For some inexplicable reason, I expect Samuthirakani to sport thick black Gandhi glasses and a stiff Khadi kurta. He would be in the middle of a script-writing session, I tell myself, stubbing a cigarette into the ashtray and taking a sip of some strong black coffee. Probably even tearing away pages in disgust.
But in reality, as I enter his room, he is reclining on a powder-white sofa bean bag. In khaki trousers and a striped hooded t-shirt, he looks surprisingly young (VIP’s grim father is still on my mind).
He’s also cheery and relaxed.
There’s no sign of an intense script-writing session. On the contrary, his airy, expansive study-cum-home theatre – done in white – is rather impressive. There’s a lean book shelf, a stack of DVDs, and a brand new Nikon camera and tripod. Some books lie strewn over the sofa, and I spot an adjoining room with towering book shelves.
Samuthirakani is like an open diary. A hardbound dusty one, with patches of smudged ink, pencil sketches, crucial milestones and dates. He also has an incredible memory: of every single person and every important moment in his life. He remembers his first ever trip to Chennai; and the man who offered him a job on his return back home.
The day he met K Balachander ‘sir’.
The film that never took off as he didn’t have “the looks to impress the hero”.
Each one is a searing memory. In fine print. He also quite mercilessly laughs at himself: at this inability to speak English: “Enakku heroines a face panna mudiyadhey. Namakku English pesa varadhu. Konjam katththukanum.”
I begin with his latest class act – Velaiyilla Pattathari. There’s a moving scene in film, just after his wife’s death. Father and son are not talking to each other. Samuthirakani is sitting on the sofa. Suddenly, he sees his son break down, and says – “let him cry to his heart’s content; how long can you keep it all inside?”
Samuthirakani smiles when I mention the scene, and nods in agreement. “I love Dhanush. He told me, ‘neenga panna nallairukkum’. Dhanush gave me inputs. Enakku dhaam dhoomnu nadikka theriyadhu,” he declares calmly, “I also set aside my director’s garb when I am on another set. I go in with a clean slate.”
He also admits that a spate of similar roles were offered to him after VIP. But he didn’t take the bait. “Motathila, director a pudikkanum. Andha team a pudikkanum. Interest illama onnum panna maaten,” he declares casually, “usually I get that vibe during the first meeting.”
That’s why he signed Venkat Prabhu’s Masss. A character that was tweaked at little when Venkat Prabhu watched him in VIP. Samuthirakani plays a villain in Masss: sketching a graph between 30 and 60 years of age.
And, in Ezhara Murugan, he is a villain with undertones of humour.
Apart from this, there’s also his next directorial venture, Kitna, which revolves around six characters in a forest. He plays a pivotal role in the movie, and every character goes through an age graph: 20 to 60 years. It is being planned in all four languages. “Humanity engeyum illa. India la kooda illaye,” he suddenly interjects on a tangent, but with a benign smile.
Scene 1: Flashback
Rs 130 – That was what Samuthirakani had in his pocket when he boarded the first bus to Chennai. His 10th board exams had just gotten over. Chennai was an alien city, and he was armed with only a small note book. “I had jotted down the address of K Bhagyaraj, T Rajendar and others. I only had cinema in my mind.”
At 9.30 pm, he got down at LIC, and started walking towards T Nagar. On the way, he managed to wolf down a few idlis from an old woman’s shop on the road. He remembers settling down near the underground pass way at GN Chetty Road, and the next thing he knew, he was being shaken awake by someone. A policeman. “Oru ettayya.” The first kind soul he met in Chennai. He was taken to Mount Road police station. The next day, early in the morning, after buying him a cup of tea, he was strongly advised to return home. Samuthirakani boarded the bus to T Nagar instead. T17. He wandered aimlessly for two days. “I just had Rs 8. Konjam bayam vandhudhu.” A hotel owner then took pity on him, and offered to fund his return ticket. “I told him I will work there to earn my cash. Rs 35 for 7 days. Andha hotel ippo illa. Part of the highway now.”
Back home, he was gratified when his father offered him support. “Unakkum enakkum theriyadha oru vishayatha avan achieve panna nenaikkaraan,” he overheard his father telling his mother.
And while pursuing B.Sc in Maths, he would frequent Chennai, and make new friends. “Appo, degree mudichadhum, I made a decision. Inime Chennai thaan.”
1992-1999: The Struggle
Enga paathalum insult thaan. Romba olliya irunthen. Sodabuddi glass, yaarume othukallai, he recalls. He would knock on producers’ doors for a role in some movie. He would write four to five scenes and enact them. Onlookers would smile, appreciate him, and send him back. Finally, one day, he tore everything he wrote, gave up the thought of acting and decided to join as an Assistant Director. His handwriting got him his first job – as a copy writer. “I had written my address on the backside of a producer’s business card.”
The same year, Sun TV began operations. He started work as an associate director of a soap, and finished around 3000 episodes.
And one meeting significantly changed his life. “KB sir was visiting the sets. Ellarum Kani Kani nu koopiduvanga – I was the all-in-all there. So he wanted to know who this Kani was.”
Soon, KB called him, and he was on-board as a director for a new TV series on Raj TV. In 2001, he was asked to direct a mega serial scripted by KB – Anni. He helmed 339 episodes. But much before that, he recalls being offered a film by SPB Charan. “Everything was ready. Script, cast, producer. He just wanted me to direct it. But hero kku enaa pidikala,” he shrugs.
Which hero? I interject.
He grins, shakes his head.
“Edhukku adhellam? Tamil cinema la personality mattum thaan gavanikkaraanga. Na enna costume potrukken – adhu thaan mukiyam – ennoda talent illa.” He suddenly adds, “idhukku thaan Malayalam cinema na enakku romba mariyaadhai, There, a director is not valued according to his last Friday hit or flop. He is always respected. Inga, oru flop kuduthena, they don’t even offer you a chair next time.”
A brief silence.
He admits the incident shook him. That’s when Kailasam Balachander, whom he fondly calls “kingmaker”, offered him the micro series. It became a revolution, he says. Virumaandi came after that.
2004: Sasikumar and Subramaniapuram
A month later, he joined the sets of Paruthiveeran as an AD. “Marupadiyum, naan first standard ku poitten.”
He met Sasikumar then. And one fine day, Sasi told him, “Don’t cut your hair. I have a role for you.” He already had three successful shows on TV when Subramaniapuram was offered to him. 30 ADs worked under him. But he handed over the reins to his associates and concentrated on the film. “Risk eduthathan edhavathu nadakum. During the making, naanum Sasiyum nalla pazhagittom. At first, he thought I would interfere. Naan clean slate aa thaan ponen; we had Dindugal biryani and great fun. In the end, he even asked me to direct a scene in which he acted.”
During post production, he would take his Splendor bike and go around town: to show the script of Nadodigal to producers. “Antha bike ippovum enkitte irukku.” Finally Sasi told me, “Let’s wait for Subramaniapuram. If it works I will produce the film.”
On the 25th day after the film’s release, he began work on Nadodigal.
2014: Nimrindhu Nil
Does cinema have the power to change minds? I ask him.
“Kandippa. Every government school has a DVD of Saattai. Aana nalla film support pannathukka yaarume illai. Romba judgmental. Inga nalla act pannanum- camera pinnaadi,” he squirms.
And no, he doesn’t want to make mass films either. “Entertainment panrathukku neraya peru irukkanga.”
Also, KB sir is God. “Balachander sir yarayum mould pannavey mattaru. Whenever we meet, we will discuss stories. Enna thappa news kettalum call pannuven. Even now, sir call vandha naan enthirichu ninnu than pesuven.”
My Films Are Like Me
Samuthirakani’s scripts are always closely guarded, he says. The ADs don’t get to see it, either. “Script enakku than theriyum.” An AD is only briefed about a particular segment, and asked to execute that. He tells them, “Unga filumku unga brains vachukkonga. I welcome suggestions, not their point of view.”
Even the actors, he admits, after some point, start to behave and act like him. “You talk to me, and then watch my film. Screenley hero enna mathiri therivaaru.” On the sets, Samuthirakani reveals, he can’t tolerate complacency. So if he is filming a death scene, he wouldn’t bother with a “good morning.”
His kind of comedy is simple. “Naan oru serious issue discuss panrapodhu, sidelu oru comedy track vachittu solluven. Like Soori’s character in Nimrindhu Nil. Audience enna comment adikkanumnu nenaikkaranglo adhe Soori adichiduvaru.”
There’s no ideal cinema for him. He watches everything. Not many English films, though. “Enakku English theriyathey. Romba rare a pappen. Thookkam varum,” he grins.
And books? I can see a row of unopened hardbound copies on his shelf. Sense and Sensibility is the lone English book. Did you like it? I ask him pointing at the book. “My art director narrated the story to me. Ithu kolantheigal padikkara book nu nenechen. English kathukkaruthakkaka vaanginen,” he offers.
Suddenly, he goes inside the adjoining room and comes back with a thick spiralled red notebook.
Everything is handwritten in neat Tamil, the script of his new film. “I can’t read Tamil,” I tell him. “That’s why I am showing it to you,” he laughs. And he explains slowly. “Ithiley enna ezhuthiyirukkennu enakku mattum than theriyum. Even if you know Tamizh, you won’t understand it,” he grins.
It took him just four days to write this script, he shrugs. “Each and every dialogue is in my mind. It just takes time to give it some form. Mind la visualise pannathukkapuram, apdiye tak taknnu kotti ezhudiduven. Shoot panna time kammi.”
The Saattai script was something that tortured Samuthirakani, though. He was shooting for the Poraali climax, and he couldn’t sleep. Next day, he requested the director to begin the film immediately. If he liked a subject, the director says, he doesn’t fuss about remuneration. “Antha 130 Rs is always there, baaki ellam bonus thaaney. Panam vanthalum appadi thaan think paanuven. I am getting enough work despite hits and flops. If my film succeeds, I will start my next one. If it flops, I go back being an AD. Avalavuthan.”
Samuthirakani has over a 100 pair of shoes, though. And they come with a poignant backstory. “When I was an Assistant Director, I used to walk barefoot. Didn’t have money. Appovey mudiveduthitten, panam varumpothu neraya shoes vangi vekkanamnu.”
He loves to unwind with friends, at a forest near Dindugal: in a tiny hut nestled between two hills.
Recently, he tells me, he read the life history of MGR. He reads it all: fiction, biographies, history..
And yes, he is a huge Rajinikant fan. “Shirt ellam kizhichu pottutu Thalapathi cinema pathein. I used to brave injuries to watch his films.”
Would you direct a Rajini film? I ask him as I get to the door. “Enna question idhu? Innum avarau panrathukku neraya subjects irukku. Ellam eduthu vechirukken.”
But he has never spoken to the Superstar till date. “Oru vaati avanga settukku vanthapothu, I went into hiding. Enna pesaruthu? Yethavathu onnu irukkanam illeya?”
The Samuthirakani Interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.