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Striking gold, Shankar style

MALATHI RANGARAJAN

As a director, Shankar — now busy directing Rajinikanth for `Sivaji' — can only think big. As a producer he has been open to all kinds of ideas.



THE DIRECTOR IN ACTION: Shankar on the sets of Sivaji.

Shankar's office is as rich and glossy as his films. The lavish seating, the artificial pond overlooking the lounge and the aesthetic glass-panelled room, form the setting for the informal conversation with the director. Busy as he is with the Rajinikanth starrer, `Sivaji,' Shankar is keen to dwell on another facet of his film career: production. We begin with his spate of successes as producer — his recent `Veyil' is yet another laurel. He smiles: "Even when Vasanthabalan narrated the story I was moved to tears. As I'm a fan first, I felt if it appeals to me it should click with the filmgoers out there."

As a filmmaker, who climbed up the winning ladder after assisting directors S.A.Chandrasekharan and Pavithran, Shankar is well aware of the plight of young creators struggling to make it in cinema. That probably goads the producer in him to give a break to those who apprentice under him.

Criterion is different

"But then, Simbhudevan (who made ` ... Pulikesi' for Shankar's S Pictures) was never my assistant," Shankar interrupts.

"I knew about his penchant for humour through his writings in Ananda Vikatan. I laughed my lungs out on listening to his script. The parody and the brilliance behind it were really impressive."

The other two, Balaji Saktivel (the `Kaadhal' maker) and Vasanthabalan belong to Shankar's school.

"There are times when the maker is forced to succumb to the producer's ideas, because for most of them it is only business. The director invariably shoulders the blame for budgetary excesses and time delays. But filmmaking is teamwork. I, for one, always fix a time target for the films I direct and work accordingly. There's no short cut to success. If my projects take time, it is because of their magnitude. They are planned that way. But even if one member of the team lacks commitment and discipline, matters could go awry. That's the reason for the producer-director rifts, so common in the industry today. I'm talking about the general scenario." says Shankar.

"A director is like a woman bearing a child. He needs all the care and concern when he's making a film. Not many understand that creators are very sensitive. If my sincerity is doubted it hurts." It is a revelation to know that a maker whose middle name is Success can have his share of problems too!

So how does he keep his cool? Yoga, meditation? "Nothing. I'm still thinking what I should do. I sometimes wonder whether it is all worth it," he laughs wryly. So as he is fully conscious of a director's difficulties, as producer he is understanding. "I sometimes suggest a few things when I'm asked, but the final decision rests with the director."

Then is the casting according to his choice? "No. Even for `Veyil' I mentioned only Bharat's name. The others were Balan's choice. In fact I had some reservations about Pasupathi in a soft role. But Balan was sure he could deliver. Now when the audience in the cinemas clap their hands at the end of the film, I see Balan's stand being vindicated."

Why Bharat

You notice Shankar's soft corner for one of the `Boys.' Two of his four productions have Bharat in them. "That's not entirely true," he refutes the observation calmly.

"We first considered Manikandan (`Boys') for `Kaadhal.' At one stage both he and Bharat were neck to neck in the selection rounds. Finally we settled for Bharat because romance suits his face more. And basically Bharat has the drive, discipline and commitment. He takes his career in cinema very seriously." Vasanthabalan's debut attempt, `Album' didn't rake in the money, yet Shankar went ahead and gave him `Veyil.'

"Even in `Album' I noticed Balan's skill in transferring his thoughts on to celluloid. It's not easy. Bringing what you have on paper successfully on screen needs acumen. He's done a great job in `Veyil.'" Shankar pauses and adds: "Of late I have been viewing a lot of international cinema. `Veyil' reminds me of a poignantly made Iranian film." S Pictures' next two projects will again be made by Simbhudevan and Balaji Saktivel.

What about the contention that director Shankar goes in for projects that involve huge budgets, while producer Shankar makes low-cost films?

"Not true. ` ... Pulikesi' was a big film. The first (`Mudhalvan') was not a small effort either. I wish to experiment with different genres and I can't do it with others' money. That's the reason I got into production. And when too much money is at stake, a producer has to devote more time to it. Which means I have to give up direction. So I'm trying to strike a balance and encourage young, capable makers. I'm open to big directors too, because my belief is if you make a good film it will automatically take care of the collection."

The `Boys' experience

Then how did he go wrong with `Boys?' "Video piracy was at its zenith then, eating into the investments made in films. Also there was the television onslaught. So only youngsters came to the theatres. I made an honest film for them, about a section of them. I had a message too. What I didn't realise was that I had a huge following among other age groups as well, as my earlier movies had lofty ideas like patriotism and uprightness in public life, as themes." The acerbic comments from critics must have hurt. "I'm happy when written about well. So I better take the brickbats too." The maturity is impressive. Also `Anniyan's success must have healed the `Boys' bruise.

So will Shankar always make only mega films? "I entered with dreams of directing films such as `Mullum Malarum.' I had such a script — `Azhagiya Kuyilae' — ready. But nobody wanted to produce it. And after my first film, `Gentleman,' my well-wishers advised me against going in for small-scale projects. Now it's become almost impossible. Even as producer I could make only a mega `Mudhalvan.' I'm caught in the grip of the image my ventures have created for me," he ruminates.

Directing Rajinikanth

And now on to the star of his `Sivaji.' "Rajinikanth comes to you like a new face everyday and just follows what you say. With no other thought but the scenes to be shot, the actor is so pliable as if `Sivaji' were his ?rst ?lm. Thoroughly professional and always punctual, Rajini has absolutely no airs. You can never find him retiring to his caravan after a shot.

He's with you throughout - ready any moment you want him. And the commitment naturally shows in his performance. It's surprising that the `superstar' image sits so lightly on his shoulders." Shankar sure seems to be in awe of his hero.

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