For a debut director, Soundarya R. Ashwin appears and sounds remmarkably calm. Of course, it helps that she has her superstar father Rajinikanth play the lead role in what is being touted as India’s first ever performance capture film, Kochadaiiyaan. But the journey, nevertheless has been an arduous one, what with an unconventional shooting format and a long wait. Luckily for her, the results have been worth it. A dazzling Chennai launch wherein Shah Rukh Khan himself landed up for the event and lauded the director’s efforts in taking Indian cinema forward technologically. At its Mumbai launch too, generous praise came in from stalwarts such as renowned director Shekhar Kapur who called the director an adventurer and said that the film could be a game-changer. Amitabh Bachchan, a friend and colleague of her famous father, congratulated her for pulling off a creative feat that no man had so far in Hindi cinema. The stage is set for the rollout, what is being touted as a blockbuster and the director is understandably excited at the prospect of being on the brink of a breakthrough. Now embarking on the promotional journey, the lady, in a candid interview details her ambitious animation adventure.
What made you gravitate towards animation? Even Sultan, an earlier project that you had planned was an animation film.
I read comics and not novels, so I have always been a person who visualised. I studied multi-media and I am very passionate about animation and images. I started a film called Sultan which was animated five years ago, at a point when technology was not as advanced as it is today. I am a die-hard Rajinikanth fan — I grew up watching all his Hindi and Tamil films. I must have seen all of them except one in Bangla, Bhagya Debata he did with Mithun Chakraborty —so to create an animation (with him) has been my dream for some time, but for many reasons we shelved that project(Sultan). But I didn’t give up on my dream. I held on to my dream of making a film with new technology, and technology has advanced so much now that I was able to create what Kochadaiiyaan is.
Based on what your father said –would you agree that technology can help an actor accomplish feats that may prove too difficult in real life?
Absolutely. That is the advantage of performance capture, that even things that you can’t do in live action, you can with performance capture. And the action sequences in the film, are those which you can’t do it in live action but it was that something as a fan that I wanted to see my dad do. And it has been achieved because of technology! You can do just about anything.
How did you convince your father to sign up for a film like Kochadiiyaan?
I think he was very aware of how madly passionate I was about the technology. The script demanded something like this and when he recovered after his illness, we decided not to give too much strain to him physically and use technology to advantage.
For actors, there is certainly an upside to technology especially in animated films, but is there any limitation that it poses?
It is very challenging for the actor because you need to extensively use your imagination on the floor, as there is no real set, costume or make-up. But shooting, process wise is simpler because we capture everything in 360 degrees so there are no different camera ranges and we can keep all the camera angles in post-production work later. I think physically it’s less strenuous but mentally it’s a lot more work than say, an action film.
So tell us about the firsts your maiden project has to its credit.
I think this is the first time we are using a technology like this (performance capture) and the time period we had to finish this film was a little tight. To create the kind of quality we have achieved within the time limit, was extremely challenging.
The Indian audience is exposed to some extremely well-executed animation films from Hollywood, so where do animation films in India stand in the face of such tough competition?
I think it’s good that India is exposed to good films in live action or animation. This is the first time we are attemtping something like this in our country –the technology is widely used in every second film in Hollywood–Matrix, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Lord of the Rings—all the characters are animated. But I think this will open the whole medium of animation. I think this could be a parallel cinema in our country.
This being your first film and an ambitious one at that, did you have any creative collaborators, so to speak?Any scene in the film that you thought was particulalry challenging to shoot?
Every scene was conceptualised as per K.S. Ravikumar who has written the script and the dialogues. I was with him during discussions. He is a great storyteller and has done films with my dad like Muthu which were blockbusters. I have grown up looking up to these people—the script is by him and is very strong. For us, shooting was step one, and work started after the shoot. So I had to plan it that way. The second day, everyone was like ‘can we see the rushes?’ and I told them that actually what they could see in performance capture were just dots!
How did you get A. R. Rahman to come on board for the music?
Rahman sir is like family to me and when it comes to anything new or innovative, he jumps at the opportunity immediately.
He trusted the vision of what this film could be, as also the fact that animation has a very great future in the country. He’s been my pillar of strength.
Any Hollywood films that impressed you?
Avatar is my favourite Hollywood film in that space. I loved the idea of creating an alternate planet, where creatures are animated. Actually avatar is an Indian word and the blue skin is something we see in our mythological figures in our comics, with the bow and arrow and all that. It made me feel, like ‘C’mon, we can do this too!’
Since you enjoy comics, so any favourites that you may have; do graphic novels interest you? And would you agree that Indian illustrations have yet to come up with a visual palette that is distinctly Indian?
We do have a style—like Amar Chitra Katha is there but we haven’t developed it further. Perhaps the treatment has to be different because people are exposed to better quality of animation. I hope Kochadiiyaan breaks all the misconceptions on cartoons and animation.
Amar Chitra Katha is my favourite. I love graphic novels too because they have pictures. My husband got me one for The Alchemist but I haven’t had the chance to read it yet.
Do you draw a lot—did you do like a storyboard for the film instead of the usual narration?
Yes, I do all my storyboarding because it makes it easier for both me and the art department to communicate in terms of the story and costume.
The film is releasing in all of six languages in India so outside of India, would the film release in Japanese too since your father has quite a following in Japan ? What according to you draws the audience in oriental countries to south Indian movies and vice-versa- e.g. Jackie Chan has a huge following in South India?
We are certainly looking at an English and Japanese version. It’s incredible the kind of love they have for my dad. As for the second part of your question, nativity is common. We have a lot of hero-worship in our films and outside of it, and they have a lot of hero gimmicks that they like. Unlike Hollywood films which do not hero-worship. It’s common in our countries—that whole thing where the hero performs gimmicks and there is a sense of humour with action—my father does that a lot and so does Jackie Chan and it works very well for them.
How did you convince your parents to sing for the film?
My dad agreed because he trusts our lyricist Mr Vairamuthu a lot and then again it was not really singing but talking. As for my mother, she is a trained singer. In her case the lyrics were very relevant—it is about a wife’s promise to her husband. I am very happy that I managed to get my parents to be a part of my first film.