With his second Bollywood film Holiday up for release, AR Murugadoss talks to baradwaj rangan about anger, violence, and why movies must vibrate

Half an hour isn’t much when you think of it. It’s just thirty minutes. But to A.R. Murugadoss, this is time he doesn’t have. He doesn’t have thirty minutes to spare from evening till dawn, because he’s shooting a schedule of Kaththi, his film with Vijay, at Pushpa Gardens, Valasaravakkam. He doesn’t have thirty minutes to spare during the day because that’s when he’s doing other things — you know, the things we do when we’re not working, like sleeping. So when I finally wrangle thirty minutes of the director’s time, after almost a fortnight of texts and calls, it feels like a minor victory. It becomes more minor when he says he’d rather talk on the phone.

There’s something disquieting about phone interviews. You don’t see the person. You don’t register how he looks at you or looks away, so you can’t decide if you want to push further or move on. You don’t see him doing the things he might normally do, the things that add colour to copy. (“AR Murugadoss removed a wad of chewing gum from his mouth and stuck it under the cup of chamomile tea he picked up...”) It’s just a disembodied voice. But I have to give him this — despite the fact that he’d rather be doing something else, despite the fact that he badly needs to sleep — he stays engaged. The word that comes to mind is ‘sincere’. It’s not just about doing something. It’s about doing something well.

This is how he approaches remakes as well — it’s not about making the movie all over again, but making it well. His first Hindi film (and the first Hindi film to vault the Rs. 100 crore barrier at the box office) Ghajini was the remake of the Tamil original. But it wasn’t the exact same movie. After the film’s release, Murugadoss listened to what people said about what worked, what didn’t. He saw the film with an audience to see where they cheered, where they groaned. He then incorporated all the ‘feedback’, as he calls it, into the Hindi version, which he thinks is better. Some of the changes were instantly visible, like reducing two villains to one. Others were more delicate, like replacing the exuberant ‘Rangola Hola Hola’ song towards the end of the original with a more emotional number.

Murugadoss is now ready with his second Hindi film, Holiday, a remake of Tamil blockbuster Thuppakki. I ask if perfecting a product based on feedback (how like manufacturing that sounds!) was what made him take up remakes. He says it’s also the excitement that comes with seeing how the same scene is transformed by different actors, different locations, different language. Yes, language is still a problem, but not that big a problem, as he has a translator and an assistant alert to the modulations. Besides, he points out, Holiday (like Ghajini) is an urban film, and people in the metros are fairly alike, give or take a fashion choice here, a live-in relationship there.

His cross-metro team in Holiday kinda-sorta proves this theory. Music director Pritam is from Mumbai. (Murugadoss chose him after discovering who churned out hit albums most consistently.) But the process of making music is much the same as in Chennai. You explain the situation, you get a rough tune, request changes or additions. But many of his other technicians were also from Chennai, such as choreographers Shobi Master and Sridhar Master, or song cinematographer Sukumar of Kumki fame, for whom Holiday is the first Hindi film.

Where the difference between Tamil and Hindi cinema really lies, Murugadoss says, is in the logistics. With Hindi cinema, you get bigger budgets, more prints, more theatres, the opportunity to reach audiences across the country. I ask if these audiences come for him or for Aamir Khan and Akshay Kumar. Could he make a Hindi movie with newcomers, with his name as the only draw? It will probably take two or three more films to become a brand name in Bollywood, he says, but he is thinking about a Hindi film with newcomers.

Meanwhile, Murugadoss wants to work with Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, whom he terms “the two legends of Tamil cinema” — because you cannot claim to have truly arrived unless you’ve worked with them.

Murugadoss thinks big because director Shankar is one of his idols, whom he grew up venerating. His second film, Ramana, was practically a Shankar film, with its story of a man suffering a personal tragedy and turning vigilante. What Shankar taught him, says Murugadoss, is to think big — not just in scale, but also in terms of the scope of the issue.

But there’s clearly a deeper influence than just Shankar. In an YouTube interview, Murugadoss talks of his years at Bishop Heber College in Trichy where he had thoughts of turning into a terrorist or Naxalite or politician. He was troubled by all the wrong around him, and didn’t know how to question it. Should he pick up a gun, write a poem, make a movie? He speaks of the power of the image, how the Vietnam War ended after the picture of the naked girl fleeing her napalmed village made its way around the world. Some of that anger still burns in him; that’s why his films are violent. When a terrorist kills innocents, you don’t want him to be arrested, produced in court, locked up in jail. You want to break his fingers, make him suffer. That, says Murugadoss, is more impactful on screen. It’s the whole layman-wish-fulfilment thing.

I ask if this is why the heroine in Ghajini is killed not by a bullet but by a knife stuck into her spine and later with some sort of sledgehammer bashing her brains out. Yes, says Murugadoss, her death needed to have a big impact. The audience should not forget how she died, so that they can root for the hero when he avenges her death.

The director’s other idol is Mani Ratnam, who taught him that it’s important to use all the tools at your disposal — sets, cinematography, costumes, makeup — to create a singular vision, what he called a “class presentation”. He explains why Pithamagan is a favourite film using a curious word — vibration. A film, he says, should have perfect vibration between characters and audience. If the characters smile, we should smile. If they cry, we should cry. If this connection snaps, we say we’re bored.

Murugadoss doesn’t believe in following trends, making a movie because a similar movie became a box-office hit. That’s no use, he says. He’d rather make a movie because a certain type of film or genre has not been made for a while, which probably explains his affinity to 7aum Arivu, with its mix of sci-fi, thriller and martial arts tropes, topped with a sprinkling of spirituality.

When his first film Dheena was ready for release, the numerologist declared that ‘A. Murugadas’ wasn’t how his name could appear in the credits. The period had to go; there must be two initials; and the name must end with two s’s. That’s how he got his present name. Murugadoss makes light of it, saying he was too busy delivering a good film to be bothered with all this. His remarkable hit ratio, though, has made him an unwitting poster boy for numerology.

But little apart from the name has changed in the boy from Kallakurichi in Vizhuppuram. When he was there, he watched movies all the time because there was nothing else to do. There were two theatres when he was growing up, Govindarajan (now gone) and Raja. If you want to meet Murugadoss, you could head on a Sunday evening to Raja theatre, where the director still insists that his films be screened. On the Friday of a release, Murugadoss is in Chennai; on Saturday, he tracks ‘feedback’, but on Sunday evening, he is in Raja theatre watching the film with friends and family.

What a plot for a movie. The boy who makes it big and doesn’t forget his roots — is there an audience in the world that won’t respond to this vibration?

Take five

1. Favourite number from Holiday?

The bouncy ‘Tu hi to hai’, the one you’ve been seeing regularly on TV.

2. A dream film he would like to make?

Something like Avatar, filled with computer graphics.

3. Favourite Tamil film?

Nayakan. I saw it in school. It’s an action film that makes us feel for the protagonist, which is why it’s better than The Godfather. Also Pithamagan.

4. Favourite Hollywood film?

The Shawshank Redemption

5. Favourite from his own work?

7aum Arivu and Thuppakki