Director Suresh Krissna is an absolute delight to talk cinema with. Having worked with stars like Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi, Venkatesh, Nagarjuna, Mohanlal, Vishnuvardhan and Salman Khan — and having helmed cult classics like Sathya, Annamalai and Baashha which made him a force to reckon with — the filmmaker is a treasure trove of stories.
Last year, one of his less celebrated films, 2002’s Baba, was re-released to much fanfare. Now, Aalavandhan is all set to hit the screens once again after a digital makeover. Despite not amassing the acclaim it merited during its release in 2001, it has become a cult classic over the years, and Suresh says he can’t wait to see the film get the acclamation it rightfully deserves.
“The whole process of restoration and re-release effort has been done by Thanu sir. He’s been planning on doing this for a while. Baba had mixed reviews upon its release, but when it came out recently, the current generation of viewers enjoyed it. I’m sure Aalavandhan, which was once said to be ahead of its time, will also get a similar reception. I believe the psychological issues at the core of it will be understood better today,” says Suresh.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
Ahead of its time back then
Kamal Haasan sir is known for pushing the envelope and the story he had penned was not a routine one. Thanu sir supported that vision and we got motion control cameras, cutting-edge computer graphics that were done in Australia, and a stunt director from the US. We had so much input from other foreign technicians as well. The ideas and the topics broached in the film were quite new, so we did wonder about the acceptance rate. That’s a risk I’m used to; even Baasha didn’t have the regular screenplay that most of Rajini sir’s films had. The first half, for instance, had none of the elements people associate his films with. Touching a script like that was risky, but we also knew we were the first ones to do it and that brought a sense of joy.
A game of dice
When Thanu sir and Kamal sir decided to team up for a film, I wasn’t there in the picture. Thanu sir wanted to do something big and that’s when Kamal sir mentioned the novel ‘Dhayam’ that he had earlier written. When I got on board, what fascinated me the most were the dichotomy and the similarities between the two lead characters. Vijay is a trained animal who becomes a commando… whereas Nandu is just an animal. To jump onto a moving advertising balloon, Vijay would calculate the wind speed, distance and the speed at which he has to launch himself off a building. But Nandu would not care; he’d throw himself at it.
This thought and storyline interested me the most. Whenever Kamal sir writes a plot, it would be the pinnacle of perfection and in Aalavandhan, we can see it with the differences he brings between the two characters. Since the whole script was ready when I came aboard, the challenge was in translating it into a film.
Two sides of the same coin
Back in those days, even with the power of visual effects, we couldn’t bring in the desired physical changes between the two characters. So Kamal sir had to put on more muscles to play Nandu. The idea was to shoot the two characters separately and put them together. We started with the Vijay character and shot a long schedule in Delhi. We were supposed to shoot the Nandu portions after wrapping up the final shot that had Vijay hanging from atop a building on a rope. But a mishap during that shot caused a backbone injury to Kamal sir; he couldn’t even walk and we had to halt shooting for two months.
We had shot the first schedule between November and January in foggy conditions. But now, we were forced to return to Chennai, and by the time we started the next schedule, it was March. By then, Kamal sir was fit and even bulked up for the Nandu character. But the confinement set, where Nandu meets Vijay along with his fiancée Teju for the first time, and the other locations were shot in the Delhi winter. And Chennai, as always, was hot and humid. Thanu sir had to recreate all the locations as sets in Chennai, and as there weren’t air-conditioned sets at Prasad Studios, he brought in AC so the actors could wear winter clothes to maintain scene continuation.
Art director Samir Chanda meticulously recreated the confinement set to the exact measurements so that the motion control would do its playback correctly. The final terrace showdown, Nandu’s psychedelic trip on the street and theatre, and the ‘Africa Kaattu Puli’ song were all shot in sets recreated in Chennai. It was very difficult to match the portions of both characters seamlessly. The terrace fight, we matched it by shooting Nandu’s portions at Chennai’s Green Park hotel.
Even the scene where Nandu watches Vijay getting awarded at a military function was shot with just the Vijay character in a stadium filled with people. We got the place to shoot for just one day and the next day, we shot an empty stadium for reference. Thankfully, that came in handy later and we created the whole stadium as a set in Chennai. Technically, making Aalavandhan was one hell of a job (laughs). Only Thanu sir could have pulled off something like this!
Capturing the magic
The motion control camera aided in pulling off what we envisioned. Take the confinement cell scene for example; the final shot shows both the characters on two sides of the cell. The camera captures one character’s scene without the other one on the other side. The dialogues are pre-recorded and the camera movements are fixed according to the dialogue timings. So, once the movement is locked, the camera moves and captures based on the dialogue that’s synced. So using green matte, we shot the first character, and after months, we shot the other character; this was possible because the playback had measurements like the camera’s height, distance from the actors and the exact lens. We just had to place it in the position and it would do a playback.
Because we recreated the sets, the measurements had to be exact or the camera would not work. The other variables included the track’s distance from the actor, the distance between the camera and the jail bars, and lighting; also the actor had to mouth the lines precisely to the beat. Then, the raw files were sent to Australia where they were put together. The fact that we also had action within the scene — that featured Nandu sending a piece of rock as a projectile towards Teju — only made it more challenging. Cinematographer Tirru’s skills and his confidence with graphics made it possible to execute such sequences along with the efforts of the editor, sound effects and art director.
A cast and crew like no other
Right at the beginning, we decided to release the film in both Tamil and Hindi. Manisha Koirala had already worked with Kamal sir in Indian. Raveena Tandon was chosen as we wanted a fresh addition. Sarath Babu and Fathima Babu’s characters were replaced in Hindi and their scenes had to be reshot with another set of actors. Technician-wise, it was a first-time collaboration with quite a few of them but it boiled down to the fact that they were a talented bunch. Tirru had just proved his mettle with Hey Ram and Samir Chanda had already done many big films by then.
For music, we wanted someone who audiences from both Tamil and Hindi regions knew, and Shankar Mahadevan (of the musical trio Shankar–Ehsaan–Loy who composed the film’s music) was someone I introduced in my previous film Sangamam (‘Varaha Nadhikarayoram’ was his first Tamil song). He became famous in Hindi as well after that with albums like Kal Ho Naa Ho. Editor Kasi Viswanathan was a newbie and Kamal sir found him to be a good talent; with CG and two versions for most of the scenes, he did a fabulous job.
An idea that inspired Quentin Tarantino
The minute detailing was Kamal sir’s ideas. For example, the ‘Kadavul Paathi Mirugam Paathi’ song featured Nandu’s imaginary characters. So we couldn’t have dancers, but added extras in a Tai Chi sequence. The more we got into the depths of Nandu’s character, the more it evolved into something new. The idea of him being a caged animal waiting to be unleashed is the reason we had him naked and in chains in his introduction shot. The lighting and visuals made sure it wasn’t vulgar in any manner.
We wanted to show that he’s basically a child at heart who could get violent in a jiffy. That’s why there’s a scene where he sees a Chaplin sketch and steals ice cream from a child. The violent death of Sharmilee was in the script; she would hit Nandu with a belt as a sexual act but he’d get triggered because of his childhood memories and kill her. But we didn’t know how we were going to shoot it — the censors wouldn’t allow a scene depicting violence against women — so we had to come up with something innovative. I’m not sure if it was Crazy Mohan sir or Madhan sir who said that cartoons, even Tom & Jerry, are actually violent. That’s when the idea to animate the sequence came up and we had to create sketches, come up with a storyboard and send it to Australia to get it animated. It paid off when someone like Quentin Tarantino, one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers, said he got inspired by that sequence to shoot a scene in Kill Bill. It only makes us prouder!
Returning in style
It’s been more than 20 years since Aalavandhan was released and the film didn’t get the recognition it deserved at the time of its release. It is one of Kamal sir’s best films featuring one of the best performances of his career, and Thanu sir pulled off such a big budget project back in those days itself. We had put in so much effort for this film and my day will be made if today’s audiences celebrate it.
Aalavandhan is re-releasing in theatres worldwide on December 8