Veteran filmmaker Bharathiraja entered cinema wanting to be an actor. But fate had its own plans as he became a director instead. However, the acting bug did bite him soon enough, and after directing a handful of films, Bharathiraja made his debut as a lead with Kallukul Eeram. Fast-forward to 2023, Bharathiraja is still going strong as both a director and an actor. In his recent release, Karumegangal Kalaigindrana, directed by Thangar Bachan, Bharathiraja plays the principal character, despite the cast having prominent names like Gautham Menon, Yogi Babu and Aditi Balan. In fact, anyone else would be pumped up about playing the lead well into their 80s. But the auteur has a unique and humbling take on it. "I always prefer the script taking the highest priority. Ezhuthukaaga dhaan naan, enakaaga nu maathi ezhudha kudadhu. There is no spice or excitement in Bharathiraja playing himself on screen. So I always love to play characters that demand me to forget the filmmaker in me and feel like a different person. While working in Karumegangal Kalaigindrana, I felt like the protagonist Justice Ramanathan throughout the process."
Asked if he would have prioritised acting if more compelling offers came his way after Kallukul Eeram, Bharathiraja says, "I would have been tempted for sure. But I wouldn't have had the heart to give direction a second priority as I started loving the high that I get from making films. If I had chosen to be a lead actor I would have got the chance to live as only one character in a film. But, as a director, I got to explore the psyche of every single character in my films, and wield the ultimate power of creating a world. Filmmaking will always be my first love." He goes on to state that the digital era has eaten away the joy of filmmaking in many ways. "I used to be extremely excited to catch my films on celluloid. It takes around 10-15 days to process a film reel and preview it on a screen. Film-ah develop panni screen la palich nu pakrapo apdi niraivaa irukum. But after we got digital cameras and monitors in the shooting spot, everything became instant. I believe there is no joy in instant gratification."
Though the filmmaking trends have changed over time, one strategy that Bharathiraja religiously stuck to all these years is... reinvention. "When they branded me as a gramathu director after 16 Vayathinile and Kizhake Pogum Rail, I broke that image by making urban thrillers like Sigappu Rojakkal, Tik Tik Tik and Oru Kaidhiyin Diary. I like surprising people by outdoing myself," says the filmmaker, whose recent directorial, Paravai Kootil Vaazhum Maangal, a segment from Modern Love Chennai, is a testament to this attitude of his. Though the short film drew criticisms for the character arc of its over-sacrificing female protagonist Revathi, it was widely lauded for its making and unique take on love and separation. "I initially found it hard to accept the story of a man who falls in love outside his marriage despite having a loving wife and two children. My upbringing and conditioning are totally against it, but I reached a point where I accepted that such stories can or may exist around us. If I were Revathi, Rohini or Ravi, I would have taken a drastically different decision. But they are characters with a world of their own. Sila vishayangal kadhaiku seri varum, sondha vazhkaiku seri varadhu. I wanted to see how kind-hearted people handle a complex situation. I guess it just clicked."
Paravai Kootil Vaazhum Maangal also marked the director's reunion with his friend and legendary composer Ilaiyaraaja. "He made my films talk even without dialogues," says a starry-eyed Bharathiraja, adding, "Even though I have worked with other talented musicians like AR Rahman, Ilaiyaraaja is always special to me. He even understood the pauses in my films and breathed life into them. He is a gift to me and the entire cinema."
In Karumegangal Kalaigindrana, Bharathiraja managed to befriend his peer, director SA Chandrasekar, who plays his best friend in the film. "Though we have known each other from our assistant director days, we hadn't got the chance to become friends. But while working in Karumegangal Kalaigindrana we admired each other's performance and discussed a lot about our prime days as directors," says the octogenarian, who is seen as a father figure by many present-day directors including Suseenthiran, Cheran and Ameer. "I was a rebel when I was young, and the succeeding generation of directors saw me as a leader. But when I grew old and lost a lot of my contemporaries, they started seeing me as a father and I embraced the position. Now, I have learned to appreciate the goodness in everything and everyone, rather than being a critic."
Karumegangal Kalaigindrana has a pivotal scene where Bharathiraja falls at the feet of Aditi Balan's Kanmani, seeking apology. Bharathiraja confesses that he volunteered to do the scene without any alteration or cheating shots. "Once a well-known actor refused to do a similar scene in my film, I replaced him immediately with a set assistant and went ahead with the scene because an actor's image or ego should never overpower the script. I have been a taskmaster who tuned Rajini and Kamal to adapt to my film language. So I know the struggle a director undergoes to fulfil his vision and I want to do my part to contribute to it." He calls his innings as an actor a rebirth and a second chance he wants to make full use of. "I want to immerse and lose myself in this process. Only when I kill the Bharathiraja in me, I can give birth to a character, and I am totally game for it."