Director Hari interview: On Vishal’s ‘Rathnam’ and his evolution as a filmmaker

Director Hari talks about reuniting with Vishal in his upcoming film ‘Rathnam,’ evolving from fast cuts to long-oners, writing memorable supporting characters, and how he scouts for locations and actors

April 23, 2024 06:12 pm | Updated 06:26 pm IST

Director Hari and Priya Bhavani Shankar and Vishal in a still from ‘Rathnam’

Director Hari and Priya Bhavani Shankar and Vishal in a still from ‘Rathnam’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Director Hari is an interviewer’s delight; he loves to talk about films, shares interesting anecdotes about his films — some of which are cult classics today — and gets excited when you point out a deft filmmaking touch past the Sumo car chases and fast cuts he has become synonymous with.

Fascinatingly, for someone who has been in the industry for more than 20 years, Hari says he has never done a film hoping to hit a certain box-office number. “The idea has always been to deliver a good film enjoyed by the masses. My only concern while making a film is to stick to the promised budget. Otherwise, I never get into the business aspects of it. A producer invests money and I’ll be happy if he makes a huge profit; I invest my talents and want the film to get me a good name,” says the filmmaker. His upcoming film Rathnam sees him collaborating for the third time with Vishal after Thaamirabharani (2007) and Poojai (2014), and from the looks of it, he’s got something different in the offing.

Excerpts...

In our previous interview, you had said that you don’t write scripts but narrate them for it to be written by your Assistant Directors. How does that work?

I don’t write scripts, I narrate the story and it keeps getting recorded, which is then turned into written content by my ADs. I don’t have paperwork for the screenplay at all; scene construction happens, which doubles as the screenplay, and from there, I jump to dialogue writing. At that point, I ask them to tell me what they have written all that while and I come up with the lines for those scenes. Once that’s done, then comes in the paperwork, but even then, I don’t write anything though it’s been 17 films (laughs). I would say this goes on for at least 10 drafts and improvisation happens until the day before the shoot. On the day of the shoot, there might be some minor changes but that’s just to glorify the scenes.

...And this unorthodox style, I heard, spills over during the shoot and post-production as well?

I don’t use precise technical terms to describe a scene to my technicians; I just explain how I want it to be. If I’m going to use editing terms with an editor, he might get irritated after a point. For example, I don’t tell my stunt director that I want a somersault; I tell him that once the stuntman gets punched, he should flip around like how a monkey does. Similarly, I get annoyed if someone talks to me technically about filmmaking. When they’re specialists in those streams, you leave it to them about how it’s done. You just tell a cardiologist that you’re having some discomfort; you don’t talk to them about blood vessels.

A still from ‘Rathnam’

A still from ‘Rathnam’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

We have to keep reassuring that each technician is an expert in their own domain. Not only does this increase their confidence but also makes them feel comfortable to work with us again. Slackers can’t work with me; they’ll run away in a couple of days. Contrary to my discussion space, my shooting spots would buzz with activity. There, I aim to do a minimum of two shifts a day so that in six months I would have done at least 12-18 months of groundwork. That time helps me to find what we are looking for. If you’re looking for any fish, just a fishhook and some bait are enough, but if you want mudfish, you have to get dirty in the mud and keep digging.

We discuss everything, from my films as well as other ones; how contemporary or outdated they are, the technology used in them and even current affairs. We were recently talking about how Ukraine’s President (Volodymyr Zelenskyy) used to be a comedian. That’s a nice arc for a villain; imagine an antagonist who has come up the ladder but still doesn’t forget his roots. That’s basically the characteristics of Perumal Pichai (the antagonist of his hit film Saamy played by Kota Srinivasa Rao). That’s why you have to keep digging to find both the meen and the scene (laughs).

Your films have always concentrated on their male protagonists but ‘Rathnam’ seems to revolve around the female lead character.

You’ve guessed it right; Priya Bhavani Shankar’s role in this film is of utmost importance. Apart from her character, Priya, as an artist, also had a lot of challenges in this film.She pulled off a single-shot scene, 300 feet in film length, involving a lot of movement and filled with dialogue brilliantly. I’ve assisted K Balachander sir and he is known for rightly positioning the artists in lengthy shots. Positioning, especially in such long shots, is of much importance, and the actor should be talented enough to pull it off. The fact that Priya can do all of that and knows the language makes it perfect.

It’s been 17 years since you first collaborated with Vishal. How do you think the two of you have evolved over time?

I think I’ve been the same (smiles) and I’m glad that I’m getting work — which I believe I’ve been doing well. It’s nice to see the growth of Vishal, both business-wise and how he has gained an audience even in the north. Character-wise, he has always been the same. He’s light-hearted, easy to work with, and likes to keep everyone around him at the sets happy.

A still from ‘Rathnam’

A still from ‘Rathnam’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

For a filmmaker who was known for fast cuts, we spotted you opting for having single-shot sequences, toning down on the over-the-topness of action sequences, or coupling comedy tracks with the main story instead of letting them have a separate track as some examples of changes in your last film ‘Yaanai’. Is that you evolving as a filmmaker or adapting to contemporary filmmaking?

People would see any film if it’s entertaining. My move comes from needing challenges while making a film. It’s not intentional but something a scene demands; the Yaanai interval shot, for example, runs for around 350 feet. The cooperation of artists and technicians for such a shot is of paramount importance. As far as the other changes are concerned, I see films made by my fellow filmmaking friends and notice what’s getting appreciated, and that could probably indirectly influence my work as well. There are films made totally to look like they are made in one continuous take and there are films actually shot in a single take like how Parthiban sir did (in Iravin Nizhal). In Rathnam, I’ve pulled off a five-minute single shot, without any stitching, where there are vehicle tracking shots, an action sequence involving rope work, and a chase sequence involving blasts and vehicles toppling. This is probably the evolution you’re talking about.

It starts with scouting for an empty highway road. For that, you need to know geography and government functioning. According to the rules, after laying a highway, it takes 3 months for it to be opened to the public. So I have to Google and find such newly laid roads in South India. Then, we have to call the local location manager and check the status of the road.

For the climax of Singam 2, I found the ship on Google Maps (smiles). I found a ship similar to what I was looking for in Malaysia. I called the Malaysian location manager who found out that the ship had reached Singapore port. I was invited to an event in Singapore, which I had no intention of going to, but now that I knew this was happening, I attended the event and luckily also found the ship’s owner. We then signed a deal and got the ship for the shoot. Google Maps comes in handy for such location scouting. For the same film, we created a camp for Operation D in a particular area and we finalised that spot just by looking at it on maps. It was at this location I had been to years ago in Tuticorin and I asked my art director to put up the sets there. I remember that there’s enough space to do a parade shot and in the background, we can show the NLC power plant’s cooling towers. Though this is something almost everyone does, I’m geographically strong as far as Tamil Nadu is concerned.

Your films always have an ensemble cast and it’s nice to see many who are considered to be past their prime get good roles with their own arcs in your films. Thyagu, for example, plays a negative role in ‘Singam’ but is a reformed character in the sequel. How does the casting process happen in your film?

Artist selection is something I spend a lot of time on. After finalising the hero, within the next two months, I would’ve zeroed in on the female lead and comedian. The next four months will be spent scouting for the supporting cast. That’s how we got actors like Thyagu anna and Aishwariyaa akka. Akka, for example, is so talented that she should be acting in 20 films a year. But the industry has not utilised her just like the performer in Vadivelu anna. Seeing these cause me grief but I try to do my best.

The example you gave was perfect... Thyagu anna plays a baddie in the first film. but in the second, he’d say “pazhaya pagaiya edhuvum manasula ille sir, unga kitta sollanumnu thonuchu,” when he helps Singam after knowing that Singam’s family is being targetted by the villains. I think it’s an extension of how I perceive people. If someone scolds me, I would try to find out what I did to receive it. I ask my sons to put a lid on their temper when they fight each other and tell them they’ll soon be in a position to transform this anger into something fruitful. Kovam varavanuku dhaan unarchigal adhigama irrukum, neraya vela seivan. I like those with strong temper and probably that’s why I like myself (laughs).

Rathnam is scheduled to release this Friday, April 26

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