Rathna Kumar on Kamal Haasan-starrer Vikram: A good question can change a climax
Rathna Kumar has co-written the story and dialogues of Kamal Haasan-Lokesh Kanagaraj's Vikram, and in this interview, he speaks about having the actor speak the lines that he had worked on
The Rathna Kumar-Lokesh Kanagaraj combination is unique in how they are both well-known filmmakers, and yet, have been a part of each other's projects. "After the release of Meyaadha Maan and Maanagaram, we decided to work with each other. I was a part of the discussion team for Kaithi. He knows how much I like Vijay sir, and so, when Master got confirmed, he didn't even ask if I wanted to write. He told me I should. We share a great rapport," says Rathna, who has now been an instrumental part of Lokesh Kanagaraj’s latest film, Vikram.
Tell us about how Vikram came to be.
I knew Vikram would turn out to be unique, given that Lokesh is a huge fan of Kamal sir. I wondered what I could bring to the project, given that Lokesh himself has been dreaming and preparing for this project for ages. During the lockdown, he came up with a script that he shared with Kamal sir, who liked it. Kamal sir had also told him of his original aim to make many films with the Vikram character from the 1986 film, but then, realised that it was all too ahead of its time. This intrigued Lokesh a lot and he took me to Pondicherry to develop a script. We shared the final draft with Kamal sir who respected Lokesh's world and offered to come in only as an actor. Lokesh did improvisations, of course, and then, he would share them with me, telling me that he was prepared to be scolded by me (smiles).
What did you bring to the table?
Though it was Kamal sir who gave that initial idea with the Vikram character, we still needed to develop it from scratch. There were places where an idea would be brief, but we would stretch it to make it more impactful. The story began with multiple characters, and while writing Amar's character, Lokesh envisioned Fahadh Faasil playing it. For Sandhanam's character, we approached Lawrence sir initially, but slowly, as this character grew, we decided to go with Vijay Sethupathi sir. We wanted him to look different from what he did as Bhavani in Master and I think this has worked out well.
Given Kamal Haasan’s versatility, was it a challenge to try and show him in a unique way?
Though the characters are written with layers, depth, and even easter eggs, Vikram is a straightforward action film. Within that space, the actors have performed and given their best. We intentionally didn't want to create a stage for the seasoned actor, and yet, we were able to include some fanboy moments. Lokesh was clear that Kamal sir has done it all and as it's been years since he did an action film, we would stick to the genre.
Whatever we wrote was made better by Anbariv masters. Kamal sir pathi sollave vendam (I don't have to tell about Kamal sir). We felt like kids in a theme park when we got a chance to visit the Vishwaroopam weapons garage. It created within us a fascination for guns, and it has grown to the extent of undertaking rifle training and getting an arms license. We were able to use elements that Kamal sir couldn't add in his previous films. There's even a Marudhanayagam element. For Vishwaroopam, sir added a device to the prop guns which makes your body vibrate while you hit the trigger and we used this for Vikram as well.
Is it difficult to write women characters in such a genre?
We cannot force certain aspects simply with representation in mind. Sometimes, the story does call for a saviour angle and how a man becomes the chosen one. Within such a story, Gayathrie's character is a good one. Apart from her, there are a few other surprises as you know.
What do you think Lokesh appreciates in you as a writer?
Be it Master or Kaithi, I knew that Lokesh liked certain aspects of me as a writer. I don’t like to add something just because he would like it. I treat characters based on how they would exist in my world. For example, when I write a scene involving Fahadh's character twisting the arm of a bad guy to his back and pushing him against a wall to get information out of him, Lokesh would change it to twisting the arm, breaking the little finger, and stuff a piece of cloth in that guy's mouth before interrogating him. Lokesh has the story sorted and how to detail it, and how to arrive at different plot points organically is where he likes a second opinion. A good question or a character can change a climax. We would sometimes force a character to tell something that the character wouldn't usually tell. Finding the right way to plug in our favourite lines is a challenge. I remember how I used to frown on the sets of Master when my writing would get tweaked. Writer Pon Parthiban would remind me that my job was over already. But in Vikram, it was a pleasure to see how Lokesh improvised a scene based on Kamal sir's mannerisms. Lokesh is smart that way and he only needs people he can trust to question his creative decisions.
What writing was done specifically for Kamal Haasan?
The way we got Kamal sir to speak certain lines or how we made him underplay is the surprise factor. Lokesh excels at action, and so, it was making Kamal sir speak our lines that excited me the most. That's why I am happy about the reception the first half has received. Scenes involving Fahadh sir or Vijay Sethupathi anna are conversational, but with Kamal sir, they are statements addressing certain topics. Sir gave his inputs as well and they ended up being the highlight of the scenes. Namba aaraichi panni thedirupom, adha assault-ah sollitu poiduvaaru (We would have found something after research, but he would just speak of all of it with ease) Kamal sir. The film has procedural dialogues, heated conversations, and emotional admissions... There are instances where we changed his dialect to make him talk like the person he was talking to, and I think it worked out better than we expected.
And then, there’s the Suriya cameo...
We always knew it was going to be hard to keep it a secret. The film has surpassed all hype and Suriya sir's cameo is an important reason for that. Be it his physique, voice, or the power of his eyes, we were able to capitalise on his strengths even if for a brief moment. There are so many people in that scene, and he has given an arresting performance.
Moving away from Vikram, the films you have directed have been quite different from each other.
It will be the same going forward as well. I have a mass masala film, an experimental story, and a small studio film in mind. I grew up watching all types of cinema, and I want to make them in different genres. My upcoming film, Gulu Gulu, with Santhanam anna is quite different from what we both have done so far. The way Santhanam anna has approached his character is interesting as there are a lot of quiet shots that demand a strong performance. The film will have the same fun and energy of his previous films, but it will be rather different. We have tried action in this film as well. Lokesh oda irundhu, adhu kooda varalena eppadi (After being Lokesh's company, how can I not do this)? He also helped me with the story. Many director friends like Madone Ashwin, PS Mithran, and Ravikumar have all read and given inputs too.
If someone says a certain genre is my strength, I wouldn't want to do it again. After Meyaadha Maan, many approached me for a similar light-hearted film and after Aadai, they wanted me to do women-centric films or survival dramas. Doing something new is how I find excitement in my work.
Lokesh has confirmed that his next film is once again with Vijay. Will you be a part of that as well?
I think I will know it once again en route to Pondicherry (laughs). As of now, I know the idea of that film, but we haven't had the chance to discuss it in detail. After my film, we will catch up once again. Appo avan keppan-a, illa naan keppena nu theriyum (Then we will know if he will aske me, or if I would ask him).