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“Having a star on board shifts the focus away from the story”

He’s one of the most sought-after directors in the Tamil film industry and has blockbusters Arinthum Ariyamalum, Billa and the recent Arrambam, to his credit. For his next film Yatchan, he has associated with Disney, and has already wrapped up its first schedule. In a tête-à-tête with Sagorika Dasgupta, director Vishnu Vardhan speaks about his journey in films and his plans to foray into Bollywood

You’re a reputed filmmaker down South but you began your journey with acting.

Yes, I was in the 7th grade when I made my debut as a child actor in Mani Ratnam’s film Anjali. It was a film about kids and I was one of the child actors in it. Around the same time, I acted in another Mani Ratnam film, Sathriyan. At that time, I thoroughly enjoyed acting so I decided to keep at it, but my parents made sure I concentrated on my studies too. After the 12th grade, I was so interested in photography that I would make short films for public sector announcements and corporate films for private and social organisations. It was in my second year of college that Santosh Sivan, who is one of the most reputed cinematographers in the country, asked me to act in his first film, The Terrorist.

By that time, my aspirations to become an actor had taken a backseat but he was this reputed guy. So somehow I mustered the courage to tell him that I wanted to assist him rather than act in films. He told me to keep shut and not ‘act smart’. So we made a deal where I would act in the film and he would let me assist him too! That’s how I took baby steps into filmmaking, starting with acting.

What was it like working with Mani Ratnam?

He is a fantastic actor! He is an intense performer. Even more than directing, he is a fabulous actor – a man on fire! He has so much passion for cinema that even food and sleep don’t matter to him. You have to know that when he is making a film, it will not be made in a bindass manner. Rest assured everyone will have to have the same intense energy. All his characters are deep and well-etched and so are his stories. Although he makes the best drama films, I feel his USP is romance.

Was it intimidating for you to work with him as a child actor?

I was a kid, yaar. At that time, I had no idea who he was. I was, like, who is this crazy guy acting like a kid with us? We gave him such a tough time. We were a large group of kids and we were a huge pain for him. He would ask us to keep quiet and we would make some noise or the other, and he would tear his hair screaming, ‘Shut up, you bums!’ (Laughs)

How did your start out as a director?

After I graduated, I moved to Mumbai and worked here. I worked as an assistant director to Khalid Mohamed on Fiza, and Santosh Sivan on Asoka. As a result, I got to know actors like Jaya Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan and Shah Rukh Khan. At that time, I directed a lot of commercials and music videos as well. I also worked on Santosh sir’s other films like Malli and wrote the screenplay for Navrasa.

In fact, Asoka was the last film I worked on here and by that time, I had become an associate director. At that time, directors like Shimit Amin, Saket Chaudhry and Abbas Tyrewala were part of the same team and we used to hang out together. Had I stuck around in Mumbai for another three years, I would have definitely made a Bollywood film. Shah Rukh was also a producer on that film and since he had seen me work, he had told me he would be happy to feature in a film if I directed one. But I quit everything in Mumbai and moved to Chennai.

What made you do that?

I don’t know. You know, Shah Rukh is a very chilled-out actor and he likes to interact with his crew. He likes to joke around, so he just said, ‘Agar tu picture banayega na, main usme acting karoonga.’ In fact, Shimit did make his first film with SRK but perhaps I wanted to become a good director before I made a film with him. I am still on good terms with SRK though. I keep coming to Mumbai and the last time I was there, I met him on the sets of his film Happy New Year.

How tough was it to start from scratch as a director in the South?

My first film Kurumbu did average business at the box office. But that was mainly because it released around the same time as Chandramukhi, a Rajinikanth film, and Anniyan, a film directed by Shankar. So it was overshadowed but it still ran for 176 days.

Was the average performance of that film the reason you had a tough time finding producers and a star cast for your next film?

Not really. The producer for my next film Arinthum Ariyamalum was Malaysian. They wanted some help with producing a film in India and I helped them. So they produced the film I was making. The film was a smash hit, despite being the debut of Aarya, who is now a Tamil superstar.

You have had a long association with Aarya and he has worked in almost all your films.

He is like a brother to me. When he started out, he was shooed away by so many directors who had told him he was not actor material. They advised that I make a film with actors like Surya, Karthi or Vijay, who were friends of mine. But stars have never excited me. Sometimes, a star can cost you your film. I feel you should cast an actor only if he justifies the story. When you have a big star on board, expectations soar and the focus of the story shifts to this big actor. I like to work with people with whom I share a great comfort level. Ajith and Aarya are some of the actors I share that equation with.

Your film Billa is one of the biggest hits down South and it’s a remake of Amitabh Bachchan’s Don. Why did you choose to remake such a cult classic?

I never wanted to make that film. It was actually Ajith’s idea. I had worked with Ajith in Asoka, where he played the villain opposite Shah Rukh. I had made two to three films in Tamil by then, and he met me and suggested that we make a film together. But I didn’t have a script ready. We kept meeting and one day he said, ‘Why don’t you remake Don?’ I straightaway told him if he was out of his mind!

Don was first made with Amitabh Bachchan in the lead. Then it was remade in Tamil with Rajinikanth. And by that time, Farhan Akhtar had also made another version with SRK in the lead. But Ajith convinced me to do it and, trust me, expectations from that film were rocket high! I was aware that comparisons would be made, but I decided to use a different kind of treatment. I shot the whole film abroad to focus solely on the film and luckily for me, the film rocked the box office.

Like Farhan Akhtar, you too had planned a sequel to the film. What happened to Billa 2?

That’s another story. When Farhan got to know I was planning to make Billa 2, he spoke to Sreekar Prasad, who is his editor. Sreekar had also worked with me. So one day he called me and said Farhan wanted to meet me. I came to Mumbai and Farhan asked me if I was making something similar to Don 2. But I told him my story was different. While Don 2 was a sequel, Billa 2 was supposed to be a prequel. But date issues put the film on the back burner. I don’t think I will ever make that film t because some things are best left untouched…

(Pauses) Or maybe I will make it in Hindi some day. But it definitely won’t be my debut Hindi film.

So you do have plans to make Hindi films?

Yes, I am meeting a few people. I will soon make an announcement after things are finalised.

Is that the reason you decided to collaborate with UTV for Yatchan?

No. Like I said, I have worked in Mumbai, so I mostly have to get in touch with my friends and my contacts. They wanted to make a film with me and when I told them the concept, they loved it. It’s an action comedy in the space of a Guy Ritchie film. It’s a slick flick. Disney as a producer is very hands-on and, like me, more than the stars they are interested in the concept of a film. They gave me my creative space and, as producers, they aren’t proposal makers, they are producers who are economically and creatively involved. They travel with you on location and don’t just sit in their air conditioned offices and conduct their work over the phone.

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