Your latest release "Athiree" is a hit.
Can you believe it! I guess I'm going through a lucky phase. First "Athiree", then Mani Sir's "Ayuzu Etharu" coming up. "Athiree" is a full-blast masala film, no pretensions of any serious messages. I guess my fans are now in the mood for some serious hair-letting-down and feet-putting-up.
You were recently shooting in Nasik on the outskirts of Mumbai. Why Nasik?
Because my new Hindi film, tentatively titled "Bawarchi", is partly set in Bihar and Nasik has the same dusty look as rural Bihar. I play a cook from Bihar who migrates to London and makes a name for himself.
In the original film I was a Tamil cook. I'd have loved to shoot in Bihar because I'm from Jamshedpur (now part of Jharkhand state). In fact that's one reason why I transposed the character to Bihar. This is my tribute to my roots.
Would you be able to carry off the Bihari character?
Everyone warned me I'd carry the Tamil tag into Hindi cinema. But after my Hindi films were released, no one accused me of sounding and looking like a Tamil.
And since I've spent 20 years in Bihar I can speak with the local twang. The moment I got the dialogues I felt I was ready to mouth them. Now I'm working on the mannerisms. I want to play my character Ramji as simply as possible.
Is it tougher the second time around?
On the contrary the remake is more rewarding because I've the chance to correct my mistakes. Now I can make new mistakes (laughs). But let me say, I'm not producing this film.
What made you decide to come back to Hindi cinema with such an unusual comic subject?
Well, I guess a comeback does seem like the only way to describe my return. I guess I'm yet to get a smash hit in Hindi. "Bawarchi" will be my third Hindi film after "Rehna Hai Terre Dil Mein" and "Dil Vil Pyar Vyar". In between there were many offers from distinguished directors like Shyam Benegal and Ashutosh Gowariker, though nothing materialized.
I was offered Ashutosh's "Swades" when Aamir Khan was producing it. After Aamir opted out Ashutosh couldn't afford to make a huge-budget Hindi film with me in the lead. But he has always been a big support, he watches all my Tamil films.
I was also offered Farhan Akhtar's "Lakshya". The other scripts didn't excite me. But to say that I was shooed away from Mumbai would be rather unfair. Just the other day a fan came to Ramnagar where we were shooting - which is about 30 km from Nasik - and told me he has seen "Rehna Hai Terre Dil Mein" seven times.
What made you choose Sanjay Daima as the director?
I know him from the time he assisted Ashutosh Gowariker on "Lagaan". He had approached me with a script two years ago. I felt the same positive vibes from Sanjay as my "Rehna Hai Terre Dil Mein" director Gautam Menon. For "Bawarchi", we toyed with other directors who either said they were busy or they couldn't understand the language. Fair enough.
Sanjay was immediately excited. I realized my Tamil film "Nala Damayanthi" had a rocking script for a Bihari transposition. The whole idea of making it in Hindi and making the protagonist a Bihari was mine. And my bonding with my director is amazing.
We've just finalized model-actress Samita Bangargi to play my co-star. We thought of many girls who would fit into the role of a London-bred Indian girl. It was my wife who suggested Samita's name. She's perfect for the role.
It's a very young team and we're already running ahead of schedule. We will wrap up the film by the end of May or the beginning of June.
Isn't a comedy about a Bihari cook in London an unusual choice?
Yes and it's thanks to a movie called "Munnabhai MBBS". I was toying with the idea of remaking "Nala Damyanthi" for a long time but wasn't sure how audiences would react to the subtle non-vulgar humour.
After I saw how audiences reacted to "Munnabhai..." I made up my mind. I realized a family comedy without double-meaning dialogues or brawn would work. In "Nala Damayanthi" there's no one dropping his pants or pretending to do unmentionable things with his mouth.
Do you think doing a three-hero film like "Dil Vil Pyar Vyar" after "Rehna Hai Terre Dil Mein" was a wrong career move?
It may well have been, though I had great fun doing the film. When there're too many actors and too many creative heads pooling in, you lose control of what you set out to do.
It isn't as though three-hero films don't work. "Dil Chahta Hai", "Jhankar Beats" and "Masti" did. I guess my film got pulled in too many directions. I think a multiple-hero film can work only when no one questions the director's vision and authority. This is the case with Mani Rathnam's "Yuva".
India's Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford are ready with their new release.
If you mean Mani Rathnam and me, then I must say you're right about him. But I'm a few years younger than Ford (laughs). I'm very excited about Mani's "Ayuzu Ezhathu". It's the first time I've done an ensemble film with Mani.
I'd like to think I have the best role in the film. I was jealous to be sharing Mani's kingdom with two other actors, Surya and Siddhartha. But our roles don't overlap.
I realized Surya had more reason to be jealous since he was the first actor Mani gave a break to. My "Alai Payuthe" came later. Jokes aside, the camaraderie on the sets was overwhelming.
You and Abhishek Bachchan seem bonded.
Yeah, he plays my role in "Yuva", the Hindi version of "Ayuzu Ezhathu". He also plays my role in "Run". I also like him immensely as a person. I think Abhishek is a volcano ready to erupt.
It's almost like Saif Ali Khan whose real charm took time to be translated to the screen. Abhishek's real personality needs to come across effectively on screen. Then there's no stopping him.