I call SP Muthuraman for an interview; he immediately obliges. But the filmmaker had a simple request that I don’t discuss Rajinikanth’s foray into politics. He bursts into laughter, “You can ask me anything except that!”
Here are a few excerpts from the conversation:
You are the only director to have made 25 films with Superstar.
Overall, I have directed 70 films, and Rajinikanth is the most comfortable actor I have worked with. We know each other for more than 50 years. Back then, he had unkempt hair and beady eyes. He might have gone bald today, but I could still see the fire that I saw in his eyes during the 70s. Nothing has changed him — fame, money, power. He calls me ‘SPM’, and I treat him like my brother. Rajini is the man with the Midas touch and a great human being. When you are with him, you don’t feel like you are with a Superstar.
In the span of 20 years, I have done 25 films with Rajinikanth and 11 films with Kamal Haasan, besides a couple of films with Sivaji Ganesan and others. Everything was possible because we had an understanding crew that shared the same vision. We were passionate about cinema and the craft of filmmaking. There was no space for ego and jealousy. The call sheets of my subsequent films would be ready when I wrap the existing project. To that extent, I used to plan meticulously. When a film became a hit, I never sat on that. I kept thinking how my next should be different.
Let’s talk about your favourite films of Rajinikanth.
I would go with Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai, Bhuvana Oru Kelvi Kuri and Sri Raghavendrar. Naturally, Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai tops the list. The film had Rajini play the role of a man who undergoes every possible difficulty in life. But Rajini and I almost had differences of opinion every day during the making, and Panchu Arunachalam used to interfere and tell him, “Nee Muthuraman sollradha kelen.” (Laughs) But Rajini did hug me after he saw the whole film, and assured it was going to be a milestone film in his career. Later, it fetched a Filmfare for him.
As for Bhuvana Oru Kelvi Kuri, it came as a huge shock for the audience who knew Rajini as a villain in the black and white era. For a change, we had Sivakumar playing the anti-hero. In fact, Rajini considers this film close to his heart.
What do I tell about Sri Raghavendrar? (Pauses) It was planned as Rajini’s 100th film. It was K Balachander who gave me confidence that a hero of the masses would be accepted in a film on a spiritual subject. He lived as Swami Raghavendra for four to five months. The whole crew followed his footsteps. We didn’t eat non-vegetarian food until the release of the film.
How did you see Rajinikanth evolve as an actor?
He broke many stereotypes of a hero. He is not fair-skinned, muscular or tall. But he slowly developed his own style — be it the dialogue delivery or tossing a cigarette. Rajinikanth became Rajinikanth because he didn’t imitate anybody. His originality made him what he is today. In the late 70s, he was the dark-stylish villain of Tamil cinema, not the Superstar.
When I met him on the sets of Bhuvana Oru Kelvi Kuri, he used to struggle with Tamil dialogues. He used to take time to deliver his lines. And now, he can mouth punch dialogues effortlessly! (Laughs) He showed a lot of interest in learning the language. He was always ready to experiment with his acting skills. The amount of involvement he shows in anything he does is remarkable. He is always on time and will be ready with makeup at least 15 minutes before a shot.
When I explain the story to Rajini, he lets the character seep inside him. There had been days where he extended shooting beyond the ‘pack-up’ time (9 pm) because he found the scenes interesting. The moment he reached home, he used to again call me and ask for feedback. Eppodhume cinema-va paththi mattum nenachitu irupaaru. You can never find another Rajinikanth. He acts only in front of the camera. (Smiles) Thirty years ago, we didn’t have caravans. He used to never crib about anything. Makeup, costumes poda thani room-laam kekka maataaru. Thangamaana manushan. Above all, he genuinely cares for his producers and treats everyone with the same respect. He goes out of the way to make his co-stars comfortable and unlike other stars, he has no qualms about giving them more space in his films. Rajinikanth deserves all the love he gets.
What do you think about the current generation of filmmakers?
A few are definitely promising. For instance, I loved Aramm, and how Gopi Nainar kept the plot simple yet effective. But largely, there is no content in films that these people make. It is like preparing a delicious dinner without steaming hot rice. Everyone tends to focus on songs, punch dialogues, artistes’ costumes, promotions, budgets and forgets the most important thing — content. I don’t understand when some of them say they develop storylines and write dialogues on the spot. I can’t imagine how the process works. They need a disciplinarian like AV Meiyappa Chettiar! (Laughs) He would go crazy without a bound script. It is very difficult to face him when you are at fault. But Chettiar was a Godfather to all of us. He laid the foundation, and here we are.
Why do you think your films were successful?
There was no success formula. I simply did what was required for a film. I made commercial movies, but they had a story. Pokkiri Raja was different from Velaikkaran. Netri Kann was different from Guru Sishyan. No two films were the same. Artistes and technicians were like a family. All that reflects in your product. The more sincere you are, the better your film is.
After shooting for 18 hours together, I used to sit on the editing table late at night. Every shot and dance sequences were rehearsed a day in prior. Both Kamal and Rajini used to attend rehearsals. They never complained. Moreover, my films worked because I had the same set of technicians. I had worked only with two cameramen so far — Babu and Vinayakaram. R Vittal did editing for all my 70 films. They understand my thoughts, and it’s vice-versa. Take Panchu Arunachalam for example, I would discuss a situation with him, and he used to come up with excellent dialogues. Such was our wavelength.
Everyone was in sync with everything — from producers, lyricists to music composers and choreographers. The present-day audience talks about ‘Ilamai Idho Idho’ from Sakalakalavallavan even today. I am proud that I have directed good films. Without teasers, trailers and aggressive social media promotions, I managed to make films that ran in theaters for 100 days. That was the golden period of Tamil cinema. Songs, comedy tracks ellame kadhaiya otti irukardhu kashtam. But I could achieve it.
But how did you handle films that had a larger-than-life hero, Rajinikanth?
I have never allowed myself to be cowed down by pressure. I accept suggestions if I feel they would help a scene. Otherwise, politely, I convey my point of view to others. (Smiles) Once, Rajini suggested that I retain a particular punchline in a scene, but I felt it was redundant. I told him, “Ippo idhu vendam, apram use pannikalam.” Rajini always listens to others, though it’s hard to convince him mostly. (Laughs) In an interview, K Balachander once said, “Naan kandupidicha vairam Rajini, aana adha pattai theetiya perumai SPM-ay serum.” Those words mean a lot to me.
Do you miss directing him?
I wish I made more films even after Pandiyan.
Why do you think he hasn’t directed films yet?
He ‘almost directed’ Valli. (Laughs). He was the screenwriter of the film. I used to ask him the same question, and he said, “I shouldn’t think about direction when we have veteran directors like you around!”
Do you follow films post-retirement?
Filmmaking is no longer a lucrative business as it was decades ago. I am in a happy space now, visiting colleges and touring. Recently, I caught 2.0 in theaters and loved it. I couldn’t find time to call Rajinikanth because I am travelling. Shankar has done a phenomenal job, and I didn’t realise I was watching a film that was directed by a Tamilian. The film was of international standards.