Lyricist-singer-actor Arunraja Kamaraj never thought of getting into films; let alone direct one. “I come from a humble background, and there was not much exposure to films,” he said. But during his college days, he had loads of fun with Sivakarthikeyan and Dhibu Ninan Thomas. “Back then, Siva wasn’t a star. Dhibu was not a music director. We participated in cultural events. But I never thought we three would end up collaborating for a film. Life has come full circle,” Kamaraj said.
Kanaa revolves around the life of an ambitious young woman from a village who aspires to become an international cricketer. It’s not exactly a conventional debut. Arunraja concurred. “I am a cricketer myself, and I have represented my college in the zonal matches that had teams from all over Tamil Nadu. The film is also based on my own experiences. When I pitched in an idea to Siva, he got excited and gave me the confidence to pursue further. Kanaa isn’t just about cricket and women empowerment, it addresses the importance of agriculture, parents’ relationship with their children, unfulfilled ambitions. The film would be relevant at any given time given the universally-appealing nature of its script,” he added.
Arunraja was clear about not directing yet another run-of-the-mill sports drama. “Today, the audiences are lapping up content-driven cinema in a big way and we are much more accountable to deliver good stuff. We need films that are less-preachy and more entertaining. I researched a bit and came to know that most of the stories had been only about batsmen and not bowlers. So, I thought why not make a film on a woman bowler? Also, when I wrote the script, I made sure it was as authentic as possible. For example, there’s a scene in the film where (the protagonist) Kausalya’s mother would beat her with a broomstick because she is always glued to her cricket bat. In fact, I faced the similar situation in my childhood,” he shared.
How did he zero in on the Kaaka Muttai girl for Kanaa? When Arunraja and his team first began the auditioning process, they looked extensively for female cricketers who could act. “Nobody came close, but it is not fair to expect good cricketers to be good actors,” he laughed. The intention, he admits, was to sizeably cut the training period. “I wanted to cast a cricketer, but seeing our advertisements on social media, Aishwarya Rajesh herself expressed willingness to be a part of the film. She learned the game and underwent rigorous training sessions. I am sure now she is adept at both bowling and fielding. It’s not often that you get a dedicated mainstream actor who keeps pushing her boundaries,” he said.
Arunraja extends his gratitude to actor Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli, of Lakshmi-fame, for her inputs. “She used to play at the national level, and shared some experiences from her life, besides the stories of other girls who were in her team and so on. After listening to everything, I thought I should explore the journey of someone from a rural area. I eventually met Aarti Sankaran, a coach with the Tamil Nadu women’s cricket team. And she put me on to the girls’ parents. Interestingly, everyone had a story to tell. Even though women are increasingly becoming career-oriented, there are many talented girls who get subjugated because of the pressure from both family and society,” he observed.
How did Sathyaraj react when Arunraja narrated the story to him? “I desperately wanted Sathyaraj sir to accept the offer, and I’m glad he did. I was half relieved when he gave me his approval. With a great actor like him, you don’t need to worry about performances. I let them do their thing within the boundaries of my vision and they take off from there. Kanaa wouldn’t have been what it is today without an incredible supporting cast.”
And whose idea was to cast Sivakarthikeyan in the role of a coach? “It was mine. He was shooting for Seema Raja and was extremely reluctant. But I strongly felt he would suit the character and requested him to act. We never took the decision because he was the producer of the film. Kanaa is the labour of friendship, and I am happy that Siva hasn’t even changed a bit. He is the same guy that I saw in college. It is rare to get genuine friends who want to see you shine in life,” he signed off.