AR Murugadoss: Petta was instrumental in Darbar getting made

The director talks about why he always wanted to work with Rajinikanth in this conversation about their upcoming film, Darbar, that’s all set for release on Thursday
AR Murugadoss: Petta was instrumental in Darbar getting made

With Rajinikanth’s career in its twilight, every new collaboration of his is worthy of discussion, every film he does, a milestone unto itself. Murugadoss’ name has been regularly bandied about, every time the invariable question of the Superstar’s next project has come up. Rumours particularly intensified a few years ago, but then the actor opted for a makeover and went with Pa Ranjith for two films, Kabali and Kaala. Murugadoss’ name continued to remain strong among directorial contenders though. You can see why his cinema lends itself to the star status of the actor. Films he has made—like Ramana, Thuppakki and Kaththi—have, at their centre, featured male protagonists defined by their superhuman capacity to take on a system. This idea of a single man taking on something as amorphous and invincible as an evil system is, right up the alley of an actor like Rajinikanth who has cut his teeth playing a saviour. And now, after many years, Murugadoss finally gets his turn to show what we can do with a seemingly ageless actor. Here’s the director himself discussing why he is a fan of the superstar, why he thinks it’s okay to depict violent cops, and why he’s grateful that Petta got made.

Excerpts from a conversation:

For years now, your name has come up in rumours concerning Rajinikanth’s future films. You also shared recently that you were even willing to work on a Chandramukhi sequel, if it meant you could do a film with the actor. Is it fair to say this is an item in your bucket list?

Yes. I grew up awed by his films. During the 80s and 90s, you typically had to choose between being a Rajini fan and a Kamal fan. I noticed that those who were fairer in appearance typically chose to be Kamal fans; those like me usually gravitated towards Rajinikanth. Looking back, I guess it’s because people like us saw ourselves in him. Rajinikanth is a phenomenon. The cinema industry has gone through radical changes over the decades, and he’s been a constant.

You spoke about dark skin. I’d like to talk about a different sort of darkness, of the metaphorical sort, in the characterisation of your protagonists. In films like Ramana, Dheena, Ghajini, and why, even in your last film, Sarkar, the protagonist seems convinced that the end justifies the means. In the trailer of Darbar, Rajinikanth’s character, Aditya Arunachalam, refers to himself as a ‘bad cop’, ‘a villain’… One character even dubs him a murderer.

I think the audience has grown out of main characters being depicted as poster boys of goodness. In yesteryear cop films, like say, Sivaji Ganesan’s Thanga Pathakkam (1974), the hero could be shown only doing good, and at all times, being in duty. If he were wearing a police uniform and his child called him ‘appa’, he would rebuke him and ask to be called ‘sir’. Imagine if I tried something like that today. I prefer that my lead characters have more shades, that they are more realistic. They are not bad people though, mind you. They are good people who do their good in bad ways.

Typically, the hero of a Murugadoss film, like is the case in our cinema generally, is a young man around his thirties. For perhaps the first time, in your last film, Sarkar, we saw an older man, one whose facial hair betrayed a hint of grey. Can you talk about the determination of age of your hero, in the context of you doing a film with Rajinikanth?

As you said, Sarkar was the first time my hero looked as old. We needed a reference for the character and as the character was an NRI who owned an IT company, I suggested that we model the appearance on Sundar Pichchai. Vijay sir takes these references quite seriously. For Darbar, I was surprised by how energetic Rajinikanth was during our meetings. Before I met him, I was willing to increase the age of his character. After meeting him though, I ended up reducing it.

And yet, he managed to surprise us with his energy on the sets. He was more animated and expressive than I had imagined. This motivated us to write more scenes that would play to his style. Many of his trademark stylish gestures you see in this film were those he did instinctively.

Were you anxious when he began doing Kabali and Kaala, films in which he played characters closer to his age? His last film, Petta, which featured him in a younger character, must have helped you then?

Absolutely. There’s no doubt that Rajini sir doing Petta, on some level, resulted in Darbar getting made. After Kaala and Kabali, I was wondering if people did not want to see him being a star anymore. But when I saw the reaction to Petta, I was convinced that people still wanted that.

Your father’s name is Arunachalam. Is the protagonist’s name a dedication to him?

It is. He had passed on by the time I made my film debut with Dheena. During my father’s heydays, Rajini sir meant a lot to him. So, now that I got a chance to make a film with him, I thought it would be fitting to have the character be named after him.

It has been 27 years since Rajinikanth last played a cop. How did you convince him to play a policeman again?

There was some reluctance on his part, especially concerning playing a violent policeman. He wasn’t sure how people would take to it, whether it would be appropriate given the times. He was also concerned about whether a bearded appearance would be appropriate for a police character. We did a bit of research and learned that under certain conditions, policemen were allowed to sport a beard. As for his concerns about the police character, I told sir that people would forget about such things once the film begins. Once the story starts, people care only about the fate of the character. Rajini sir was persuaded by my conviction.

Footage from your film shows Rajinikanth’s police character slicing through people with a sword, putting a bullet in someone’s head... Could you explain such portrayal in the context of how the police is expected to function in our country?

(Pause) I spent a lot of time in conversation with police officers. I sympathised with how much they suffer. Also, I don’t think their methods are understood particularly well. For instance, we often outrage over, say, a couple getting questioned by policemen at night. However, we don’t understand that sometimes, they do this to simply announce their presence to some dangerous people lurking about. One cop told me that criminals sometimes pick a vantage point to spot potential victims, and that police people simply establishing their presence often turns out to be the difference between a crime getting committed or not. Finally, we must also realise that the police department doesn’t make decisions on its own. We must understand where their orders come from.

The weapons used in your films seem to make quite the impact. Be it the one that was used to murder a character in Ghajini, the club used by Vijay's character in Kaththi, or the sword used in this film. You don't have a weapons designing team, do you?

(Laughs) No. Come to think of it, I regret that final swing on the head of Asin's character in Ghajini. She had already been stabbed, after all. I guess I wanted, as you said, to make an impact on the audience.

In Darbar, we used the sword because it's usual to have a policeman kill with his gun. We have, after all, grown-up watching films like Kill Bill. So that probably explains the sword.

Let’s move on to how women are written in your films. While your earlier films like Ramana and Ghajini and later, 7aum Arivu, showed intent in writing strong women, your recent focus on star-oriented cinema, chiefly starring Vijay, has resulted in some dispensable female characters.

I accept your criticism. I feel strongly about how women are written in films. In fact, the truth is, we approach every script with the intention of writing women well. Somehow, in films that are centred on a star and his journey, the women tend to get pushed into the periphery. Even in Sarkar, we began with a proper arc for the women, but then, it all ended up getting removed. I guess this has happened in Darbar too.

Your last film, Sarkar, saw you discussing politics as you never have in your career. Now that Rajinikanth has announced his political entry, should we expect more political commentary in Darbar?

I remember having a conversation with Vijayakanth before we started shooting Ramana, my second film. He had already launched his political party then, and his party symbols could often be spotted in his films. But I didn’t want that happening in our film, as I felt that the people would then begin seeing it as a propaganda film. Take the case of MGR, for instance. The films he did after he became a Chief Minister were those that weren’t overtly propagandist. People see through propaganda; such films are not effective. While there may be an occasional reference here and there in Darbar, the objective is to deliver an entertaining film. I hope we have succeeded.

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