I’ve had directors tell me about their wish to make a film with Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Ajith, Vijay, Vikram… But Nalan Kumarasamy’s ultimate aim is to work with… Vadivelu. He isn’t joking. The Vijay Sethupathi character in Soodhu Kavvum was originally written for Vadivelu. “It would have been marvellous had he agreed.” But the script wasn’t complete then, and Nalan had to turn to Vijay Sethupathi. “Different actors turn scripts into different films.” Isn’t it a director’s responsibility to write scripts with a singular vision, and no matter what, achieve that? “If I insist that they portray the role exactly as written, the whole process becomes mechanical. I’m more interested in how to tweak what each actor is already good at.”
Even Kadhalum Kadanthu Pogum wasn’t written for Vijay Sethupathi. Nalan approached Sasikumar and Suriya first. “I thought it’d be great to see Sasikumar in an urban film.” But as the popular Kollywood catchphrase goes, things didn’t work out. Kollywood had slotted Nalan under the ‘dark comedy’ category. Even Nalan thought he had to play by the industry’s rules, and went on to almost complete a Soodhu Kavvum-like script. “But it was super-boring.” Also, he couldn’t quite figure out the climax. “I am not Rajinikanth, you know. I’ve done just one film, and they’re already pushing me into a corner.” Kadhalum Kadanthu Pogum is Nalan’s idea of breaking free. He hasn’t just refused to do a dark comedy for his second; he’s done the opposite: a rom-com, a remake of a Korean film (My Dear Desperado).
Kadhalum… would have been Nalan’s first film, if Soodhu Kavvum hadn’t found any takers. “Kadhalum… is a rom-com without romance; the romance really starts only at the end. Think of it as a light-hearted version of Masaan.” A big grouse Nalan has with Tamil cinema is that there aren’t enough rom-coms. “Even Alaipayuthey isn’t really a rom-com, is it? There’s a lot of external drama, like the father dying.” That’s why 500 Days of Summer is one of Nalan’s favourite films. “The problems in the story are all internal. Almost 80 per cent of Kadhalum… is just about Kathir (Vijay Sethupathi) and Yazhini (Madonna Sebastian).”
The remake rights were bought by producer C. V. Kumar, who Nalan says is “efficient like that”. The Korean producers demanded big money, but negotiations reportedly brought the figure down to less than 50 lakhs. There was no question of adapting the film unofficially and calling it an inspiration because “ethics is there, no? “Soodhu Kavvum’s style, for instance, was inspired by Guy Ritchie. A lot of people tried hard to prove it was a copy.” But they couldn’t. “I really wrote it da dei”. Nalan blames not the directors who copy, but the system that lays emphasis on directors being writers. “We have almost wiped out screenwriters. Avan oru super script vechirkaan pa is what producers say about upcoming directors. You can understand why directors don’t want to reveal the origins of their scripts. I don’t feel angry when they copy; just sorry.”
The real trouble was scriptwriting. Nalan doesn’t write until the story is perfectly formed in his head. “I mope around for months, while I wait for the story to form. To people around me, it seems like I’m idling away,” he laughs. “Scriptwriting is usually a tedious exercise, as I am just transcribing the blocks that are in my head. Kadhalum… was even more difficult, because somebody had already shown me the visuals.” He had to rewrite his first draft, as he wrote it like “an edited film”. “A lot of what you’d call ‘my style’ came in during the revision.” He’s caught off-guard when I ask him what his style is. After some thought, he says, “I suppose you can identify my films by their quirks, by how easily fantasy is rooted in reality.” Like a kidnapper explaining his six rules of kidnapping. “Yes! I think I can make any story feel like it’s happening in your neighbourhood.”
A year and a half later, once the script was ready, it was time for the next arduous task: selecting an actress. Kadhalum… is one of those rare Tamil scripts with a lot of work for the heroine. Samantha was approached, but… things didn’t really work out. “When it comes to Tamil actresses, we don’t have too many choices. The few who are here will probably take offence, but don’t we need at least 10 names to choose from?” But Nalan’s happy that they chose Madonna Sebastian—before Premam became a phenomenon. “She’s a hard worker, and did the role with ease. In school, she must have been a padikkara ponnu.”
With just four days before the film’s release, he’s not the least nervous because this is a “super-safe film”. “I don’t like to sound arrogant, but you’ll see what I mean when you see the film.” He wants to test the boundaries of Tamil cinema with his next, and among the ideas is a musical. “I can make really great musical videos, you know.” He would sound self-promotional, almost pompous, if he didn’t sound so earnest. He sincerely wants to show us what he’s capable of, his eyes glinting like those of a kid eager to show his card house. “It’d be great to make a movie like Minsara Kanavu. If not, perhaps, I’ll convince Vadivelu to work with me.”
He has a word of advice about Kadhalum… “Forget that it is made by the director of Soodhu Kavvum.” And the film after that? “Forget that it is made by the director of Kadhalum…” The idea is to escape getting stereotyped. “If die-hard fans of Soodhu Kavvum dislike Kadhalum… only because they expected to see a similar film again, all I have to tell them is… pongada!”