It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and the actors of Kaatru Veliyidai were bustling around the Madras Talkies office, in an effort to accommodate various promotional activities.
It was in between this punishing schedule that The News Minute caught up with the lead pair - Karthi and Aditi Rao Hyadri - on their upcoming film, their experience of acting under Mani Ratnam and what we can expect from Kaatru Veliyidai.
Aditi can barely hold back her glee as she declares, "This is my childhood dream coming true. I saw Bombay when I was eight years old and Manisha's role in that movie was my first inspiration to become an actor. I was mesmerised by the visuals, the strength of the characters and there was just an immediate connection."
This is only Aditi's second Tamil film, the first being a critically acclaimed Tamil period drama named Srirangam. "When I was told that I was selected for the movie, I literally jumped with joy and gave Mani sir (who I barely knew then) a big hug," she laughs.
For Karthi, however, the casting did not come as a surprise. From being Mani Ratnam's assistant director in Ayudha Ezhuthu in 2004 to now acting under his supervision 13 years later, Karthi has come a long way in his career graph.
But, even as he gears up for the launch of Kaatru Veliyidai on April 7, the actor admits he was sceptical about whether he could carry off the role of a fighter pilot when Mani Ratnam first called him.
"I was not surprised that Mani sir called me but I was surprised that he called me for this role. We were supposed to do a film earlier but at that time I was still shooting for Thozha and Kaashmora. Films that were supposed to end in October were still on the floors till February. When Mani sir called me then, I said I didn't know what to do. They were both high budget films," says Karthi.
However, Mani Ratnam did not give up on his former AD.
"Mani sir asked me when these projects will end and I said May. He then called me in March and said he had a new script. When he said it was a fighter pilot, I was taken aback. I asked if he was sure. It is not a character you would imagine me in. I don't even look like myself and I hope people recognise me. Mani sir has completely changed me to fit into the part," explains Karthi.
The actor immediately identified the challenge that the role presented and knew he would need to do his homework.
"I was feeling very scared actually. I wasn't sure if I would be able to justify the part...I was given basic flying courses and I met a particular gentleman who had served in the Indian Air Force, who was a fighter pilot," says the actor.
But Karthi still wasn't ready for the role.
"I wanted to be more confident. So, I took an extra effort to meet my friend who is at an airbase.I went there and spent a day with him and his colleagues. I got to spend time with a fresh rookie, someone who has been there for 10 years and a 40 year old who was serving as a commanding officer. It actually helped me understand the psyche of a fighter pilot. How they are when they join, in the middle of things and right before they retire," he explains.
His efforts clearly paid off because Karthi recalls how, after shooting some scenes with a beard, when he walked back into the sets clean shaven and with the attitude he'd cultivated from carefully observing fighter pilots, everyone immediately cheered and said, "VC is back."
"I play a squadron leader in the film and we call my character VC. Though it is not a war film but a love story, I still had to bring the aura of an officer in every shot. I felt thrilled to have been able to portray the character. The scenes were not easy, every single one of the shots was demanding. But I felt good because I had something meaty to do," he says.
Aditi meanwhile, was at the Apollo Hospitals in Chennai, preparing for the role of Dr. Leela who works in the General ward of a Kashmir hospital.
"Leela is an idealistic girl. This is her first job and the conditions are trying. But she is up for the challenge and dreams of a wonderful future," she says.
Aditi, by her own admission, is emotional and tends to get attached to people easily.
"But doctors are different. They are nurturing and at the same time emotionally detached. I observed doctors in different wards to pick up their expressions and attitude towards their work. Most of my training was to get into the character that Mani sir had written. He said that we will discover Leela together. The whole process was amazing. Mani sir nurtures and challenges you at the same time. There was basically this amazing mind that was guiding me all the time," says Aditi, smiling.
When asked about the extreme conditions that she had to work under for the film, Aditi laughs before saying, "Extreme? You can say that again. Sure, my nails were blue, my hands and feet swollen and my face was turning red but at the end of the day, it didn't matter. I had a constant rush of energy simply because I was living my dream. I was in the moment and wanted to give my best. Mani sir had given me the opportunity that I always wanted and the crew was so charged up as well. I was just really happy to be doing my role," she says.
For Karthi, who has consciously essayed a variety of roles, right from his debut in Paruthiveeran in 2007 to Kaashmora in 2016, Kaatru Veliyidai was another opportunity to explore new territory.
"An actor doesn't always get the chance to choose his next role. But I am very clear that I will not keep repeating my performance. So I am careful about what I choose. There is no pattern to my selection or strategy as such," says the actor.
However, he follows up the statement with the must-haves in his script. "There needs to be strong characterisation, a solid role and emotion in the story," he adds.
While talking about his experience of acting under Mani Ratnam as director, Karthi recalls how earlier, as an assistant director, the most common question he would ask is- What do you need in the shot?
"But now, the conversation has moved on to dialogue, performance and where the story is headed is from here," he shares.
It was perhaps Karthi's prior experience behind the camera, that prompted the director to involve him in crucial decisions."He told me, we need to discuss my performance and how my character will be. Not you, not me but both of us together. What an opportunity!" exclaims the actor.
He adds: "I instinctively knew what was right or wrong for the character. That is why cinema is an art. Every actor would interpret this role differently. It comes from within and the director will see if it falls within his vision. That is when we can move forward. But ultimately the audience decides if it is good or not."
For Aditi, the need to understand and learn dialogues in a new language, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. "I was lucky that I did not know Tamil because I spent more time with Mani sir to understand what kind of emotions every part of the script required. He was encouraging and guided me throughout the film," she says.
The darker side to the film
The trailer of Kaatru Veliyidai, starts off as a sweet romance, only to descend into darker territories as it progresses.
Even the colour tones and the intensity of dialogues indicate that the audience must not be fooled by the song 'Azhagiyae' and Karthi confirms this:
"It is not a breezy romance. Nobody should come to the theatre expecting an Alaipayuthey or an OK Kanmani. It is a different take on two very strong individuals," he explains. "The film discovers how they get along in their relationship. The trailer is meant to tell you to not expect a lovey-dovey film. Let me tell you, it is not Azhagiye throughout."
Aditi, however, chooses to reveal less: "Come to the theatres with an open mind. The film is a classic Mani Ratnam movie and you can't compare it with previous films."
After some prodding, Aditi gives a brief description of the film: "Intense and passionate. That is how the movie is."
The lead couple's chemistry
As we talk about the lead actors' chemistry, Karthi's tone of voice immediately changes. The respect for the film's heroine is immediately evident.
Mani Ratnam has always been known for the attention he pays to the heroine's character in his films. Be it Divya in Mouna Ragam, who goes against the norms set by society for a 'wife' or Tara from OK Kanmani, who portrays choices that the modern woman often makes, Mani Ratnam's heroines are a force to reckon with.
"We worked in extreme condition for this film and not once did Aditi ever complain. She was extremely thorough with all her dialogues. Even I would come to the spot sometimes and take a look at it. But she was always ready," says Karthi. "That shows just how interested a person is in what they are doing. Aditi is not here to just do her job, she wants to leave a mark. It is great to have a co-star who is as geared up as you are throughout the film," he says.
Aditi, however, laughs on hearing Karthi's praise. "He is just being really kind to me," she quips. "Learning the lines is part of my job and I was just so glad to be able to do it. After watching the film, I don't want people to say that I did all right despite not knowing Tamil. I want them to see my acting for what it is and language cannot be allowed to become a barrier. I made sure I learnt every dialogue thoroughly," she says.
When asked about her experience working with Karthi, she declares him to be one of the best co-stars she has had.
"Karthi is an amazing actor and a wonderful person. We were both just thrown into the deep end of the pool and from day one I have been extremely comfortable working with him. I never felt scared that he will judge or laugh at me because I don't know the language. He has been so understanding and helped me whenever necessary. Karthi, Mani sir and the entire crew have been like family to me," she avers.
Working with the 'Master'
Despite having worked under the director before, Karthi says, he couldn't help but admire how Mani Ratnam worked throughout the film. Even the romantic scenes with Aditi in the film were done based on the director's inputs.
"Mani sir not only tells you where the scene comes in the film before you do it but he also asks how you want to do it. He takes a lot of pain to show the emotion on screen, not only through actors but also through the background. During those moments is when you realise you are truly working with the Master," says Karthi with pride.
So did the actor have an edge over the rest of the cast, due to his prior association with the director?
"I would go ask him whatever I wanted. He would scream at me.. after all, he can't do anything else," Karthi says with a mischievous grin.
Kaatru Veliyidai will be out in a matter of weeks and the lead pair has a whirlwind promotional campaign ahead of them. For now, the team is high on having completed what is a dream film for them. As for us fans, we need to hold on for a few more weeks to see Mani magic explode on screen once again.