Director Hari: Receiving feedback is a skill

The director reveals how he stayed relevant over the years, how every protagonist he created is a reflection of himself, and the starting point of his upcoming Vishal-starrer, Rathnam 
Director Hari: Receiving feedback is a skill

Cinema is an industry where success is ephemeral, nothing is guaranteed, and the rules of the game keep changing. As an artist, staying relevant in this ever-evolving art form—with its unpredictable, rapidly emerging trends—is like trying to predict the shape of clouds. While you might not be able to predict their shape, you can at least anticipate the direction in which they will come from, by listening to the winds. And that is precisely how director Hari stayed relevant for two decades, by listening. “I listen to the audience, to my assistants, and to everyone I know. I ask them what went wrong. I analyse these inputs and try to understand the reception of my films. I might not agree with them but I always listen to my critics,” says Hari, who made his directorial debut 22 years ago, with the Prashanth-starrer Thamizh.  

Hari is far from being naive, he understands that not all criticisms are well-intentioned. However, he holds a strategic optimism regarding criticisms. “Maybe 2 percent of the people might give you harsh, negative criticisms out of pure spite but 98 percent of the people are just speaking their thoughts. They have no reason to hurt you with their criticisms.” With years of analysis and self-reflection, Hari has a solid understanding of his strengths and weaknesses. “My weakness is that during the writing process, I think deeply about every aspect of the story, and sometimes confuse myself. And my strength is that once I lock the story, my confidence becomes unshakeable.” He believes that as the story evolves during the development stage, his passionate over-thinking eventually solidifies into his confidence. “Once you have discussed every single aspect of a story, you gain a level of confidence that shines through on the set,” he says. The director goes on to recall a recent example of how his overthinking approach helped him direct his crew members more efficiently. Hari recounts, “A few days ago, after watching the final reel of the film, Devi (Sri Prasad) sir asked me some questions so he could better understand the nuances. I was able to justify the scenes and give him precise directions, only because I was extremely thorough during the writing process.”

As someone who welcomes questions from his crew members, the director has also honed down the art of receiving feedback to a skill. “I never ask ‘how is the film?’, because that way, it sounds like you are forcing them to say something positive and you will never get their actual thoughts. Instead, I ask them 'What did you not like about the film?' You have to give critics the space to speak their minds. Receiving feedback is a skill and I employ it in my personal life as well," says Hari. The film industry is replete with actors, directors, and composers who don’t revisit their popular works for fear of spotting errors. So how does Hari get into this amiable spirit that enables him to face his shortcomings? The director reveals that it all depends on how you choose to spend your energy. “The more energy you exert defending your work, the less you are left with for your creativity. Just like money and food, fame and creative energy are limited resources. The more you use, the less you have. You have to spend less and work hard to accumulate more. Take fame for example, if I get pulled over by a cop on the road, and if I use my fame to get out of the situation, they will think less of me, and my fame drops down.” 

With such a defined sense of self, it is inevitable that his characteristics seep into the minds of his leading man. “Aaruchamy and Durai Singam are basically me,” he confesses. However, when the story pushes the protagonist to do things he does not agree with, Hari uses the supporting characters to have a dialogue with them. “In Poojai, Vishal’s character indulges in heavy drinking and that is something I don’t agree with. I don’t like showing characters being drunk. So, I wrote it so the heroine (Shruti Haasan) advises the hero to stop drinking.” Despite his personal moral compass dictating the choices of his characters, the director strongly believes that the circumstantial, and organic turn of events in his stories, are the strongest aspects of his films. “Take Saamy for example, the villain is not even aiming to kill Saamy’s father, the bomb was supposed to destroy an empty house but the father coincidentally arrives at the house. In Singam, the initial clash between Suriya and Prakash Raj’s characters escalates because of small things like Durai Singam’s nonchalance while walking into the police station, and when the villagers get involved, both of which irks the villain. The hero and the villain could have parted ways after a small disagreement but every little thing in the scene contributes to a larger chain reaction.” 

As the filmmaker ruminates on his previous films and explains his thought process, he eventually arrives at his upcoming film, Rathnam, which reunites Hari with the actor after Thaamirabharani (2007) and Poojai (2014). Revealing the initial spark behind his idea for Rathnam, Hari says, “I wanted to set a film in a state border. If an angry young man crosses the border, creates a ruckus and comes back, the police have to jump through several judicial constraints to cross the border and apprehend him. And if the young man were to cross the line again, he is done for. There is a tension inherent in this premise and I thought that would make for great drama.” He further reveals that he goes through extensive research for his films. “I love geography. I like learning about every single district and town in Tamil Nadu. And that eventually seeps into my research for films. For Rathnam, I went as far back to learn about the conflicts faced by the locals when Tirupati was separated from Tamil Nadu and was added to Andhra Pradesh in 1956.” The director is well aware of the fact that his films do not display his research as ostensibly as a period drama would. However, he is not worried that fans might not recognize his hard work. “They recognize my work in several other ways. They notice everything. In Singam 2, Suriya refuses to eat meat on Saturdays and Sundays because his parents told him not to, for religious reasons. When I sat down to eat at a restaurant in Malaysia, a woman ran up to me and said she won a bet with her husband over whether I would eat meat or not. She said, ‘I know you won’t eat meat on Saturdays because you had that dialogue in Singam2’. It makes me happy when they notice these little things.” Hari confesses that moments like these reinvigorate his passion for filmmaking and make him work harder. And he believes moments like these are born out of his willingness to constantly stay in touch with his audience. As he mentioned in the beginning, “My greatest strength is that I listen to the audience.”

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