Sudha Kongara (left) and the cast, Akshay Kumar and Radhika Madan, having a light moment on the sets of Sarfira
Sudha Kongara (left) and the cast, Akshay Kumar and Radhika Madan, having a light moment on the sets of Sarfira

Sarfira director Sudha Kongara: Soorarai Pottru’s Hindi dub is extraordinarily bad

National Award-winning director Sudha Kongara speaks about the need for a Hindi remake, working again with Paresh Rawal, and how Soorarai Pottru can be the story of any Indie filmmaker

In 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic was raging, the theatrical release of Soorarai Pottru was stalled. The Suriya-starrer, based on the inspiring story of GR Gopinath who founded India’s first low-cost airline, Simplify Deccan, made a soft landing on OTT. However, it still made an impact and bagged five National Film Awards, including Best Feature and Best Screenplay, for its director Sudha Kongara. The high of a theatrical release was still elusive. Four years later, the National Award-winning film has been remade in Hindi as Sarfira, starring Akshay Kumar, vying for theatrical applause amidst a wider audience.

We speak to Sudha about the need for remaking a film in Hindi when a dubbed version is already available on OTT, why she went with Akshay for the role, working again with Paresh Rawal and the caste nuances of the Tamil original.

Excerpts:

Q

Back in 2020, Soorarai Pottru couldn’t get a theatrical release because of the pandemic. After four years, it must be something to finally get this story out in theatres in the form of Sarfira

A

Oh, I am so happy and excited. Sarfira was a completely new experience for me. Although Soorarai…is streaming on OTT, Sarfira felt like a completely new release and I never got the feeling that I was doing a remake. I have waited very long to see it in theatres and for people to enjoy it in a community viewing setting. Watching a film on the big screen is an experience, something which OTT can’t exactly provide.

Q

With Soorarai Pottru’s Hindi dub available online, don’t you think it will affect Sarfira’s footfalls in theatres?

A

I am sorry if I am hurting anybody’s sentiments but Soorarai Pottru’s Hindi version is so extraordinarily badly dubbed. In fact, the entire story has been changed. I watched 19 minutes of it and had to shut it off because I realized it felt like a different film. Having said that, I am looking for audiences who enjoy seeing a spectacle film and an emotional film on the big screen. The penetration of OTT is still limited, so there are many people in Tamil Nadu and also up North who haven’t yet seen Soorarai Pottru.

Q

Is a Hindi remake only for commercial viability and to get a wider audience or do you get to do something creatively different as well?

A

Making a remake is a difficult process when the original thing is already a success. So now, as a director, one has to make sure that it’s a different product but can still achieve the same level. So, what do you do? Sarfira is set in Maharashtra while Soorarai is set in Tamil Nadu. I had to learn a different milieu and a different culture and I am trying my level best to not goof up (laughs). We got Maharashtrians to read the script and correct the dialect and the cultural references. And when you have new actors, you are working with a different kind of energy, there are different interpretations for the characters. Moreover, their real-life personas change the way they bring up the characters. Like Suriya is intense and quiet while Akshay is completely the opposite.

Q

What made you go for Akshay Kumar?

A

It’s pretty simple. It was about art but also about commerce. He is a great actor but he is also a big star who could get me budgets. The real challenge was to make this big star seem believable as an ordinary man who is out to try and achieve something extraordinary. I think Akshay sir’s Pad Man (2018) paved the way. I still remember a scene from the film where his character finally makes a makeshift pad. I was sitting in a theatre in Chennai and I teared up. He felt so real. At that moment, I thought here is a man who is not up on a pedestal. Hence, we went with him.

Q

Are there any differences in the characters of Nedumaaran Rajangam aka “Maara” in Soorarai… and Veer Mhatre in Sarfira?

A

I don’t think the characters can be different because both are drawn from the personality of GR Gopinath. He is very short-tempered and pretty impatient with people who can’t keep up with him intellectually. I put these characteristics in both Maara and Veer, however, both Akshay and Suriya approached them very differently.

Q

Interestingly, Paresh Rawal plays the capitalistic villain Paresh Goswami in both the Tamil and Hindi versions…

A

I think he had a blast doing the Hindi one, while he was completely miserable doing the Tamil version (laughs). On the sets of Soorarai… like a schoolboy, he used to get happy after executing a scene. “I finished my lines; I got that. I got that!,” after every scene he used to exclaim to his co-actors. He was playing somebody from up north so he didn’t have to speak much Tamil but language was still a challenge for him in Soorarai… In the scene on the flight where he meets Suriya’s Maara for the first time, Paresh sir was so nervous, that he got a fever. I think playing a character in a different language can be difficult for an actor.

Q

While rewatching Soorarai… for this interview, I realized that the film’s story is such a metaphor for filmmakers. Here is a guy who wants to fulfill his vision at a lower cost and things fall apart every day. In another universe, Gopinath might be an Indie filmmaker. Did this ever occur to you while making the film?

A

I was actually living that metaphor (laughs). When we were making Soorarai…biopics were considered a bad word. It was being said that they don’t run in multiplexes. Moreover, this was a story of a man trying to build his own airline. And a lot of times I thought to myself: “Frankly, who cares”. Yes, for a Tamil film, we had a good budget because a star was associated with it, yet we were racing to finish it at a lesser cost and on time because not many people had trust in it. It wasn’t a regular mainstream film. All the emotions I was going through during the making, I put all of that into the film.

Q

Paresh Rawal’s character in Soorarai doesn’t only feel classist but also casteist. The first time he meets Maara, he sanitises his hands after shaking his. Hindi cinema, unlike its southern counterparts, has been cagey when it comes to criticisms of the caste system on the big screen. How did you navigate this in Sarfira?

A

I think Paresh Goswami, as a character, is a man who is prone to anxiety attacks and has OCD, that’s why he vociferously keeps washing his hands. This is in both films. I don’t know if it’s about…it’s more about, like he says, why should somebody who has never flown before, who he considers “dirty” and “not well dressed”, fly with people who can afford the luxury.

Q

Even subtly, wasn’t Soorarai Pottru trying to critique not just the class system but also the caste system?

A

No, I don’t think so. I think in both films (Soorarai and Sarfira), in every film, if you are looking for layers they are there, if you are looking for nuances, they are there.

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