After your unsuccessful attempt to work with Kamal Haasan in Pallavi Anupallavi, you finally roped him in.
Kamal had sent over a producer, ‘Muktha’ Srinivasan, when I was working on the script of Agni Natchatiram . Agni was the film I wanted to do after Mouna Raagam ... So ‘Muktha’ Srinivasan came home and said, dramatically, ‘ Kizhakku endha pakkam ?’ [Which way is east?] He made me stand in that direction and gave me an envelope. I thought it was money—an advance maybe—but it was actually a video cassette of a Hindi film. He said Kamal wanted me to see the film. I was not interested in a remake but the producer insisted that I see the film. Though a cheque would have been more appreciated than a cassette, I said I’d see it. I put the tape in. It was about Shammi Kapoor in a nuthouse [ Pagla Kahin Ka ]. I couldn’t bear it. I was very sure I wasn’t interested.
So when he returned the next day, I told him I had always felt I was not good for remakes. It was better to get someone efficient, someone who’d do things quickly and get the film out as soon as possible. He wasn’t flustered. He asked me to get into the car and go with him to AVM studios, where Kamal was shooting, and tell Kamal what I’d told him. I realized that, as much as I didn’t want to do this he didn’t want me for his film either. I met Kamal during his lunch break and told him that Pagla Kahin Ka was not my type of film and I wouldn’t be able to do it. Kamal then asked me what kind of film I would prefer to make. He said that the tape was just to start a conversation. I went to say no, but now I had a chance to make a film with Kamal and he was asking me what kind of film I’d do with him. I said there were two possibilities. One was a very sleek, city-based action film, a Dirty Harry or Beverly Hills Cop or a Bond-ish film, the kind of thing that had not been done much in Tamil cinema. It still hasn’t been done. I am a big fan of sleek action films. I’ve always wanted to do something like that. The second possibility was the life of Varadaraja Mudaliar.
What intrigued you about his story?
The two years I studied in Bombay (1975–77), he was at his peak. People in the Matunga belt thought he was God. I used to wonder how anyone could treat a fellow human as God. I never understood why they would do this. It fascinated me. It was such a dramatic story, this man going from Tamil Nadu to Bombay and ruling the city. I outlined this thought to Kamal and he said fine. That’s it. It was done. Decided. Mouna Raagam took five years to get approved. Nayakan got cleared in 10 minutes. It was September, I think. He said he’d given ‘Muktha’ Srinivasan dates in December and we could start shooting...
We had scheduled three days of shooting in December, and I told Kamal I wouldn’t be ready with the script. He said something that surprised me. He said that I could treat the three days as test shoots, with three get-ups for the three ages of the character. And we did just that. That is the kind of luxury I’d never had. The producer had no clue that we were shooting three scenes that were tests and may not make it to the final cut. They didn’t, though they were nice scenes. But the test shoot helped to get Velu Nayakar’s look right, and we also got the other details (art, props, shooting style, costumes) right... The first real schedule of Nayakan took place in January.
So the film that really, really put you on the map was a complete accident.
Yeah. I think Kamal too didn’t expect much from the film — at least not at the start and not what it became.
Looking at Kamal’s performance or anything else, did you have an inkling that Nayakan would become what it became?
With the time and effort you invest in each project, you expect that each one will work. It’s not that in Nayakan I was going out of the way and doing something extraordinary. It’s just that it’s such a pleasure when there’s an actor who delivers more than you can imagine. It takes a weight off your shoulders, because you no longer have to carry the scene by yourself. I realized that I didn’t have to stage a scene to prop up the actor. It was enough if the camera caught him. He brings credibility to the lines and makes it so effortless. He adds to the entire picture.
Apart from his ability to emote so well, he’s a master of technique. He did quite a bit of the make-up for the other actors in the film. If I had someone with a wound that didn’t look right, I’d go to him and ask him to fix it. He’d sit with the actor and get it done, and by that time I’d have finished all the other shots I had to do. He was really a part of the team that way. We could ask him for anything we wanted for anybody else and he would do it. He was the one who convinced Janakaraj and Delhi Ganesh to cut their hair and grow convincingly old along with Velu Nayakan. He would bring his own gun for a shot, and save the trouble of using a terrible dummy. He had this bottle made of sugar glass, which he had brought from US, and he used it in the fight with the cop. He made sure that the scene played out real. It is a big boon to have an extra mind on the set.
Saranya brought to the part a fragility that an established actor couldn’t have. She was effectively your first big ‘discovery’, cast opposite Kamal, one of the biggest stars around. At that early stage in your career, was it difficult convincing people about this casting?
Right from the beginning, we had only a new face in mind, because we felt the character would come through much stronger with a new actor. It would be more real. I had no problems convincing people. If you’re successful, they give you a longer rope. Mouna Raagam had done well. Also, [the producers] Muktha Films were breaking away from what they’d done in the past. They were working with an outside director for the first time. They were making a film on a much larger scale than they were used to. So they did not really question my casting. For most of the film I had complete freedom. We were looking for someone and this photograph came to us. Looks-wise, she was more or less what we wanted. We called her in for a test. I think we shot the test at the wedding hall owned by the producer, and we were convinced that we could get what we wanted out of her. She was the first and only person we saw for the role.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from the book Conversations with Mani Ratnam by Baradwaj Rangan. Penguin Viking/ Rs.799.