RJ Balaji: I’ve turned down 30 films in the last two years
Following his LKG coming out to positive reception, the writer-actor discusses the turns his life has taken in the last few years
RJ Balaji has had it with Twitter, with its negativity, with its toxicity. He hesitates a bit before citing the example of Soundarya Rajinikanth’s recent tweet about her holiday, and how it met with regressive messages and vile insults. “When a man remarries, nobody seems to have a problem,” he says. Curiously, this disgust for Twitter’s ways has not stopped him from utilising it to push his latest film — and his first as a lead actor, LKG.
“I may not believe in the platform anymore, but why shouldn’t I use it to promote my film?” he asks. “Why shouldn’t I use it to, say, collect money for a child’s surgery?” Even Shah Rukh Khan, he points out, launches his films’ trailers from Twitter India’s office (LKG’s release date was announced from here too). Balaji assures though that he will disappear again after his film’s run. He prefers the warmth of real life to the coldness of social media. “Recently, Mayilsamy sir (who’s done a role in LKG) asked me to go on a long drive giving away Rs 100 notes on the way,” he says. “I tried it once and found it to be deeply satisfying.”
How fascinating then that Twitter should play such a key role in his own rise in popularity, just a few years ago, following his participation in the Chennai floods rescue movement. “There was no great plan when people like Chinmayi, Siddharth, and I stepped out of our homes to make a difference,” he says. A year later, the famous Jallikattu protests happened, and this time, a video of Balaji’s rousing speech at the Marina beach went viral. “It was unprepared, and motivated by the energy and goodwill of the lakhs of youngsters out there,” he remembers. Barely days later, it all began to go wrong when the protests turned violent. He recalls feeling much regret and confusion. “For many days after, I kept asking myself if I could have said something that would have helped. I wanted to tell them that the protests had achieved their purpose, that it was time to go home, but the situation had escalated beyond control.”
During the following weeks, Balaji was almost convinced that people hated him, given the volume of abuse coming his way. “I learned how wrong I was when I travelled to places like Virudhunagar and Madurai, and got a standing ovation,” he says. “I realised that the IT wing of a party was behind all the abuse. I reached out to one of my connections there and asked why I was being targetted. The abuse stopped later that evening.” His big learning from those stressful days was to distance himself from issues too big for his intervention. He says he decided to walk away from being thought of as a leader, as a voice of Chennai’s youth. “I’m happy instead to be a messenger of goodwill,” he says. “I have a small group of followers, and I’d rather make a real difference to some issues.” When shooting in a village in interior Tamil Nadu, a boy had supposedly travelled 5 km to meet him. “He said one of my speeches got him reading newspapers,” he says. “That’s the sort of validation that keeps me going.”
He’d also decided a couple of years ago that he wouldn’t be tempted by the considerable number of ‘hero’s friend’ roles that were coming his way. “I must have turned down at least 30 feature films in the last two years,” he says. He’s tired of feeling under-valued, of coming up with an occasional witty one-liner in a situation that probably doesn’t even warrant it in the first place. “I loved Yogi Babu’s role in Aandavan Kattalai, Munishkanth’s in Mundasupatti and Maanagaram, but I have never been given such characters,” he says. Turning down as many films wasn’t easy at all, given the considerable money he was being offered for each project. “But if I’d done them all, I’d have likely earned the dislike of the people. Once that happens, there’s no turning back,” he says.
RJ Balaji is smart enough to get these things. He’s analytical, observant, and highly aware of his strengths and weaknesses. “I’m the first person to realise when something about my work isn’t working,” he says. He’s added a commentating sting with Star Sports, and a stand-up show to his ever-growing arsenal. It was by doing the latter that he got the confidence to write a political satire. “I’d already gained confidence as an actor after Naanum Rowdy Dhaan.” Once he decided to collaborate with his friends and write a script that would cater to his abilities as an actor, he made some key decisions.
“I wasn’t going to try and be a conventional hero,” he says. No extended gym time, no dancing and fighting lessons (not for this film anyway). He also didn’t want LKG to be a series of unconnected political gags. “I love the Tamizh Padam franchise. I shed tears of laughter watching Tamizh Padam 2, but if you asked me whether all the jokes had a strong thread to connect them all, I would say no. I didn’t want that in my film,” he explains. That’s why LKG takes its time introducing the life and motivations of Lalgudi Karuppiah Gandhi, the film’s anti-hero. “I could have easily used up four-five jokes from the hundreds we had readied for this film, but we wanted to give the audience some breathing time in the beginning,” he says.
Today, film reviews may be a dime a dozen, but the situation was quite different years ago, when he made a name for himself for his scathing reviews as an RJ. “I was the first to do it like that,” he says. Some of his biting reviews resulted in producers making unfriendly calls. I ask if he was worried that LKG may invite similar responses from politicians. “It’s a film birthed after much research. It doesn’t take sides and is a well-meaning story. I don’t see them having a problem with it,” he says, and goes on to attribute the increasing number of such films to public sentiment over the state of politics today. LKG offers a solution to this malady, but Balaji goes to pains that it isn’t by compulsion: “Films with a message are often praised for being ‘good films’, but we brought in a message at the end of LKG because it organically fit.”
The general response to the film has been positive, and Balaji hopes to build on the momentum and write more stories for himself. “I may not be able to make the sort of political films that a Raju Murugan does, but I think I can create unique stories that aren’t being told today.” He also clarifies that he isn’t in pursuit of stardom. “In any case, people approach me for selfies. Doesn’t that mean I’m a star already?”