No conversation with director R Balki is complete without the mention of Ilaiyaraaja. Like the addictive interludes he comes up with, the composer’s name comes up unobtrusively, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to listen to another gem that Balki has unearthed. Like ‘Chinna Paya Vayasu’ from Kidaa Poosari Magudi.
“This has been playing on loop for some time now,” shares Balki, who’s all set for the release of his ambitious PadMan, a biopic of Coimbatore-based social entrepreneur A Muruganantham, who fought against all odds to put in place a system to provide better menstrual hygiene in India and some parts of the world.
In one sense, the film seems a departure from Balki’s urban storyscape, which is peppered with a charming casualness, unusual but everyday love, and dialogues that sound more like a real conversation than something that is scripted. “This film is cool too. In essence, this is a love story. A love that is so intense, a man is willing to go to any lengths to make his wife’s life more comfortable. The topic is introduced through that setting,” explains the director.
PadMan, starring Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte and Sonam Kapoor, among others, is set in the beautiful landscape of Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh. There have been debates on social media if there was a need to move the film away from its original setting of Tamil Nadu, but Balki has an answer for that. “See, I speak Tamizh too. Just imagine, how much I would have got blasted had I set the film in a village in Tamil Nadu and got the characters to speak shuddh Hindi. Or, get my protagonist to speak, Padosan style. Just imagine the amount of ridicule that we would have faced. Most importantly, it would take away everything from why the film is being made — the cause. I think this is the first mainstream film in the world to speak about menstrual hygiene and periods. This way, the film reaches more people. But, I really wish it gets remade in Tamil and other languages. This is a story that has to be told.”
The film, says Balki, is vastly different from Twinkle Khanna’s story ‘The Sanitary Man of Sacred Land’, which featured in her book The Legend Of Lakshmi Prasad. “The film and the book are completely different adaptations of his life.” The director wrote the film in Maheshwar and shot it there. “It’s a beautiful place in central India, and we shot at the Rehwa Society where Maheshwari saris are woven.”
Ask Balki, what about Muruganantham’s story that struck a chord with him, and he says that a man who has such concern about a woman’s health, and is willing to suffer ridicule for that ought to be celebrated. And, Akshay, he says, has many traits of Muruganantham. “The biggest macho hero is the one who dedicates his life to improving the lives of women. In fact, a line in the film goes: It’s only when he wakes up the inner woman in him that a person truly enjoys being a man (Mard banne ka mazaa apne andar ki aurat ko jagaane se hi aati hai)”
Balki is known for his dialogues, sometimes irreverent, sometimes pushing the envelope. “I don’t write a screenplay. I write my scenes with dialogues. I write like how people would talk in real life. So, they are pretty organic. I never go to the next scene before writing the dialogues of the previous one.” That process, Balki says, is most enjoyable. “Characters in films should speak the way we do in real life. That’s my opinion. I’ve never been a fan of dramatic writing. Therefore, I can’t write that way.”
This film also marks a departure in the music department. Balki takes a break from his long-time collaborator and forever love Ilaiyaraaja. “This film is based in the interiors of central India and I needed that sound. Amit Trivedi is familiar with that, and has come up with amazing home-grown music that suits the milieu.”
“That said, Raja Sir is my all-time dream music director. I work to the beats of his music. I’m always listening to numbers such as ‘Valaiosai’, the songs of Punnagai Mannan, Gitanjali… I think we are lucky to have been gifted with his music. There’s no substitute for his music, and on my sets, everyone listens to him.”
Balki has always focussed on getting a good cast, and this film is no different. “I maintain that correct casting is getting 99 per cent of the job done. I got phenomenal performers in this film. Akshay might not speak of various schools of acting, or method acting, but he’s an intuitive performer who absorbs a character and turns into it. Radhika plays a role diametrically opposite to what she is in real life, and she’s done a great job. Her character is deeply conservative, and despite moving away from her husband because of his experiments, she will still win sympathy because she’s lent the character much life. Sonam plays this cool person who’s doing something nice in this whole journey.”
Balki admits that while this film saw him bat in a different field, he has not given up his style of storytelling that is essentially simple at heart. “I opted for a very clean method of storytelling. The biggest adventure was Muruganantham’s. I did not have to add any drama, just some cinematic elements.”
The rest of his crew is stellar too. There’s PC Sreeram handling cinematography; one can only wait to see how the master magically recreates the colours and patterns of the Maheshwar fort on the big screen. Then, there’s co-writer Swanand Kirkire. “But, ultimately, it is Muruganantham’s film, and we never forgot that.”
The entrepreneur, who has won many awards and been conferred with the Padma Shri, visited the sets and played an active role when shots of the machine he invented were being canned.
With a story like this, Balki was particular to not get into the documentary mode or create a film that speaks about the country’s problems. “I wanted to make a film that would entertain as it educated. It has to move and provoke people in the country’s heartland into action.”
Of course, no conversation with Balki will conclude before asking him the stock question. When will he make a movie in Tamil?
“I would love to. Dhanush and I keep talking about it, we hope to get there soon. But, yes, I’m teaming up with Raja Sir again for another project.” Which one? Wait, PadMan first, he says.
The R Balki interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.