RJ Balaji opens up on his Diwali release Mookuthi Amman: 'We have created some really powerful characters'
Mookuthi Amman, going by the trailer, seeks to push the narrative on what devotion means. It also speaks about issues such as the mental health within the elderly.
RJ Balaji was still in school when he saw his first saami padam (devotional film) on television. It was Thiruvilaiyadal, the 1965 film starring Sivaji Ganesan, Nagesh and Savithri, among others, which strung together stories that spoke of the greatness of Lord Shiva. “In today’s context, it would probably be called an anthology,” laughs Balaji, speaking after a long tiring day filled with interviews and IPL 2020 cricket commentary. “I loved the stories and how they all left you with hope.”
That hope is what he wishes his Nayanthara-starrer Mookuthi Amman, will spread. The film directly premieres on Disney+Hotstar on 14 November, on Diwali — a steep climb for someone who once waited to watch Deepavali releases. Mookuthi Amman, going by the trailer, seeks to push the narrative on what devotion means. It also speaks about issues such as the mental health within the elderly. The film could trigger controversy and debate, but that’s been Balaji’s style from his radio jockey days in Coimbatore. In a show high on entertainment, he would find a way to discuss something affecting society.
Two aspects of the film that Balaji, who co-directed it with NJ Saravanan, is very proud about are the mental health angle and the importance given to the film’s women. “We have created some really powerful characters, something I have missed seeing on screen for some years now. Also, while we speak of depression today, we rarely wonder if our mothers and the elderly women at home experienced it. They probably did not even know to give it a name, and suffered in silence. If my film adds to the understanding about depression, even if in a small way, I will be happy.”
His previous film LKG, the writing credits of which read “RJ Balaji and Friends”, might have set off laugh bombs, but came with a message: If politicians are wrong to bribe voters, are voters who accept that bribe correct?
Balaji’s humour does not fall below a certain bar, a habit that’s ingrained in most RJs. That is something comedian Aiyyo Shraddha says too. A career in radio-jockeying trains you to speak in a particular way and make a point without antagonising anyone. “More than knowing what to say, I definitely know what not to say,” says Balaji. Mookuthi Amman, in his head, “is about this family that is led by a woman, which is in great difficulty, and how the family goddess helps them vanquish the villain”.
Balaji wanted to be factually right too, like during his early days in RJ-ing when he would pore over the city supplements, to stay in tune with what was happening. “I watched films and documentaries, read books, went to government offices… and then wrote the film,” he says.
As an actor, while some films gave Balaji popularity, the artiste in him was not very satisfied. “I was not happy and felt like a misfit as an actor. Sometimes, all I did was stand next to the hero and do nothing. I started getting bored. I have always learnt on the job, and I decided that I shall do that again, in films too. I wanted to take a break before the audience decided it did not want to see me any more,” he explains.
Balaji decided the way forward was making a film where the hero is a normal person, someone you and I might meet on the road. “If not, most heroes have been either a rowdy or a police officer. I want my films to be about the husband who has lost his job, the engineer who is worried about life… even in Mookuthi, the mother-son relationship breathes, it is normal. I have not over-glorified the mother or the son. I wrote the characters as close to reality as I could.”
LKG gave Balaji the confidence that he could write a film that could retain viewer interest for two hours, without it looking awkward. And when he saw some rushes of Mookuthi Amman, he knew some of the learning had been put to use.
Once Mookuthi Amman releases, Balaji hopes to get back to the writing table after a break. As always, this too will involve a lot of prepping and multiple drafts before the script is locked, and a quick shoot. “We shot this film across 44 locations in 50 days. For the climax, we brought in 7,500 people and shot from 6 am to 2 am,” says Balaji. For the climax, he roped in local artistes, and many came by to tell him they’ve never been treated as well on a set. “I think that comes from wanting to offer others what I expect. I have to respect their time and talent, like others respect mine,” he says.
Balaji also takes the time to speak about the voice acting of Deepa Venkat, who has dubbed for Nayanthara in the film. “She matched and elevated Nayanthara’s performance. She is so dedicated, she came to the dubbing theatre a fortnight after she recovered from COVID-19, and gave her best,” he says.
While he tries to stay clear of tags and stereotypes, the RJ-turned-actor-turned director acknowledges that it is a steep learning curve and that he has to be on top of things to ensure he does not stick to doing the obvious.
And while learning, he hopes to become a better human being too. The kind that might act on passing conversations among artistes on the set and ensure that instead of tea, Horlicks and Boost and samosas are served. “Without a joy-filled set, you cannot make a good film. You have to treat people equally, and it matters that you are a good person too,” he says.
Watch the trailer of Mookuthi Amman here —
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