'The bikes chases of Valimai were shot in real speed'
With the Ajith Kumar-starrer Valimai now streaming on ZEE5, action choreographer Dileep Subbarayan opens up about the making of the film’s numerous chase sequences
Valimai is an event that will remain etched in the memories of Tamil cinema fans albeit not for all right reasons. While one might like or dislike the film in its entirety, one definitely cannot negate the effort that has gone into the mounting of the bike chase sequences in the H Vinoth directorial. It’s no child’s play to live up to the label ‘India’s biggest action film’ and Dileep Subbarayan, the film’s action choreographer knew very well about the onus resting on him throughout the making of the film.
Bike chases, after all, were the film’s unique selling proposition, majorly ascribed to its star, Ajith Kumar, and his popular fondness for biking. If the film’s tag wasn’t enough, Dileep had a bigger challenge: to appease Ajith’s massive fan base. And it’s a challenge he embraced with an equal proportion of excitement and nervousness. “The pressure to deliver great action sequences was always there but the bigger responsibility was to ensure the safety of the stuntmen. My boys (the stunt team) trusted me immensely and did everything I asked them to do without raising a question. It was my responsibility to ensure they were in safe hands all the time,” Dhilip says.
In a fascinating and, not to mention, deadly choice, the team chose to shoot all the bike chases at real speed. “There’s a shot of speedometer raising from 80 to 150 in a span of a few seconds. It was done at real speed. Every shot in the bike chase sequences you see was captured at insane speeds, 120, 130, 150…” This, naturally, meant that Dhilip spent several hours every day for over 50 days riding a bike or car—at monstrous speed capturing the action—with a camera rig affixed to them. 50 days, he clarifies, were spent on canning the chases, excluding the hand-combat sequences, like the one set in the rain early in the film, a set piece in an under-construction building, or the climax. “Athu ellam vera,” he says. “When I would go to bed at the end of a tiring day, I would hear ‘vroom vroom’ ringing in my ears. Also, after habituating myself to extreme levels of speed, everything else feels slow now. After we wrapped up the film, I once asked my driver while travelling at normal, human speed, ‘Anna, yen ivlo slow ah ottringa, fast ah ottunga.’” Dhilip says, laughing.
Dhilip’s role on the shooting spot—a highway outside Chennai where the team spent more than two weeks shooting the popular van sequence of the second half— was not limited to that of the action choreographer. He would drive the vehicle with the camera setup, thereby becoming a camera operator, while cinematographer PS Vinoth, seated beside him, would instruct Dhilip. “To capture a bike riding towards the camera, I would ride the vehicle at 120 km/h in the opposite direction, and make a close turn seconds before the vehicles could collide,” Dhilip says with the gleefulness of a naughty kid. Vinoth and Dhilip would be equipped with different screens to monitor the shot. While Vinoth looked at the shot from a framing perspective, Dhilip parsed the stunts. He shares a deadly yet funny story involving the monitor. “While driving the car to get the shot of bike, I found the shot so striking that I forgot I was driving the vehicle. Instead of controlling the car, I started enjoying the beauty of the shot. Also, I would often tell the focus puller, who would be seated behind me, to distract me from looking at the monitor for a long time. This time, he was also keenly concentrated on maintaining focus and forgot to alert me. Thankfully, I realised I was driving the car in the nick of time and escaped ramming into a pole. I took a few moments to relax, drink water and come back to reality,” Dhilip shares.
While action choreography is always associated with risk and excessive physical work, Dhilip reveals that management and calculations are an integral part of the job. He gives an example where this came into play in Valimai. “In the fight scene set in the under-construction site, fighters hold a rope and jump from the top. Generally, when fighters are in the air, we need counterweights to hold them. The scene employed over 100 fighters, weighing an average of 80 kilos each, and each fighter generally needs three people to hold the weight, which, in turn, would necessitate the presence of over 400 people on the set. The budget allocated for us, however, did not allow the sheer number of people. So we employed a trial-and-error method and physics, and found a counterweight that would need only one person for each fighter. This eliminated the need for nearly 250 extra men,” Dhilip shares.
How did Dhilip feel when he saw his labour of love, blood and sweat come to life on the big screen? “I teared up when I watched the film. It’s because I could see the lengths my boys went for me, be it hanging from the top of a bus or riding superbikes at insane speeds. I feel it all paid off in the end. To me, having safely completed the project without any major accidents gave me great satisfaction.”
The action choreographer has a slew of major projects lined up across languages, from Chiranjeevi's Mega 154 to Pawan Kalyan's Hari Hara Veera Mallu in Telugu and Vikram's Cobra and Vishal's Lathi Charge in Tamil. Isn’t he exhausted shooting without respite? “Athuku thaana aasa pattom...” Dhilip says with a smile.