Venkat Prabhu: I wish our stars would encourage fresh ideas
The filmmaker, who has hit gold with Maanaadu, speaks of foreign film inspirations and unrealised dreams
Filmmaker Venkat Prabhu has been shaped by his love for films—international films specifically. “I may not read much, but I watch a lot of films,” he says, and admits what everyone has always known about his work: “I’m influenced a lot by the films I see.” For instance, he caught Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, and later, Robert Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel, and like many of us, was enamoured by the imagination of it all and the virtual reality possibilities. The result? An exploration of this idea through his short film segment in the anthology, Kutty Story. “I don’t see why we cannot do the sort of films we like to watch.”
This drive and optimism differentiates Venkat Prabhu from jaded filmmakers. Where many get intimidated by foreign cinema excellence, this filmmaker derives inspiration. “Andha padam laam dubbing panni release panna, nammaalunga rasichu paakaraangale!” he says. In trying to create such authentic storytelling experiences, he, of course, suffers from local ecosystem problems, including reduced budgets. “We got just 30 lakhs to do that Kutty Story film with, and we did it for television. I didn’t understand the decision to bring it out in theatres.”
Despite growing up surrounded by the who’s who of Tamil cinema, Venkat seems as baffled by some decisions within the cinema industry, as you and I would. Take, for instance, the timing of the release of another time-loop film, Jango, just before Venkat Prabhu’s latest film, Maanaadu, was scheduled to come out. “I guess they wanted to be the first time-loop film,” he dryly observes. Unable to help himself, he quips, “We may not be the first, but we can be the best time-loop film.” The filmmaker is quite self-aware—a quality that spills over into his films—and so, immediately realises that he probably came across sounding too haughty. “I probably shouldn’t be too overconfident, no?” It’s the same self-awareness that has him openly sharing foreign film influences with the media, and really, is it any surprise that it was a foreign film, Groundhog Day—thought to be the mother of all time-loop films—that inspired the conception of Maanaadu?
“You know how Happy Death Day is Groundhog Day-meets-Scream?” he asks, and without waiting for a reply, goes on, his voice full of such excitement: “Maanaadu is Groundhog Day-meets-Vantage Point!” He has plenty to say about Groundhog Day: “It has come to define the very idea of time-loop. People call it a genre, but I don’t think it is one. It’s a plot device. Using the idea of time-loop, that film shows how a selfish man learns to get better. In Happy Death Day too, an arrogant woman transforms. These time-loop films usually end with the protagonist getting better. I’ve explored this idea a bit in Maanaadu.” The protagonist of Maanaadu, Abdul Khaliq, begins by taking time for granted, but by the end, realises the value of each second.
Foreign films like Groundhog Day don’t usually get to the why of the time-loop. “Yes, but since we are making the first time-loop film—oh, sorry, second—we wanted to provide a reason,” says Venkat Prabhu. “We wanted everyone to understand this film.” His self-awareness comes to the fore once more: “Cinema isn’t a tool for me to project that I’m an intelligent man by making films that are difficult to understand. True intelligence lies in making even children understand complex ideas.” It’s a different version of the famous Albert Einstein quote: “If you can’t explain something to a six-year-old, it means you don’t understand it yourself.” It also helped Venkat Prabhu that one of the two stars at the centre of this film, SJ Suriya, often went to extremes to ensure that the film would be accessible for everyone. “He would keep saying that even fans of Karakattakaran (made by Venkat Prabhu’s father, Gangai Amaran) should understand Maanaadu.” That’s why SJ Suriya, whose performance in the film has been widely praised, filled up his scenes with, what Venkat Prabhu calls, “mind-voice dialogues” during dubbing. “I retained a few of those dialogues, but yes, removed quite a bit of them,” he says, with a hint of a laugh. These are minimalistic sensibilities—this tendency to avoid relying too much on dialogue—that he has picked up from international cinema.
Venkat Prabhu is well-known for working with repeat collaborators, including many among his friends and family. When Yuvan Shankar Raja is your cousin, it’s hard to look elsewhere. He recalls a nugget of advice given by his “periyappa” (Ilaiyaraaja, of course): “This was after the release of Goa. He said I am a lot like Bharathi (Bharathiraja) and told me that I had the ability to create stars and didn’t need to go after established ones.” Minutes after this chat, the filmmaker’s biggest project, Mankatha, with Ajith, a bonafide star, got confirmed. Venkat Prabhu laughs: “Ajith sir never interfered in the film though.” He doesn’t say it in as many words for obvious reasons, but it’s hard to miss the insinuation that some later films were polluted by interference. He rues some of his choices after Mankatha: “If I had a time device, I’d make sure that Maanaadu would be my next release after Mankatha.”
Maanaadu, of course, ran into plenty of obstacles, including the pandemic. I ask him about his Twitter announcement that TR Silambarasan—a childhood friend of his—was being ousted, following instructions from the producer, Suresh Kamatchi. “The producer faced some financial issues and so, I was compelled to make that announcement. Chimbu (Silambarasan) felt betrayed, and in anger, he launched a project called Mahamaanaadu, but we were able to stop the issue from further escalating.” The film industry does create these pockets of trouble for even those friends who have known each other all their life. “Chimbu and I grew up together, singing in concerts. You are right; friendships do get difficult to manage in this industry, but I think I have managed well. Almost everyone from the Chennai-28 gang continues to be in the inner circle, and they are all doing well for themselves. I’m happy for them.”
He's glad that Chimbu too has undergone a transformation. “The ‘Atman’ epithet that is added to his name in this film, is a sign of that. It is a movement he will be launching sometime, a way of life that has helped him rediscover himself. He didn’t want us adding this epithet, but we insisted.” The star’s acting ability has always been apparent to the world, says Venkat Prabhu. “He can do anything. The traumatised lover in Manmadhan, the understated gangster in Thotti Jaya, the boy next door in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa… I’m grateful to him for accepting the role of Abdul Khaliq in Maanaadu, even though the character is devoid of conventional mass hero tropes.”
The central purpose of Maanaadu is to normalise the Muslim identity and raise opposition to prejudice. “I have so many Muslim friends, some even from Pakistan. They are normal people just like us, and though I am not greatly informed about caste issues or world politics, as a common man, I can see that politicians benefit from creating divisions among us. I wanted to address this in a film. This caught Chimbu’s eye as well.”
Venkat Prabhu has many unfulfilled dreams, influenced by his exposure to foreign cinema. “I want to make a monster film, an alien invasion film… Why must aliens attack only New York? (laughs) Imagine how fun it would be to do a spoof film, with someone like Premgi wondering why all the aliens are speaking in English!” Among Venkat Prabhu’s favourite films is Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985). “I would love to make such a film, with an all-children cast, here.” His face falls a bit, as he recognises Tamil film industry limitations, byproducts of a star-centric system. “So many great film ideas are all on hold because our stars remain unconvinced. I wish they would encourage fresh ideas.”
He ends the conversation with a Hollywood example. “They made an action film, Die Hard, with Bruce Willis, at a time when he was a comedy actor. Imagine if I could make such an action film with Mirchi Shiva!” Thanks to Maanaadu, Venkat Prabhu has emerged out of a difficult patch, with a film that relies not on the stars it has but on the strength of its story. Perhaps this will go on to help him realise some of his Hollywood-inspired dreams. On the evidence of Maanaadu, it may not be such a bad thing for us after all.