RJ Balaji: I make films for the common man

RJ Balaji talks about criticism, his decision to stop doing supporting roles, his stint as a cricket commentator, and his directorial debut, Mookuthi Amman
RJ Balaji interview on Mookuthi Amman
RJ Balaji interview on Mookuthi Amman

Let’s dial it back to a Diwali eight years ago. There is no COVID 19. Pandemic and lockdown are not everyday words. Theatres are packed for one of the year’s biggest releases: Vijay’s Thuppaki. It’s a time when a radio jockey is regaling listeners with scathing movie reviews, but this time, he offers a favourable take on Thuppaki. Yet, the RJ does have one problem with Thuppaki: actor Sathyan being named Balaji in the film. Come to think of it, it’s quite strange that the name is not preferred for protagonists, and is usually assigned to the hero’s friend, usually a comedian. “Avlo serious-aana character ku avanga vecha peyar, Balaji,” he laments.

Fast forward to 2020, when the very future of theatres is a topic of debate. RJ Balaji is now an established actor and has turned director with Mookuthi Amman starring Nayanthara. It’s a film that deals with the controversial topic of God and godmen. In this Zoom call from the IPL bio bubble, Balaji assures that he is not worried about any potential controversy. “Everyone has an opinion about God. This film is about a family and its belief system. I am not trying to preach something radical to people. I want people to just acknowledge that there are different ways to look at things. But if someone still finds it problematic, I am ready to edit out such portions. I just want to make happy films that can be watched by families.”

‘Happy films’ is a coinage Balaji keeps using a lot in the conversation. Does he intend for these films to be a means to escape reality? He says yes. “Many have lost their jobs, their livelihood, and even relatives to this pandemic. In such a scenario, I wouldn’t watch a film on topics like murder, violence, or other depressing subjects. During times like this, I do think movies are for escapism.”

He notes that in addition to providing escapism, cinema also serves to connect people. And that is why he is disappointed about Mookuthi Amman not getting a theatrical release. “We put in a lot of effort to create ‘theatre moments’ and were eager to see how the audience would enjoy them. Nevertheless, we must settle for the next best thing. I am still happy that it is coming out on a platform like Disney Plus Hotstar and for a festival like Diwali.”

Balaji adds that his team would have done things differently had they known that the film would have an OTT release. “In the lockdown, we started consuming a lot of content on OTT platforms. We have developed this habit of watching some films simply because they are shorter. That’s the state of our attention span now. So, there is a possibility that people might skip or pause during a song like ‘Mookuthi Ammanuku Ponga Vepom’. We could have avoided such parts which I deem ‘skippable’.”

The conversation veers towards his stint as a cricket commentator, which has garnered him both fans and critics. How does a former critic respond to getting a taste of his own medicine? “My take on criticism has not changed over the years. Once a film or any product is out on the market, everyone has the right to have an opinion about it. The same goes for my work. But if my work clicks with the majority, I consider it successful.”

After Mookuthi Amman, RJ Balaji has a line-up of many ‘good scripts’. The RJ-turned-actor-turned-director assures he will begin work on them shortly, and given the success that has come his way over the last decade, the name ‘Balaji’ might just finally be getting its due.

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