Director Agathiyan: Kadhal Kottai was originally supposed to be a tragedy
In this exclusive interview, the filmmaker rewinds time to discuss his classic love story, Kadhal Kottai, that completed its 24th anniversary recently
Agathiyan's Kadhal Kottai can be said to have redefined romance in Tamil cinema, following its release in 1996. The film was an all-round success, completing 270 days of run in theatres and fetching the first Best Director National Award for the Tamil filmmaker, apart from bagging the Best Screenplay and Best Regional Film Awards as well. With the film hitting its twenty-fourth-year mark last Sunday and in the context of the current lockdown that has left many couples separated—much like Kadhal Kottai's Suriya and Kamali—we relook this romance with Agathiyan.
Excerpts from the interview:
Kadhal Kottai paid ode to the art of letter writing. Do you think such a love story is possible today?
No, certainly not. Even in the early 2000s, the film would have seemed funny and unrelatable. Back in the mid-90s, pagers and cell phones were costly and weren't accessible to commoners. Thankfully, we released the Hindi version, Sirf Tum, in 1998, just before the technological boom happened.
The recent Malayalam film, Kapella, seemed to be related to Kadhal Kottai in a sense, given that love happens over a missed call. But I wasn't able to buy the story as technology is within our grasp now, and we are no longer separated from people today as we once were.
I read that the friendship between King Kopperum Chozhan and poet Pisirandhaiyar in Puranaanooru is the inspiration for Kadhal Kottai. Is this true?
You can say that. Their friendship grows though they do not meet each other. They only meet when Kopperum Chozhan is on his death bed. This made me come up with a love story where the lead pair meet each other only at the climax. The end of Kadhal Kottai is the real beginning of Suriya and Kamali's love story.
Did you anticipate such overwhelming response?
While making Kadhal Kottai, I expected it either to be celebrated by the audience or to be completely ignored. Thankfully, the former happened. I was confident that it would win the National Award for the Best Screenplay, but the additional recognition for Best Director was unexpected as nobody from Tamil cinema, even the legends, had not got it till then.
Though many said the story was unique, very few thought it would be a success. Only during the rerecording did the entire orchestra of Deva sir tell me that the film was extraordinary. And then, director Sridhar sir saw a preview of the film and told me that Kadhal Kottai would be our time’s Kalyana Parisu.
That famous sweater with lotus patterns, and the railway station are crucial elements in the story. Could you talk about them?
Back then, trains were the only main source of transportation. Almost every one of us have a personal attachment to trains. And so, I wanted my film to begin and end in a railway station. Even the pre-interval scene where the lead pair catch a glimpse of each other, happens there.
However, we initially had an alternate climax. They were not to end up together. But my producer Sivasakthi Pandian said, "The audience would tear the theatre screen in disappointment if they don't unite!" I then realised that the story needed a happy end, and came up with the idea of that lotus sweater to unite them.
Even the supporting characters in Kadhal Kottai received a lot of love.
I wanted my story to have characters who approach love from different perspectives. Karan's Siva is a representation of the quintessential friend in every gang, who loves to be in love, but hates staying in it for too long. I felt this contrast would make the audience root for Ajith's Suriya and his romantic ideologies. Thalaivasal Vijay's Paneer was a symbol of true friendship and trust. He cares for Suriya without expecting anything in return.
Suriya and Kamali mean ‘sun’ and ‘lotus’, an indication of their relationship in a sense. Were the other character names filled with meaning too?
Yes. Every single character's name has a purpose. Kamali's sister was named Mallika, because I wanted to convey that fathers who bestow such aesthetic names to their children are usually escapist by nature, and crippled consequently by financial failure. Though we don't see him in the film, I wanted the audience to realise that his life might have been such a mess that he had no option but to ask his son-in-law to look after his younger daughter. Thalaivasal Vijay's character was named Paneer, because he is a sweet person who spreads happiness, much like the scent of paneer rose. Heera was called Neya (drawn from the Tamil word, Neyam) because she played a girl who deserved a lot of love. When I write a story, I build a concrete back story for each character. This makes them wholesome people, even if we don’t see them.
Almost all your films have spoken about the power of love in breaking barriers. Do you see any difference in how love is seen today?
True love turns a person into a fighter and brave everything, till they unite with their loved one. Unfortunately, today, the success rates of love marriages have reduced. Back then, love marriages were lesser in number, but the couples lived happily. Kannadasan once said, "Kadhalil vendraal tholvi, thottral kaaviyam." I guess this defines today's love.
Are you working on a new film?
I had planned it for this year, but the pandemic has postponed it, mostly to next year. My first priority is safeguard the good name I have earned so far. So, I am careful about picking a producer. I stopped the production of a couple of films due to some differences which might have marred my name.
When I made Kadhal Kottai, I said it would be a different film, and some of them laughed in response. If I tell them that my upcoming film belongs to a genre that our cinema hasn't seen before, they may laugh again. I have spent six years on this project. Just like Kadhal Kottai proved them wrong, so will this upcoming film.