Venkat Prabhu: We dreamt of making a sequel to Vikram
The director, who is awaiting the release of Manmatha Leelai, speaks about exploring genres, his expertise in the comedy genre, and more
Most artists embrace the idea of self-exploration through their art. A drive to be more self-aware becomes almost a prerequisite for an artist in an exerting medium like cinema. Venkat Prabhu, who became a filmmaker by chance when his friend and actor-singer SP Charan pushed him to direct Chennai 600028, is now confident about what drives him to this medium. "I am more a screenwriter than a writer. All stories have been told already. Right now, it's about how you tell a story, and this is a driving force. For example, without the time-loop element, Maanaadu is like an old Vijayakanth film," says Venkat, who believes he hasn’t yet discovered his identity as a filmmaker. "All I know now is that I want to tell stories with new characters in fresh backdrops."
Venkat surprised everyone when he announced that his next after Maanaadu, would be an adult comedy titled Manmatha Leelai starring Ashok Selvan, Samyuktha Hegde, Smruti Venkat, and Riya Suman. Though adult comedy is a less-explored genre in Tamil cinema, when his assistant Manivannan Balasubramaniam came up with an intriguing story, Venkat apparently saw a chance to realise his dream of doing a film like American Pie. "Bhagyaraj sir is also a big inspiration. This film too has a story that has previously been explored by the likes of Balu Mahendra, K Balachander, and Bhagyaraj… but I liked the storytelling pattern here and the way I could present it," he shares.
Doing an adult comedy right after a big-budget film turning into a blockbuster might have seemed to some filmmakers as a tricky choice, but Venkat has taken it up as a challenge and is keen to break negative ideas around this genre. "Take, for example, films like There's Something About Mary, the Hangover film series and American Pie—all of these films can be enjoyed by everyone and there isn't anything vulgar about them. In a lot of our films, filmmakers have overdone the sex jokes and there's a certain image because of that. However, I think it's a genre that has to be utilised well and I wanted to do a 'classy' adult comedy." Though Manmatha Leelai is coming at a time when the political correctness of a film is under great scrutiny, Venkat remains unperturbed about the likely criticism that he might face. "It is disappointing to see negative responses when we try something different. Given the genre, people will have different opinions, of course. As a filmmaker, I can't afford to think about that. All I can do is hope that the situation changes soon," he shares.
It's evident from the trailer of Manmatha Leelai that Venkat hasn't shied away from depicting intimacy on screen. I point out how films like Gehraiyaan used an intimacy director, and Venkat is very much in support of the idea. "I remember the kissing scene from Idhayathai Thirudathe and that was the reference for me as a director. I have tried what I can, but I think it is healthy to use an intimacy director. It makes the job easier, and the actors will feel more comfortable. Moreover, such intimacy directors are often women, and they ensure that the female actors are comfortable too."
In a sense, Venkat Prabhu is a bit of an explorer. "I am a filmmaker, not a businessman. Directors like K Balachander and Balu Mahendra explored all types of stories and made films. That's what I want to do. We need to be clear about who we are targetting with a film, and then make calls on how much money we can make it with. I don't need 150 screens for Manmatha Leelai. For Maanaadu though, I might need 600 screens. After all, I started with a film like Chennai 600028, which only came out in 50-60 screens." Venkat says that casting decisions also rest solely on what each film demands. "For this genre, I needed an Ashok Selvan and not a Simbu. We know what Simbu is capable of, but there's a preconceived notion that heroes like Simbu will get out of tight situations in films. With Ashok Selvan, that's not the case, and it helps," he explains.
Following a foray into serious films like Massu Engira Masilamani and Maanaadu, Venkat now returns to comedies, and he thinks of this genre as his forte. "Even in a serious film like Saroja, there was comedy. Even in serious films like Maanaadu and Mankatha, the theatre moments entertained the crowd." Venkat's experience with Massu seems to have solidified his stand on doing more comedies. "I wanted to treat horror in a different way with Massu, but it didn't work out. In fact, I was depressed after the film’s release and I needed something like a Chennai 600028 II to rejuvenate and reinvent myself," he says.
Manmatha Leelai can be seen as a new chapter in Venkat's career for a lot of reasons. For one, this is the first time he has chosen to adapt a story written by someone else, and this is the first time he is also not collaborating with his go-to film editor Praveen KL. "Praveen's assistant Venkat Raajen has edited the film. I usually collaborate with a close-knit group of technicians; however, I wanted to branch out and collaborate with newer talents to learn new things from them. I think Manmatha Leelai is a step forward in that way."
Venkat is also in awe of the fresh crop of filmmakers who he believes are changing the landscape of mainstream Tamil cinema. "I like how filmmakers are exploring newer genres. For instance, I have always wanted to do a film with an alien, and I can't wait to watch Ayalaan," he says, before stating how jealous he is of filmmakers like Lokesh Kanagaraj, Nelson, and Vignesh Shivan. "They all talk with each other, bounce off ideas, and so on, but they don't include me probably because I have become a senior to them. I am happy to see the genres Lokesh and Nelson explore, especially with big stars. I can't wait to watch Vikram and Beast," he says, adding that the healthy environment among filmmakers inspires him. Lokesh Kanagaraj's Vikram is a project that Venkat looks forward to for a different reason as well. "It's also because the original Vikram was one of my most favourite films. In fact, SP Charan and I had plans of making a sequel to Vikram with Kamal sir, but it didn't materialise," he reveals.
Up next, Venkat is venturing into Telugu cinema! "It is with Naga Chaitanya, and we might consider making it a Telugu-Tamil bilingual," he says. Following this, he has plans to remake Maanaadu as a Hindi-Telugu bilingual. He’s often asked about Mankatha 2 too, and he remains a bit sceptical about possibilities. "The expectations would be sky-high, and I don't know if they can ever be fulfilled. If I ever get a chance to work with Ajith Kumar sir, I will want to do something fresh with him. Given how he is choosing to do more family-friendly films of late, I would like to do something that would appease both family audiences and his fans," he says.
Sports comedy, heist thriller, rom-com, horror-comedy, sci-fi, black comedy, horror web series, and now, adult comedy... Venkat has one important genre on his bucket list that he would like to work on: a children’s adventure film like The Goonies. "It’s my most favourite film. I don't know when I will get to do such a film, but now that I have got to make a Manmatha Leelai, maybe, I can surprise you all with a children’s film too," he says. If there’s one thing we can be sure about Venkat Prabhu's career, it is that he likes a grand surprise.