Tamil director Vetri Maaran’s much-awaited Vada Chennai, starring Dhanush, Aishwarya Rajesh, Andrea Jeremiah and Samuthirakani, will be released on October 17. The gangster drama, the first of a trilogy, has at its centre a carrom player Anbu (Dhanush) who gets embroiled in a turf war between criminals gangs in his neighbourhood. The movie marks the culmination of a 15-year-long dream, the director told Scroll.in.
The 43-year-old filmmaker made his debut with the Dhanush-starrer Polladhavan (2007), also about a middle-class man who battles a local gangster after his beloved motorbike gets stolen. This was followed by the National Film Award-winning Aadukalam (2011), which was set in Madurai and similarly explored turf-wars and also starred Dhanush.
Vetri Maaran’s most recent film was the prison drama Visaaranai, which was India’s official entry in the foreign language film category at the Oscars in 2015. Vada Chennai, which has been in the background all these years with multiple script re-writes and cast and production changes, was finally set into motion when Dhanush stepped in to act as well as produce the film. “This film could not have been made if Dhanush hadn’t come forward to produce it,” Vetri Maaran said.
The idea for ‘Vada Chennai’ came to you in 2003 before you made ‘Polladhavan’.
I was trying to do research for Polladhavan in North Chennai. That’s when I met this guy. I was trying to talk to him about bike theft and the network surrounding it, but he said he knew very little about that world. His world was very different, he said, and he started talking to me about it. He was saying a lot and I was unable to keep track. He mentioned a lot of names, years, historical events. Finally, he said he would write it all up and give it to me. Two days later, he actually gave me the story written down in a notebook. I still have it with me.
The budget for this other story was big – else, I would have made it. And in those days, because of my age, I would have been able to work harder and deliver better too. Now we have the skillset and the money to make the film. But in terms of energy, obviously, it is not the same.
Is ‘Vada Chennai’ based on the story he narrated in that book?
It is the story of the rise and fall of the big gangsters in North Chennai. It is the story of their emergence, their political connections and their eventual fall.
I could not have made a film based on what he told me because his account mentions real people. By this, I mean not just gangsters, but famous politicians and police officials too. For me to check the authenticity of all that information would not have been possible. And even if it was authentic, I don’t think it would have been advisable for me to make a film.
What we’ve done is taken all the incidents and the people involved in them and placed them in imaginary situations. When the situation is real, the people aren’t and when the people are real, the situation isn’t.
Let’s go back to ‘Polladhavan’. Why were you in North Chennai in the first place?
My friend had lost his motorbike and he told me about this whole journey that he undertook in trying to find it and about this whole network surrounding the theft of bikes. That excited me. And I wanted to find out more. That’s how I went to North Chennai. When I went there, I found a better story.
How have you depicted North Chennai in your film, and how different is it from other films set in the same landscape?
In terms of the portrayal of the area in Tamil cinema, I feel that very little of the North Chennai way of life has actually been captured on screen. It is not easy to capture that world because it is understood only by those who are from there. I’ve tried to be an observer, a good observer. But I’m still an outsider to the world and I have my limitations.
I don’t know if I have anything different to offer in terms of my take on the landscape. Generally, the easiest thing to do is to typecast, and one always tends to do that. In this film, our effort has been to break out of that typecast – certain things we were able to break, certain other things we weren’t. As my first disclaimer for this film, I want to apologise if we have hurt someone’s sentiments by typecasting or limiting the world of north Chennai to one group of people.
For ‘Aadukalam’, you went to Madurai and lived there for a few months in order to do your research. What kind of research did you do for this film?
I’ve been a Chennai guy from my early teens. I was around 13 or 14 when I first came here and have since spent around 30 years here. I don’t need to do too much study to get this right. I understand this lifestyle well. This is kind of my comfort zone.
Three of your four films have had Dhanush in the lead role. The only film that he hasn’t acted in is ‘Visaaranai’, but his Wunderbar Films produced it. How would you describe your working relationship with him?
My first script was not written for him. It was written for some actor. But Aadukalam was specifically written for him and with him in mind.
Vada Chennai too was not written for him. Simbu [Silambarasan] was supposed to play the lead role. He wasn’t available at that point. Then my film was supposed to be produced by Cloud Nine. They stopped the production and then the film wasn’t working out. That’s when Dhanush came into the picture.
Vada Chennai is a vast world. It cannot be written for one person. The actor-director relationship between us has been the same. The trust has been the same. As an actor, he gets it all right. You put him in any situation, he’ll come out very successfully.
You’ve also described ‘Vada Chennai’ as a reunion of the ‘Polladhavan’ team. In terms of narrative, can ‘Polladhavan’ be seen as a part of the ‘Vada Chennai’ universe?
Yes, it is a reunion for sure. But I’ve also been working with most of these actors in all my films.
In terms of the story, Polladhavan had a different take on the region. You don’t get to see the darker side or this underbelly from within. You saw the underbelly from the outside through a middle-class boy whom you and I could relate to.
But this film isn’t about any of us. The whole film is about the underbelly and how they are being oppressed. For anyone who doesn’t know anything about Vada Chennai, I would request them to go watch this film.
It hasn’t been an easy film at all.
You’ve also decided to not restrict yourself to one film but instead make a trilogy.
I’m looking at this present era as the golden era of screen writing. It is like the Dickensian times of sorts, where you can write 2,000-3,000 pages. You can write anything, but of course it has to be good. And if it is good, you have a way to make everything that you write. That’s a great space to be in.
And the world is greedy for content. We have more than enough content, but we are still looking for more content. That makes it all the more exciting for me to write bigger stories.
I’ve always been more excited to write more about characters and people than stories. Aadukalam was five-and-a-half hours and then I edited it to two-and-a-half hours. The same thing happened with Vada Chennai.
Do you identify more with the role of a screenwriter or a director?
I only look at myself as a writer. I don’t call myself a director.
My films make themselves. I’m only a medium for the films to happen. To be honest, I can’t describe the process of making a film. It just happens. I’m a facilitator who puts things together such that they happen. My mentor [Balu Mahendra] used to tell me that if a film has to happen, it will happen. Even today, I don’t know what shot I’m going to take or what the next shot will be. When the shot is complete, I don’t even know if it came out of my repertoire. It just happened. I may not be able to repeat it.
Looking back, and four films later (including an Oscar campaign), is this where you wanted to be?
Back when I was trying to get into the world of films, I told my wife who was then my girlfriend that I don’t know if I would die a rich man or a poor man. But I know for sure that I’ll die a filmmaker who has made sensible films. I was very clear about that.
This was when I was assisting Balu Mahendra sir. I joined his team by chance, but I realised soon that nothing better could have happened to me. Whatever cinema I make today, everything is him. Whatever he said and did is what I’ve been following.