My conversation with Atlee, as his Vijay-starrer Theri looks set for an April 14 release
Just a couple of weeks now. You must be pretty nervous.
I am. This is exactly how I used to feel writing my public examinations.
Did you feel the same on the eve of Raja Rani’s release?
Yes, but I am a bit more nervous now. If those were tenth board exams, these are twelfth. But I’ve done my best; now, the audience has to evaluate my work.
You’ve said that Vijay plays a dashing role aimed at fans, and an emotional one aimed at family audiences. You seem to have tailored the script to suit his image.
I disagree. I came up with a one-liner, and I immediately knew that it needed a star. As an assistant director to Shankar, I’ve worked with the Superstar (Enthiran) and Vijay annan (Nanban). For Theri, I thought Vijay would be perfect. As soon as I told him the one-liner, he agreed. I completed the script without compromises.
What about the role of Joseph Kuruvilla, who is rumoured to speak a bit of Malayalam. Is this to pander to Vijay’s huge fan-following in Kerala?
(Laughs) No! I’ve always loved Kerala. Even in the ‘Chillena’ song in Raja Rani, I’d used Malayalam lines. Vijay annan’s fan presence in Kerala is simply a bonus.
Were you offered any guarantees that he’d do the film when you returned to him with the finished script?
Of course not. I had to expand the one-liner into a good story, I had to go back to him and narrate the whole script, and discuss any possible changes he wanted … even then, a director can never be sure till shooting begins. I didn’t tell anybody about it.
I got offers both in Tamil and Telugu. People close to me were getting annoyed that I was turning them down. But I knew I wanted only this.
Why not? I want to make films in Hindi too; eventually, I want to make a pan-Indian film. I want to do a film like Baahubali. Theri is a step in that direction.
The father-daughter angle (between Sathyaraj and Nayantara) was especially appreciated in Raja Rani. There seems to be a similar angle here too.
I’ve always been an emotional person. When I’m on the road, the sight of beggars really affects me. I find myself unable to think of anything for a long time. Raja Rani came about because I heard people telling me about the alarming number of divorces around them.
In Theri, I talk about an issue even more fundamental: the existence of evil. In my neighbourhood, for instance, a woman’s chain was snatched recently, but worse, she fell, hurt her head and slipped into a coma. I believe that if parents raise their children well, no person will be motivated to do evil.
Not even if they were starving?
No. The child who’s encouraged by his dad to pick up a fight with his friends is the same one who becomes prone to violence later in life. It’s all upbringing. Theri is about that.
Is this Shankar talking?
(Laughs) From Shankar sir, I’ve gained a lot of technical knowledge, like how to use colours, how to make films look grand… I believe that every creator should spread positive thoughts. Can you imagine the impact Theri’s message will have on the millions who adore Vijay annan, and of course, the small group who are my fans? Films should be more than just about entertainment and glamour.
While on the topic of glamour, you’ve got two heroines, Samantha and Amy Jackson.
Amy plays a school teacher, while Samantha, who appears only after the first 30 minutes, plays a doctor. We worked extensively on Amy’s makeover. We asked ourselves how this obviously British girl could be made to fit into our story.
Why try so hard? Couldn’t you have chosen somebody else?
We considered many actresses from Kerala. But they lacked freshness. I really liked Amy in I, and thought she’d be perfect as Vijay annan’s pair. We decided to give her an anglo-Indian look.
Twitter’s reception to her look seems divided.
Wait till they see the film. We’ve made her appear angelic; that’s how teachers appear to students. The emphasis will not be on glamour. You’ll walk out of the theatre respecting her character.
You worked with Vijay during the making of Nanban. Theri must have been quite a different experience.
When I was assisting Shankar sir, I was trying to reduce his workload—explaining shots, setting up a scene. There was a lot of time for chit-chat in between shots. But here, I was the director, and was always worried about things that could go wrong. There was little time to engage in casual talk.
Vijay was the same. He was sincere and accommodating. It was because of him that we were able to make Nainika (child actress and Meena’s daughter) act so well.
It is often said that a director has only truly arrived after he’s extracted a good performance out of a child.
(Laughs) I agree. It was a demanding experience. We had to plan our shoots around her; she is a child, after all. But thankfully, as I learned during the shooting, children have sensational grasping power. Now and then, of course, she’d say, “Can I do this scene tomorrow?” Or “I’m feeling sleepy. No second shot.”
Rumour has it that Nazriya’s portion, in Raja Rani, was drawn from your life. Any such autobiographical elements in Theri?
Yes, that portion was partly inspired by my own love story when I was in college.
As for Theri, it is about an ideal father… so, yes, I guess, as this is the sort of father I think I’ll be when I have a child.
This interview was written for The Hindu. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share this review.