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Nag Ashwin Interview: ‘My Challenge Was To Get Keerthy Suresh To Believe In Her Acting Prowess’

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It’s been two weeks since Mahanati (Nadigayar Thilagam) released, and the accolades keep pouring in. Keerthy Suresh and Dulquer Salmaan have been receiving a lot of bouquets for getting into the skin of their characters. The film’s technical team and costume department have been lauded too. However, there have been some niggles in the form of actress Bindu Chandramouli speaking about her role of Pushpavalli not appearing on screen and Dr Kamala Selvaraj, who says the film does not portray her father Gemini Ganesan in true light.

In a post-release conversation, director Nag Ashwin speaks about the process of scripting, the work that went into creating a film of this magnitude, why he edited out portions, and how he’s going to regroup before his next film.

Excerpts from an interview with the filmmaker, who is enjoying some time off after nearly two years of intense work.

The verdict is out, and the film has achieved critical and commercial success. Did you expect it to be this big when you were making it?

Not at all. We were making it with a certain obsession because we were careful not to mess up Savitri’s life or work. I worked for long on the research and script and knew that the movie would become some sort of a reference point. But, we had no idea about how popular it would be at the box office.

All I knew was that I had to tell a story that people already knew, and still make it interesting. Also, when you spend about eight months on research and scripting, you focus on the writing. And, when that translates on-screen, it is magical. In addition, we had time for pre-and post-production; all credit to the production house. Most importantly, we knew we were retelling Savitri’s story.

Nadigaiyar Thilagam Movie Stills Starring Keerthy Suresh, Dulquer Salman
Nadigaiyar Thilagam Movie Stills Starring Keerthy Suresh, Samantha Ruth Prabhu, Dulquer Salman And Others

At what stage of filming did you realise the actors were truly living their characters on screen. That Keerthy got Savitri’s soul right, that Dulquer was as charming as Gemini…

I work on instinct, and I knew they would do justice. Also, during shoot, I called everyone by their character names. The atmosphere was such that it seeps into you.

My challenge, if you could call it that, was getting Keerthy to believe in her prowess as an actress. She is, by default, unaware of her capabilities. A lot of credit to the success of her performance is because of the time she spent in getting everything right, and her sense of perfection. But, beyond all the make-up and costume, even if she turns up in a loose blouse and crumpled sari and without make-up, you won’t see beyond her eyes. I think Mahanati is the first step of Keerthy realising her potential. My favourite scene is the one of Keerthy in the photo studio in a polka dotted sari. I was always very fond of the original photo, and was particular that Keerthy must look as close to that as possible.

With Dulquer, his first scene was the monologue after Keerthy bangs her head while shooting for Devdas. He was effortless. He came on board purely because he was piqued about the period phase of the film.

There have been mixed reactions for the Madhuravani-Antony segment. Did you see that coming?

I wanted this interplay of generations. It was part of the plan to have one generation discovering her. The idea was to reach to the younger people, have Madhuravani and Antony introduce Savitri to the audience. Even Samantha knew she was taking up something risky as she had to stand up to Savitri as a personality in the film. But, the story needed it; the perspective of the film had to come from her. Yes, some might not have liked that strand, but movie-watching is very subjective.

Some reviews felt you had sanitised Savitri’s life, painted her romance with Gemini without any associated ugliness…

There is a truth, and only those involved in it know it. The rest are all versions of those around them, and these might be distorted by time. I tried to follow the truth as much as I could. We tracked letters that Savitri and Gemini wrote, articles of that era… Ultimately, it is a film, and we chose to follow a certain perspective or path.

There’s a lot of stuff we could choose to show or not, but those were not really relevant to the story. Additional themes would have lent it a documentary feel, slowed down the pace.

Is this also why the Pushpavalli portion was edited out?

Yes, during editing I felt this segment was not really pushing the story forward. You are tempted to add a lot of things to the biopic of a well-known actress, but we tried our best to be objective and stick to the flow of the story. Today, people say they hoped the film would go on for another 10-15 minutes. That’s because we were brutal on the editing table.

How difficult was it to snip out scenes, considering the same level of detail went into shooting them?

I started my career as an editor. So, I am okay with taking a call on chopping. What I miss is the audience reaction to those scenes. Now, no one will mention about how I wrote Rekha’s scene… Someday, it will be online as ‘deleted scenes’, but it won’t be in context to the film, with evocative background score…

Do you hope to release a director’s cut sometime?

This version of the film is pretty much a director’s cut. There were a few things I left out, but nothing that I felt must be in the film.

After two years of living with the film, how have you been spending time?

In another year, I hope to get working on another movie. People have short memories, and by then 20 other movies would have got the audience talking. There will be no real pressure to live up to Mahanati. The last time around, after Yevade Subramanyam, I took time off to experiment with cooking. I might do that this time too. I hope to travel, learn something new that I won’t get a chance to otherwise…

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