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Kamal Haasan is too busy to give me a call: Gnanavel Raja

Gnanavel Raja

Gnanavel Raja   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The Studio Green producer discusses Suriya-Hari film 'Aruvaa', his spat with Kamal Haasan over unsettled dues, and why the film distribution business is a betting game

Gnanavel Raja is a man who bets on his instincts. The 50:50 success-failure ratio attached to such a business model is something he is aware of. It is this strategy that brought him the highs of a Singam (2010) or Madras (2014) but also took him to the lows of a NOTA (2018) or Mr Local (2019).

“It is all part of the trade,” says Gnanavel Raja, adding, “We enjoy the good things, don’t we? So we have to be prepared to face the bad as well.”

Things may be starting to turn a corner as the man behind the Studio Green production firm now has his feet wet with two big projects: Suriya’s next film with Hari titled Aruvaa, and the Shakti Soundar Rajan fantasy-revenge-action film, Teddy, starring Arya, whose teaser releases today. There is also Vaibhav’s Katteri, which he is pushing for a March 27 release, and another project with Suriya to be helmed by Siva that is expected to begin production in September 2020, after Siva completes Rajinikanth’s Annaatthe.

Excerpts from a conversation:

Why reunite with Hari?

It is a very interesting project. This is Suriya and Hari’s sixth film together and my fourth film with Hari.

Director Hari

Director Hari   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

When the Singam series started, their combination went on a different trip. But along the way, the family, emotions and relationship elements went missing from it. With Aruvaa, Hari is back into that mould. From whatever I have heard (script), I can say that the film is a mix of Vel (2007) and Kadaikutty Singam (2018).

Is this the ‘Viswasam’ effect that has now got to Suriya as well?

Viswasam worked big because of the emotions in the subject. We believe the audience is open to films that portray relationship issues within a family, their camaraderie etc. In Aruvaa, the focus will be between brothers.

The ‘trend’ that everyone says Viswasam started... it is actually Hari’s format. When you see a Thaamirabharani (2007), Vel or Venghai (2011), these films had more drama, the focus was on relationships with family members like an aunt or a sister. Hari stepped out of that once Singam started... his films came to be all about ‘mass’. He is back on track with Aruvaa. It also won’t have the touch of earlier Hari-Suriya films.

You mean to say we can expect a Hari film that is not ‘loud’?

(smiles) Aruvaa won’t be loud. It will be more settled than his other films. Vel was not too ‘loud’ either.

Why choose the title Aruvaa?

It gives a rural feel, and an aruvaa (sickle) is used in all of Hari’s films (laughs). It may be the reason but the option was given by the director. Knowing the story, I think it is an apt title.

You speak of trade being a roller coaster ride. Hasn’t Suriya been on one too?


Suriya   | Photo Credit: L Srinivasan

Every star goes through their good and bad patches. Suriya went through a bad patch but with Soorarai Pottru, which looks promising, he will come back 100 per cent.

As an established distributor, why do you think issues like the one that happened with Darbar crop up?

All technicians and artistes demand a price they feel they are qualified for and producers also pay that money because they think they stand to gain business out of their stardom. When a film fails... for example, think of it as buying a footwear for ₹20 and ₹5,000, and what happens when it is damaged in a day. If it is a cheap slipper, you will throw it away and buy a better one. What if it is an expensive shoe? Wouldn’t you go and demand compensation? That’s what happened with Darbar.

How does that make it okay to ask actors for compensation?

Legally speaking, it is not fair to ask the artistes or technicians for compensation when a big film fails. But if you look at it case-by-case, here the film’s producer had also incurred losses. So, for the actor and director to pay heed to [compensation] calls is purely a moral decision they need to make.

A workaround would be for the distributor to watch a film before choosing to invest in it so as to avoid losses, right?

A distributor has no option of seeing the film and buying. It is not given, especially for big films.

Why so?

It is not needed also. How qualified is the person watching it to decide the film’s worth and understand its potential? He can watch after he puts up the money (smiles). As a producer, say I have invested ₹40 crore in something, how can I open and show it to someone who has not even put a penny into it? I can’t do that.

Gnanavel Raja

Gnanavel Raja   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

So the film distribution business is essentially a ‘betting game’?

Yes. But it depends what or on who you are betting on. Are you betting on the director or the actor? No one bets on the producer. If tomorrow, Lyca funds a smaller film, would distributors line up to buy it off them? Even if they come, will they buy it for the price of Darbar? So, the point of distributors buying a film for the banner’s name is moot.

Darbar issue boils down to the pricing, then?

The history of a star’s previous films and the business it has done is what sets the demand. The demand from theatres matter. In the case of Darbar, it was the wrong equation. Had they sold the film based on Petta’s business, the losses would not have been this huge and distributors would not have come asking for a refund. The mistake is on both parties.

Could stars reducing salaries or taking back-end payments help minimise the disastrous effects of a failure?

Reduction of salaries won’t happen. There is always some producer who is willing to front the fee a star demands. Back-end payments... it has started in Mumbai. I’m sure in another five or six years, it will become commonplace in South. It is a profitable system because as producers, we are saving on the interest component, which, otherwise, a third person called the financier keeps taking away. Removing that alone will add to the profits of a film.

That’s what every producer says...

Finance rates is the problem with cinema. It has got nothing to do with any individual lender. If the industry starts operating on bank interest rates, almost all films will become profitable.

But banks don’t lend often to film producers... not often, at least.

Look, this is the best business to fund. What other options do they have? Real estate? That guy is at the mercy of market fluctuations. There is no time limit on those investments.

Gnanavel Raja

Gnanavel Raja   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

But cinema is not like that. The product has to be released in an eight month to one year period. The borrower will come forward to settle dues because a film is not like land, where the value keeps rising as the borrower and lender battle it out in courts. Only upon settlement can a film be released.

Banks can draw up mandatory conditions, seek collateral property and put teams on this to monitor loans. Banks should recognise our business as an industry.

You were on the TFPC board for a while. Why didn’t you take the issue up with banks?

My team didn’t let me do it. We had lots of nonsense in the team. That is why I quit. I promised I would leave if I couldn’t get things done and I did as promised. I am happy that the bad name is not on me.

Finally, you never did respond to Kamal Haasan’s denial of your accusation that his firm RKFI took ₹10 crore from you for Uttama Villain...

I have yet to respond. I didn’t want to respond then because I felt my time was not good. But I will take this up legally.

Look, the issue is simple. We invested ₹10 crore on the guarantee of the late Chandrahasan. We have the guarantee statement on his letterhead with us, and he has given us certain commitments.

Kamal Haasan

Kamal Haasan   | Photo Credit: PTI

Wasn’t Thirrupati Brothers and N Lingusamy the ones who purchased the film on first copy basis from Kamal Haasan?

Yes, and then Lingusamy entered into a continuation agreement with me. Chandrahasan sir knows this. He was there in the TFPC meeting and knows the investment came from my end and which is why he gave me the letter. Maybe, somebody is misguiding Kamal sir.

If Chandrahasan sir was alive, I’d have met him and clarified the situation.

Hasn’t Kamal spoken to you?

Oh, he is busy with politics, and you know how my number is very difficult to get through... (smiles)

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 7:42:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/kamal-haasan-is-too-busy-to-give-me-a-call-gnanavel-raja/article31031264.ece

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