Are you happy with the end-result this time?
I hate to play my own PR. But basically "Mumbai Xpress" is a triumph of writing. I guess we can all pat ourselves for the screenplay without pretending to be humble. It was part of the team spirit that's conducive to creativity. And though it was tough shooting in the dust and grime we completed the film smoothly and in a very short while. And we've shot it in a very innovative style. It has a very MTV 'grunge' look which youngsters would find fashionable. And it works within the film's mood.
But fancy technique takes away from the story?
May be at times. Not in "Mumbai Xpress". Technique here is an icing on the cake, not the cake. We've done away with a lot of trappings. Those who've seen the film including my guru K. Balachander, liked it.
How has the year been for you?
Kind... That's the best way I can express it. Kind rather than cruel. Everything seems settled and calm in my life. That spirit shows in my new film "Mumbai Xpress". It lacks the tense wound-up spirit of "Virumandi" or the forced smiles of my comedies two years ago. The smiles and chuckles this time are real. Though actors are masters of concealment somewhere the player's personal pain communicates itself into his work and then to the audience.
Was it designed as a vehicle for you?
No! Not at all! I was very careful this time about that. "Mumbai Xpress" is not about Kamal Haasan. After a few reels you don't see Kamal Haasan, only the character. In fact, it's an ensemble piece where all my co-stars have well-accented roles. It's a team effort where I also got my fair share of meat. "Mumbai Xpress" is not an experiment with audiences' tastes; but with craft. We shot with a minimal crew who gave the film a new look but nothing bizarre. Earlier I'd have chosen this look for one of my more serious films like "Mahanadi" or "Ambesivam".
We've applied it to a comedy. It seems to have worked. Though all the characters are dead serious - and some of them, plain dead - it's still a funny film. We don't provide cue cards for laughter in "Mumbai Express". And yet trial audiences have compared with my 1990 comedy "Michael Madan Kamarajan" which isn't considered just a benchmark in my career but for comedy in our cinema.
So you classify "Mumbai Xpress" as a comedy?
With slight reservations... Comedy is considered slightly undignified in our cinema. Like my other comedy "Pushpak" with Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, "Mumbai Xpress" is also a trendsetter. Or so my peers tell me. Many times you think you're being funny when you're actually falling flat on your face. Not this time, though. My first ever production was meant to be directed by Singeetham Srinivasa Rao. We were supposed to remake a film called "Gol Mal". But someone else bought the rights in Tamil.
That's how I turned a writer, by default, in "Raja Parvai". I produced, wrote and played in the film. "Raja Parvai" wasn't a financial winner for me. It was my learning curve. I paid for the lesson I learnt.
So how market-friendly is "Mumbai Xpress"?
The box office is that oasis where all animals come to drink their water. Fortunately this time I've hit bull's eye with both the aesthetics and the commercialism. "Mumbai Xpress" is a joyous film. You don't feel you've just watched a funny caper. Also, I've made the film in three languages: Tamil, Hindi and Telugu.
There's also a Kannada star in the film.
Yes Ramesh Arvind, whom everyone will be talking about after "Mumbai Xpress". He has done extremely well in the film. We first thought of Tinu Anand for the role. But suddenly we thought we were falling into a comfort zone. We didn't want to repeat ourselves. Ramesh Arvind was playing the lead in Kannada films. He quickly changed his looks and agreed to do a role that many actors wouldn't see as an ideal launch in Hindi.
Ramesh is a writer like me. He understands the nuances of the part. His Hindi isn't perfect. That suits his character fine. We gave vernacular freedom to actors. All the actors behave naturally in all three languages. Some characters are in both the Hindi and Tamil versions - my leading lady Manisha Koirala, Ramesh Arvind, Sharad Saxena and the little boy Hardik. Saurabh Shukla too was meant to be in both versions. But his hands were too full. So we got another director-friend Santana Bharathi to play Saurabh's role in Tamil.
You shot all three versions simultaneously?
Yes, and we could have had a lot of ego hassles and politics on the sets. But when Om Puri shot for the Hindi version Nasser happily watched him while waiting to do the Tamil version, and vice versa. Vijay Raaz wanted to do certain scenes again after watching his Tamil counterpart do it. They all knew this film was an experiment in frugality and speed and they all co-operated.
Thanks to Saurabh Shukla, everything fell into place. He gave up another project to do "Mumbai Xpress". We both made the right decision. It's such a simple film, and that quality is so difficult to achieve. We finished the whole film in 50 days, over-shot by a few days because of my accident.
Did the accident prove a big setback?
Thankfully, no. When the mo'bike toppled over I thought I'd end up in the hospital for a long time. I was only worried for my 10-year-old co-star Hardik. There was not a scratch on him. I'd have been shattered if something happened to him. Very cruelly, the film would've been remembered for the accident.
Hardik is quite extraordinary!
We chose him out of 10 boys who auditioned. All of them with expectant smiles. I felt like a judge at a school debate. Very heartbreaking to say no to them. It's easy to say no to an adult. But how do you turn away a child? Hardik was by far the best.
Even after the accident he and his parents trusted me completely. He used to prompt Manishaji and even me about our Tamil lines. No one will believe he's a Gujarati. I've worked with children before. But Hardik was special. We were like siblings, hence creatively argumentative. A very well brought-up kid. The whole unit loved him. But he must hate them for pulling his cheeks all the time.
Is the film inspired by any foreign source?
No! Probably the spirit of Oscar Wilde hovers over the film... Speaking of Oscar, one day I hope we'll have an award which the foreigners will crave to have.
How does "Mumbai Xpress" compare with your other recent works?
Hard to say for me. But when the writing of "Mumbai Xpress" was complete I had felt the same satisfaction that I did after I wrote "Virumandi". I'm very happy with this work. Not that it would qualify among the great films of this century.
"Mumbai Xpress" gave me the happiness of a grand meal shared with close friends. It was a rare feast for me, not because I cooked it. But because the cooks didn't spoil the broth. The burp is awaited.
And trouble with the title again?
There has been trouble with the title, yes. But we've sorted it out. The government has assured me there'll be no trouble. The dissenters don't want an angrezi (English) word in the Hindi title.