When we begin our interview – having just made introductions – RJ Balaji starts calling us Nithya Menon. We gently correct him, and he goes through a few variants before settling on Nirmala Menon. “Yes, Nirmala,” he begins confidently, “Sollunga…”
Balaji also doesn’t take himself seriously. He knows everything is transitory – fame, money, fans, comedy, and even his latest hit, Vadacurry. Did you like it? He suddenly questions us. And when we nod in appreciation, there’s a shout of laughter. “You are super, madam,” he says.
Balaji is quick to shrug off the Vadacurry euphoria, though. “It’s nothing to gloat over,” he adds, “it was no Enthiran or Dasavatharam. I am taking it easy now. There were a lot of offers. But none of the scripts were exciting enough.” Vishnuvardhan’s Yatchan is the only film he is working on right now, and he is not ready to commit to anything else till he gauges the audiences’ reaction to it. Hasn’t Vadacurry reassured him already on that front, we ask. “I signed Yatchan before Vadacurry. And, I cannot be complacent after just one film.”[quote align=’right’] “Parineeti Chopra and Alia Bhatt will be the leads,” he declares, “Anushka Shetty should be the second lead, with Nayanthara in flashback scenes and Trisha in a cameo.”[/quote]
On the sets of Yatchan, he found himself back at school. “Vishnuvardhan will find six different angles for a single scene. He doesn’t believe in sticking to conventions. Most importantly, his comedy is not forceful and doesn’t demand a branded comedian. It is expertly weaved into the script, like Pattiyal and Arinthum Ariyamalum.”
But Balaji had way too many “hero roles” come his way, well before Vadacurry. Most of them had similar plots, and offered fringe benefits. “Multiple-hero movies with three songs, four fights and two foreign location shoots,” he laughs, “mind you, I always get the heroine in the end!” In hindsight, Balaji says he is “game for anything that the audience won’t balk at.”
He wouldn’t mind slipping into new looks, but roles that require him to bare his torso are a definite no-no. Needless to say, no dancing either. But given a choice, he would rather choose comedy over anything else. He gives us two reasons. It “comes easily” to him; and more importantly, “his family can’t bear to watch him do anything else.” Hero roles, the RJ observes stoically, are best suited for the likes of Vijay and Ajith. He loves what Vijay Sethupathi does though – the roles that break convention, and are offbeat.
There are two variants in comedy, he educates us. Superior – where the humour is predictable, and Surprise. Both, Balaji argues, are difficult to pull off unless there is “solid writing”. He loves the wholesome kind – the sly play on language; the Crazy Mohan kind. “Crazy Mohan and Kamal Haasan had a great synergy. Mohan has profound knowledge of Tamil and that shows in his lines.” MMKR, Panchathanthiram and Avvai Shanmugi are his all-time favourites.
He has also watched Ullathai Allithaa a number of times; and co-incidentally, his first movie – Theeya Velai Seyyanum Kumaru – was helmed by director Sundar C. Recently, Munish Khan’s (Ramadoss) antics in Mundasupatti had him in splits. “Genuine humour works anywhere as long as you don’t try hard to make it funny,” he declares, and adds after a little pause, “you can’t be a serious person and do comedy. I watched a Crazy Mohan play where the audience sat stone-faced, like they were watching an India-Pakistan match. The key to good humour is to observe people.” [quote align=’right’]I would rather do comedy than typical hero roles. My family can’t watch me do anything else.[/quote]
Balaji also reads a lot. “I’m the kind that buys a parcel of bondas from a tea kadai and reads the paper while eating it.” He’s drawn to humour – Cho Ramaswamy, Sujatha and S Ramakrishnan – never misses the debates of Pattimandram Gnana Sambandhar, and shows of stand-up comedian Robo Shankar.
RJing was not Balaji’s first choice career. He wanted to wanted to get into journalism, “but that didn’t click.” But he credits all the better things in his life to his stint as an RJ, even if he encountered some brickbats during that period.
[quote align=’left’] “Look at Dhanush, he looks like one of us. He was ready to experiment and has struck gold everywhere. He’s my rockstar.”[/quote]It was while doing a popular movie review segment – 120 – that the film industry sat up and took notice. Here was a Dilton Doiley look alike who’s suddenly creating havoc in the lives of some unwitting producers. Balaji would tell it as it is, careful not to sugar-coat his opinion, and his 2 lakh-something loyal listeners would take to his reviews quite earnestly. A few ardent lady fans, he remembers, had romantic notions about the “face behind the voice”. They thought he was “a Hrithik Roshan” look-alike.
But all that Balaji wanted at that time, was a smooth transition from “a clown to someone whose opinion mattered.” And, he was quite surprised when he was taken seriously. “I have never called a good film a bad film. You know, I could have just said flattering things about a movie and landed myself a role. If people do everything I tell them, I could win an election man.” Finally, it was curtains-down on the segment when a few irate producers began calling him at midnight, demanding an explanation. The show is still on, but he only reviews Hindi and English movies now. [quote align=’right’]I could have just said flattering things about a movie and landed myself a role. If people do everything I tell them, I could win an election man.[/quote]
He seldom listens to himself on radio, though and tries to avoid watching his films – “I keep finding flaws in every scene. I don’t live under the delusion that Balaji is semma super da machan”- but it’s at the studio that he feels liberated all the same. There’s a sense of belonging. “It is RJ Balaji unplugged. I could just go on about a bad day I had, talk about the traffic jam or a friend I met in the morning. Bliss!”
Cinema takes Balaji on a nostalgic trip, he links it to crucial milestones in his life. His mother, he says, was the driving force – she used to take him to 2-3 movies a week, even on the day before exams. He particularly recalls a Diwali when he saw Thalapathi, Guna and Chinna Gounder back-to-back. “We had to make do with tickets in black for Thalapathi and Guna,” he remembers, “When I was in the eleventh grade, I watched Minnale 17 times. I was in love with a classmate and related to Madhavan’s role. I was also the only student to fail 12th grade – and that’s when my friends took me to Thulluvatho Ilamai. I felt much better after watching Dhanush. Come on, didn’t he also have the same issues? Films didn’t change my life, I grew up with them.”
So that is precisely why, Balaji finishes, he would love to cast Dhanush as himself if there was ever a movie made on his life. “Look at him, he looks like one of us. He came without any fanfare and today, he is recognized all over India. He was ready to experiment and has struck gold everywhere. He’s my rockstar.” And of course, we nudge him about the heroine in this hypothetical flick of his. “Parineeti Chopra and Alia Bhatt will be the leads,” he declares, “Anushka Shetty should be the second lead, with Nayanthara in flashback scenes and Trisha in a cameo.”
His plot is simple. “Alia, Nayanthara and Anushka should fight with Parineeti over me.”
The RJ Balaji interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.