Bakkiyaraj Kannan sits in front of a wall of LED Televisions. Predictably enough, they’re all playing the trailer of his debut film Remo. Toying with his silver kada, Bakkiyaraj tells me the story of his journey.
“I am a Vellore boy. I did my schooling there, and was obsessed with films.”
It was a steady passion for movies that brought him to Chennai. After a stint at SRM University, Bakki chose to do a filmmaking course at the Film Institute in Adyar. “I spent all my time thinking, watching and reading about films. It prepared me for my life as a director.”
Bakkiyaraj is nervous, he is given to short responses and long pauses. He doesn’t want to make even the slightest misstep. The director hesitates a while before answering questions, his eyes moving towards his PR officer, as if seeking re-assurance. It’s quite clear why. Bakkiyaraj’s next film is with the same production house, after all. In the wake of protests against Remo, the production house that funded the film is in a take-no-prisoners mode. Every conversation with the film’s cast and crew is heavily monitored.
Quite predictably, Bakkiyaraj launches into his usual spiel. I’ve heard him doing this at all the promotional events and to the three other interviewers before me. To his credit, Bakkiyaraj does it with the same enthusiasm – his brown eyes full of gratitude for the men who took a chance on him. “If it wasn’t for RD Raja sir, Anirudh sir, Atlee sir, Siva sir, this wouldn’t have been possible. I am not sure I know how to thank them at all. They made my dreams come true and I am forever indebted to them.”
In a green patterned shirt, Bakkiyaraj – ‘Call me Bakki’ – is far, far away from the lanky man-child who stumbled his way through Naalaya Iyakkunar. Drawn to its unconventional format, and promise of instant glory, Bakki brought with him a motley gang of college friends-turned-crew members for the ride.
“I learnt along the way, mostly. Oru aarvathula nozhanjitten. It was up to me to keep up with the rest of the talent in the show. Before the first round itself, it was very clear to me that this was a competition. A race that I had to win. What else can you do with opportunities like this?”
Since then, Bakkiyaraj has never met an opportunity he did not make use of, or a competition that he did not set out to win. It was useful practice, he says, for the film industry. “When I worked with director Atlee, it was an introduction to an all-new world. Doors were opened for me, and I’d have been an idiot not to make use of it.” When Atlee recommended Bakki’s script to actor Sivakarthikeyan, it was another opportunity the fledgling director capitalised on. “I wanted to do a romantic film with Siva sir. Because in my eyes, he is the ultimate romantic hero. But he’s done so many of these films that I wanted to give a twist to it.”
A Tootsie twist?
Bakkiyaraj is horrified. “I’m not sure where these comparisons are coming from, but I did not plagiarise Tootsie for Remo. “Tootsie has actor Dustin Hoffman don the role of a woman for a chance at TV stardom. In Remo, the hero does it for baser reasons.” Siva’s love for Keerthy Suresh’s character is such that he’d go to the extent of having a gender reversal. “That’s the kind of love I wanted to portray. I chose to show a man who is willing to do the ultimate for his woman.”
Bakkiyaraj is not willing to entertain any questions about the stalker aspects of Siva’s character in the film. It is only after much persuasion that he agrees to respond. “No, not at all. In fact, this is the pure kind of love. One in which certain aspects Siva holds dear are sacrificed. If you look at it, Siva sir’s character is very macho in the beginning portions of the movie. He gives that up later on as Regina Motwani. This sort of thing is not easy. It involves considerable emotional change. That is the real beauty of this makeover.”
Sivakarthikeyan plays Regina Motwani as he does his other characters. There’s a heavy dose of creepy stalking, followed by several instances of breathing-on-the-neck. Much before the film’s release, a petition was created online to boycott it for its overt use of the ‘stalker hero’ trope. While the petition garnered several signatures, it did little to stem the movie’s success. According to Indian Express, the film ‘exceeded the expectations in terms of its worldwide box office collection.’ Its weekend gross was Rs. 33 Crores, making it the 3rd highest weekend collection right after Kabali and Theri. Director Bakkiyaraj is reluctant to comment on accusations of stalking, and instead focuses on the box office numbers. “This film has really cemented Siva sir’s status as the entertainer. We all knew that this would happen, but knowing it and seeing it happen are two very different things, right?”
In a way, Siva’s ‘lady makeover’ as Bakki calls it was a promotional tool, created solely to bring in the ‘family crowd’. Bakkiyaraj freely admits to this too. “When we were in the discussion stage with Sathish sir and Siva sir, they told me that just this character will bring in the family crowd and the children.” Bakki discovered the audience’s fascination with ‘men playing women’ and decided to ‘use it in his script’. “For some reason, they enjoy watching men stumble through the very feminine things in life. I’m not sure why, but this is something that has been there for a long time. KS Ravikumar sir used it in Avvai Shanmughi, and enough time had passed from this film that I felt that an update on the role would be timely.”
Sivakarthikeyan’s Regina Motwani character is written broadly and with very little sensitivity. The character is imagined in a way that allows the audience to laugh at her. Bakkiyaraj sticks to the rule book, and gives Regina all the traits of your usual Tamil cinema heroine. There’s the heavily sexualised demeanour, a nurse costume straight out of a glamour catalogue, and that tinny voice Siva uses for his ‘alter ego’. Keerthy Suresh is window dressing. The real female lead in the film is the one that the male lead transforms into. Bakkiyaraj doesn’t understand the complexities behind such a suggestion. It’s entertainment he’s after and uses done-to-death arguments to prove his point. “Ultimately, we’re here to entertain people. When someone pays Rs. 100 for a ticket, they are looking at it as an investment for three hours of respite from the real lives. And I feel Remo has done that.”
Bakkiyaraj’s earlier short films for Naalaya Iyakkunar are a precursor to the kind of humour Remo showcases. In the former, there’s awkward humour – at times intelligent, and at others, generic. Adida Avala Othada Avala – about the travails of a young man who ‘falls’ in love with a girl he runs into one day is a prime example. This early Bakkiyaraj Kannan film has all the ingredients that passes for commercial romantic comedies these days. Boy falls in love with random girl. Boy stalks girl. Girl falls in love with boy. Boy finds committed relationship frustrating. Bakki, though, insists that this is how relationships play out these days. “I don’t need to imagine scenarios for my stories. I find inspiration in real life incidents. I’ve heard many stories about girls and boys like this from my friends.” The short film’s title comes from an ‘imagination’ scene in which the hero dreams about hitting the girl for putting him through so much trouble. Bakki, predictably, has nothing to say about this. He gives me a tight smile, urging me to move on to another question. It appears that I am no longer among the privileged list of people who can call him ‘Bakki’.
Bakkiyaraj is getting ready for the Telugu launch of Remo. After that, it is back to the storyboard, to work on his second film for RD Raja’s 24 AM Studios. Will Sivakarthikeyan be the hero? As usual, Bakkiyaraj doesn’t wish to commit to an answer. “Maybe,” he tells me.
The LED TVs continue playing Remo’s trailer. And Bakkiyaraj launches into his thanksgiving spiel for yet another person.