In Paruthiveeran and Subramaniapuram you can see the influence of Balaji Sakthivel’s Kaadhal. That’s how much it revolutionized contemporary Tamil cinema. His Kalloori deepens this tradition of the modest, authentic Tamil film. After Kaadhal, Balaji Sakthivel could have easily made an ambitious film with big stars, but he chose instead to do something smaller, on a more intimate scale. You have to admire him for it. There are few false notes in Kalloori.

Character, plot and dialogue are

 
 

flawlessly rendered, staying faithful to its small town roots, never once betraying its authentic rural sensibility. The actors look uncompromisingly South Indian: every face here reminds us of real people and there’s no attempt to airbrush the actors and make them movie-handsome. Sakthivel maintains a fine, calibrated balance between the formulaic and the artistic.

Our senior editor, Pradeep Sebastian, caught up with this soft spoken, mild, humble, and articulate director.

 
 

“After Samurai, Vikram was ready

to give me his dates”

Bw: What’s your new project titled?

BS: I am now doing a film for Lingusaamy titled Vazhakku en 18/7. I am currently in the scripting stage, working on the dialogues. The audition for the cast is also going on simultaneously. The shooting might start by December end or January. This time, too, I am looking out for new faces. I believe that getting the right cast is my strength. Hopefully, it should be done by the end of this month.

I was not an assistant

on Sivaji.

 

Are you involved in Shankar’s Endhiran?

First, let me get it clear that I have not worked even in Sivaji, as the common belief is. It was just a friendly visit to the sets of Sivaji as Shankar is my friend and mentor. It was Gandhi Krishna and JD Jerry who worked in Sivaji. I just took part in some discussions. For Endhiran, I don’t have the time since I am involved in my own project for Lingusaamy. I have just been part of the first reading of Endhiran.

 

How did the big directors react to Kaadhal?

Shankar was the first to see it – he saw the rushes –without the music – and cried. He literally cried. “I’m reacting not as the producer of the film,” he told me, “but as a fan.” After the movie released, K. Balachander was the first to react: he came up to me, and just said one word: ‘Astounding!’ And kept looking at me with such admiration that I began to feel shy and self conscious. Bharathiraja hugged me tight and cried. Mahenderan (director of Uthiripookal, Mullu Malaram) Balu Mahendra and Priyadharsha told me of all the subtle nuances in the film. I didn’t know myself if I did them consciously or it simply happened by instinct. Mani Ratnam called me on the phone and spoke with me for an hour about Kadhal. I got letters everyday from the audience for months.

How did you feel when Samurai did not click?

When Samurai was recently shown on TV many people told me that they quite liked it. But I believe that a movie’s success lies in the reactions that it gets when it is first released. If the movie is not able to capture audience in the first viewing, then there is certainly something wrong with the movie. If people, who have later liked the movie, offer other explanations for its failure, it just acts as a consolation. Something with the script was not right. After the movie was released, I felt that things could have been a bit different at places. That’s what taught me the importance of the script. I cannot blame anyone else, the cast or the crew, the script was entirely my responsibility and it was not fool proof. I corrected all that in Kadhal.

 

Shankar and Bharathiraja held me tight and cried after Kaadhal


The transition from Samurai to Kaadhal to Kalloori.

I feel that no two films of mine should be the same. It should not be as if I am trying to say the same thing in different ways. Every director wants each of his films to be different. It is easier said than done, but I am trying to do it. So, I don’t try to replicate any factor of my earlier films, be it a success or a failure. I make films only the way they deserve to be made. That gives you the thrill of moving ahead rather than always knowing what you are going to do. There is a quote: ‘do the thing you should fear, the death of fear is certain’. I don’t think much about success or failure. Before I made Samurai, I had a subject like Kaadhal. In fact I wanted to make a movie with only 3 heroines and no hero. That I had been part of Gentlemen made producers persuade me to make a hero-centered movie. That’s how Samurai happened. After that I just went with the flow of things and Kaadhal happened. That’s when I grew in confidence.

As assistant directors- Shankar, Pavithran and

I- stayed in the same mansion

 

What brought you to cinema?

I was brought up in Dindigul, where I had my education. I was only an average student but loved watching movies over and over again, observe the minute details and discuss how things could have been made better. When I was in college, I saw Ben Hur, it was a movie that greatly influenced me, I watched it around 20 times. That’s how I got interested in film making. Then, I met a person who was learning at a film institute and developed friendship with him, that too influenced me a lot. After that I happened to watch Chidambaram, a film by veteran Malayalam director G. Aravindan which had Bharath Gopi and Smitha Patil in the lead. So, I had diverse influences which finally inspired me to come to Chennai, after lying at home that I had landed a job at the Ponds factory at Chromepet! In Chennai, I worked as assistant to Aravindraj, Pavithran, Shankar and Venkatesh. My wife works at the Guru Nanak College and we have a daughter and a son.

Did Kaadhal set off the Paruthiveeran-Subramaniapuram trend?

I feel very happy that my movie served as an encouragement for other directors and they feel confident enough to do similar movies. Now, even Subramaniapuram director has said in an interview that he was inspired by Kaadhal - that is really wonderful. Even Ameer talked about the movie during the making of Ram and said he was disturbed by the climax. So this kind of subject was in everyone’s mind but the fear of a commercial failure was always there. I feel happy that Kaadhal was able to break the jinx. But to say that I was the man behind it would not be right. If you ask who belled the cat, it is I who made the story, Shankar who decided to produce it and the audience who received it very well. Ultimately, it is the people who matter. Now that directors are following this trend, it is really healthy for cinema. I believe that there are only two types of movies, good and bad. All other classifications are only for film makers. So, we need all kinds of movies.

 

Sasi and Ameer acknowledged that

Kaadhal inspired them

Kaadhal began as a Dhanush- Ileana project.

 

Shankar’s part in Kaadhal.

After Samurai, Vikram was ready to give me his dates in spite of Samurai’s ordinary performance. In fact, he was the one who gave me office space to work on the Kaadhal story. It was Vikram whom I had in my mind for the story but had the lingering feeling that he was under pressure from producers. But when the story attained the full form I felt that it would not suit Vikram and I informed him about it and he too agreed. Then, it was Lingusaamy who heard the story and expressed his willingness to produce it, but he had a few problems during the making of Ji and so things were getting delayed. Then I narrated the story to Dhanush who also was very impressed with the story, it was during the time of Thiruda Thirudi. But this also did not work out. It was at this stage that Shankar came in, that was during the making of Boys. He agreed to finance my movie on one condition that I would take care of all aspects of production. It was this bit of encouragement that got me going. Things were easy for me because the script was so familiar to me. Vijay Milton’s experience with the camera was a huge positive in the execution.

On casting Sandhya, Kaadhal Dhandapani and the one-handed brother.

I had first planned on Ileana, but she was not able to come due to some reasons. So things were getting delayed. I decided to go for a newcomer. It was then that we saw Sandhya. At first I was not sure what she could do, but she acted out a scene from Thiruda Thirudi with so much spontaneity that I had no doubts about her talents any longer. Actually, I had a very beautiful face in mind for the character of Aishwarya. This girl was also beautiful, but it was her acting that really sealed the issue.

That is when one of my friends casually showed me a passport size photo that he had for some other purpose. I immediately felt that I had found the man. We brought Dhandapani and told him that he need not act much, he just had to be his natural self.

Then, we had a tough time finding the one-handed brother. Actually, I used to send my associate directors to scout for people without one hand. They used to scout the physiotherapy center near Udhayam theater and bring to my office any one handed person. But the face never satisfied me. It was then that one of my assistants spotted a man who looked perfectly normal, but one fine day removed one of his hands to put on his shirt. His looks suited the role to a tee. But he is miles away from acting, he is in fact a sportsman. I had to work a lot to get the right results from him. He is the only artiste in the movie whom I had to really work on, otherwise, everyone else was really talented.

How did Kalloori happen?

Actually, I had a happy ending to the film. I should have kept it, since most people felt it would have been better. But somehow at that time I felt the weight of the subject, and thought I should make it tragic. A mistake, in retrospect.

The casting for Kalloori.

I wanted to keep it uncompromisingly rural. To show a real college. If you see most movies, college life will only be a backdrop for romance. But I wanted to show what life for classmates is like. And I wanted Dravidian faces. I searched for them everywhere – on the streets of Chennai, in small towns, even among extras.

Tammanah in Kalloori

Her character is exotic. Fair, stylish, cosmopolitan and from a city. I wanted to show the interaction between a girl from Bangalore and these kids who’ve always lived in a small town. I saw her first in an advertisement. By the time I approached her, she had already signed KD and Vyabari. But I was determined to cast her. She is young but observant, with subtle reactions. She’s the kind of actress who will give you exact change when acting! What do I mean? Some actors give you their acting in big notes. But if I want, say, 55 rupees and 50 paise, she’s the kind of actress who can give me the exact reaction I want – to a decimal point!

The two comic silent students from the Kalloori class

I got the idea to cast two students who will keep looking at each other and saying, “You say. No, you say. No, you say…” from watching two of my assistant directors! I asked them to describe a shot to me, and they looked at each other and said, ‘you tell’, no, you tell, no, you tell..and I suddenly saw how funny it was. I asked them: ‘is this a technique you guys have to not say anything in the end? I turned to my crew and said, ‘how will it be if we put two characters in Kalloori like this?’ I kept looking for two actors to play these students and finally found them in the college where my wife teaches.

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