Multi-starrers, multiple spoilers, and a multifaceted maverick - Lokesh Kanagaraj on all things Vikram
The director on what it's like to make a pan-Indian film featuring the who's who of Indian cinema talent
They say it is the first question that sets the tone for an interview. Given that Lokesh Kanagaraj's packed evening saw him postpone this interview multiple times due to post-production work, I couldn’t help but begin with, “Saapteengala?” “I have done around seven-eight interviews from the morning, and you are the only person to ask me this,” says Lokesh. The truth is, what new question can be asked to a filmmaker who has been giving interviews left, right, and centre?
And yet, it seemed like a good chance to get him discussing with us the one thing that is mostly overlooked, considering he is the director of a big-ticket film that stars the likes of Kamal Haasan, Vijay Sethupathi, Fahadh Faasil, and Suriya... Himself.
Pressure... what pressure?
Directing an idol is never easy for a filmmaker. And when the idol is someone like Kamal Haasan, the pressure of making a film becomes gargantuan. However, Lokesh is clear that most of the pressure was whittled away when he signed the dotted line. "There was initial pressure, but since Kamal sir agreed to be part of my world and gave me the go-ahead, there has been no looking back. The pressure everyone is talking about came in after the film became pan-Indian. It wasn't the initial plan, but when other industries began looking at Vikram with such expectations, we began feeling the heat."
Practice makes penning perfect
Right from his debut film, Maanagaram, Lokesh has been revelling in the multi-starrer space, the kind that big-ticket filmmakers seem to stay away from. After starting out considerably "smaller" in Maanagaram, and taking a small detour with Karthi's Kaithi, he tackled two superstars in Master, and now, the list gets bigger with Vikram. "We needed four powerhouse performers to play the lead roles in Vikram. The casting in this film was not to capitalise on their reach and individual markets. Also, because I have been continuously working in the multi-starrer space, I didn't feel anything different with Vikram. There are other actors too in the film who play small but important roles that allow them to express themselves. Honestly, it wasn't too tough to write this script, and as a writer-filmmaker, Kamal sir too understood this space. At the end of the day, it is not about personal scores... all of us just want the film to win."
Sifting through the spoils
Mounting a film like Vikram comes with problems such as holding on to the secret of certain cameos or keeping the plot under wraps with fan theories being all the rage. "It is extremely sad when things get leaked. We are bringing these elements into a film only for the audience. The premature release of such surprises is disappointing. Cinema is a collaborative medium that does come with such compromises. But again, if I concentrate on the leaks, I can't make the cinema I want to make. On the other hand, it is super fun to see the various theories that make the rounds. It shows the audience's excitement. Seeing the theories, I feel excited and responsible that I have to justify all their varied expectations. If their theory is right, I am proud of their thinking, and if it isn't, take, for instance, the alter-ego theory of Master, then I am worried if they will be disappointed. It pushes my personal boundaries and nudges me to give it the best shot."
Playing in the big league
Since making quite the splash with Maanagaram, the scale of Lokesh's films has become bigger steadily. Being part of such big-ticket films can be an addiction unto itself, and we have seen even seasoned filmmakers get caught in that quagmire and burden themselves with unsurmountable expectations. "No one is forcing me to make a particular type of film. I have kept myself away from that market cluster. The films in my upcoming slate are stories that I already had in mind. But over a period of time, if I am in a place to explore new content, and experiment with genres, nothing will stop me. The path I am on right now is very exciting. When that excitement dies down, I'll take a break and return only when I am ready."
The perennial quest
What next? What is the title? Who is the lead? Who are the other leads? Who is the composer? The never-ending questions can get tiresome for hotshot filmmakers, but Lokesh, as always, has a different perspective. “When asked for updates, I try to make them understand that breaking such news before the production house irons out the details isn’t the smartest thing to do. But honestly, nothing about cinema will tire me. I am in a place where so many people are interested in what I am doing next, and it is a boon. In fact, this is something Karthi sir and I have been speaking about right from Kaithi. We are in a place that lakhs of people dream of being in. We are blessed and must work towards utilising that opportunity… every single time. Of course, I understand that all this anticipation about my projects majorly comes from the fandom of the stars I am working with. But I do know that there is a certain percentage of people who are my fans too, and that is something I will never take for granted. Becoming a household name has been the biggest blessing of my life so far. It warms my heart to know that I am loved by so many people. I came into cinema for this name and fame, and if I complain that the same name and fame is tiring me, then I should have remained in the comparatively comfortable bank job.”
Pupil to peer to pal
There are no secrets about Lokesh’s adulation for Kamal Haasan. His is well-documented fanboyism, and most conversations about Vikram do turn into documenting this fanboyism a bit more. However, Lokesh, in his candid best, does pose some pertinent points about fanboys making films that are more than just tributes or celebrations of the star. “How long do you think I can tell Kamal sir that I am his fan, and how I have been celebrating him from afar? One day… Two days? After that, it would feel embarrassing for me and boring for him. It is more important that I earn his respect. If we are sincere in our work, it gives us what we deserve. That’s how I see the evolution of my bond with Kamal sir. The way he treats me, or the tweet he posted for my birthday, or the way he wraps his arm around my shoulder to talk about me, and the way he believes me to offer Vikram 3 even before the release of Vikram, all of this didn’t happen because I am his fan. Every single thing that I have earned so far is through my cinema and sincerity and isn’t this the most important takeaway… especially since I have learnt this from someone who has lived by this all through his life... Kamal sir himself!”