Balaji Mohan: ‘Don’ning the zany hat
We talk to the director, whose latest film Maari 2 was released last week, about the conversational humour and realistic romance in his films, and about creating ‘the naughtiest don of Tamil cinema'
The first short film Balaji Mohan ever shot, was in his own room, with a handycam he had just received as a gift and was eager to try out. “Instead of just shooting a video, why not write a story and shoot it?” he thought. Titled Velicham, it was a one-man show about a suicide counsellor, written, acted and edited by him, which then reached several competitions. In one such competition, where Balu Mahendra was on the judging panel, Velicham won a special mention. And that was Balaji Mohan’s cue to get out of engineering and into the world of cinema.
After three feature films and a web series, the young director has made a name for himself — one that is synonymous with wry humour, breezy romances, and quirky narratives. “I have always enjoyed humour. It is a case of what you enjoy seeping into what you write. I would like to have some kind of humour no matter the genre I attempt, whether its dark or wry or slapstick; because I like watching it.”
A huge fan of Woody Allen’s conversational writing, Balaji is also known to break the fourth wall quite often in his films. “Whenever I can, and whenever it is relevant, I try to do it. But it can only be done if all of us are confident about it — the writing and the acting.” Maari 2 has a similar sequence. “It is a very small part, but I wanted to do it in a commercial film. We can only do it with characters that are audacious.”
Another recurring aspect of Balaji’s films is his penchant for memorable punchlines. “I don’t intend to write punchlines, but I like hearing them from multiple sources, be it Woody Allen, stand-up comedians or Rajinikanth himself. The idea is, if you can represent your story or a scene in a punchline, it becomes a way of remembering the story for people. That is the power of dialogue.” Which is why, he says, all classics have a famous dialogue or quote that remains fresh in our minds. “I have grown up enjoying Rajini’s punchlines and I wanted these to be part of my films as well. It should be organic enough to be part of a conversation, but effective enough to be a memorable dialogue.”
The Maari franchise was an attempt to recalibrate Balaji’s image, with a commercial venture. With a USP of ‘the naughtiest don’, the first instalment was praised for Maari’s devil-may-care attitude but also elicited criticism for its ineffective villain and perfunctory romance angle. Balaji says they wanted to be sure that Maari 2 would iron out those shortcomings of the first film and proceeded only after the script was exciting for them. “I started writing Maari 2 with Beeja’s character; he sets the story in motion. Maari’s attitude makes it tough to create a roadblock for him, which is where the other characters come in. They drive Maari to a goal and they all have their own stories.”
In retrospect, Balaji feels that he could have accommodated a few of the things he has done with Maari 2 in the first film as well. “I would maybe do things differently with Vaayai Moodi Pesavum and Maari, if I were to do them now. For instance, VMP was initially planned as an almost silent film. I would probably keep it that way and also emphasise on a few things that were subtle in the film, even at the risk of being over-dramatic.”
Balaji is one of the few directors who has made a project in all three mediums — short films, feature films, and a web series. Interestingly, he says that a short film is the toughest to pen. “The difference between the three mediums only lies in the writing process. The story should naturally be conducive to the medium it is being made for. If you try to fit a story into a medium that is not for it, it will naturally become more difficult.” He reveals that As I am Suffering From Kaadhal was originally conceived as a feature film. “But as I was writing, I realised it wasn’t fair to cram it into a feature film and that the episodic nature of a web series would be apt to tell all their stories convincingly.”
With Maari 2 out, the question of ‘what next’ looms ahead for the filmmaker. Though nothing is set in stone, Balaji tells us he aspires to do a film that experiments heavily with the screenplay structure. “I want to write a screenplay that breaks the templates we have in place; a couple of the scripts I have already are in that space. But I am not sure. I have a murder mystery, an ambitious big-scale film, and a quirky off-beat story, which are all exciting.”