Lokesh Kanagaraj on ‘Vikram’: Kamal Haasan has been running a one-man relay

Filmmaker Lokesh Kanagaraj on directing his idol Kamal Haasan in ‘Vikram’ and the challenges he encountered during the making of the film

May 31, 2022 02:38 pm | Updated 05:42 pm IST

Lokesh Kanagaraj with Kamal Haasan on the set

Lokesh Kanagaraj with Kamal Haasan on the set | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Lokesh Kanagaraj has never worked as an assistant to a director. He never went to film school. Instead, he maintains that he learnt filmmaking by watching Kamal Haasan’s films. In his four-film-old career, he admits to having written all his characters with shades of Kamal in them, drawing also from Kamal’s movie characters except for one film: Vikram. 

So the story goes that Lokesh had narrated an idea for Kamal, which the actor liked. The conversation veered towards Vikram (1986) and Lokesh, a fan of the original, was curious to know more about what Kamal originally conceived, which critics dismissed as far ahead of its time. At one point, Lokesh was so engrossed by Kamal’s idea — of a protagonist — that he stopped him right there and asked if he could borrow this character sketch and induct it into his narrative.

The veteran warmed up to this idea. The meeting ended with Kamal providing the meat Lokesh was looking for, in addition to a weighty budget, a battalion of stars including Vijay Sethupathi and Fahadh Faasil, and an arcade of guns —  most owned by Kamal himself. The new Vikram, says Lokesh, is a full-blown action extravaganza. Edited excerpts from a chat: 

Clearly you are fascinated by action films…

I am heavily influenced by the 1990s Hollywood films I grew up watching, such as Predator, Rambo, Terminator and the Die Hard series. Like how today’s kids enjoy Marvel and DC films, these action films had a lasting impact on me. Probably that childhood fascination is why I am drawn to the genre.

In Tamil cinema, there have been very few unadulterated action films such as Kuruthipunal, Chathiryan, Inaidha Kaigal and Theeran Adhigaram Ondru. When people ask me why my films happen at night, it is probably because of the impact of Oomai Vizhigal. When I started making films, I was influenced by Kamal sir’s Sathya. So, I was very particular that Vikram shouldn’t be just another action flick…I wanted the impact to linger on.

With your debut film ‘Maanagaram’, you had said the screenplay was structured so multiple strands of the narrative converge. You said that there was very little writing involved in ‘Kaithi’, since it was more to do execution. With ‘Master’, you wanted to show the parallel journey of two characters. How different is the writing for ‘Vikram’?

The initial pressure I had was to meet the expectation of fans. Even though I made it clear that I was a fanboy, I knew making a film with Kamal sir wasn’t an easy task. The actual pressure was to impress Kamal sir with my writing because he hasn’t done a movie close to six years [discounting Vishwaroopam 2 which was shot before]. From his side, I was sure he would be particular about a weighty script. In fact, he was so keen on the language and diction that I wanted to live up to his standard.

He liked the original idea I had narrated to him. But because I was so impressed with his idea, when he did the original Vikram, I wanted to take his character and fit into my world. I took a long time to write and he was constantly in touch, though I was giving him excuses saying that it’s taking longer than usual. When I gave the bound script, he liked what I came up with and said, ‘This looks completely like your world. So, I’ll just come on board as an actor.’

For some films, you can gauge whether it will work or not at the writing stage. And there are films you know only after making them. Kamal sir understood that this film belonged to the latter. He was also convinced that I would pull it off because he’s seen my previous work and liked it.

Lokesh Kanagaraj also doubled up as a make-up artist for Kamal Haasan in ‘Vikram’

Lokesh Kanagaraj also doubled up as a make-up artist for Kamal Haasan in ‘Vikram’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

You must have been in two minds, given that Kamal Haasan has done it all, and the option must have been between an experiment or going all out with your kind of film.

Vikram still is an experiment for me in terms of storytelling. It is a complicated film dealing with various characters with layers to them. This film has two genres: the first half is full of mystery and the second half is full-blown action. In fact, the driving force itself is action in the latter half. 

I insist that Vikram will be a theatrical experience because of the kind of effort that went into its execution. Normally, if you don’t get sleep till early morning, there is a chance you might be up till the same time the next day too. Your routine collapses. Now imagine that scenario for 100-odd days, where you start work late into the evening and shoot till dawn. Imagine 1,000 people working all night with such a huge star cast to realise that dream. At the end of the day, your metabolism changes and that will affect your creative process. 

After we wrapped up the Kamal Haasan portions, we still had the Fahadh and Vijay Sethupathi portions to shoot. Since this film has a particular timeline, we had to maintain continuity. As a filmmaker, I had the responsibility to make sure that my crew also has the same infectious energy that I have.

Your films have that marriage between Western influences and Indian sensibilities, something Kamal is a master at.

Because I grew up watching his films, I kind of knew his taste. We were both in sync with each other during the process — right from the first look photoshoot to getting his approval for the cast and crew. Even though Western influences are there in my films, the emotion has to be rooted. Then merging these two shouldn’t be a problem.

Kamal rarely indulges in ‘fan service’ in his works. Everything is written into the framework of the film and is never in your face…

Yes. In fact, I was hesitant about the ‘Pathala Pathala’ song. I like Kamal sir as a dancer but at the same time, I wanted it to have some relevance in the film. He was okay with both and we knew the song would help in terms of marketing. Ultimately it was my call and I went ahead with it.

Having said that, I haven’t glorified Kamal sir in Vikram because I don’t know how to do that. What I meant by fanboy was, there will be moments to celebrate but within the film. Even for Master, I was very particular that I shouldn’t depict Vijay sir as a larger-than-life character. I wanted him to play an alcoholic and he was open to it. Had it been the other way around and if Vijay sir wanted me to direct a ‘mass’ film, I wouldn’t have done it because I don’t know how to do that. Vijay sir gave me that space in Master

Lokesh Kanagaraj with Fahadh Faasil

Lokesh Kanagaraj with Fahadh Faasil | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Filmmakers have said that working with a great actor makes the job easy.

I wanted to explore the action side of Kamal sir. Capturing him as a filmmaker was a blessing. During the core shoot, he was into politics and was also doing Bigg Boss. Vikram was just a part of the multiple things he was juggling. But that wasn’t the case with me because even without sir, we were shooting. He had also contracted COVID-19 in the middle of the shoot. 

The main challenge I had was with Kamal sir’s portion. Obviously, it was an exciting challenge. Since this film happens in a particular timeline, he needed to maintain the character’s mood throughout. The more you explain to him about what you want, the better he gives and that too, in multiple variations. 

The one quality you admire in Kamal, Vijay Sethupathi and Fahadh Faasil?

I had lots of takeaways from all of them. I have huge respect for what Sethu na has done for this film. He underwent an acting workshop for his character and was trained by actor Pooja Devariya, who worked on his body language and diction. I am someone who believes in the actor’s inputs. 

I have so much to say about how Fahadh sir has this incredible capacity to switch on and off. The moment you say action, he transforms into something else and that focus he has is a wonder. There was a language barrier for Fahadh but he was quickly able to adapt to my style of working. I had long discussions with him about how he approaches his characters.

Of course, Kamal sir is a towering figure. What surprised me was, when I asked him if he would like to watch an edited sequence, he vehemently said no. The reason he gave was even more surprising. He said, ‘If I look at it, I’ll only see the flaws.’ He didn’t want my confidence to take a hit. In fact, he looks at the monitor very rarely.

What was your experience directing your idol?

What I cherish the most is that in between breaks, I would ask him to share anecdotes and memories He doesn’t go into his caravan; he would sit on a chair reading on Kindle. I would ask him about how he did Michael Madana Kama Rajan and Aboorva Sagotharargal. I am a big fan of his voice modulation and really like Michael’s voice in MMKR. In the initial stage of discussion, I wanted to do a spin-off on Michael.

In Vikram, I have worked with my team who are also my close friends. But that wasn’t the case with Kamal sir. He used to hop film sets working with technicians of varying degrees of knowledge and experience. What I learnt, having interacted with Kamal sir, is that he has been running a one-man relay.

Working with Vijay Sethupathi

Working with Vijay Sethupathi | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Does writing action come naturally to you?

Other than the actual choreography that happens on set, everything will be on paper. I make it a point that action scenes are as authentic as possible. The basic sketch of the scene will be there on paper. When I told Anbariv [stunt directors] masters, they hugged me and said, ‘You have written everything. What more do you need from us?’

You have worked with Girish Gangadharan, who has made a name for himself for the long shots.

We tried long shots but due to the duration and flow, we have trimmed those sequences. In terms of visuals, I wanted Vikram’s colour to match Kaithi’s. But that would mean I was stepping on Girish’s toes. For the second half, I told him I wanted a reddish volcanic feel, which is what you see in the trailer.

When you began work on ‘Vikram’, the term pan-India was yet to be coined. Was there an additional pressure to market it as a pan-Indian product?

What qualifies as pan-India? A regional language film getting a dubbed release in other languages? Or a film being remade into multiple languages or a regional film doing extremely well in other regions? Kaithi, for instance, was dubbed and released in Russia.  I had a tough time understanding the concept. When we started this film, there was no pressure as such. This pan-India is purely a market perspective and I have nothing to do with it. I am only concerned about my producers going home happy.

Suriya plays a cameo in ‘Vikram’. Was it to get a little more push at the box office?

We didn’t realise the market aspect when we brought him on board. Until then, we were campaigning with the rest of the stars (laughs). We wanted Suriya sir’s cameo to be a surprise but the news was leaked and we were forced to make it official. This wasn’t done for market push. His cameo will be a surprise to the audience. Kamal sir had announced at the audio launch about the possibility of extending this universe. Depending on the response, I have a few plans.

Lastly, when you made ‘Maanagaram’, it was a small film. ‘Kaithi’ had a big star and with ‘Master’, you worked with a bigger star. You have worked with your idol in your fourth film. What gives you the conviction as a filmmaker?

I think it’s the thought process, when the idea is germinating in my head. That excitement I have in me and the excitement I like to see in audiences is what drives me.

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