Every child can be a superhero, but system crushes the dream: PS Mithran on ‘Hero’

The filmmaker speaks to TNM about why he chose to create a vulnerable superhero, and, retrospectively, what he might have done differently in the film.
Every child can be a superhero, but system crushes the dream: PS Mithran on ‘Hero’
Every child can be a superhero, but system crushes the dream: PS Mithran on ‘Hero’
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In the five days since its release, PS Mithran’s Sivakarthikeyan starrer Hero has received almost an equal amount of bouquets and brickbats. Some have loved the reimagining of the superhero genre and the issues discussed while others have had issues over the very same reasons. And then, there’s the ‘message’ part of the movie, which again has a divided opinion.

In a free-wheeling conversation after the release, Mithran, who previously made action-thriller Irumbu Thirai in 2018, speaks about the genesis of Hero, why he chose to create a vulnerable superhero, and, retrospectively, what he might have done differently in the film. 

Many are comparing Hero to Shankar’s Gentleman, and even calling the film its spiritual sibling. Do you agree with that?

I watched Gentleman when I was probably six years old, and its attraction was that it was the ‘Chikku Bukku’ padam. It had the perfect format for an entertainer. However, as I grew up, I felt differently about what the film had to say, especially about the quota system. I wanted to attempt an upgrade on that, and make a film that took the thought of free education further. Will free education alone set right issues? In fact, I was nudged to make the film after Anitha’s death due to the NEET issue. Even then, everyone kept saying, a girl who scored 1,176 marks had to die. The reference to the marks grated me. Was it not sad enough that a girl died because she saw her dream getting crushed by the system? Why did we speak about marks? So, will only marks decide a person’s value?

How did Hero come about?

I wanted to do a film with Siva, on the lines of Gentleman. We decided, and I got working. I had only the first half ready when we began shooting. I wanted to make a film that throws the spotlight on the amazing bond he shares with children. I think I succeeded on that count.

Again, the film fleetingly mentioned NEET, but did not really delve deep into it.

I don’t understand this. When I delve into a topic, it’s called ‘message-y’. When I don’t, I’m told I paid only token mention (laughs). That said, I’ve made a film that tells you why exams are not needed, which means I straightaway bat for a NEET-less world. You’re asking me to comment on one component, I’m telling you I’m questioning the system itself.

Sivakarthikeyan in Hero
You have made your fondness for research apparent. What was the prepping for this film like?

I did a social experiment for this film. The team hit the streets and asked people for their Class 12 marks. And, it proved Sigmund Freud’s theory that a trauma from childhood lingers till old age. Across age-groups and socio-economic categories, people were embarrassed to tell us if they had scored low marks, even if they had ‘succeeded’ in life. Our education system does that to you. And, now, we are going to have boards for younger children too. Where is the system taking us?

I recently met a student of psychiatry and was asking her if there was some method to find out someone’s ability/inherent talent. That was when she told me that she realised she was dyslexic only during college. All her school life, she believed she was an ‘idiot’ and ‘dumb’, because she was told that, even though it was only because she was different.

In some reviews, there was specific mention about the satellite and balloon sequence… what do you have to say to that?

The criticism only reaffirmed my decision that making this film was correct. Our system has closed our minds so much that we can’t believe four boys can launch a satellite; they actually have done that in reality, you know? Also, now I wonder if some spoon-feeding would not have been a bad idea after all. Many criticised me for scenes that explained too much in Irumbu Thirai, so I had stepped back a bit. That was a real model of a Tesla coil; many thought it was part of the set!

Vishal in a still from Irumbu Thirai
The CG is almost seamless in the film. How did you manage that?

Do you realise that the entire terrace scene in the film is CG? We shot from 7 pm, but the lights usually went off at 11, and I could not control the city lights. A lot of people tend to think that bigger companies will deliver better quality. I differ. We had a VFX coordinator on the set, and prepped for it, even while shooting. The idea is that we should help in their work as much as we can even while shooting. I went to this Kochi-based company called Mindstein, a four-member team. They did the entire crawler camera sequence in Chennai.

What I love most is practical effects, like the smoke ball. It takes time, but creating this for real works well on screen too. We used an app to move the ball around.

Arjun is your link between Gentleman and Hero

I wanted him as the connecting thread. It also felt right that he proposes education for the deserving in Gentleman and education for those who don’t fit into the system in this film. It’s almost like he figures after all these years that free education is not the only solution.

I remember my Class 11 economics teacher Sundararajan Sir in Sivasamy Kalalaya, Chennai. He explained economics thus: “Economics is the only force in our social construct that has the ability to alleviate poverty from the face of the earth.” I’m yet to forget that. Since then, I’ve been deeply interested in what subjects can do, rather than what they are. That’s how I fell in love with physics too. Rather than as a subject, I saw it as something that explained the cosmos, the fabric of the universe.

Speaking about Arjun, your film sees someone who was named in the #MeToo movement as one of the stars and another, Chinmayi (she’s the voice for Kalyani Priyadarshan), whose career suffered because she named lyricist Vairamuthu in the same movement… She, in fact, thanked you for your efforts to get her into the film…

As a director, I want the best for my film, whatever it takes. Certain people help send across the message better. I don’t see their background then. The mass audience accepts some things better when some people tell them on screen. And Arjun was the tool I needed to convey that something. Chinmayi was the tool I needed to lend Kalyani’s performance a certain gravitas, a dignity, a sternness… and a quiet confidence. I know of her issues with the dubbing union, but I also feel that it does not have the right to decide how my product should look and sound like. No one can/should stop me from signing up the people I want.

PS Mithran with Abhay Deol on the sets of Hero
Sivakarthikeyan is a vulnerable superhero in the film, who is empowered by the children. So, why the mask?

Well, I did not begin wanting to make a superhero film. I wanted to say that every child can be a superhero, but the system crushes the dream, and traps children in a vicious cycle. I tried to use Mahadevan (Abhay Deol) as a metaphor for society, and lobotomy (and the watchman sequence) to represent how children have been raised to not think. We stand up on the bench, sit down… mindlessly. This idea worked for me, and I hope it will eventually work for people too. The mask is more a symbol rather than a tool of concealment. And, finally when everyone wears the mask, it’s making a statement that ‘we have learnt to think for ourselves’.

How well do you think the climax stretch of rural innovators was received?

Everything I’ve used in the film is a true invention. The research ran into several months, and if there’s one thing I’ll change about my film it’s probably explaining this a bit more. Since I was immersed in this, I skipped the explanation and some ended up wondering if this was real at all. Do you know there’s a Sholai School in Kodaikanal that even many locals don’t know about? So, it is possible for a school to function that way. I was awestruck when I went to Palani and saw a man in a lungi flying on a paraglider! I wanted that awe to reach the audience, but some felt it was written. It was not, it is being lived in our own country.

Is this the kind of film you hope to keep making? Mix up some commercial elements with a theme that requires to be spoken about?

I think so, but how Hero works will decide whether I stick to this style or change. Ultimately, a film must make money for those who invest in it.

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