There is just one question on the minds of cinema fans in Tamil Nadu right now — when can they see Vijay’s Mersal on the big screen? The excitement around Mersal is phenomenal and the ongoing TFPC (Tamil Film Producer’s Council) strike makes the wait even more intense. Helmed by Atlee, Mersal is Vijay’s biggest release yet. Adding to the expectations is the film’s star cast comprising SJ Suryah, Samantha Ruth Prabhu, Kajal Aggarwal, and Nithya Menen. As the speculation around the film’s release heightens, indianexpress.com catches up with Hema Rukmani, CEO, Sri Thenandal Films about Mersal and their upcoming projects, Sangamithra and Iraavakalam.
Q. What is the status quo on Mersal’s release? The talks on Tuesday were not fruitful as well. Do you have a backup plan?
Problems are there and people are trying to sort it out the most amicable way possible. We have a film to release and we are hopeful that we can release it. We are working towards it. Let us hope everything works out well for everybody. There is no backup plan. Only hope.
Q. But what is your stand on the Local Body Entertainment Tax?
I’ll refrain from commenting. A lot of things have already been said by the people who make the decisions.
Q. Mersal has got a U/A certificate unlike Vijay’s recent films such as Theri, Kaththi, Thuppaki etc. Was that a concern considering he has a huge fan following amid kids?
Everyone wants a U, but it is not too bad that we were given a U/A. Kids can still watch the film. U/A isn’t an A right? We are very positive about it.
Q. Mersal promotional methods are also unique: a twitter emoji, an artificial intelligence bot, and a promo released on TV during a movie’s television premiere.
Mersal is our 100th film and it is a very special movie with such a big star. So we wanted to celebrate both the film and the star as much as we could. We sat down as a team and decided the things we could do for that. The emoji was one such idea; we had to be very persistent with Twitter to get the emoji. There was a lot of thought behind it — it had to work the exact way we wanted it to, the keywords required. Today, technology is everything and the youth are all on social media. Promotion is not just what we do, it is what everyone does for our film. We wanted to give something that was interactive. The Artificial Chat Bot was an idea to interact with the huge fan base that Vijay sir already has.
Q. You were the on-site producer for Mersal. Can you share a few things that you observed about Vijay on sets?
During the Europe schedule, Vijay sir had to learn magic. The magicians told me that what took few months for them to learn, Vijay learnt it in a few hours. He would keep practicing it before shoot and during the final take, he adds something that makes it even better. The tiniest gestures and modulations he adds are so good to watch. He is such a different person in real life. To do what he does on screen, you have to be a brilliant actor. Sometimes, I think big heroes are not given enough credit as artistes. There is a general misconception among people that mass heroes are not great actors. I had the privilege to witness the opposite.
Q. You have two huge projects Mersal and Sanghamitra in hand while earlier, TSL has produced a number of small films such as Maya, Demonte Colony. What is the formula behind the balance?
You can’t always produce big films. Small films are the backbone of the industry. And, small films are only small budget films, not in terms of quality. These are films with very strong storylines, great artistes, directors, and technicians who prefer not to gamble with a massive budget. To be associated with good cinema, you need to work with all types of good stories. You can make only one big budget film at a time. But you can make many medium budget films simultaneously. Demonte Colony, for example, is a film we are very proud about. It is very unique; we probably don’t have a film like it even in the aftermath. We have one more film like that in the pipeline Iravaakalam, with SJ Suryah directed by Ashwin. That’s a movie, like Maya, that you would look up to later and say ‘that’s a really good film’. We pick films that we are proud to be associated with.
Q. Talking about Iravaakalam, SJ Suryah is also part of Mersal. Which project happened first?
I actually don’t remember! Mersal has kind of washed our memory of everything else. However, Iravaakalam will take longer as SJ Suryah had other commitments. The first leg of shoot is over, 50% is remaining. The script came to us when Sangamithra was also happening. We were working on about 8-9 projects at the same time. I was the one who read the film’s script and I loved it a lot. I loved the script so much that I didn’t sleep the whole night. This was after Iraivi and I was already a big fan of Suryah; especially the climax sequence. I had the pleasure of getting to know him better during Iravaakalam and Mersal. He is very intelligent. It is an inspiration to just sit beside him and see the passion he has for cinema. Suryah is also a fun person to be around. You should see how he imitates Shah Rukh Khan. He is a powerhouse of talent and I am sure he would go places. I hope he gets a best villain award for Mersal.
Q. Sanghamitra made a splash at Cannes this year. It is also one of the grandest projects to be made in the industry. Tell us about the taking the project to Cannes.
Murali (Ramaswamy) is a huge fan of film festivals. We have been regulars at film festivals like Cannes and have always been fascinated by the way films are appreciated there. Film festivals don’t end on the red carpet. It is touching to see the applause echo until the last name of the end credits. The entire cast and crew come on stage and take a bow. You want to be appreciated like that. Cinema is about appreciation for your art, not the money.
Since we have been part of that experience, we wanted to take a film there. But taking Sangamithra to Cannes was all Murali’s brainwave. The response we got there was encouraging. They liked our artistes, our colour palette, our mythical Raja, Rani tales and the history our films imbibe. When we took it there, we did not know what we were doing. But we were pleased that Tamil Nadu was recognised. Now we are waiting for the day the film is done so that we can take it back and play it there.
Q. Is the pre-production for Sangamithra done?
Yes, the pre-production is done. We will be going for shoot in another month or so.
Q. A woman CEO for a film production company is not a very common sight. Have you ever felt the gender bias?
There are people who come from different strata of life, so there have been instances. But when they realise that you are serious about what you do, they come around. It isn’t much; not at the level we perceive. It is more of preconceived notions that people have and those doesn’t stem just from my gender. Certain terms that a few use, do show their bias. But one shouldn’t even think about all that. They’re entitled to their opinion.
Q. You were a student of journalism in college. What happened to your tryst with writing? You have watched more than 3000 films. A movie someday maybe?
In fact, Murali jokes saying don’t come to me with a script. I used to blog quite a bit. But I stopped probably because I had other things to do. When I left college, I had told my teachers that one day I would write a book. I haven’t gone back since I feel a bit embarrassed that it hasn’t happened yet. So maybe a book one day.
I have watched a lot of movies and that has made me a good critic. But you need to be from a different league to write a film. You need to know what works and capture the pulse of the audience. I don’t see that as my ambition.