raintree hotel opposite that apartment so I can see it. It's more or less the same even today.
How do you think their marriage is working out for them? They're probably celebrating 20 years of togetherness right around now.
I think theirs is a very real marriage. It's not just a happily ever after, because things don't always remain hunky dory. Marriage is a bed of thorns. But that does not mean it isn't a bed of roses, either.That's what Mani sir's sensibilities add to those characters. He adds a real and realistic element to a mainstream story, making it very organic. Mani sir had loved Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, and the idea for Alaipayuthey began from "What would happen if Raj and Simran were to get married?". He then infused his own nostalgia from his Mouna Ragam days and that's how it developed.
How do you think Karthik and Shakthi have changed in these years?
Of course, there's bound to be a lot of ups and downs, but I think the essence of who they are hasn't really changed. Unless love took them down (laughs).
In the movie, Karthik was on the verge of making it really big. His company (Ability Software) had just struck a deal for two million dollars, back when that was around Rs. 9 crore. Shakti, too, was starting out as a doctor then. Given the nature of the IT industry at that point and the wide career prospects of a doctor, do you think they're still living in India?
Yeah, they're both from avenues and from a generation where it would be a natural progression to move abroad. I picture Karthik (and Aditya) as being the CEO of a company that works very closely with Microsoft or Apple. They live in Silicon Valley and they probably even have an accent now.
What about kids?
They probably have two teenagers, both around 15. A boy that's like an American junkie (laughs) and a daughter who's more Indian because their mothers keep visiting.
How do you think the accident at the end of the film changed them as a couple?
As a couple, they've evolved a lot. They've learnt to value the smaller things better and that accident would have really changed how they saw each other. Naturally, day-to-day life will go on, but there will be days when they get reminded of the accident and what it means to not have the other in their lives. Because such an incident affects a person more than even death. When someone dies, that person disappears, so your life changes completely. But with something like this, a lot of it goes back to normal, but you're not really the same people anymore.
Before the accident, they were going through their set of problems. I feel that they would have headed towards divorce if not for the accident.
That too is a possibility without this wake-up call.
During the shoot of Alaipayuthey, did you ever think that this would later become the first film you would direct?
No, no. Not at all. Till I got Mani sir's email, the thought hadn't even crossed my mind. I wouldn't have spent a year trying to mount a film if that offer was already there. I had finished Alaipayuthey, and the day after it released, Siva (Ananth) and I had moved to Mahabalipuram to start working on our own projects. After the shoot, Mani sir had called us and asked us to move on and start working independently. He also gave us a big bonus to make sure we didn't end up working on something stupid just for money.
What did you start working on then?
I started working on a lot of things, part of which ended up in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. A lot of the other ideas from then still haven't materialised.
You were a part of Alaipayuthey right from the writing stage, right? So when you were given the chance to remake it, were there many changes you wanted to make?
The most important thing for me was to make sure I didn't lose the soul of the film. Back then, Bombay and Madras were pretty much the same, and this story and its characters were relatable even in Bombay. So there was no need for major changes. But factors like the locations, where you put your camera and certain aesthetic decisions were made. Mani sir gave me the film because he must have felt that I won't make a hash of it. Plus, I don't think he would have been very happy had I just done a straight lift of the original.
What about the changes in the writing, at least the cultural differences?
I had to make changes to the Vivek Oberoi character in Saathiya because that 'mama-moraponnu' dynamic will get lost in the North Indian context. If you watch the film now, you will see Sanjay Mishra hovering around in a few scenes. Shabana Azmi's mother (Shaukat Kaifi) played that bua character too, but she knew that her role was going to get chopped off. She's there in a couple of scenes though, for posterity.
What about the dialogues? I'm guessing, little things like the 'purushan, pondatti' banter and that 'Shakthi, naa unna virumbala…' line would have been tough to recreate?
I was working with Gulzar saab on the dialogues and when we were jamming, I feel we managed to come out of the shackles of those iconic lines. Saathiya too was a film that connected strongly to the youth of that time… people who are my age now. It became a part of their film-viewing experience, with the romance itself and the local trains' setting becoming very relatable. I doubt if such a setting would be possible today.
In the sense that it would be tough to incorporate local trains in a love story set in 2020?
Kind of. We would have to rethink their meeting as something that would happen in an Uber pool or something.
Do you see Karthik (Madhavan in the original) as being the same person as Aditya (Vivek Oberoi) in Saathiya?
They are cut from the same cloth. They're both just out of college and from similar backgrounds. They want to make it big in a big city. Their worlds are similar. Even Shakthi and Suhani are very similar people.
How do you picture Karthik-Shakthi's house right now? Is it a 'complete' house?
Funnily, I think it will be a properly spruced-up one in a nice neighbourhood in Silicon Valley. But knowing them, there will still be one wall with exposed brick, to take them back to their mottamadi house. That wall will also have that mirror I picked up from Mani Sir's house, with Shakthi's thaali still hanging on it. They still fight and when they do, I'm sure they're still marking it in the calendar. Or, perhaps, it's the kids that are doing the marking now when they see their parents fight.
What about their families? I'm guessing everything's gotten better?
They keep travelling to the US every once in a while, and I feel even the relationship between their families has improved.
A character I really like is the one played by Azhagam Perumal in the original. But, he is missing in the Hindi one.
I wanted Aditya and Suhani's problems/solutions to be something they realised on their own, instead of having an external character explain them to the couple.
What about the Arvind Swami-Khushbu/ Shah Rukh Khan-Tabu characters?
They are still friends who exchange emails once in a while. They probably meet whenever they travel to India or the other way around. I'm sure the four of them even have their own WhatsApp group, even though it might not be very active. But I think the IAS officer is probably retired now.
Do you think they're as nostalgic about their love story as we are?
I feel so. What they've been through is something that would have had a profound effect on both of them. When they're reminded of those times, they're bound to get nostalgic. When they visit India, they probably go on the same train rides, saying the same lines. They might even visit that mottamadi. Anyhow, I'm sure they're both telling their kids their love story every chance they get.
Lastly, how do you think they're handling this quarantine phase?
I'm sure Karthik is doing everything in his capacity in the IT world to raise funds and resources to help as many people as he can. He's at home taking care of the kids and the extended family. But Shakthi will surely be working at the forefront, spending all her days and nights at the hospital fighting the virus.