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Bouncing back to form

He has directed stars from Amitabh Bachchan and Sivaji Ganesan to Anil Kapoor and Vijayakanth. And he is also a hero in his own right. K. Bhagyaraj, the multi-faceted personality who has made a comeback recently, talks to MALATHI RANGARAJAN.

"Sokka Thangam" ... a successful comeback after a four-year haitus.

SEDATE ... SERIOUS ... pensive — this is not the Bhagyaraj you had expected to meet. Probably the sense of humour, fun and levity are all reserved for the screen. "No... I am quite jovial by nature. It's only that the financial crisis I faced a few years ago has made me a person who deliberates a lot on what has to be done. Now I am slowly back to being my usual self," says Bhagyaraj, a successful hero of the Tamil screen, an excellent scriptwriter, astute director and witty journalist. His fans were thrilled when he recently came out of hibernation to write and direct the Vijayakanth starrer, "Sokka Thangam".

There are many facets to Bhagyaraj and each bears an impressive stamp of intelligence. And as he talks about the highs and lows of his life and career the conversation becomes an interesting exercise in self-analysis.

The gap between his last film with Nagma, "Vaetti Madichu Kattu", and "Sokka Thangam" has been a yawning one...

"Financial problems bogged me down. Suddenly things weren't just happening," Bhagyaraj begins. "Strangely every project seemed jinxed. Things just refused to take off." His projects became unviable because of the ceiling that the distributors' association introduced, by which the price for every hero was fixed. A decision that affected heroes like Bhagyaraj.

Generally Bhagyaraj plays the lead role in his films...

Actually Vijayakanth approached me for a story. But I felt that it would be better if I scripted and directed my own story. And that's when they asked me to take up the direction for "Sokka Thangam", produced by GV Films.

Surely he must have made compromises in his script and direction to suit Vijayakanth's image...

It was a tricky situation. If too much of the Bhagyaraj style of storytelling or acting came out, the audience could miss Vijayakanth's way of performing and vice versa. So I was careful to strike a balance... "

About the film's commercial aspect ...

"Sokka Thangam" definitely did not hurt the producer. Thirteen prints for South Arcot alone and each individually did 50 days business. This is just an example. There were times in the past when wrong media information about my films used to upset me... " Even as Bhagyaraj pauses, you get his point. "Don't kill a film even at birth. If it's not good, people will shun it in a matter of just a week. So why write factually incorrect stuff and spoil its future even at the outset, is his query.

Vijayakanth is the first hero that Bhagyaraj has directed...

Bhagyaraj nods in agreement. Though he wrote the story and screenplay for films such as Kamal Hassan's big hit, "Kaidhiyin Diary", Bhagyaraj has been the hero of all the films he has directed. But Bhagyaraj, the director, made a grand entry into Hindi films with "Aakhri Raasta", a remake of "Kaidhiyin Diary". And Amitabh Bachchan who did a dual role in the film, was in total awe of its director.

"Aakhri Raasta" was a dizzying success and you thought Bhagyaraj would move northwards ...

With Amitabh Bachchan on the sets of "Aakhri Raasta".

"It did not happen because I was too busy in Tamil," explains Bhagyaraj. But "Aakhri Raasta" is a milestone in both Bhagyaraj's and the Big B's career. So when the famous book on Amitabh was conceived, the Bachchan wanted "Aakhri... " included and sent Khalid Mohammad to Chennai to meet Bhagyaraj and record his views about the film.

His second Hindi film ...

"When my flick "Veetla Visheshanga" did well here, I made it ("Mr. Becharaa") with Anil Kapoor and Sridevi. But that was the time Boney Kapoor and Sridevi were coming together in real life and somehow the Hindi audience didn't seem to take the bhabhi-brother-in-law pairing too well, " a wry grin escapes his lips.

What happened to "Sabhash Daddy" is another tale...

"Sabhash Daddy" was Bhagyaraj's third Hindi film. This time "Vaetti Madichu Kattu" was remade. Nagma was the heroine in both the versions, while Gulshan Kumar's brother Kishan Kumar was the hero. And that was the time the Gulshan Kumar tragedy had occurred. So again real life happenings marred a reel life product. "That's when I really began to believe in good and bad times and decided to lie low for some time" — the philosophical strain reveals the agony he went through.

The writer-director's way of working ...

"I don't write much," he says as he calls out to his assistant to show you the number of pages, his script involves. Hardly four. "Everything is here... " he points to his forehead. I keep discussing it over and over again and fix everything in my mind. So when I go to the shooting spot I dictate the dialogue for the shot straightaway and that's it." It is not for nothing that Bhagyaraj has carved a niche for himself as an intelligent filmmaker. "I have been inspired by Salim Javed's scripts, Bhimsingh's, B.R. Pantulu's, K.S. Gopalakrishnan and K. Balachander and of course several English films too."

Every Bhagyaraj film has been different in one way or the other...

Yes ... I try to keep it that way. The hero might be a do-gooder always, except for a stray film like "Vidiyum Varai Kathiru", but the stories have always been different," he asserts. Be it "Mundhanai Mudichu" or "Mouna Geethangal", "Dhavani Kanavugal" or "Thooral Ninnu Pochu", they have all been different. So naturally when some of today's films are blatantly like some of his old works and when such makers continue to be busy, it irks an original creator like him.

But how he got involved in a confusing script like "12B" is a puzzle...

I just helped Jeeva out. He had the story. It was inspired by English flicks that had two or three storylines in them — like "Sliding Door" and "Run Lola Run". Nothing wrong. But I was not sure it would click here, because two stories running parallel, with the same characters in both, could confound the audience. I advised Jeeva to save the experiment for his second film and not when he was making his debut, but the young man was convinced it would work... "

The streak of the holy ash on his forehead shows that he is religious — the deities in the room vouch for it.

"Yes I believe in God. But this (he touches the white streak and smiles) is more out of habit. My mother would insist on it even when we were young. Today I think more of her when I sport it. And if I was seen often in temples recently, it was also because I had more free time on my hands." This candidness is a striking factor about Bhagyaraj throughout the conversation.

Bitter experiences have scarred him...

"But they have also made me wiser. I was too gullible and so was my wife Poornima. We had failed to understand people. But experience has been a great teacher." Poornima, a successful heroine before marriage, has been a solid support throughout. "She was both a father and mother to my two kids when I was too busy," he reminisces.

The trying times are thankfully over...

"Yes... I have gathered my wits and I am wary about every step I take. Today I cannot be the impulsive, carefree young man who ran away from home to make it big in cinema. I have a family, my staff, and my magazine (Bhagya, his Tamil weekly, is into its 14th year now) to think about."

Bhagyaraj will announce his next film soon. Many genuine people inside and outside the industry have been sincerely wishing for my come back. The goodwill that I have earned is my greatest asset," he stops. And on that sentimental note you take leave.

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