Rajinikanth’s Jailer (2023) is creating box office records and has marked a strong comeback trail for its director Nelson Dilipkumar, who was going through a tough phase ever since his last release Beast (2022) opened to poor audience reception, making him the subject of relentless online trolling. Despite the varied reviews for the film Jailer, there is no doubting the visual flair and stylish presentation of Rajinikanth on screen. The film is a perfect mix of everything that audiences expect from both Rajinikanth and Nelson, like quirky dark comedy, stoic hero, symmetrical imagery, and plenty of high moments sprinkled throughout the narrative letting the fans of the star scream their hearts out. And naturally, the film is selling tickets likes hotcakes.
There was an atmosphere of uneasiness and doubt surrounding Nelson prior to the release of Jailer, but things seemed to have settled down now and the director finally has found his footing in the industry again.
Excerpts from the interview:
Let's start by talking about your choice of actors. How do you cast for the supporting roles?
When I write, I usually have certain actors in my mind. For the main cast, I write keeping the body language and image of the actor in mind. But in some cases, I design a fully formed character first and then try to find an actor who can embody it. So I audition people who come closest to that character in terms of physicality and body language. Take, for instance, the ‘Dhanraj’ character in Jailer, who is Varman's (Vinayakan) best friend. I had conceived the character as a quirky guy, and then had to find someone who fits the bill. The character does not behave normally and has a peculiar voice texture, gait, and speaking style. So he was an obvious choice and I had also worked with him in Doctor (2022). I selected him for the role and trained him for a month.
Your protagonists have well etched out character arcs. How do you conceive them?
Yeah, every character will have a basic quality. In Kolamaavu Kokila (2018), Kokila's (Nayanthara) basic need is to provide for her family. So when Kokila faces an issue at home, she naturally believes that she is the one who should pull her family out of this issue. Facing the issue becomes the basic jumping-off point and then we throw one hurdle after the other at her to solve. That's how the character goes through this journey while solving her problems, and her personality goes to the next level as she adapts to her surroundings. The character's motivation and purpose from the first scene and last scene remain the same but the extraordinary situations she is thrown into make her go through this arc.
Veera Raghavan from Beast (2022) also follows a similar arc. The character realises at the beginning of the film that he had involuntarily killed a small girl during his mission and can't help but blame himself for the tragedy. He decides to quit, in order to prevent endangering civilians. However, when he is trapped inside the mall, he sees another small girl being attacked and those memories trigger him. He decides to save this girl. But once he saves the girl, it becomes his mission to save all the people stranded in the mall, and his instincts as a RAW agent can't help but track down the terrorists responsible for the hijacking, who are also linked to the death of the first girl. So it comes full circle for him to go through this transformative journey.
But we should have taken more time with Beast in its post-production period and I think that might have helped us fine-tune the climax action set pieces and Veera Raghavan’s character. We needed five to six more months of work to really complete the film as we planned. However, since it was the peak of the pandemic with lockdown restrictions back then, neither could we deliver on the VFX front nor could we assemble the film like we planned to. It was mostly logistical issues, and we had many scenes that we could not shoot at the time as per plan. So we faced a lot of issues. We could not perfect that film as much as we wanted to and it missed that final polish.
So you are conscious of this arc at the writing stage for all your heroes?
Yes, even in Jailer, Rajini sir’s character goes through a similar journey. It's about this retired police officer whose life revolves around his son. But one day when the son gets killed, he can't just accept that fact and move on, right? He wants to take revenge on those who killed his son, but while doing that, he has to ensure that his family is protected. So he has to go back to being his older self and bring back his whole team from around the country to help him achieve that goal without affecting his family. That’s how his character gets into motion and as far as he is concerned, everyone should be fair and honest in what they do and say. That's his motivation till the very end, and it elevates his arc.
When Beast was released, there were many discussions and ‘what if’ theories on social media as to where that film should have ended. Many criticised the ending, saying it should have ended when Veera captured the main terrorist in the dungeon. Have you thought about that aspect?
I have never felt that way, to be honest. I think there would have been negative responses despite those suggested changes. If you think like that it could have ended inside the mail, or even before getting into the mall. (laughs)
So I don’t think that's the issue but as I said earlier, it needed those six to seven months to complete the film like I envisioned it. Only then the high points we had planned would have worked out.
How do you choose your assistant directors?
I generally look for people with a good vibe to be part of my direction team. I look for people who are fun to be around and are not cunning and crooked as individuals. I should be able to get along well with them, that's the main criterion as I don't expect too much creative input from my assistants. So I just look for people with some sense of basic discipline and those who have good vibes in general.
I have heard that some directors choose assistants based on their knowledge of world cinema.
No, it doesn't work that way for me. I avoid the influences of other films on my work. So I highly doubt that whatever world cinema they have seen will be useful in making our sort of films. That sort of exposure to classic cinema can help them while they make their own films, but not for the films that I want to make.