Ask Udhayanidhi Stalin how he got into cinema, and he will inform you that you’re trying to dig up a seven year old story. Udhay began with a cameo in Adhavan (2009), his own production. Later, in 2012, he chanced across Oru Kal Oru Kannadi. The film was a breezy bromance with his trusted aide Santhanam, and the audience loved it. But when his next two films followed the same template, the formula lost its appeal. Audiences thought he was being repetitive. Udhay frankly agrees, “I was bored too! That is why I did a film like Gethu this year. It was an all-out action film. And now we have Manithan. This is a serious film, but also has comedy, which is integral to the script.”
We’re in his office. Udhay is flanked by the technicians who worked on Manithan. There’s also director Ahamed, who gave us the memorable Endrendrum Punnagai in late 2013. The duo had planned to do a film called Idhayam Murali, but the project stalled due to budget constraints. “I chose to remake the Jolly LLB script because it was a story that needed to be told. We discussed this, and the project took off,” says Ahamed.
Tamil cinema is no stranger to high-octane courtroom scenes in a film’s climax, with landmark (read: improbable) judgements. But courtroom drama is still a new genre. Ahamed emphatically assures us that the team has done enough research to make the film as realistic as possible.
“We had a reference point: Jolly LLB itself. Other than that, I personally visited a lot of courts, in Chennai as well as in a few towns. I have blended whatever I saw into the film, making it very realistic. At the same time, this is not a movie about lawyers or how courts work. The focus is on the case involved. So the core of the film is humanity. That’s why the film is called Manithan [human being].”
Whenever a film is being remade into another language, the phrase ‘changes made to suit the audience’ is bandied about. Manithan too, has some visible changes, including the addition of some crucial characters. We ask Ahmed whether the changes were motivated by commercial requirements.
Ahmed says, “The original is more of a satirical comedy. When I saw the film, I thought some additions and changes could be made to enhance the emotional content of the story, to make it appeal to a larger audience. The addition of Hansika, for example, might stand out, but it blends well with the script. Hansika has been given a dramatic makeover in the film. She isn’t just the ‘bubbly’ girl. Rather, she plays a dignified woman with strong values. Everything from her look and clothes to her dialogues will show her in new light.” Udhay chips in, “Yes, Hansika’s character will be one of the highlights of the film.”
Santhanam and Harris Jayaraj have been quintessential elements in Udhaynidhi Stalin’s films. For the first time, his film doesn’t have either of them on board. We ask him why.
Udhay laughs, “I did miss Santhanam. But yes, we have Vivek in a crucial role. He was initially apprehensive about doing the film, as this character was not in the original. But his role has great scope. He is an intelligent actor and that really shows in his timing. When the film gets too serious, his scenes will be a relief for the audience.”
Ahamed adds, “Santhosh Narayanan is one of those rare musicians who is not bound by the commercial aspects of a film. He goes all guns blazing and gives us out-of-the-box tunes that are always fresh to hear. Moreover, he is also tech savvy. We used to have composing sessions over Skype!”
Udhay though has a complaint: he never got to dance in the film. This, despite having improved on that front through his previous films. His director is quick to point out, “The character doesn’t need to dance. It would’ve looked very odd if he did.”
Udhayanidhi admits that Prakash Raj’s rendition of the role Boman Irani’s played in the original was so good, it was intimidating.
“I was dumbfounded with the way he performed, with how powerfully he said his lines. I even told Prakash sir that he would steal the limelight if he kept this up. But Radha Ravi, who plays the judge, came up to me and said: there’s no reason to fear another actor, no matter who he is. ‘He is doing his job, you must do yours,’ he told me. He encouraged me, and said that I was a realistic performer. In fact, more than any of us, Radha Ravi is excited about the film,” says Udhay.
There’s a lot of camaraderie between the actor and the director. It begs the question, what was it like for Ahamed to direct a lead actor who was also the film’s producer?
Ahamed laughs, “He didn’t have any tension to worry about. It was all on me. Normally, if an actor doesn’t perform well, there are some ‘less-pleasant’ ways to put forth opinions, right? But I couldn’t do that, because he was my producer!” He adds with a smile, “But no, he is a very sweet producer, who made sure I had everything that I needed to complete the film smoothly.”
Manithan releases on April 29.