I can never be like Shankar: Atlee
With Mersal all set for release, Atlee opens up on why he considers Vijay to be his lucky charm
Mersal has had its share of trouble. The Madras High Court had issued an interim stay on the usage of its title before eventually dismissing the case. The multiplex strike then threatened to affect the film's release. And finally, there was some issue regarding the procurement of an NOC from the Animal Welfare Board as well. The advance bookings have been opened though, and director Atlee has no doubts about the film getting its Diwali release. "We're releasing it as originally planned. Our team is working towards that," he says.
The director isn't ruffled by all these extraneous issues. "My primary concern is that the film should appeal to all sections of the audience. Every scene has been structured keeping that in mind," he adds.
It's the second time he's teaming up with Vijay after Theri, which Atlee remembers being very apprehensive about. "I didn't know how audiences would react to it. They'd seen only Raja Rani. Now, I know better about what they want. Mersal will be a notch higher than Theri in terms of everything -- appeal, story treatment, dialogues... The challenge was in figuring out how to present Vijay differently. I am supremely confident of the film," he smiles.
Atlee compares directing a mass film to playing a T20 match. "Last five overs dhan irukku. You need to win the game. There's no other go," he says. "I can't cheat the audience with just anna's (Vijay) heroism. I need a good story. Mersal has that." He believes that commercial films should appeal to the elite audiences too. "I've consciously strived to achieve that with my script, " he says.
The spark for Mersal came as he was working on another script. "After Theri, I started writing scripts, and this idea occurred to me. It's a new genre. Suddenly, I thought of one shot and shared it with my team and Vijayendra Prasad. They told me it was fantastic. The scripting was then completed in 45 days," he says.
He thanks Vijayendra Prasad for being a huge pillar of support. "I approached him after seeing Bajrangi Bhaijaan. He has an amazing sense of humour and a great presence of mind. When I see him, I get reminded of stalwarts like Sujatha (Rangarajan) and Balakumaran. Such people understand what the audience wants, and know how to write a script that sells," he says.
He wasn't the only writing contributor. "We also had Ramana Girivasan, the Vice President of a popular TV channel, writing the screenplay with us. He also worked with me on Theri," Atlee says. Vijay had three looks in that film, and in Mersal too, it's being said that he's playing a triple role. What's this fascination with the number 3? Atlee laughs. "It can be one, three, or four roles. But there are three get-ups, for sure. I don’t conceive these characters with predetermined ideas. I do what the story demands. That's the core of a film."
Some have said the film's about a policeman. Some have suggested that it's about Jallikattu. But Atlee denies both. "It's the story of a common man. Vijay anna's films usually address a social issue. Theri was about good parenting. But the film had other things too. The same has been done here," he says. "The concept is completely apolitical, but is something that impacts society. We've all progressed a lot, but are missing out on some things. The story's about that."
Atlee looks for stories everywhere. "Newspapers, television... My story has to be credible. When I wrote Raja Rani, I thought it should be like Alaipayuthey and VTV. For Mersal, I didn't have any such graph. I was worried only about bringing in the three dimensions of Vijay together in a film."
Mersal also has three female lead characters. "I'd not call them heroines," he says. "Nithya Menen's role is high on emotional quotient. Samantha provides humour relief, and Kajal Aggarwal's portions will be breezy and classy."
Being a former assistant of Shankar, Atlee's films naturally find some inspirations in his master's work. "If somebody tells me Mersal's is like a Shankar film, I'll be overjoyed. He is a visionary, who has remained at the top of Tamil cinema for the last 25 years. I can only dream of directing films of his quality. I can never be him," he says.
Atlee is a self-confessed fan of Vijay and thinks it's essential to be able to write a script that suits the star. "Very few directors get to work with actors they idolise. I consider myself lucky to have directed him for the second time. He's more than a brother to me. He's my lucky charm. I may also team up with him for the third time after this film," he says.
AR Rahman's soundtrack album has come out to mixed reviews, but Atlee points out that the songs are a hit. "Working with him was a dream come true. He made me feel very comfortable. Right from Alaporaan Thamizhan, Neethanae, Maacho to Mersal Arasan, the entire album has become popular and topped all FM playlists. In recent times, no other album has had a reach like Mersal."
Atlee is excited to show the audience the magic portions in the film. "Vijay anna is a quick learner. Another actor may have taken at least six months to learn the magic tricks. But he did it in 10 or 12 minutes. I can't reveal anything more, but all of us learned about illusion tricks."
He thinks the title is perfect. "It will suit the mood of the story. Ovvoru scene-um summa mersal-a irukkum. Goosebumps guaranteed for Vijay fans!"