What makes Payanam unique? Director Radha Mohan tells Malathi Rangarajan that it's a tense and thrilling ride, yet one that has its lighter moments.

Be it Azhagiya Theeyae, Mozhi or Abhiyum Naanum, each Radha Mohan film has been different from the other. Now, Payanam, which is to roll out of the Prakash Raj stable soon, is again on a subject Radha hasn't handled before, viz., airline hijack. “It isn't planned. The plot develops in my mind and soon finds a genre for itself,” he laughs. The film also marks the re-entry of Nagarjuna in Tamil after a decade and more.

The Radha Mohan-Prakash Raj combo has carved a niche for itself as a provider of healthy entertainers. You hardly see Radha joining hands with anyone else. “Prakash's production house is a hassle-free zone. The comfort level is complete and creative freedom, absolute. To top it all, he's a good friend,” he smiles. “For instance, Payanam doesn't have formulaic song sequences because I felt it could impede the intensity of the drama. With others it may have taken a lot of convincing from my side. But Prakash understood my point implicitly.”

Healthy comedy is Radha's forte. All his ventures have an undercurrent of spontaneous humour that adds flavour to the narration. Still comedy in a skyjack drama is intriguing. He explains: “Levity is essential even in a tense tale — a gamut of emotions should help hold viewers' interest till the very end. So, amidst the trauma, we show a flip side — but the humour element is very much part of the story. It's a challenge and I hope viewers accept this rare genre — a thriller with an appropriate dose of fun.”

Payanam has been simultaneously shot in Telugu as Gaganam. His earlier film, Abhiyum Naanum, was dubbed into Telugu (Aakashamantha), after some of the scenes were re-shot with Jagapathy Babu in the role of Prithviraj. “Aakashamantha's success has been a morale booster and is one of the reasons for us to go bi-lingual this time. Payanam's theme is universal and once Nagarjuna came on board we knew it would suit both audiences,” says Radha.

It is a compliment to Radha Mohan's capability that Nagarjuna has chosen Payanam as his re-launch vehicle in Tamil. “He liked my work in Aakashamantha and told Prakash Raj that he was interested in the kind of films we make. When ‘Dil' Raju, the producer of the Telugu version, suggested Nagarjuna, I knew he was spot on. Initially I wasn't sure whether Nag would accept the role because Payanam has no grand opening song, romance or duets. But when he heard the script his immediate response was, ‘I love it. I'm in,'” Radha recalls. But all said and done, Nagarjuna is comparatively less known in Tamil. “He's really big in Telugu and quite a familiar face in Tamil. And that Prakash Raj's films are synonymous with quality is a factor in our favour,” contends Radha. It's also true that Prakash Raj and Radha Mohan have built a strong audience base in the South and overseas market.

Nag plays a commando chief and Prakash Raj, a bureaucrat. Besides them, Payanam has nearly 100 known and not-too-known actors, including Radha camp constants M. S. Bhaskar and Kumaravel. “I needed bulk dates from the cast. I mean, even if the shot involved only the passenger sitting in the first row of the plane everyone had to be on board throughout. So they had to stay put in Hyderabad. Also zeroing in on suitable faces that would jell in a bilingual was quite a task,” he smiles.

Kulu Manali, Hyderabad and Tirupati are the locations. “Art director Kadhir's replica of the Tirupati airport is phenomenal. And no other film of mine has had CG work of such huge proportions,” Radha Mohan is very satisfied with the technical expertise of Payanam. “Lensman Guhan is an asset. His use of the Red One camera has yielded stupendous results. Rajasekar's stunt choreography and Gnanavel's dialogue are other ingenious features,” he affirms.

Doesn't it bother him that a recent Malayalam film had a similar theme? Radha is unfazed. “Not at all, my story and treatment are entirely different. In fact, earlier when I met Major Ravi for a few clarifications on the subject of commando operations, he told me about Kandahar, which he was planning then.”

So how does the director sum up the Payanam experience? “A challenging journey, but one that's been absolutely jerk-free for me as a maker. Much research has gone into making Payanam an authentic experience for viewers. The reel will be thrillingly real,” he laughs.