Actor-director Manivannan speaks about effortlessly switching genres and why direction will always remain his first love

Manivannan made his directorial debut with the social drama Gopurangal Saaivadhillai before moving on to win acclaim in genres such as crime, thriller and political satire. Then, people discovered the actor in him and direction took a backseat. Now, after a 12-year gap, the veteran director is back with Nagaraja Cholan MA, MLA, the sequel to his 1994 super hit Amaidhi Padai. It also marks his 50th film as director.

“It was sheer coincidence that Amaidhi Padai had an open-ended climax. The idea for a sequel kept coming up, and I decided to act on it, nearly 20 years after the first film. It was not a planned decision,” says the director. Speaking about the path-breaking original film that showcased Sathyaraj as a heartless politician, Manivannan says he set out to make a movie that was not “filmy”. “Usually, the end credits roll when people rise against the villain or where one person dons the mantle of leader. But, does that happen in real life? I wanted to showcase politics that was rooted and real.”

Credit for the film’s success was also due to the crackling chemistry between Manivannan (who also acted in the film) and Sathyaraj — they revelled in the now-famous Coimbatore nakkal and nayyandi. “We have worked together in more than 25 films,” says Manivannan. “I always knew he was special. Even in my Nooravadhu Naal, he made a mark despite the presence of established actors such as Mohan and Vijayakanth.”

How easy is it for an experienced director like him to take orders from others while acting? “Quite easy, actually. It helps that I know most of them from their assistant director days. The atmosphere on the sets is jovial and I chip in with suggestions when asked. One area I never interfere in is shot division. That is a director’s dream,” he says.

He credits directors such as Sundar C (Ullathai Alli Thaa), Selvabharathy and K.S. Ravikumar (Avvai Shanmughi) for chiselling him as an actor. “Many people still remember me as Mudhaliyar (Avvai Shanmughi), because of the work Ravikumar and his assistant Rajesh Kanna put in,” he says.

Among his favourite roles are those in Mettukudi, Maayandi Kudumbathaar, Raman Thediya Seethai and Sangamam.

Though he has acted in more than 300 films and worked as a writer with director Bharathiraaja, Manivannan confesses direction is his first love. “There’s satisfaction and contentment in direction,” he says. He recalls it was this passion for direction that saw him make the move to Madras from Coimbatore. “Some theatres back home used to screen arthouse films by Adoor and Shyam Benegal, and week-long festivals of films from France, Germany and the USSR. That was when I realised there was a world where people did not run around trees singing duets. That it was possible to make a different kind of cinema.” Even after he arrived in Tamil cinema, where he did succumb to the duet culture, Manivannan experimented with plots and narrative. He never allowed himself to get slotted in a genre. “Once you achieve success, you are consumed by the fear of living up to it. Which is why many directors stick to tried and tested fare. But, I made films on village subjects, love stories, movies with students as focus, crime thrillers… it was very satisfying.”

Among his favourite actors are Mohan and Bhanupriya. “Mohan’s lip-sync to songs was amazing, probably because he was a good singer. And, he was a livewire on the sets. As for Bhanupriya, she’s an amazing dancer. I’m yet to see anyone with her sense of make-up. She revelled in minute expressions.”

New-age story

"Nagaraja Cholan MA, MLA is not a continuation of <i>Amaidhi Padai<i/>. Only Sathyaraj and I reprise our roles. This film features our regular repartees and focuses on today’s politics, but I’ve also thrown the spotlight on the perils of globalisation, foreign capital, displacement of people and how ecology is destroyed for profit."

This awareness about politics, says Manivannan, comes from years of reading about political movements across the world. “I just wish our politicians did the same. In fact, they should consider it a duty,” he says.

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Nooravadhu Naal: Many doubted if this film would work. More than story, it was all about scene construction. In that way, it was a milestone.

Jallikattu: My first film with Sivaji Ganesan. A novel story about a judge who turns vigilante.

Therku Theru Machan: A film about water sharing, about how a village is split into two because of conflict over water.

Aandaan Adimai: This was a commercial flop, but a film close to my heart. It is about a Brahmin boy who is adopted by a Dalit couple and what happens when he discovers his past.