It has been 18 long years since Tamil cinema witnessed an unabashed coming-of-age film. It has been 18 years since the audience witnessed a reticent individual who nobody expected, not even in their wildest dreams, will reach the peak he has, in his career. The film: Thulluvadho Ilamai. And the star, Dhanush K Raja of course.
On May 10, 2002, Thulluvadho Ilamai hit the screens and saw thousands flocking to cinema halls. The early 2000s saw new talent being given the space to showcase their work; it’s what paved the way for newer and younger filmmakers of this generation too. Thulluvadho Ilamai had a phenomenal run in theatres, completing about 200 days and was well-received by audiences. The film though walked a rough road before it hit the theatres. It was shot over about two years, with a cast comprising first-timers fresh out of school. Nobody really knew what and why they were performing or speaking a particular dialogue. They did not receive anything short of sharp criticism, Dhanush bearing the maximum brunt for his tender looks and peculiar expressions.
Chennai-based ‘Raack Academy Of Dance’ played an important role in Dhanush’s debut film and this is a story less known to people. The academy’s members also played a major part in his debut Thulluvadho Ilamai, be it as choreographers or as supporting cast. Prior to his debut, the actor accompanied the dance crew too for shows.
Ramash Balaji, founder and creative director of Raack Academy of Dance says the opportunity came to the team unexpectedly and brought them many more offers. “We used to dance in several institutions and were pretty much an established group. One fine day, two very simple looking people walked into our studio. It was Selvaraghavan sir and his assistant, asking for a requirement, for people to act in Kasthuri Raja sir’s upcoming film,” Ramash says. “We were aware of Kasthuri Raja and his films, so we agreed to be a part of it. They also looked wanted our team to choreograph the songs for the film and asked us to perform certain styles. They assumed we’d perform the usual mechanical steps that we’ve seen in over 100 films, but to their surprise, we performed some fresh and unique styles that hadn’t been experimented with before.”
“We were introduced to Dhanush only later,” he adds, “He joined us prior to shooting for perfecting the dance styles and body language that Kasthuri Raja sir wanted in the film. In fact, Abhinay, the second hero in the film is also from our crew. So it turned out to be family more than anything. Dhanush was the epitome of simplicity back then just as he is today. He performed with us for several shows, carried his own costume bags, and bonded very well with the entire team of Raack.”
“When Thulluvadho… began, most of the songs were handled by our team and unexpectedly we even took charge of the costumes, especially for the ‘Idhu Kadhala’ song where they travel on bikes, dance in the water and move about constantly. I wanted to give them costumes resembling the clothes of pop star Ricky Martin, but the costumer ended up giving us clothes that would suit the Halloween theme (laughs). I anticipated the mishap and took clothes from our studio for safety purposes and ended up using it in the film. The black sleeveless, white, and red ones are all from our Raack Studio.”
“The song Theenda Theenda from TI, which we shot entirely in Ooty, was widely appreciated for the sensuality it depicts. I would say there are two reasons for this. One was that we chose to depict strong emotions but also not make it visually sleazy whatsoever, and second, was none other than Dhanush. He added so much value to my dance styles and withstood the freezing temperatures to give a wonderful output. It was my first film as a choreographer too, so I was also experimenting slightly but I did have a little experience from basic ad shoots and programmes that I had choreographed for. We had buckets of hot water ready once the shot was over to relieve the actors and even my assistants from the cold. We shot for almost 30 hours non-stop and it was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had.”
“The best part about Dhanush is that he will get into the skin of the character instantly. And that is a trait I have failed to see in my other students to this date. Nobody becomes the character itself like Dhanush. If you notice, he actually doesn’t look into the camera while dancing, because he forgets himself when his legs start kicking. In fact, I think Dhanush’s capabilities are more than, say, Kamal Haasan. He can even turn into an inanimate object and still provide a splendid performance. It’s not some developed skill, I feel it’s an innate talent. Those directors who understand that can extract any kind of work from him.”
“We have always had only interesting and lovely moments with the actor, Selva sir, and their team. I remember going to his house for the discussion for the songs of Thulluvadho… and Dhanush had just returned from his final 12th exam. He was standing in a khaki pant and white shirt completely oblivious to what was happening in his house. We would laugh at Prabhu’s innocence… oh! We knew him only as Prabhu, and not as Dhanush.”
Of Dhanush’s grounded nature, Ramash adds, “Dhanush is very transparent about his emotions and does not hold anything inside. Once I was in Malaysia as a choreographer for The International Tamil Film Awards (ITFA) ceremony and Dhanush had also come for shooting his film. I was casually shopping with my team and I saw that shoot was happening and noticed Dhanush sir on set. So I quietly went and joined the crowd to witness what the crew was up to. Within minutes he noticed, called, and hugged me, halted shoot for about 20 minutes, introduced me to the entire crew, spoke with me for a while, and only then proceeded with shoot. Why should he halt his work for a choreographer? Won’t he be racking up exorbitant production costs and other charges? But he did. That’s how he is. If he has a liking towards you, he’ll do anything for you. On the work front, he’s a different personality altogether. He knows how exactly to position himself. Without that knowledge, there’s no way he could’ve ventured into several other departments like production and direction. He had that urge to prove all his naysayers wrong after all the ruthless negativity they spewed on him,” he adds.
He recalls something else that moved him: “Once Kasthuri sir had come for one of our shows as a guest. It was after Dhanush had won a National Award for Aadukalam and his most popular song ‘Oththa Solala’ was a sensation. He went up on stage and said that the reason for Dhanush’s success was not just his effort but involves the contribution from several others, adding that I was the most important of them. It was an emotional moment for me. However, we haven’t used his name for promoting our academy and haven’t wanted to either. I just want to cheer him from afar.”
Ramash was originally a part of Dhanush’s next film Kadhal Kondein, but the film was delayed for several reasons. “In the meantime, I had given my call sheet to Kalaippuli S Thanu’s production Punnagai Poove, so I couldn’t choreograph for the film. Nevertheless, Selva sir forced me to take up a small role in the film. I had no choice but to do it,” he laughs. “I’m also close to the other popular director-actor duo Vetrimaaran-Dhanush. Vetri and I were college batchmates and I remember visiting the two on the sets of their first collaboration Polladhavan. And now they stand tall, four films down.”
“His career graph makes me extremely happy, despite the rise and dips. He learned to pick films that showcased his skills. I think that paved the way for his foray into Bollywood before any of his contemporaries got the chance to. It was slow and steady, but he ultimately got there. In my opinion, his biggest success was when critics from the North and audiences too started comparing Amitabh and Dhanush for their performances. What else could someone who was deemed unfit for the profession in his initial stages ask for?” Ramash asks.
(Out of the blue, his young daughter nudges him and asks Ramash who he is talking so proudly about… He laughs) “She’s wondering who I’m fawning about because she’s never seen me appreciating anybody like this. And I cannot help but agree that it’s true. Dhanush is and will always be one of my best students.” Favourite films of the actor? “Kadhal Kondein, Pudhupettai, Vada Chennai, and Asuran. But if you ask me which my all-time-favourite is, Kadhal Kondein makes the cut.”
We then spoke to Veghan Rajesh, a crew member of Raack Academy and Thulluvadho Ilamai. Rajesh says, “He was very friendly and sincere just as he is today, but since we were all young, we didn’t really notice much about each other. I remember that he never gave up if he was not able to crack a particular step. For the ‘Idhu Kadhala’ song, we shot a sequence at Uthamapalayam inside a lake at night. He was running a high temperature but had to dip into freezing water for the shot. Keeping in mind the production costs, the crew that had assembled, and the sole reason that the low-budget film was extremely important to the family, he did it without any complaints. I am looking back at this today, but back then I did not pay heed to any of this. What I realised from this is that despite being young, he had a plan and worked on it and that’s the reason for his phenomenal growth today. He also always used to tell me that his biggest dream is to work in a hundred films in his lifespan.”
He adds, “We lost touch after that but looking back at those days, all I can say is that he is an inspiration not just for me, but also for his fans, aspiring actors, and everybody who wants to taste success. He proved how meticulousness, right from the beginning helps you achieve your goal ultimately. Back in the time when Dhanush sir used to participate in dance shows along with us, he was a part of this dance play called ‘Sankalp’ that we performed at Music Academy, Chennai. I had to perform a portion that was crucial to the play and I did just as I usually would. After the play, he walked up to me and appreciated me for it wholeheartedly. I thought he was pulling my leg, but he was genuine about it. And it didn’t just end there. When I got the opportunity to act as one of Ravi Krishna’s friends in 7G Rainbow Colony, he congratulated me on my work during the screening of the film!”
He adds, “I learned from him how important it was to appreciate your colleagues and since then I haven’t denied myself the opportunity to appreciate someone. I never expected to be appreciated by someone who is one of the most versatile actors of today. When I watched Pudhupettai, I was frankly disappointed as to why he took up a role way beyond his age. Something was unsettling and didn’t leave me at peace. But all the other people including SJ Suryah sir, who I met for a dance choreography back then, were stunned and in awe of his performance and spoke to me about it constantly. So I thought maybe I’m the one with the wrong perception and watched the film a second time. And this time, I went back on my word. It was mindblowing, honestly. Pudhupettai stands tall despite being more than ten years old now.”
“During Kadhal Kondein, we were shooting at SRM College Campus and we used to spend hours together talking about everything under the sun. He was a huge fan of Yuvan Shankar Raja’s; just as much as I was. I vividly remember he used to listen to ‘Poi Solla Manasukku’ from April Maadhathil almost always when on the set. He’d plug in his earphones and listen to it given the chance and at every break. I don’t even know if he remembers this (laughs).”
“I usually fear Selvaraghavan sir’s shooting spot and there can be nothing short of pin-drop silence when you’re working on his set,” Rajesh remembers, “But this one day when we were shooting for the duster scene in Kadhal Kondein, all of us clapped for Dhanush sir’s performance unconsciously. Selvaraghavan sir immediately turned to us smiled and asked “We’re going on the correct track, right?” and we all had a hearty laugh. It was a wonderful moment for all of us. In the theatre, it was way better, but getting to witness the scene on the spot gave me a different kind of high.”
“After TI he had signed on the dotted line for Kadhal Kondein, Dhanush visited us with the photoshoot stills he had clicked for the film and called us out to drink some lemon juice at our usual chilling spot. He’d either visit us on his Yamaha bike or Premiere car. He used to say that if he hadn’t been signed for KK, there’s a high chance he would have been a part of our dance academy. In my opinion, he was clever enough to pick varied scripts to showcase the different shades of himself at the beginning of his career. Be it Balu Mahendra sir’s Adhu Oru Kana Kaalam or a film like Aadukalam or even a comedy entertainer like Thiruvilaiyaadal Aarambam, he gradually garnered a set of fans for every genre. Business-wise the films may have its ups and downs, but as an actor, he always manages to entertain, right from his maiden project TI till his recent Pattas. It’s the entertainment value that has also gotten him the ticket to both Bollywood and Hollywood, which otherwise is a herculean task.”
“My favourite films of the actor? The list is never-ending but my top ones are Kadhal Kondein, Pudhupettai, Asuran, and Aadukalam,” Rajesh signs off.
After some failed attempts, I finally got to speak to Suresh Moorthy, one of the choreographers at Raack Academy of Dance, who was also a part of the TI dance team. He was candid about the star’s career choices, why they lost touch and his ‘priceless memories’ from the shoot.
“When the opportunity came, we were bursting with excitement because the project had Kasthuri Raja sir as director and the young maestro Yuvan Shankar Raja composing music. The fact that it was also our debut in the film industry had us excited. We received a cassette with the songs and began work immediately for the dance sequences. Our studio reeked peak levels of energy and enthusiasm the whole day (laughs).
Like the others, Suresh too says that Dhanush, Selvaraghavan, and Kasthuri Raja came across as simple people. “I used to motivate him a lot and always asked him to come to the front so that he could do away with his inhibitions. I have never fancied the concept of ragging, right from my college days, and always believed in helping others. I helped him grow too I think.”
“You can ask any Tom, Dick, and Harry if they’d be willing to act and high chances are that they would agree. Every human deep down wants to feature in front of a camera but not everyone’s got the talent. Dhanush is one-of-a-kind and I think the main reason is his brother Selvaraghavan. You need to struggle to satisfy him. Many of them claim that his filmy background is the reason for his success but I beg to differ. Even without the background, he would have reached heights because he’d got the skill. There are a lot of actor’s sons who are still striving to make it big. Has their background helped them? Certainly not. It’s always and only talent that works here, and Dhanush is a standing example for that.”
He adds, “When we went out of the city for shooting, men and women at our place of accommodation would openly question if he was playing the lead. He wouldn’t show it out, but he’s naturally bound to feel upset over such things. It was always (and still is) a preconceived notion that only a good-looking lad should play the lead. He looks all classy and dapper now, but he had already broken down all of these standards back then solely with his acting prowess. He proved that looks are nothing when compared to talent. You can say it instigated the influx of more such talented boy-next-door faces like him.”
“The last I spoke to him was for Pudhupettai when the team had called me over to comment on how the songs have come out for the film. I recently even tried contacting him but it was near impossible, given his current stature. We were a good team, but we had to dissolve because Ramash did not find much interest in cinema. If not, we would’ve gone a long way together.”
Speaking of his TI experience, he says, ” The song ‘Neruppu Koothadikuthu’ was actually assigned to me, but unfortunately, I had to stop work on the song halfway because our team had to travel abroad. To date, I would call that song my career’s best despite several other songs that I had the opportunity to work for. I have had a hard time choreographing several other songs owing to silly and needless politics and yet given the best output, but my first and hassle-free ‘Neruppu Koothadikuthu’ stands at number one, regardless.”
“My friends called me for the shoot of Pudhupettai when they were filming the ‘Neruppu Vaayinil’ song at Mount Road. I was completely out of touch with him, and I didn’t expect him to even recognise me at the spot. We were standing by the side of what looked like a small dilapidated building because there was hardly any space elsewhere. The crew was preparing for the shot with Dhanush on top of the building. Suddenly, he looked down and noticed my friends and me and called out to us. When he said ‘Hey Suresh, how are you?’ I stood speechless. He asked us to wait and said he’d join us after that shot was over. I can never forget that day.”
“Unpopular opinion, but I want him to cut down on the rowdyism and sickles because it is easy to influence an audience when someone who looks like a boy-next-door has been trusted with the responsibility of putting across a point. The younger generation thinks it’s not wrong to indulge in certain activities when their ‘Thalaivar’ himself is doing so. It is goodness and positivity that should be spread more than brutality because that is what our ruthless society needs right now.”
He adds, “He has proved himself completely and doesn’t need to do a lot of commercial films, in my opinion. Yes, it is definitely a business decision, but there are content-oriented films that do good business too. It would be perfect if he stuck to a few commercial ones and picked more of content-oriented scripts. Fortunately or unfortunately, it also depends on the audiences and what they expect from their heroes.”
“Maryan, Shamitabh, and Kadhal Kondein are his best films in my opinion. I also love his directorial venture Pa Paandi. I also enjoy the songs he sings and the lyrics he pens.”
Just as I am about to end my interviews at Raack Academy of Dance, the team insists I speak to someone important. Someone who isn’t a part of the Academy but has travelled with the star since Thulluvadho Ilamai. He has also gone on to direct Dhanush in three big films. And what’s more? He officially reveals to us that he’ll be directing ‘Dhanush44’ which is to be bankrolled by Sun Pictures. Here’s what director Mithran Jawahar has to say.
“I knew Dhanush sir way before we started filming for Thulluvadho Ilamai. My journey in the industry actually began with director Mahendran sir and eventually led to an association with Selvaraghavan sir. Many people aren’t aware of this but his Kadhal Kondein was the first film to go on floors, even before TI and we had zeroed in on Prabhu Deva sir to essay the titular role. But for several reasons, we had to halt work on the film. In the meantime, Kasthuri Raja sir announced TI and Selva sir asked me to work on that project too. By then, I had become like family to the trio. We would play cricket and chat endlessly about many things. I also remember that Kasthuri Raja sir had bought a beautiful house in Saligramam at that time. Without the slightest bit of guilt, we made it our hangout spot. You could always find us in a torpid state at that house (laughs). The shooting of TI was also like that. It was a fun ride that all of us enjoyed thoroughly.”
“I honestly was not pinning hopes on the film at any point, so I was shocked to see the response after it hit screens. TI was a beautiful journey even in the literal sense. We had travelled to so many locations for shooting—Kotagiri, Chennai, Kodaikanal, the colleges, and so much more. Post TI we began work on KK. Since TI turned out to be a blockbuster, we decided to replace Prabhu Deva sir with Dhanush.
Mithran says, “I didn’t expect he’d turn out to be a top star in the Indian film industry, nor that I would work with him in the future. I only had a tiny dream to make a few films and that’s why I had decided to join Selvaraghavan sir and worked along with him on films like KK and 7G Rainbow Colony.” He adds, “When we were shooting for Selva sir’s Telugu debut Aadavari Matalaku Arthale Verule I was offered the chance to helm the remake of the film in Tamil. It was when Dhanush sir’s call sheet was available and they were looking for a director to do the project under their home banner. Selvaraghavan sir wanted to refrain from directing the film in Tamil and only stuck to penning the script. When Kasthuri Raja sir kept pondering on who to approach, Selva sir suggested my name and asked me to take up the project. Fortunately, nobody objected and did not bother about the fact that a big project was being entrusted with a debutant. They all had immense trust in me. I really have to thank Selva sir, Kasthuri Raja sir, and Dhanush for that opportunity. Usually, a debutant is relegated to a small budget film with a little-known cast but for me, it was just the opposite. I had Dhanush, Nayanthara, Raghuvaran and so many other top artists performing. It was truly magical.”
He adds, “We hadn’t been in touch after KK for a short while because we were working on other projects. In fact, I met him after the gap only at the photoshoot of our film which happened at AVM studios and it was smooth as always. Work on the film also commenced eventually. He’ll constantly pull my leg and leave no room for awkwardness or any kind of formality. Not just with me, but I’ve noticed this with others too. He has never had the mindset that he’s a big star even though he has the taxing pressure of producers, directors, production managers, and so many other film stakeholders. A ‘cinema kalapadam illadha star’ is what I’d called him (a star who hasn’t been adulterated by cinema). When we’re on set, it’s only natural that there is a bustling crowd. If someone knocks against him by mistake, he’d just brush it off and go on about his work without creating any fuss. Such things call for me to take a step back and work on myself. He’s gone places, literally, with Bollywood and Hollywood films but hasn’t let it get the best of him. He always says it’s just another language and remains modest. Not every day do we find a South star being invited to a foreign industry, right?”
“We’re ardent Ilaiyaraja sir fans. We used to say that we were his special fans and constantly keep sharing his songs and listening to them together. He’ll even call me to ask which film a song belongs to. We had gone to Bangkok to shoot for Yaaradi Nee Mohini and it was a pretty chill day without work. He called me alone and causally gifted me an Ipad saying ‘Happy Birthday Vinod’ recalling one of the dialogues that I had taught on the sets of Kadhal Kondein (laughs). I was awestruck and didn’t know what to say. He just gave it and asked me to listen to Raja sir’s songs and walked off. I uploaded all of Raja sir’s songs in it back then and heard it relentlessly. I still have the Ipad with me even though it has been damaged beyond repair (laughs). It didn’t matter even if I didn’t work with him on a project, we still shared the same bond. Even when he tells me out of his own accord that we haven’t worked in a long time, I never use our friendship as a chance to seek an opportunity. I’d praise him for his work and growth and tell him that we can associate at any point in his career. That’s the bond we share. All the films we’ve done so far have magically taken form on its own and isn’t a result of my approaches.”
“Dhanush sir is not one who can be confined to four walls. I haven’t spoken to him about it, but I’m sure the hiatus is making him go berserk (laughs). But honestly, I did not foresee this escalation in his career. He was more like my classmate and who would imagine that such a friend is going to go places 18 years down the lane? All you’d ever think of is which film to watch at the cinemas or where to galavant in the city (laughs). And that’s precisely what we did. I remember crying unbeknownst after watching the response his Kadhal Kondein got at theatres.”
“In Yaaradi Nee Mohini and Kutty he’d only look at his job and not interfere in any other department. He’ll only ask for the motive of the scene and what the character has to do for it. That’s the reason why they talk about Yaaradi Nee Mohini to date, even at this meeting I just finished. One night, I suddenly got a call from Dhanush sir asking me to come to his house. I didn’t question him and went ahead to meet him. He tells me that he’s signed a film with Sun Pictures and the deal has been sealed. I stood perplexed. Then he asks me ‘You’re okay with directing me, right?’. My mind voice was, ‘Who wouldn’t be okay with such an opportunity’ (laughs). My happiness had no boundaries and I told him I’m always willing to direct him.
“He didn’t ask me whether I would do the project, he went ahead, confirmed, and informed me about it when everything fell into place. That was a real surprise for me. It hasn’t been officially announced as yet. But I’m glad to reveal this as a birthday gift for the star.”
“I pray for his good health, wealth, and many more successful outings in his career wholeheartedly as a fan, friend, and director”.
“My favourite films of the actor are Pudhupettai and Asuran. They have left me stunned,” he adds.