Baradwaj Rangan: Hello Madhavan and welcome to Film Companion South. I wish that we were doing this interview under different circumstances. We’re celebrating a film (Alaipayuthey) but it’s a really weird world out there and I really wish it was a different time.
Madhavan: Well…I wish it was dramatically different.
BR: Yeah…. Let’s go back 20 years in time. Now I see a Madhavan who is comfortable with the bits of grey that are peeking out of his beard and hair. Let’s go back 20 years when you were Maddy and you were causing this huge uproar in Chennai and in other places in Tamil Nadu, especially among the female population. What are your memories of the time back then when Alaipayuthey had released?
Madhavan: Thank you for having me Baradwaj. I am very amused with the interview we’re doing on #Alaipayuthey20. I can’t first of all believe that it has been 20 years. Two decades is a milestone of sorts. But I’d actually thought that this is my debut film and only I would remember it. I didn’t think it would have as much relevance as it seems to have even today amongst people across generations. Those who weren’t even born during the release of Alaipayuthey, seem to be fans of the film today. I wish I’d known this when I did the movie because I’d have been a little more sincere with the film.
It’s very flattering and, at the same time, frightening because one always wants to do better, one always wants to create a milestone that you’ll be remembered for, that is better than the last one. So, I think Alaipayuthey as a romantic love story, as a debut for an actor, as a film that got somebody a romantic image even after being married… all those would be a difficult mould to break, even for me.
BR: What are your specific memories about the release? There is a big brand name behind it, starting with Mani Ratnam who is a very well established director, there is AR Rahman, there is PC Sreeram, but as Maddy, what was that time like specifically? Did you go to the theatre to watch the film?
Madhavan: During the release, there were no online reviews that were coming out as the film was being shown. So I had to rely on people’s word of mouth and for the reviews to come, which would happen after two-three days during those times. When I asked my manager he said, “First half nalla iruku, second half sumaraa irukku, sir. It is a mixed report.” And I think that’s a constant that I’ve heard about every film of mine during every first day of release (laughs).
I had decided to shift from Mumbai to Chennai. I was sure that this would be a great step in the right direction for me as far as Tamil films were concerned, because I had the best team, the music had already become a hit. But, when I heard, “Sumaraa irukku, sir,” I told my wife to not send off the truck with our stuff to Chennai. She was in for a shock as we’d already vacated our house, but I made her understand that there were mixed reviews and that we’d have to wait and watch.
I then went to Devi theatre by myself because I wanted to see the crowd’s reaction. At Devi, I remember the people didn’t quite recognise me, then because my tee-shirt and jeans look was very different from the film. But the watchman, owner and the manager did and they came hurrying and took me through the side staircase to the top and said, “Please stay here.” I said that I wanted to see the reaction, and I was asked to calm down and wait for the film to start.
I remember that when ‘Madras Talkies Presents’ appeared on screen, the whole theatre went crazy. People were yelling and I haven’t heard loud screams like that in my life. And then every time people’s names started coming in, the crowd were screaming and yelling. For Rahman sir there was an amazing amount of yelling. And then…my first close-up shot came with me smiling on the bike with the ‘Yendrendum Punnagai’ song. I’ll never forget this moment in my life, because as soon as the close-up came, I couldn’t hear anything except screams. There were dupattas flying in the air, just like in the movies. The girls and guys were all screaming, but I couldn’t understand if they were screaming for me or because of the movie. But I was now sure of one thing (laughs), that I had to let the truck pass from Bombay to Chennai.
BR: When you were narrating this to me now, did you have gooseflesh?
Madhavan: Yeah. Every time. Because of that defining moment in my life. Every time I narrate this story, it happens.
BR: Maddy, are you emotional by nature? What does this time mean to you? This was your very first film and your very first experience with this kind of reaction, hysteria, love and acceptance. Is this a nostalgic fun memory to you or is it one of those memories that you keep in a warm place in your heart that you reach into every time you’re feeling a little low? How does it work?
Madhavan: I am trying to be as honest as I can. I mean, there is no defined answer at this time when people are battling Coronavirus and undergoing stress.
Hmmm… it seems to be like in some other life. It seems so surreal, like it happened in some other birth. I can see the reach of the film even now, with people responding to me on social media about it, but for me it looks like it was some other person who was doing the movie. It is not emotional at all. I’ve a smile on my face when I see the songs, and one of the most overwhelming feelings I have is how I survived it. I also feel that I could’ve done so much better, because I feel in some places I was overreacting and in others I was trying to be too cute unnecessarily, and this could be hindsight wisdom. I don’t think I’ve the guts to go back into that time because it was such a fantastic time in my life.
BR: So, are you saying that every film in a way is its own kind of Alaipayuthey?
Madhavan: Yeah. Be it a success or a failure, especially if it’s a success, I don’t know why I end up distancing myself from it with a vehemence. It could be because I don’t want to dwell in those two seconds of exuberance and let my guard down. I still feel I’ve so much to give. Deep inside, I think that there is so less time in terms of what I am capable of portraying. The fear that I am running out of time or the window is closing in terms of my looks. With the kind of stories and characters that I want to portray, I’ve to come to terms that there are some stories that I cannot do anymore and that I’ll have to get somebody else to do it, and yet there are other stories that I’ve to indulge in.
BR: Did you just say that the window is closing in on your looks (laughs)?
Madhavan: Yeah, in terms of age-appropriate roles. There were so many different stories that I wanted to say. I know I can’t play a young soldier anymore and those are the fears that I’ve. Maybe I am looking to make sense of what kind of stories will make sense after the Coronavirus era. What are the changes in people’s priorities that’ll happen? Such questions pop up and I try to project ahead and see how that’ll manifest itself and how I can take two steps ahead of it and make a story that will be relevant in the post-Coronavirus era. These are the fears that I have that don’t allow me to dwell in my past.
BR: The way I look at it, if there is a film right now where people are given an opportunity to reminisce and feel happy, especially because people are in such an anxious phase right now, anything that’d give them an opportunity to step out of this box and come back in, is a good thing right?
Madhavan: I see the wisdom of your point. In fact, I felt it was trivial to talk about Alaipayuthey at this point in time. While it gives me joy to talk to you about it now, it would just have been a normal day for me if we weren’t having this conversation.
BR: Are you the kind of person who marks important days in the calendar just like how Shalini does in Alaipayuthey? Alaipayuthey day or Rang De Basanti day, do you circle all those days?
Madhavan: I’ve very limited random access memory. I don’t remember birthdays or these delicate dates that I am supposed to cherish. I am thankful for Google Calendar or my phone which remind me of the important dates in my life that I need to remember. That apart, I am not a reminiscing sort of guy.
BR: You used the word relevant to describe Alaipayuthey. This is a movie from the times when there were no smartphones, software was just becoming known in India. What makes such a movie relevant to youngsters even today? What carries it across time?
Madhavan: Every film that has been able to create a world that is believable at that time, staying true to the era in which it was made, is timeless. Alaipayuthey was based in a particular time period. That was the kind of thing that was happening in the world around us. Software was growing, it was a non-smartphone era, there were no unreasonable liberties taken.
I’ll give you a great example. The Lion King is an animation film. To think that such a film is capable of withdrawing that much emotion from you was unthinkable, because, until then, animation was cartoons, and it was meant to be funny. But here I was able to feel the romance between Simba and Nala and I could feel the sadness when the king died. When you create a proper world without anomalies, the mind is capable of going there and relating to every aspect of that story telling. That is what Alaipayuthey does to you. The hero didn’t beat up 16 guys. What looked possible were his analytical skills of how he felt about the girl in the train. Shalini looked and dressed like that girl from that colony and performed in that manner. Except for the songs, which I call was an extension of disbelief. The rest of the story held water in that time and space. Which is why I feel that Alaipayuthey has the sense of an eternal love story.
BR: Maddy, I’ve heard that when someone hands you over a script, you come back with tonnes of questions about the characters and plot, etc. When Mani Ratnam handed you the script of Alaipayuthey and you read it, did it work for you right away or did you have doubts regarding the plot and character that you clarified with him?
Madhavan: (laughs) Yeah. This is going to be an interesting trivia, because till the edit, we didn’t know if it was going to be linear or nonlinear. We’d shot keeping both in mind. There was also a debate about what the ending was going to be like. The only complaint that I’ve with Mani Sir’s films is that I want an end to the film and a closure when I walk out of the theatre. Mani Sir’s films never give me a proper closure. His is a much better and evolved way of story-telling. Even in Mouna Ragam, it was very emotional and ended very well, but I wish he’d said something to her and that’s the sort of angst that I always have. Even in Nayakan when Kamal Sir died, I was 16 years old, and I wanted him to live.
In Alaipayuthey, there was a discussion to have the ending as me observing how Arvind Swami stands up for Khushbu and with me realising that that’s the kind of husband one should be, and to leave Shalini’s part as an open ending. My heart broke (laughs). Believe it or not, but we shot the ending later.
First of all, it was to be a film without songs. I was happy because I can’t dance to save my life and I’d already seen Chaiyya Chaiyya (Dil Se) with dancing on top of the train and I didn’t know how I’d do all that. Then, he decided to add songs and then the climax change happened. So for me, getting involved in the script and its characters has happened from my very first film. Finally, we shot the climax scene with me looking at Shakti (Shalini) through the window and saying, “Shakti come back to me.” I am happy the film ended with that.
BR: Do people still come up to you and ask when you’re going to do your next Alaipayuthey, in spite of the body of work that you’ve done after that?
Madhavan: When people ask me why I can’t do something as good as Alaipayuthey, I imagine them to be somebody who doesn’t watch movies or who hasn’t had the time to indulge in other movies of mine (laughs). Because, after 20 years and having done 75 to 80 films, if the person can only remember Alaipayuthey, it means I’ve not done much in my life, and I don’t want to get depressed listening to that (laughs).
BR: Thanks Madhavan for talking to us. I know this is not the ideal time for celebrating something, because people are not in the greatest of mind spaces but if there’s something that gives them joy, it is nice to revisit some of these elements.
Madhavan: Yeah. This is a crazy virus and, worldwide, everybody is stunned at how things are manifesting, and nobody has much of a clue because nobody has handled something like this in any era. I feel that people aren’t taking the lockdown seriously. They say every generation experiences one world event like a war. But we’re lucky that we’re getting to see something where we don’t have to send young people to the frontline and wait for their arrival. At the same time, the leaders and the government are doing their best under the given circumstances.
I think it’s more than our duty to appreciate the people who’re risking their lives, so that we can sit at home quietly. Secondly, I feel we should be a little compassionate. Over a period of time, I’ve understood that however good our intent is when we put up a message or a post, there would be ones who write negative comments. Sometimes it hurts and also dictates what kind of posts we put on later, because the negativity comes down heavily on us. I want to tell the viewers that amongst us, there will be angsty people who say negative stuff and the best thing to do is to ignore them and block them. Remember that social media is barely 3% of the population and their views are not the views of the world. So, don’t be afraid to say positive things about anybody and, most importantly, continue to be who you are. In this time and place it is okay to not be able to come out fitter and more positive, don’t be guilty about not doing anything. But do feel guilty about not showing your gratitude to the government and, especially to the police and the medical personnel, who’re doing an extraordinary job.
I’ve seen how, when an army man has to go out patrolling at the border, the wife would constantly take pictures that they would remember for the rest of their lives. In her mind, she’s wondering if this is the last time she’s going to see him and this happens every time he goes out patrolling. My best friend used to tell me that every time his father went out, he’d drink up that visual so that in case his father did not come back, he’d remember that moment. The families of the medics and police are all looking at them like that. Be aware and be grateful because this is a very tough time that they’re going through. So please show restraint and a lot of compassion right now.
BR: Thank you so much for that.