Interview | Movies

Venkat Prabhu: ‘Refreshing to see other directors write roles for me’

Venkat Prabhu

Venkat Prabhu   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Mankatha is not Venkat Prabhu’s favourite game anymore.

With COVID-19 and lockdown putting an end to the filmmaker’s sedentary lifestyle, he has taken to walking; he updates his Twitter feed with details of the distance he covers on foot (upto 11 kilometres a day now).

“The driving force [for the new fitness regimen] is Praveen KL (film editor),” says Venkat, over phone from his home, adding that he feels more “healthy and energetic” of late.

The last we saw of Venkat Prabhu, the filmmaker, was four years ago in the sequel to cult classic Chennai 600028.

He has since faced a series of ups and downs; his eighth directorial, Party, produced by T Siva of Amma Creations, was supposed to release in 2018 but is yet to see the light of day.

Venkat Prabhu in a still from ‘Lock Up’

Venkat Prabhu in a still from ‘Lock Up’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The on-again, off-again venture, Maanaadu, starring Silambarasan, complicated affairs further before COVID-19 outbreak brought the curtains down on its filming in March.

On Party, the filmmaker is at pains to note his “absolute disappointment”.

Featuring an ensemble cast, the crew headed by Venkat shot the film entirely in Fiji Islands. “We filmed it in a short time at a place which was not shooting friendly. It has even cleared the Censor,” he says, noting that a digital release will not be feasible due to monetary aspects.

“But I believe the situation will clear up,” he adds.

Changing course

While he waits for the fog on his filmmaking career to lift, Venkat Prabhu has reconnected with something that actually brought him into films: acting.

Since turning director in 2007, Venkat Prabhu put his acting ambitions on hold and only ever appeared in uncredited or special appearances. That changed with the 2017 film Vizhithiru; a film which had a delayed release. He would then go onto appear in a small role in the Zee5 film Kalavu (2018).

Now, Venkat is set to appear as the antagonist — his first major role in films since Vasantham Vanthachu (2007) — in Lock Up. Bankrolled by actor-turned-producer Nitin Sathyaa, Lock Up also features Vaibhav and Vani Bhojan in lead roles. “It is refreshing to see other filmmakers imagine and write roles specifically for me,” he says.

Venkat Prabhu with Vaibhav (L) in a still from ‘Lock Up’

Venkat Prabhu with Vaibhav (L) in a still from ‘Lock Up’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Venkat Prabhu plays a cop — SI Moorthy — in Lock Up. “[Moorthy] is self-centred and crooked. He does something and tries to cover it up by blaming others; the more he lies, the bigger the issue becomes. He is at odds with this constable character (played by Vaibhav). It is a very serious film, has its twists and turns and captures the duo’s jealousy and clash of egos,” he says.

The filmmaker adds he is prepared to take up more acting opportunities provided he is offered challenging roles.

“After COVID-19, I think there will be a lot of changes. Survival mode is on for everyone. So, I’m open to everything,” he says, nodding in the affirmative when we enquire if this also extends to his singing career that has given us numbers like ‘Neruppu Koothadikkuthu’ and ‘Soppana Sundari’ to name a few.

Sticky wicket

Venkat Prabhu will also be seen in an acting capacity in Chimbu Deven’s upcoming film Kasada Thapara.

‘Maanaadu’ will happen with Simbu only: Venkat Prabhu
  • The high budget production venture, Maanaadu, which features an ensemble cast including Silambarasan, SJ Suryah, Kalyani Priyadarshan, P Bharathiraja and SA Chandrasekhar among others, went through a roller coaster ride after the producer Suresh Kamatchi and its lead star had a much-publicised, infamous fallout last year. In the end, a compromise was reached and shooting began, only to be suspended 20 days later with COVID-19 outbreak enforcing a lockdown.
  • Of late, it has been rumoured that Venkat Prabhu might be dropping the project. “Maanaadu is a story that happens around political gatherings. We need crowds in many frames and it has big action sequences. Even if the Government lifts the shooting ban, if they cap the number of people allowed on a set to 70-80 people, how do you shoot a film like Maanaadu? That is why we were discussing shooting something else with the same team,” he says.
  • Can Maanaadu not go ahead with a script rewrite to factor in the post-COVID 19 environment?
  • “If we compromise and do it some other way, we would probably be killing the film. We should think of a fresh script, something that can be shot with minimal crew and artistes. I came up with this idea to somehow help steady the losses for our producer. Had we not shot those 20 days, then it would have been an easier call. The producer seems happy with the suggestion,” Venkat says, but adds reassuringly, “If normalcy returns next year, and the Government says we can go back to working like before, Maanaadu will happen and it will happen with Simbu. It was written for him and it is for him.”

The former is also a co-producer on the film under the aegis of Black Ticket Company, his film production firm. Through the company, Venkat has so far bankrolled three feature films — Chennai 600028 II, Kasada Thapara and RK Nagar; the last of which released on Netflix during lockdown.

While he believes the opening up of OTT platforms are a “blessing in disguise” for small budget productions like Lock Up, he acknowledges that it is a double-edged sword too, especially since revenue share percentages offered to a producer by digital streaming platforms have taken a tumble.

“When someone is ready to buy content, it lifts the producer out of debts, even if it means he stands to make no gains from the trade. But some platforms insist on rev-share models with multi-year payment structures. There is no upright fee in such cases. This is only one issue of selling content to OTT platforms,” he adds.

However, there seems to be a future in betting big on OTT platforms. Venkat Prabhu himself has completed a web series featuring Vaibhav and Kajal Aggarwal for Disney+ HotStar; an announcement on the series is expected soon.

Dubbed in multiple languages, Venkat says he has attempted horror with the unnamed web series. “It won’t have the typical jump scares of the horror genre. I’m a big fan of Stranger Things on Netflix, so I have applied a similar treatment,” says the director.

More importantly, the web series has been filmed for tier 2 and tier 3 audiences, he adds. This is an unusual case where web series is concerned as patronage for digital streaming platforms is high in urban centres. “Maybe, this series will help add subscribers from centres like Salem, Coimbatore and Madurai,” he remarks.

The filmmaker notes that Tamil cinema’s reputed actors and technicians too will have to embrace OTT platforms going forward. “My own team was unhappy when I decided to do this HotStar series, but I told them this is the next big thing. All I want is to try a lot of things. I’ve never wanted to restrict myself because there is no bigger challenge or success today than being able to make an audience sit and binge watch 10 episodes of a web series you shot,” he says, before adding with conviction, “I’m sure mindsets will change.”

‘Lock Up’ will stream on Zee 5 from August 14

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Printable version | Sep 29, 2020 10:08:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/refreshing-to-see-other-directors-write-roles-for-me-venkat-prabhu/article32283282.ece

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