Like many action films before it, Madonne Ashwin’s Maaveeran (now streaming on Amazon Prime Video) too has an electrifying action sequence — with its hero Sivakarthikeyan hurling men through a pile of bricks — right before the film breaks for intermission. But unlike its predecessors, the film’s interlude doesn’t celebrate the machismo of an alpha hero. It pokes fun at a softie who is forced to take up arms by a voice from beyond the skies.
The inventiveness in Maaveeran is in its treatment of stunts, and Yannick Ben, the action director of the film, approached it with one brief in mind — keeping it fresh. “I thought the concept was really funny. It is about a man who suddenly becomes the hero of his own story, which I thought was really cool.” Maaveeran is a superhero film, any way you slice it. It follows the coming-of-age of a reticent hero who — after experiencing a pretty cool origin moment — becomes the man of his imagination, albeit with a little help by Vijay Sethupathi’s friendly voice. Yannick Ben, too, saw Maaveeran as a superhero film, but not the type that has people flying across the screen. “I always try to be realistic even if it's a fantasy movie like Maaveeran. I don't really like working with wire work with people flying around and bouncing. I like to stick to realistic movements, making sure the actor can do as much as possible. I don't like using dupes for actors as well,” he says over a call from France.
It was important for him to first understand the connection between Sivakarthikeyan and the voice before choreographing the stunts. “I heard the script and had a full description of what the director wanted to see. I also had to be mindful of the exact moments the voice begins speaking to SK.” The sequence sees Sathya (Sivakarthikeyan) face the same flat engineer that he detests and tries to stab with a pencil a few moments earlier. But this time, he attacks, with helpful prompts (that tell him to duck, shield and punch).
Yannick, known for his work in stylish actioners such as The Family Man and Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Vendhu Thanindhadhu Kaadu, worked on a pre-viz or a previsualisation video with his team in France before filming on set. “A previz is when you create an action choreography, shoot and edit it with your team away from set. I showed this to the director so he could see how the stunts were going to play out even before filming.”
Since much of the sequence is essentially Sathya punching on command, how much of it was in the script? “Before going into previz, the director told me the kind of action he was expecting. For instance, he told me things like “This punch comes from the left and you see SK blocking it because of the voice.” The next task was to see how I could place these stunts in the freshest ways possible.” And he achieved this through various styles (including kickboxing, boxing and projection movements) and the swirling, Dutch camera angles that surrounds Sivakarthikeyan.
“I operated the camera for the action parts, and used a lot of hand-held cameras because we wanted the camera to have specific movement that was very important for the film. There is one sequence in the climax that we've covered with some wide shots, close-ups and wide shots again like Zack Snyder's 300 (2007). We tried the same with the boat scene too.”
The interval sequence was key for audiences to resonate with SK and the voice, he adds. “That was tricky in terms of time because the sequences could not run up to ten minutes. A maximum of five minutes of action is more than enough for audiences to get on board. You better have a little bit less and make the people want more. While doing the action scenes, I always had to be careful about a voice coming in at some point. The action scenes could be very good, but we still needed to match the drama portion that came from the voice speaking to SK”
While the previz took a week, and the actual sequence took around eight days to film. Some moments, however, took a life of their own on set. “The scene that sees SK fight everyone was initially supposed to be seen from a far-off shot. The idea was to show SK beating up these goons, as his people watch from a distance. But when you come close, you realise that he’s actually being pushed everywhere and beats up everyone by mistake. But when we arrived on set, we settled on something different.” We might hear Vijay Sethupathi’s booming voice in the film, but director Madonne filled his place on set.
“Madonne was the voice on the set, but that was mostly for SK, who had to react to the voice, do the action at the same time and sometimes do it all without even looking! SK was an amazing person to work with. I was very impressed because he doesn't really tell you 'I want to change this and that' like a few young actors. He trusts you and tries his best to deliver. He would always come and look at the monitor to correct his postures when needed.”
Some of Yannick’s references included rewatching a couple of Jackie Chan movies that build humour into action. “His films use props in its surroundings to throw things and fight.” Speaking about throwing things, Yannick still cannot get over how they filmed the slick sword sequence in Maaveeran. “When Mysskin sir is trying to kill Sivakarthikeyan with a sword, SK misses all the hits, while never once looking at Mysskin sir. When you aren't looking, the timing needs to be perfect between the people. If you miss even a second, you could be stabbed by the sword. It was also not possible to use dupes for the scene because you see both their faces.”
But at the end of the day, the trickier beast was to conquer originality in a film as unique as Maaveeran. “When you work on a lot of ideas, you would often be like what else can the voice say? That becomes tricky because the body cannot do 1000s of movements at one point. Okay you miss left and right, but then what more can you do?” he laughs.