Vijay: I will never make a propaganda film
The director speaks in detail about making his OTT debut with Five Six Seven Eight
While most filmmakers dread working with kids, director Vijay, who has once again joined hands with a predominantly young cast for his coming-of-age dance ZEE5 series, Five Six Seven Eight, calls it ‘the easiest job’. "The kids aren't worried about success or failure. They don't deliver preset reactions or methods, so the performances I get are completely unique. Making them like me in the first place is the only challenge I have to pass. Once I crack that, they give their fullest just to make me happy."
In return, he ensures that the kids have the best days while shooting. "All they wish for is to enjoy the day's work and have as much fun as possible. So, I take them out for shopping and strolls. After they pack up, they jump up in excitement at the prospect of having fun together.”
This is his fourth project starring kids in the lead after Deiva Thirumagal, Saivam, and Lakshmi. "I call it coincidence," he says. “Though I am always excited about working with children, a lot has to come together to make such a project viable. Being a huge fan of the High School Musical and Step Up franchise, I have always wanted to make our very own teenage dance series. When Zee5 approached me, I pitched this idea and they got excited instantly. We gathered young talents from all over the country for the lead cast, roped in Paresh Shirodkar master for the dance choreography, and Sam CS for the music, to create the best experience."
The self-confessed fan of the Step Up series met filmmaker Jon Chu, who made Step Up 2 and Step Up 3D, before making this series. "I have always been fascinated with how he staged the dance sequences and musicals. Meeting him in Hollywood was quite a learning experience. That meeting gave me the final push to make this series," he says.
While he’s credited as the creator of the series, he shares direction credits with Prasanna JK and Mrudhula Sridharan, his former assistants. Directors of web-series content usually split episodes based on their strong zones. However, this trio has worked majorly in unison across episodes. "While Prasanna and Mrudhula were present throughout the shooting, I was there for the crucial parts like the dance portions. But I was constantly supervising everything," he says.
Vijay's love for dance is evident in his mainstream commercial entertainers too. His 2013 film Thalaivaa, for instance, had actor Vijay playing a lead dancer of a troupe named Tamil Pasanga. Interestingly, the troupe of the kids in Five Six Seven Eight also carries the same name. "I love watching people dance even if I’m not great at it myself. The kids who worked on this series surprised me every day. I believe dance teaches you discipline. When I was their age, I did nothing productive. When I see young dancers, I feel the urge to raise my son to be one."
Though Vijay has majorly made simple, safe films, his films like Saivam and Diya paved way for debates and criticism surrounding their themes like vegetarianism and pro-life choice, respectively. Vijay clarifies that he would be the last person to advise anyone on anything. "Every individual knows what is right and wrong for them. I am here to tell stories that I believe in with an engaging screenplay and mass appeal. I would never make a propaganda film. The final note in Diya or a whole family converting to vegetarianism in Saivam aren't intended to influence anyone." He adds that every viewer can have their own understanding of a film and develop opinions. "After the release, films cease to belong to anyone. Anyone can criticise it. I take away my learnings and ignore the negativity. Every film is a learning experience for me."
Vijay says that this spirit of learning encourages him to experiment with unexplored genres. "Though learning excites me, I am not a habitual reader. I study rigorously, with full involvement only when my scripts demand them. I love the drive each new film gives me to learn." He goes on to list a few examples, "Before making Thalaivii, I studied the politics of Tamil Nadu from 1940-1990, and similarly, I researched the history of Madras before launching Madarasapattinam. If someone well-versed in either of the two topics invites me for a discussion, I could talk for hours on end."
He states that understanding the new generation of the audience is his next destination in learning. "Though Vijay sir's Love Today is a classic, the present generation prefers celebrating Prapdeep Ranganathan's Love Today. It has been 15 years since I made my debut and I have to update and adapt myself according to these trends." He signs off by saying, "Being a kid at heart is the root of learning. Since I spend a lot of time with the kids, I guess I have naturally inherited that quality from them."