I watched Manam in May 2014. A Telugu film starring the Akkineni family, with a stupefying plot. Naga Chaitanya in his previous birth was Nagarjuna’s father, who in turn was Nageshwar Rao’s father, in his previous birth. An emotional tale of reincarnation, Vikram Kumar’s story made people take notice of him. Even Yaavarum Nalam had a supernatural element in it. Now, he has brought us 24, a science fiction film about time travel. The trailer, curiously enough, opens with scrambled mathematical equations. We talk to Vikram Kumar about his affinity towards the out-of-the-ordinary.
Doing a science fiction film was on top of my list for a long time. And time travel is arguably the most exciting part of science fiction. Who hasn’t, at some point in their lives, thought about time travel? God lets us control everything, except time. It’s something we cannot touch. How many times have we left an exam hall wishing we could go back in time, and undo our mistakes? Countless films have been made on time travel, maybe not in India but elsewhere. So 24 had to be different in some way. It had to be an original narrative. And I have added one element that hasn’t been seen in any other film.
Hollywood churns out a number of science fiction films, as you said. Most of them are successful in India as well. Why do you think the genre hasn’t been explored by Indian filmmakers?
When I started working on Yaavarum Nalam, it took me two years to even find a producer. Nobody thought horror would be popular with audiences. But look at what’s happening now. Every other week we have a horror film. Similarly, I hope that after 24, many young filmmakers will venture into science fiction scripts. You know, there is this perception that science fiction is an expensive genre. But every science fiction story doesn’t need a big budget. Not every script has to be about time travel.
What was the most difficult part of writing 24?
Simplifying the story, especially the science element. I want that even a 6 year old can understand the story. But I don’t want to dumb it down either. My aim was to make the story accessible, but also have it test the audience’s intelligence. The audience loves to be challenged and surprised. I’m hoping that 24 will do that.
From playing a hunchback in Perazhagan, to playing a Shaolin legend in 7aam Arivu, Suriya has played a range of roles. 24 is no exception. The trailers have shown him in at least five different avatars, with intense dialogues and performances in each one. Tell us about how Suriya did it.
Doing three heavy roles, in addition to being the producer, is a herculean task. If Suriya hadn’t been the actor or producer, 24 could have easily been an extremely stressful film to make. One of his roles is a horologist [an expert in the study of time]. On sets, he had a horologist at all times. He used to observe how a professional holds his tools and uses them, right down to facial expressions! When it came to playing a paraplegic, he observed many people. He was even using a wheelchair at home, making videos with it, and sending it to me on WhatsApp. All this during breaks between schedules!
Suriya also had to wear heavy make-up for one of these characters. He could not afford to sweat, as that would spoil the make-up. So there was this catheter at the back of his head, connected to a sachet that would collect the sweat. We complain so much about the heat and summer. But here was Suriya, who used to swap several sachets in just one day’s shoot. Despite all this, he was so happy and jovial on the set.
How Suriya got into 24 is also an interesting story. I met him to discuss the possibility of doing Manam in Telugu, with him, Karthi and Sivakumar. Honestly, at that point, I was not sure if I would get to meet him again, so I took the plunge and told him 24’s story. Worst case, he would refuse to do it. Not kill me, right? (Laughs) I strongly believe in the phrase ‘Daane daane mein likha ha khane waale ka naam’ (Fate has already decided who will eat a particular grain of rice). So I can say after many detours, 24 finally fell into the hands of whom it was written for. I am a strong believer in destiny. What’s meant to be, will be. Until everything falls into place, the story is bound to run into chaos. I believe that 24 was destined to be made with Suriya in the lead. I can’t imagine any other actor in the role.
The most attention-grabbing character in the trailer was Athreya, the bearded villain who appears in old school suits, and seems to be missing his watch. Tell us about Athreya—is he the central character?
Athreya is evil and extremely intelligent. 24 is actually an antagonist-centred film. It is Athreya’s journey, and other characters are caught in it. While narrating the film to Suriya, he was not particularly excited about doing triple roles, as he had already done a few of those. But when I told him he would be Athreya as well, his face lit up! That was such a high for me, as a writer. Not many stars have the freedom to act as an all-out villain. But Suriya has been experimenting with roles enough, and audiences expect it of him. Suriya thoroughly enjoyed playing this totally mean character. Even AR Rahman was in awe, while watching these scenes during the re-recording. He said, “Paah! Athreya character epdi pannirkan la!”
While dubbing for Athreya, Suriya would enter the studio, and before switching on the microphone, would scream at the top of his voice for several minutes, until his voice cracked. Only then would be dub for the character, with that hoarse voice. Mind you, these are soundproof studios, and we could still hear the screams in the adjacent room! Working with someone who voluntarily puts in that extra effort, that’s the best part of being a filmmaker.
Another striking element in the trailers was the production design. The steampunk ambience, the clothes and props, they all stand out visually and seem to be a highlight of the film.
One of the most important characters in the film is a prop! And most of these props could not be bought, we had to create them. We went through various stages, conceptualising, designing and creating them. I had previously worked with Subrata Chakraborty and Amit Ray in 13 B. They were excited about working on the film. This is a script a production designer can exploit to the fullest. In fact, we brought in engineering students to make machines for the film. They were not just props, they were moving machines that would start working with a switch. No VFX, no CG. They brought an actual lab to life.
At the audio launch of the film, you said that it took you almost six hours to narrate the story to AR Rahman.
Once after finalising the cast and crew of the film, at a meeting we discussed on whom to get on board for the music and almost like a chorus came the answer – AR Rahman. We had arranged a meeting, and we were given half an hour. But we started discussing the film for hours! Rahman sir did not notice his phone, which had many missed calls from his wife, reminding him to break his fast, that day being in the month of Ramadan. So he had to go home, and then he came back to complete the meeting. He discussed the different styles of music, which honestly just flew over my head, but I kept nodding to everything he said. Later that night, he sent a message to Suriya saying he is on board. I think that was the green signal of sorts for the whole team.
Your female characters are never just stock characters for a mass audience. They’ve been integral to driving the storyline. 24 has two stars you’ve already worked with: Samantha and Nithya Menen. What did you bring out from them in this film?
I think Samantha has great comic timing, and no one has used it to the fullest. She is both strikingly beautiful, and a great actress. Above all else, she is a team player. During shoots, you can see how serious she is about the film. She would mingle with everyone on set and approach it as her own project.
Nithya is a highly underrated actress. She doesn’t like that comment though. She would just say, “Why would you even rate me, man?” She is an independent, strong woman who is all about the character she’s playing. She doesn’t give a damn about who the lead actor is. Go to her and say there are four songs in the movie, madam—she wouldn’t even listen to your story! She’s also gifted with a great voice. She sang the Laalijo song in Telugu.
Both actresses have portrayed very different relationships with the characters Sethuraman and Mani [both played by Suriya]. And they have both done a wonderful job.”
You do seem to have an affinity towards showing the past. Whether it was the flashback portion in Yaavarum Nalam, the three different generations in Manam, to the central theme of 24. What’s the appeal for you in drawing on the past?
Apart from the difference in imagery, the past allows us to explore a certain purity in relationships. Tell a story about pure love, or selfless sacrifice set in the 2010s, the audience will laugh it off. But show them how it happens in the 1980s, and they would be riveted. The past is a good avenue to express certain emotions convincingly.
Although, not everything in the past is pleasant. For instance, your first film Alai (2004), with Silambarasan and Trisha. People are almost always surprised to hear that it was your film.
Alai was the first film I had written and directed. It was not a good film, and I take responsibility for that, entirely. At the same time, I am indebted to it, because I don’t think any other film taught me as much as Alai did. Alai made me a better filmmaker, because it taught me what I shouldn’t do. I was out of work for a long time and had to claw my way back, reinvent myself. It made me understand that it’s better not to make a film, than make a bad one. So yes, it was definitely a learning experience.
And what projects does the future hold for you?
A film with Allu Arjun is there. It’s not a typical Telugu potboiler. In fact, it’s a theme that no filmmaker in the world has tried. I have also pitched an idea to Mahesh Babu, which might come after Arjun’s film. And there are the scripts of 13C and 13D, which I had completed ages ago. I am also working on some new scripts—a medical thriller and a sports drama. Along with science fiction, I think sports is a genre that has been underutilised. There is so much scope for heroism and drama, without needing to force anything into the story. There is also my dream project—an animation story. It will take two more years for me to complete writing it. I plan to approach Disney when it’s ready.