Director CS Amudhan’s life, in hindsight, was a preparation for what he would become. He was a keen observer, and irreverent from as early as he can remember. His first published piece in the newspaper, the Letters To The Editor column of The Hindu, left his parents bittersweet. He was in Class 7, a student of Loyala Matriculation, Kodambakkam, where his mother was the vice-principal. He’d gone to the local medical shop where he saw a pack of Nirodh condoms. At the rear of the pack, was the line ‘Exclusively For The Government Of India’. “I wrote asking what did they mean by it,” laughs Amudhan, adding: “My first instinct has always been to do anything that will create an impact, shock people, but creatively.”
The year was 2001, and a new anthem was in the making in Tamil Nadu. Advertising professional CS Amudhan had taken along a singer-friend to acquaintance Harris Jayaraj’s studio, where he was asked to suggest someone to write English rap for a ready tune. Amudhan offered to try, and in 20 minutes, he completed the song with the line, “This guy’s on some fire, object of desire,” to be shot on an actor who had the State in a sway since 1999’s Alaipaayudhe. ‘Maddy, Maddy’ from Gautam Vasudev Menon’s Minnale effectively ensured that no one was going to forget Madhavan, on whom it was filmed, in a hurry.
Amudhan would carve a place for himself years later, in 2010, with the release of Tamizh Padam, a full-length spoof that took every popular trope in Tamizh cinema, turned it on its head, and made you even forget the original! With the release of its sequel set for July, the team is waiting to see how the world will react to the spoof at a time when the internet is bursting with memes and the world is a far different place than 2010.
Edited excerpts from an interview with Amudhan.
How difficult is it to make a spoof?
A lot of hard work. The team has a great bond and we can do this in our sleep, but we are having a great time as we shoot. That spills over on screen too. Also, we don’t treat this as a comedy film or a B-grade film. A lot of thought goes into crafting the frames, writing well, and good production values. I’m very careful, we should not be seen as frivolous. This is a serious attempt which, thanks to the content, continues to look fresh and contemporary.
Do you ever rein yourself in when writing? Is there a thing called too much irreverence?
That does happen, occasionally. Not a lot, though, because the producers are friends of mine, and there’s no generational or cultural gap. We are thematically of the same mindset. Sashikanth (the producer) knows me and that’s the very reason he asked me, and we are doing the film.
‘Mirchi’ Shiva and yours look like a partnership made in a happy place. What’s your relationship like?
The reason why Shiva is such a great fit for this film is because you can never really get angry with him. His humour is very different from mine; it’s all about timing and being goofy. I think we complement each other well. He mouths my lines with his ‘baby face’ (yes, go ahead and write that; I don’t think he will object), and so, I get away with many lines that might otherwise seem offensive.
Did you ever expect to make a sequel on the same lines?
Yes, I knew that Tamizh Padam had the scope to be a franchise. But, I was very reluctant to do a spoof again. Those were all the scripts I was getting. I preferred to wait. Luckily, I do not earn my livelihood from cinema; I could afford to say no. And since my Rendaavadhu Padam is still in the cans, this happens to be my second release.
Writing a spoof is a fine art. How do you strike a balance between getting inspired by a movie and making fun of it?
The idea is to get inspired by the original but not sully its image. I don’t think we have the right to make fun of Thalapathy or Nayagan, simply because we have not reached that level of finesse. I merely work with the so-called ‘top of the mind recall’ scenes, so I don’t have to explain what’s going on. I can have a shot of someone in a veshti walking into a hospital and asking “Ramana Enge” to show it’s Thalapathy. It’s that iconic. Some material does not age well, which is why the classics end up giving life to spoofs.
With spoofs, is it not difficult to sustain interest after a certain point?
Writing wise, with TP, there was feedback that the village portions were not as engaging. But, I really wanted to do that. The guy in the village describes it as a place that has fallen to ruin after being a thriving space where filmmakers such as Bharathirajaa, Gangai Amaren and Kasthuriraja shot their movies... It was a throwback to the golden age of rural cinema.
In this film, which I think will be about 220 minutes, I’ve worked hard to make it an immersive theatrical experience. We should give you a bonus for paying money and coming to watch it in a theatre. There won’t be a set of gags strung together. It’s bigger than a ‘joke’ film.
Can you go back in time to the instant when you thought TP was movie material?
We were in a bad place financially when I thought of the idea. My ad agency had to shut shop in Dubai and Chennai, following the market crash there, and I decided to do a spoof for television. But, Lollusabha was doing well, and I dropped that idea. My then business partner Jayaraj thought a full-length spoof feature might work.
One morning, I woke up with the idea of village where they killed male children, because they would otherwise go to Chennai and enter the movie industry. I started writing; the scene of the cycle pedal being used to signify the passage of time… Sashikanth was a common friend and we decided to make a movie of it. I happened to become the director.
Your sophomore project Rendaavadhu Padam still awaits release. Directors often speak of how this wait is among the most painful. How do you deal with that?
It is very, very difficult. Every time I tweet anything, be it politics or cricket, the first question that pops up is about the movie. As a director, I’ve done my job and it has been censored too. It is up to the producers to release it. Frankly, it is a painful wait. When TP happened, I was the toast of town, and then when such things happen, you tend to drop off the radar. As much as you don’t want it to hurt you, it does. What upsets most is that you know you have something that will bring you back, but it is not being released. It’s a very easy road to depression. You have to do all you can to not cave in. I feel bad for the hundreds of people who worked on it. I recovered by writing advertisement campaigns, shooting commercials… they kept me sane.
Are you worried it might get dated?
I hope not. A joke or two might go over people’s heads, but it will be pretty entertaining. I hear they might release it, riding on TP 2.
One of the calling cards of the original was the song ‘O Maha Zeeya’. What’s going to be special in TP 2?
There are a million more words in gibberish now, but we’ve already done that; so, it’s time for something new. I still remember how we came up with ‘O Maha Zeeya’, I’d requested music director Kannan to create a melody and decided to focus on all the words that Harris Jayaraj and Vijay Antony had added to our lexicon. These words were asking to be laughed at. Everyone wondered how a song with no meaning would sound. Kannan had created this lovely tune and imagined it as a love song. He was depressed with my idea. I knew the song had to be produced well, with artistes singing like their life depended on it. Hariharan and Shweta Mohan were roped in. And, while he got the spirit of the song and did not laugh one bit, Shweta could not stop laughing. And, just before we were to record, I attended the audio launch of Aadhavan, where they played ‘Hasili Fisili’. I ran back to add those two words!
You’ve travelled with certain people during your movie journey…
There’s Sashikanth, and editor Suresh, who is more like a brother to me. I remember asking to work with a seasoned editor, since I was new. But, he did so well and he’s an integral part of my life and family. Composer Kannan is back with us on the film too, and it’s like old friends getting back together.
From your columns in the newspaper (for The Times Of India), it is apparent you fiercely guard one’s right to speech and opinion. Have you ever found a conflict between that and being a filmmaker?
I’ve so far not worked on scripts where ethical questions have risen. When I started thinking of myself as a director, I thought I should get an Oscar by 35, doing life-altering films. That said, the films I will be doing post TP 2, will see me traversing different paths. One is a fun film with a big hero, and the other is an anthology about clinical depression, something along the lines of Wild Tales. I feel very strongly about mental health and the need to raise awareness about it. But, in a way, that film too has light moments. I don’t want to be typecast as a maker of spoofs.
I’m glad I found a producer to bankroll the anthology. A possible challenge is people coming in to watch a film that is not full of jokes, and not feeling let down by that.
Luckily for me, I don’t have dreams of directing big stars and moving to the next level. I want to work in a space where I can do what I want to, and pull off a film within a decent budget, a genre-bender. I quite like the kind of films being made in Kerala these days. They are deeply sensitive creations.
What’s the kind of audience a spoof might draw?
Honestly, if you go by social media responses, it’s young males who are picking up references, and coming up with some when none exist. That said, during TP, I realised that quote a few families were coming in. So, I think that everyone can enjoy a spoof, but if you get the nuances, it’s a heightened experience. Fans are able to make the link even if I show just the top of someone’s head!
Does your team of assistants help in the ideating process? And, is there are female perspective there?
At the moment, we are an all-male team. I had a fantastic associate Yuga, who’s gone to Caltech on a scholarship. I would love to hire more women; they bring in a unique perspective. While we might not need it in TP2, we will need the female gaze for our other films. And yes, I got ribbed when I published the last-day-of-shoot photo with a team full of men. I’m asked if I am a fake liberal, but the truth is that there are simply not enough female applicants.