Vishal solidified his image as a serious actor long ago. On-screen, he plays to his strengths and manages to surprise film-goers now and then. Off screen, he is a vociferous public figure. In recent years, action roles that demand a lot from the multihyphenate star have kept him busy. These projects further add to his action-hero persona — you won’t find many posters with him smiling; he is belted and bleeding in three of his latest stills! And, in the way he talks about Laththi, which is set to hit screens on December 22, you get a sense that this project means more than another action film to him.
“It’s the highest-budgeted film of my career,” says the actor. But it wasn’t the budget that demanded the effort. As was the case in his previous film Veeramae Vaagai Soodum, Laththi demanded a lot of physical effort, resulting in Vishal even sustaining some serious injuries during its making. “After 109 stitches, I lost the count,” he says, adding that he now feels immune to pain. “Moreover, it was all worth it since we are giving quite a new experience through these action sequences,” he adds. But, what was that captivating about Laththi, directed by debutant Vinoth Kumar? “First is the fact that this hero was a police constable and there is a father-son dynamic, which is highly underexplored.” Vishal understands that, predominantly, Tamil cinema cops have either been the tentpole mass heroes or corrupt antagonists inflicting violence. Laththi’s cop is different, he says. “I have never played a constable, and the writing fleshes out his life quite realistically. It gave me so much scope to act; to show the audience a Vishal they haven’t seen yet.”
The second drawing factor was its screenplay. As hinted in the trailer, Vishal’s constable hero, along with his son, gets trapped by the antagonists in an under-construction building. There’s a target on his back, and all hell is let loose inside. The final act, in particular, has turned out to be bonkers, says Vishal. “ There are lots of unpredictable twists and turn in the third act. Moreover, after Avan Ivan, I got an opportunity to flex my acting muscles in this film.” Vishal calls upon his performance in Bala’s Avan Ivan here for a reason. In the 2011 drama, he performed with squinted eyes — something he says he will never do again — and in Laththi, he had to perform with just one eye. “I had to perform with one eye shut for the last six minutes of the film.” He knew this six-minute scene was special even before shooting, he says. “I didn’t want to be shackled by cinematic limitations; I wanted to perform fluidly in this scene. I just asked them to place the cameras all around me since I didn’t want to go for another take. I just imbibed what was required, and with no idea about what I was about to do, I just stepped into the shot,” he says, adding that he is confident about the everlasting impact that this scene would create in the audiences’ minds.
Vishal’s strength lies in action subjects. Having grown up watching Jackie Chan films, he pushes himself to do more action. sequences “Action is unavoidable in mainstream films. Everyone, from children to the elderly, watches action subjects. It is a great way to strike a chord with the audience; whenever a hero rises up, the audience gets behind him.” In 2023, he hopes to learn and incorporate gymnastics into his arsenal of skills.
While a staple line-up of pure action films might put him in a shell, Vishal says he is well aware of his decisions and how people see him. He is also aware of the importance of keeping a tab on what’s going on in the world of cinema. He says he makes dedicated time to update himself. “Only if we are aware of the changing dimensions of film-viewing and filmmaking, will we get updated and incorporate all that in our cinema. I dedicate time and I make a point to watch foreign films, especially on MUBI. I love to observe how each filmmaker brings their vision to life,” he says.
The need to be self-aware is why Vishal — at a stature where it gets easy to be cocooned and surround yourself with yesmen — says he cannot afford to get comfortable under a shell. “If you shut your ears to what people are talking about your work, you will fall flat, face-first. I make it a point to watch my films in theatres. It’s only based on those responses do I move on to my next film,” he says.
Being a producer himself, Vishal is also aware of the evolving film production system, and he has an alarming insight to share. “People within the industry are scared to voice this out: I would request the producers of small films that are made within the budget of one or two crores to not make films for the next year. The risk on the return of investments is high now.” Won’t they find a place on streaming platforms? “Though OTT has taken a chunk of the audience, it doesn’t cover all the films that are being made. OTTs are just like food delivery apps but for cinema.”
Vishal’s slate of films for the upcoming year is also packed. So much so that he couldn’t sign a project with Lokesh Kanagaraj, the most sought-after director in Tamil cinema now, when the latter approached him for a project in his cinematic universe (LCU). “I couldn’t give him any dates. After Laththi’s promotions, we have to finish Mark Antony, which is 65% complete now, and then I have Thupparivaalan 2 and a film with Karthik Subbaraj’s Stone Bench Films. I want to do a film only if I can commit to it with conviction.”
Thupparivaalan 2, a sequel to his 2017 film with filmmaker Mysskin, is Vishal’s first directorial venture and he wants to give his all while making the film. “I am planning to shoot the film in March, so that I can release it by August 12.” The project has had a jittery reputation especially due to the fall-out between Mysskin and Vishal. “There’s a huge responsibility on my shoulder. It’s like raising an adopted child.”