RJ Balaji: Veetla Vishesham is a morally right film
RJ Balaji talks about his evolution as an actor and a person, as he awaits the release of his third film as lead, Veetla Vishesham
Moral righteousness is a term RJ Balaji turns to several times during this long conversation ahead of the release of his film, Veetla Vishesham. Doing the ‘right thing’ has become a bit of a guiding force for this multi-faceted personality. It’s why he recently criticised films like Mannan and Padayappa for not portraying women all too well—and ended up drawing the ire of some disgruntled Rajinikanth ‘fans’ on social media. It’s why he has turned down a lot of advertisement-related opportunities. It’s why he’s not doing the ‘comedian friend’ role anymore. It’s why he walked away from being a reality show judge. More relevantly for this conversation, it’s why he has made certain changes to the script of Veetla Vishesham, that is based on the Hindi hit, Badhaai Ho.
Here's Balaji discussing the challenges of adapting Badhaai Ho, on working with seasoned actors like Sathyaraj and Urvashi, and why he believes he has improved as an actor.
Radio jockey, commentator, writer, actor, director… Balaji, it’s like you’ve decided not to leave jobs for anyone else.
(Laughs) Please don’t jinx it. On a more serious note, it all began with my radio jockey stint. Everything that has come my way since has been a consequence.
Do you find one role eating into the other? For instance, having stepped into cinema yourself, you had to step out of film criticism.
I always believed in communicating my thoughts with humour. You, for instance, have your calming, subtle way of criticising films. Blue Sattai Maaran does it his way. And I had my way. But yes, as you know, proximity with the film industry often comes at the expense of honest opinions about their work. So, I knew I had to take a step back, but I was always ready for that change.
You have tried to make the most of the variety of opportunities that have come your way, including cricket commentary.
I think I’m defined, in fact, by the opportunities that I have declined. Everyone sees me for the opportunities that I have taken and tried to prove myself in, but what they may not know is that for each opportunity I have accepted, I have turned down ten. A popular T Nagar-based textile store wanted me as their brand ambassador and I knew I would have been rewarded handsomely; however, I remembered having spoken about the lack of fire safety measures in their building earlier, and I couldn’t, in good conscience, partner with them. I don’t know if that makes me a good person, but I’m trying to be one.
Middle-class families have always drummed in the idea that opportunities must be grabbed—that we must look to keep growing and look to keep rising towards the next level.
Aduthu enna? This question has never bothered me. I have always done things because I found them appealing. That’s why I’m now doing films. If I stop finding it fun and decide to set-up a tea shop instead, I’d want it to be the best in the neighbourhood. If everything goes kaput, I can always return to judging reality shows (laughs).
Badhaai Ho (2018) that Veetla Vishesham is based on, is about one such middle-class family, and how its members respond to an unexpected familial development.
I saw the film’s trailer in 2018 and felt I could work on an adaptation. In fact, I even reached out to a producer who discouraged me by pointing out that it’s a big film whose remake rights would be sought-after. After LKG—a political satire—and Mookuthi Amman—a religious satire—I was keen on not being branded as a satire filmmaker. I noticed that people loved the family portions of Mookuthi Amman, and so, when Boney Kapoor sir approached me about the Badhaai Ho remake, I agreed right away.
The conflict in this story is rather universal, no?
Oh, yes, and yet, culturally, the original is rather disconnected from us. Certain religious flavouring wouldn’t apply to us. I also didn’t enjoy that the mother character in that film argues against abortion. I think women do not need justification to take control of their bodies and do what they like. Someone asked me whether the ‘common audience’ would like these ideas I spoke of, but for me, it’s important to be morally right. In Mookuthi Amman, I keep showing an old man cooking. Perhaps if a Mysskin or a Selvaraghavan had done that film, people might have taken note of it and appreciated the depiction, but I guess I’m branded as a comedy filmmaker.
Also, in Veetla Vishesham, we were keen to allow Urvasi ma’am and Sathyaraj sir the freedom to perform. Sathyaraj sir told us on the first day that it would be a sin to bring in a talented actor like Urvasi and ask her to replicate Neena Gupta’s body language.
Both Sathyaraj and Urvasi are well-known for their comic timing. Was it a temptation to capitalise on it? I ask you this because Badhaai Ho does a great job of not milking a sensitive issue for humour.
Veetla Vishesham will definitely be more fun, yes, but it’s done in a way that doesn’t affect the story. Sathyaraj sir told me that of the last five films he has done, this is his favourite. Urvasi ma’am is, as always, fantastic. The late KPAC Lalitha is like a lioness on screen, as well.
Among many things, the original also speaks of the sexual needs of middle-aged people.
We have all been raised in our society to be rather awkward about such topics. For instance, when my mum hugs me out of affection, I get all awkward. This is why I’m trying to be a different parent. Let me just say that the film communicates many useful ideas without them feeling forced into the narrative. I think the best lesson children can receive is to be exposed to a loving home environment, one in which the parents are not afraid to express love for one another.
All of this brings us to the topic of progressive thinking. We see a lot of progressive people on Twitter—I suspect Ayushmann Khurrana’s character from the original would have been one on social media—but this film asks how you will react if something were to happen within your family. Can you be as progressive in reality?
Absolutely. In fact, I quite dislike Ayushmann’s character in Badhaai Ho. Even his work isn’t directly linked to his life. In this film, I play that character, and work as a biology teacher—which is more relevant to the film.
To what do you attribute your own understanding of sensitive topics, like women portrayal?
I am constantly evolving. I’m sure I have done roles and said dialogues I find disagreeable today. I have largely relied on personal examples for inspiration and growth. For instance, at my home, thatha always did all the household work. I thought that was the norm until I realised it wasn’t. It showed me how socially conditioned we all are, and in my way, I try to fight my prejudices. I tell my son it’s okay to cry, that it’s okay to wear pink. I am trying to be better every day. Both in LKG and Mookuthi Amman, I was conscious about writing good roles for women and making sure they had a purpose. This will continue with my future films as well.
Your strengths as a comedian are well-known. However, Badhaai Ho’s material doesn’t quite require that of your character.
Luckily, I’m also getting better as an actor. I have learned how to be quiet in front of the camera. The characters I played in LKG and Mookuthi Amman were loud and prone to hyper-activity. That’s not the case here. My co-director Saravanan sir gave me a lot of confidence, and it also helped that I could relate to the family at the centre of this story. For instance, my siblings are younger than me by more than a decade, and so, I really could understand the mindset of my character.
The film also bats for tolerance within a family.
We all could do with it, no? Twitter has become a kandraavi space, with no place for tolerance. We see this lack of tolerance leading to breaking family structures, to dying relationships. That’s why when I communicate a misinformed opinion—like my ill-advised take on demonetisation—I request for tolerance. I don't want to be glorified; I'm just another human who makes mistakes and tries to learn from them. I used to get heartbroken when the world criticised me, but I have realised that social media doesn’t reflect the real world. The world functions just fine without Balaji’s takes on every issue. All I can promise you is that I may disappoint you, but I will never stop growing.