The multiple shades of ‘actor’ Bharathiraja: ‘Mani Ratnam asked me if I was interested in politics’

Veteran filmmaker Bharathiraja breaks down his limited yet iconic acting roles, and discusses why his character in the upcoming film ‘Karumegangal Kalaigindrana’ will be an important one 

Updated - August 29, 2023 05:42 pm IST

Published - August 29, 2023 05:24 pm IST

Actor-director Bharathiraja

Actor-director Bharathiraja | Photo Credit: S. Shiva Raj/The Hindu

“En iniya Tamizh makkale” is a phrase that’s synonymous with the legendary filmmaker Bharathiraja, just like his iconic films that emanate the smell of manvasanai and the fresh talent — both behind and in front of the camera — that he has introduced to the industry over the last four decades.

That’s the line he starts with, as we sit down for a video interaction with him for his upcoming film, the Thankar Bachan directorial Karumegangal Kalaigindrana, that also stars Gautham Menon and Aditi Balan. As I point out how he must’ve given hundreds of interviews as a filmmaker and I’d prefer this being a conversation with ‘actor’ Bharathiraja, the veteran retorts saying that’s what he initially wanted to be known. “But back then, the requirements to become an actor included a beautiful face and expressive eyes like Gemini Ganesan and AVM Rajan. So, I realised I was unfit because it was more about the looks and not about transcending emotions.”

The director-turned-actor adds, “While acting in Karumegangal Kalaigindrana, I once again was not sure if I was fit for this character or not. But now that I’ve seen the film, I can say that I’m completely satisfied with it.” He continues, “Thankar Bachan makes classy films; be it Azhagi or Pallikoodam. The beauty in his works comes from the fact that he’s a writer. When such a writer with acumen approaches me to star in a film, I can’t say no. Kaalam pona kadaisiyil, oru nadiganaga nirubithirukenu oru chinna nambikkai irruku (After all these years, I believe I have proved myself as an actor). It feels nice to know that I’ve finally achieved what I came here for, after all these years.”

A still of Bharathiraja and Thankar Bachan from the set of ‘Karumegangal Kalaigindrana’

A still of Bharathiraja and Thankar Bachan from the set of ‘Karumegangal Kalaigindrana’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Back in the late 70s when he made his debut, the filmmaker delivered back-to-back hits — such as16 Vayathinile, Kizhake Pogum Rail, Sigappu Rojakkal and Puthiya Vaarpugal — all of them in just three years of filmmaking. Despite that, Bharathiraja gave acting a shot in Kallukkul Eeram (1980), which was helmed by his go-to cinematographer PS Nivas. “By then, I had become a famous director. Nivas wanted to direct a film with starring me, but I wasn’t up for it. Then he convinced me and credited me as the ‘direction supervisor’. My friend Bose (Chandrabose) wrote the story which intrigued me... so Nivas really sowed the seeds for my acting career,” he explains.

After a slew of cameos, it was in 2004 — for Mani Ratnam’s Aayutha Ezhuthu — that he returned in front of the camera for a full-fledged role. “He actually asked me if I was interested in entering politics later in my life. When I asked why, he told me that if the answer to that was ‘yes,’ then I might want to skip this role! (laughs). I’d do anything Mani Ratnam asks me to.”

After a few years, Bharathirajaa starred alongside another legendary filmmaker K Balachander, in Thamira’s Rettaisuzhi (2010). “I wasn’t sure how it would end up with us starring together. When I asked Balachander sir (who was the mentor of the film’s director), he asked me to do the role. But, even now I feel bad that we didn’t have well-written characters in it.”

In 2013, Pandiya Naadu by director Susienthiran, followed by the same director’s Kennedy Club and Eeswaran, and films like Kurangu Bommai and Namma Veetu Pillai made him the quintessential father/grandfather. “Susienthiran is a good director and writer. His films made the audience accept me as an actor; he has a lot of affection towards me and wants me to scale new heights as an actor,” says the veteran, who also surprised us by playing a ruthless villain in Rocky (2021).

“We shouldn’t care about our image when we’re playing a character that has its own demands. Rocky was one such film. If it’s a character that takes a knife to kill, you got to do it, and if it’s a role that demands you to take a straight razor as if it’s that of a barber, you have to take it. Vijay Sethupathi and I have done a film (Maharaja), directed by Kurangu Bommai’s Nithilan, where I play a barber. One shouldn’t get into a profession if they aren’t ready to make the sacrifices and do what’s required of it,” says Bharathiraja pointing out that there’s a scene in Karumegangal Kalaigindrana where his character falls to the feet of his daughter, played by Aditi Balan.

Ellarum kaettanga, ivalo periya director Aditi kaal la vizhureengalenu (Everyone wondered how such an experienced director was falling at the feet of a youngster like Aditi).If I had been a director there, I would’ve failed. It’s not Bharathiraja doing it, but my character of Ramanathan. Behind the director Bharathiraja you know, there’s another dimension of an actor for which I would do anything.”

Bharathiraja, Thankar Bachan, and Aditi Balan on the sets of ‘Karmegangal Kalaigindrana’

Bharathiraja, Thankar Bachan, and Aditi Balan on the sets of ‘Karmegangal Kalaigindrana’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The conversation veers towards one of his latest films, Thiruchitrambalam, where he portrayed a grandfather who serves as a connecting bridge between his son and grandson, both of whom share a strained relationship. “I can’t believe how much people loved the film, especially the sequences that involved me and Dhanush,” he smiles, emphasising on the need to write realistic characters. “In 16 Vayathinile, the characters of Chappani and Parattai (played by Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth respectively), were based on real-life characters from my village. I often get inspired by such actual personalities, and if it works out, I turn them into characters. My role in Karumegangal Kalaigindrana is also one such character.”

Bharathiraja adds that Karumegangal... is a film that should reach all members of a family irrespective of their ages. “The film actually stars four directors; Gautham Menon, RV Udayakumar, SA Chandrasekhar and I. A filmmaker needs grit to pull off a project with such a cast and Thankar Bachan has that. I keep learning a lot from the directors I work with; they all have unique concepts for their films and I just have to reflect it on screen.”

Despite both Bharathiraja and Thankar Bachan being known for films mounted on rural backdrops, Karumegangal Kalaigindrana feels otherwise. “I wouldn’t call it a city-based film. It’s about a man’s mistake in his early days and the repercussions he has to face. We’ve both done many rural films and this one will be a unique attempt for both of us,” says the 82-year-old, who will next be seen in Margazhi Thingal. “It’s a film directed by my son Manoj. It’s a big deal that his debut film will feature music by Ilaiyaraaja. I am also directing a new film that’ll go on floors in a couple of weeks.” Concludes the veteran with a smile, “It’s a romance set in a coastal area. It won’t star me but if needed, I might appear in a scene or two!”

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