"In Nagercoil, when shooting Mookuthi Amman, nobody knew the 25 films I had done till then, but they all knew me as the RJ who comes during cricket matches." RJ Balaji speaks to Baradwaj Rangan about movies and why he loves his avatar as a cricket commentator in a freewheeling interview. Excerpts.
Usually, it is a little rare to find a star like Nayanthara in a mid-budget to lower-end budget film. When you wrote the one-liner for this film, did you think that a powerful star like her should be a part of it?
To be honest, I don't know how to look at a film from a mid budget, low budget or a high budget point of view…
I mean, considering the star and all that…
To me, when I wrote this, it seemed like a big movie. When I wrote LKG, I wrote only my character and the rest of the characters revolved around me and it was an easy job. I also wanted a dignified heroine, someone different from what we see in other films. But, in this film, I wrote six other characters alongside mine. Because I was writing seven characters, it felt like a big film from the beginning. At the time, to play the central character of Mookuthi Amman, we thought we would have to go to someone like Anushka Shetty or Nayanthara, who are big stars. We felt that when stars like them conveyed the message, it would convincingly reach the audience.
I had this idea while writing but never directly approached them. In fact, I have a close friend who is a heroine, and she said she would do the role. I was very happy too. I later got a random call from Nayanthara saying I had not narrated the story to her. She liked what I told her, and agreed to do the movie. Seeing the trailer, everyone says that she fits the role so well.
She looked amazing in the poster. Who is this friend you said you asked first?
In Tamil cinema, there are two kinds of directors and it is a valid separation. Directors like Visu and SP Muthuraman write screenplays very well and take that forward. Directors like Vetri Maaran and Mani Ratnam go beyond the screenplay and visually take the movie forward. I know it is too early for you to say this, but what is your definition of a director?
Yes, it is too early for me to say anything, because when I was 'writing' LKG, I didn't know that I could write. I did all the jobs on that film like an assistant director. When I directed this film, I learnt many new things. I have worked with Sundar C Sir in one film. One day, while having lunch with him, he said that for him, directing films is easy because he takes all his actors to one village. The actors would have nothing else to do there, and in the next 30 days, he would shoot the film and return. I applied that for Mookuthi Amman. I took my crew to Nagercoil, and finished most of the film in one stretch. I implemented all that I learnt. In terms of technicality, this film is better than my previous one. So, it is too early for me to say anything, but I want to make happy films, films that make audiences happy and my investors happy.
You have said that Mookuthi Amman is a 100% saami film. Describe that for me.
Since my childhood, I always pray before leaving the house. Because I was making a 'God' film after LKG, people felt it would be a satirical take on God. To me, it is a God film — not the kind we have seen in the 90s, but a saami film related to today's times. It is a film about the 'God we created' Vs the 'God who created us'.
I loved PK and even met Rajkumar Hirani. He told me that a lot of Tamil directors had pitched ideas, and he wasn't happy with them. When I told him my story, he was happy and said he would get me the rights for the film. But the cost of the rights equalled my entire budget. I loved the questions asked in PK. So, I wanted to make a relevant film that asked similar questions.
Before LKG, RJ Balaji was a slightly unknown quantity in terms of films, not in terms of personality. Now, you are a successful filmmaker. Is there any pressure?
There is no pressure. I am going for cricket commentary tomorrow. Everybody likes it and I have been doing it for three to four years now. But, I feel very nervous in spite of all this. That is how I handle every work of mine. When we gave this film to Disney Plus Hotstar, the media speculated many numbers, and someone from the film industry asked me how I felt earning this much for my second film.
But for me, I had done only this for one-and-a-half years believing in its content. There is no pressure, but for every work I give my best.
For this commentary, you said that you are in quarantine in Bombay. Do you see this as unusual, because this is something retired cricketers do. Do you see this as a fun thing or an extension of Brand Balaji or a source of income? How do you see it?
Four years ago, when they came to me with this, they wanted me to be the face of the channel. The channel and I are clear about what I would bring to the table. I speak just like how friends and family would while watching a match. Even when I went to Nagercoil for the shoot, nobody knew the 25 films I had done till then, but they all knew me as the RJ who comes during cricket matches. It has been very positive, mostly. Personally, it makes me very happy, and I see this as work that will go on for years. There are many avenues of making money through brands — I do a lot of stage shows — but this work I really enjoy and it signifies freedom.
You expected Mookuthi Amman to release in theatres and wrote it that way too. If you knew that the film was to have an OTT release, would you have written it differently?
Definitely, yes. There are five songs in this film. A few songs flow with the story, and I would have retained them. But, had I known this was an OTT release, my treatment would have been different. Every medium has a format. The film is now at 2 hours 20 minutes. For OTT, I would have kept it within two hours. Probably, in the future, I'll have to make films suitable for both theatre and OTT release (laughs).