At a recording theatre, Ilayaraja is watching a reel from a pot-boiler being readied to be palmed off as entertainment. The scenes and dialogues are replete with sexual innuendo. When the lights come on, Raja quietly writes the notes, conducts the orchestra, turns to the director, a Bharathi Raja protégé and admonishes him, “What is the use of working with him if you can’t make a decent film? Look at Mani Ratnam. He hasn’t worked with anyone but makes such lovely films.”

Kamal hasan is a superb actor but is infamous for his discretion when it comes to selecting films and directors. When a couple of his films flopped the industry soothsayers, as usual spelt doom for him but Mukta Srinivasan approached him and Kamal said, “Sign Mani and I’ll give you call-sheets in bulk.” The rest is history.

‘Nayakan’ is the kind of film every director dreams of making. It has won the approval of the cognoscenti, the applause of the laity, made money for its producers, is in the fray for the Oscar for whatever it’s worth and will probably pick up a couple of National awards.

Rich repertoire

The story is a cliché, as old as cinema itself. It’s about a good boy who’s forced by the bad to turn bad but still does good to the good. In a nutshell it’s about a Robin Hood in modern garb. The film’s highpoint is the restraint in treatment, be it the handling of the performers or a ‘mujra’ in a whorehouse. The director does not assault your senses or make you squirm in your seats. Kamal, one thought had drowned in a myriad of forgettable characters but for ‘Nayakan’ he again draws from his seemingly inexhaustible repertoire and performs like only he can, right down to the slightest twitch of his mouth.

The film is not Kamal’s ‘Nayakan’ as claimed by some glossies. All the credit should rightfully go to its unassuming director, Mani Ratnam who looks more like a yuppie. He’s already being discussed in hushed tones, in the same breath as Balachander, Bharathi Rajaa and Balu Mahendra. It’s too early but Mani has shown a superb balance between technical and excellent screenplay writing. He has just finished ‘Agni Nakshathiram’ and has agreed to work on a script for producer Kamal Hasan. Can they outdo ‘Nayakan’? Everyone is waiting. So are the industry hawks.

The interview:

What was the genesis of ‘Nayakan’?

The producers sent word that they wanted to make a film with Kamal Hasan. So we were looking for a subject for Kamal.

Was it difficult to find a script for him?

In a way, yes.

Were you striving to do something different? He seems to have played every conceivable role.

Not really. There was no emphasis on that. If we were going to make a film with Kamal who’s a star and an actor we wanted to make sure we used him to the best of our abilities, both in terms of people’s expectations and in terms of his immense potential.

Now every gangster movie pays its own humble homage to Coppola and ‘Godfather’. I didn’t expect you to get caught in this syndrome.

(Laughs) I like ‘Godfather’ very much.

But there’s a lot of ‘Godfather’ in the film.

The slaying of the Reddiar family, yes. The style is similar. Even in ‘Mouna Ragam’ there’s a shot of Revathi clinging to a lamppost and singing. That was a shot with which the film was publicised. Other than that frame the film has nothing to do with ‘Singing In The Rain’. We just wanted the spirit.

What was it that fascinated you about Velu Naicker? He even seems a little glorified.

The screenplay hardly ever moves from him. When you go along with the character you develop a liking for him. If the motivation is justified you start liking him. But to avoid emphasis over this we placed the character of the daughter, a pragmatic person. We did do a bit of balancing. We wanted another point of view and that was the daughter.

Were you very conscious of the fact that you had cast Kamal?

We were conscious to the extent that we knew it would be a big budget film. We had to make it commercially viable or we wouldn’t get another chance to make such a film.

Was it difficult working with him? Some directors complain that he interferes a lot.

It was very good. Here was someone who could perform well and also contribute to the film. It was not interference. He was absolutely good.

There are many situations in the film bordering on melodrama especially in Kamal’s performance. Did you have to tone him down?

I don’t think there was a single place where I had to tone him down. He’s one chap who’s able to adapt himself effortlessly. He was an integral part of the film.

Now this Oscar thing puzzles me.

Me too.

Now one very disconcerting thing in the film is this boy grows up in the heart of Bombay but does not know Hindi. Was this done for the convenience of the audience?

There are two aspects to this. There’s a resistance. I was in Bombay for two years but the amount of Hindi I picked up is nothing. We’re not saying he doesn’t understand. We’re just saying he doesn’t care to speak. In my opinion the emotional content is more important than the logic. This is a very conscious decision we took. The flow was more important.

How big a hit is ‘Nayakan’?

Big enough to make me happy. The producers will make money.

Where does your technical knowledge come from?

I don’t know if working as an assistant helps. It probably kills whatever you have. The work they put in is keeping track of mundane details. I’m not saying that’s not the way to come up. I think you must have a flair for films.

Were you inspired by any particular director?

I was fascinated by Kurosawa. He’s amazing.

What is ‘Agni Nakshathiram’ about? Are you apprehensive about the expectations you’ve generated?

I made a decision that I’m not going to worry about people’s expectations, I’ll try to make the film as well as I can. This film is totally different from ‘Nayakan’. It’s more commercial.