Vaanam Kottattum director Dhana: I guess my mind is aligned to Mani Ratnam sir's wavelength
The director of the recent multi-starrer family drama Vaanam Kottattum talks to us about being Mani Ratnam's assistant, what went wrong with his debut film, and more
Dhana may have made his directorial debut with Padaiveeran in 2018, but his association with the idea of Vaanam Kottattum dates back to 2013. The erstwhile assistant of Mani Ratnam co-wrote the script with him back then. Since Susi Ganesan's Five Star (2002), Madras Talkies has only produced Tamil films directed by Mani Rathnam, till Dhana broke the streak with Vaanam Kottattum. "It doesn't mean I was special or something. Post-Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, Mani sir wanted to make Vaanam Kottattum. But at the same time, everything fell into place for Ponniyin Selvan. Since I co-wrote the script and he liked my work in Padaiveeran, he asked me to helm the project under his banner."
When multiple writers work on a script, differences of opinion ensue, but Dhana says this wasn't the case, working with Mani Ratnam. "As I have worked with Mani sir for more than five years, I guess my mind is aligned to his wavelength. Writing with him is an organic process, and he is always welcoming to changes and corrections. He respects the opinion of even the last assistant in his team." One would naturally think that any assistant director from the school of Mani Ratnam, would receive a warm reception in Tamil cinema, but Dhana says that isn't the case. "Within the four walls of Madras Talkies and while being under the wings of Mani sir, we receive royal treatment. But when we move out to make our own film, things are the opposite. Ondra varshamaa naayaa alanjen. I wasn't even able to make a producer or actor listen to my debut script. That's why I finally decided to produce it on my own with the little money I had."
Despite receiving majorly positive reviews from the critics, Padaiveeran did not exactly reach the audiences as Dhana might have liked. Any regrets making it as his debut film? "Maybe. All of us were newcomers and nobody knew us. The film lacked conventional elements that are thought to draw the audience to the theatres. Those who saw our work lauded it, but before the word of mouth could pick up, the film was already out of the screens. It is sad that films have a short lifespan now. Sometimes, I wonder if I should have saved the film's script for my second or third film, or made it with a bigger banner."
Like Padaiveeran, Vaanam Kottattum also touches upon the downside of casteism. "I spoke about casteism in detail in my first film. But in Vaanam Kottattum, I see Sarath Kumar sir's Bose Kalai as the face of a previous generation rather than as a member of a particular community. My father has traits similar to Bose's character. He is brave, loud-mouthed and no matter whatever he does, he justifies it by saying 'naan senja seriyadhaan irukum'."
Dhana says that the casting choices for Vaanam Kottattum kept changing. "It's been seven years since we wrote the script, so the choices for the lead roles, except Vikram Prabhu's role, kept changing." He reveals that Aishwarya Rajesh's Mangai was initially written as a male character. About the idea of casting real-life couple, Sarath and Radikaa, he says, "Both of them are extremely talented actors and as they are both middle-aged, we felt they could really get into the skin of their characters. I don't think their real-life equation was a factor in Vaanam Kottattum, as their characters are dramatically different from who they really are."
Dhana has often expressed his love for reading and how it has enabled him to become a better creator. "A film can only engage you for three hours, but a novel dwells in your mind for a month. I feel reading is an essential exercise for any filmmaker," he says. "An avid filmmaker can observe only the technical aspects of cinema by watching movie marathons, but when he reads, he submits himself to a story and lets the characters take over him. I believe that is more essential. "
Dhana wants to be remembered for his stories rather than for his style or signature. "I hate the term, director's touch. A filmmaker's style should drown in a good story, only then can it be considered good cinema. I am a free-spirited person and would love to make films about all kinds of stories. But I'll always make sure that the story is more dominant, not the teller."