What was the origin of this film?
As much as I like investigative thrillers, I am also interested in spy thrillers, and read a lot of books in that genre. Pa Raghavan’s Maayavalai, The Unending Game and The Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI And The Illusion Of Peace are among my favourite books. I have wanted to do a film in this genre for some time. I did not want to have the military as the entire backdrop of the film, but wanted to use that as the base to set the spy thriller. I got the spark for this film in an instant, and I developed it into a script fairly quickly.
For the audience, films of Vijayakant and Arjun come to mind first when one talks about an action thriller set against the backdrop of terrorism. How different is your film?
While we have all enjoyed the spy films starring Vijayakant and Arjun in the 90s, I have consciously tried to give this one a different treatment. It will be contemporary, cinematic, more impactful, and will cater to a universal audience. And it will be a film that needs to be watched in theatres. Starting from Eeram, I design my films in such a way that they are best experienced in theatres. Both the screenplay and the filmmaking won’t be in the regular commercial format. Rather than trying to include elements that the audience might want in such a film, I have tried to have stuff that I like. In Eeram, I wanted to scare audiences without showing the ghost on screen. Even Kuttram 23 was like walking on a knife’s edge for me as I had to talk about infertility and I had to ensure that it did not put off audiences. Similarly, in Vallinam, while talking about the need for people to embrace and encourage sports other than cricket, I had to make that message come across in a way that it did not seem anti-cricket. Here, while this film is about patriotism, I have resisted the urge to use dialogues to stir the audiences. In that sense, this film won’t be preachy.
What made you choose Arun Vijay again?
I would say it is the mutual trust that we share. You see this with other directors, too. You see Vetri Maaran working with certain artistes frequently. Suriya and Vijay have their own directors with whom they make a winning combo. Even before Kuttram 23, I knew what Arun Vijay was capable of. And after doing that film, he started trusting me. It is the belief that we both have in each other that made us want to work together again. He plays a spy working for the Indian defence forces. I’d say he has taken a few more leaps with his performance. More than just action, he has delivered a layered performance.
But you are working with a newer team this time, collaborating with music director Sam CS and cinematographer B Rajasekar for the first time. Is working with a fresh crew more challenging?
Not really. From my debut film, I’ve learnt to place my trust first in myself. I don’t choose my technicians going by how popular they are. I learn what they are capable of, and see if their work would add to my vision of the film. I specifically wanted Sam for this film. He has already composed for many thrillers, including Vikram Vedha and Kaithi, and his work in these films won great acclaim. I felt this film’s mood needed a composer like him. And Rajasekar… he was my classmate in the film institute, and we have been meaning to work together ever since. Things fell in place only now.
This film was among the many whose shoots were impacted by the lockdown. How did you handle that?
We had planned to complete this project in 45 days. But the lockdown was enforced when we were on Day 20. A major portion of the film happens in Delhi and Agra. We had planned the second schedule in these places. Even as we were leaving for Delhi, on March 6, 2020, there were talks of coronavirus spread getting bigger. We finished the schedule on March 16 and returned to Chennai, and in a few days, lockdown was announced. During the last few days of our shoot in Delhi, the seriousness around the pandemic increased; in fact, we did not get the locations that we wanted for the last day’s shoot. We could resume shooting only by December and we shot for 25 days in a single stretch, determined to wrap up the film. The last couple of days’ shoot had to be done in Delhi as the sequences were part of the climax. We got special permission to shoot on the roads there.
Were you able to shoot as you had envisioned, given that COVID-19 protocols meant smaller crews?
It was challenging because I did not want to compromise on the quality of the visuals. But at the same time, I was aware of the issue, so I knew I could not shoot with the kind of crowd or in the locations that I had originally planned. So, I tried to adapt to the situation. Considering the restrictions that I had, I tried new ways to make the visuals look grand. For example, I needed to show a huge crowd before cutting to a scene set in the interior. So, I found a way to start the scene in the interiors while still ensuring that the audience feels the crowd that was outside the place where the action was taking place.
The films you have done so far did not have elaborate action set pieces, but this one, given its backdrop, seems to have many stunts. What was your approach to directing the stunts?
I had the basic idea of the mood I wanted for that particular action scene. For example, one of the stunts will mainly involve guns. So, I discussed with my stunt choreographer (Stunner Sam) on what all we could do with such a concept and based on his inputs, I staged the scene. I try to cut down the production costs as much as possible, so, I go for storyboards only if the sequence is a complex one and requires storyboarding. In this film, we did that only for the climax scene as it required a bigger set-up, with more artistes and a higher cost of production.
There is this notion that people have gotten used to watching movies at home during the pandemic, and are reluctant to come to the theatres. Do you agree?
At the moment, to succeed as a theatrical release, you need a star whose market value is high or have a script that is so good that it will attract people. As I mentioned earlier, I want my films to be experienced in theatres, so I ensure that I make them in a way that makes the audience want to watch it on the big screen.