Tamil presenter and actor RJ Balaji’s directorial debut Mookuthi Amman might be funny, but it’s not a satire. “Just because I am known for being a satirist, people think that this is also a satire,” Balaji explained. “It’s an emotional family film where a struggling family encounters the Amman goddess.”
Mookuthi Amman stars Nayanthara as the goddess with the nose ring, Balaji as journalist Engels, Urvashi as Engels’s mother, and Ajay Ghosh as the crooked godman Bhagavathi Baba. Co-directed with NJ Saravanan, the movie will be streamed on Disney+ Hotstar on November 14.
A radio jockey-turned actor, Balaji has appeared in Naanum Rowdy Dhaan (2015) and Kaatru Veliyidai (2017). His first leading role was in the 2019 political satire LKG, which he also wrote. Since 2018, Balaji has had a parallel career as a Tamil cricket commentator for the Indian Premier League. Excerpts from an interview with Scroll.in.
‘Mookuthi Amman’ is being compared to Rajkumar Hirani’s ‘PK’ (2014).
I had wanted to buy the Tamil remake rights to PK, but it would have cost me the entire budget of my film. My interpretation of PK was the god that created us versus the god we have created. With that theme in mind, I set out to write a fresh film. PK was a bold and daring movie. Given the present political and cultural climate, I hope my film is just as bold and daring.
There have been several Amman films in Tamil and Telugu. Explain the appeal of these films for people who have never seen them.
All our lives, at some point, we imagine, what if god appeared in front of me, and what would I ask if that happened? It’s an universal emotion and Amman films tap into that by bringing god into our day-to-day reality.
It’s like Bruce Almighty. A normal guy with bad luck meets god and then what happens to his life. We put ourselves in his place and enjoy the show.
How can a public figure be funny about touchy issues like religion in a country like India?
Being funny about religion in and itself is not problematic. It becomes so when someone tries using religion to do politics. When we were writing Mookuthi Amman, we made sure that we didn’t touch topics which were too sensitive to a certain section of people.
Satire is difficult to do in India, but I have realised the majority of the audience enjoys it. And people who want to create problems will create them anyway. When I was reviewing films on radio in 2010-11, people would come to my office and try to stop me.
Over time, I have started ignoring these people. My IPL commentary is getting a massive response now, but there are also people who don’t like it, tweeting abuses at me. I ignore them and concentrate on the majority which enjoys my work.
Your IPL work has been singled out as ‘vera level’ hilarious and unique. What have you learned from this experience?
The one thing I have learned is when I should stop talking about cricket and when I should start. When Star Sports Tamil was launched, they invited me to be the face of the channel along with other veteran Indian cricketers. The idea was that they would talk cricket, and I would bring in new viewers. That’s how I came to be talking about anything but cricket in my commentary.
So I make observations like Andre Russell is wearing two-colour shoes. Or Brendon McCullum keeps writing in a notebook but his team keeps losing. Perhaps he is listing what vegetables to buy in India and take home to New Zealand. Earlier, the man in the house would hog the TV watching cricket. Now it’s a family affair, and that’s where I come in.
I hope that years down the line, a generation of Tamil cricket fans grow up listening to Tamil commentary, and people get used to me like they are used to Harsha Bhogle or Tony Greig.
In 2015, you put out a video in which you requested donors to help with a heart transplant, but you titled it ‘RJ Balaji abusing Sachin Tendulkar’. What do you make of the need to attract eyeballs with negativity?
I am very worried about the place and time we are living in. I am scared for the present generation. There was a time I was so popular, I’d trend 365 days a year because of whatever opinion I shared online. But that came with the price of being constantly abused and shouted at all 365 days.
As I got older – not that I am very old – I realised it’s not wise to be shut inside a room with such hate all the time. I don’t use social media at all now. I use it to promote my work and I keep quiet the rest of the time. I find the real world more useful and peaceful. No one is as angry in the real world as they are online.
You were known for your caustic reviews of Tamil films. Among the ones that generated heat was your review of Mani Ratnam’s ‘Kadal’ (2014). Then you worked with him as an actor in ‘Kaatru Veliyidai’.
I don’t feel bad about calling a bad film a bad film. There was a time in Tamil Nadu when reviewers were calling bad films great films, being nice to the stars and the film industry. I decided to call a spade a spade.
I don’t know if Mani Ratnam read or heard my review ever. When he was narrating Kaatru Veliyidai to me, I thought, wow, Mani Ratnam the filmmaker is narrating a screenplay to me for 40 minutes. So many people would pay lakhs or more to get a masterclass from him. And here I was being paid to learn the trade from him up close.
As an ex-film reviewer, how do you feel reading negative reviews of your work?
I feel really good. I feel any product that’s available for public consumption should be criticised, from a ball point pen to a film. My job is to make a film. The people’s job is to say if it’s good or bad. Fortunately for me, everyone liked LKG.
Your biggest challenge as a first-time filmmaker?
Delivering the film on time. With LKG, I had promised my producer that I’d finish the film on time and within budget, and that he won’t lose money. I stuck to that this time as well.
We shot the film in Nagercoil in Kanyakumari between November 2019 and January this year. One of our big temple sets was put together on top of a hill in Nagercoil. It got demolished during a cyclonic storm. We still managed to finish shooting within 50 days when our schedule required five more days.
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