Interview
The creative producer of ‘Bigil’ talked to TNM about the pressures of making a “Vijay” film, MeToo, and the truth behind Shah Rukh Khan’s rumoured cameo in the film.
Instagram/Archana Kalpathi

Bigil, produced by AGS Entertainment, is one of the most awaited films this year. Directed by Atlee and starring Vijay in the lead, the film is slated to release on October 25, just a couple of days before Deepavali.

TNM reached out to Archana Kalpathi, Bigil’s creative producer, to discuss the pressures of making a “Vijay” film, the issues plaguing the film industry, her thoughts on the MeToo movement and finally Shah Rukh Khan’s rumoured cameo in the film. Excerpts from a phone conversation below.

The announcement that AGS is partnering with Vijay and Atlee for a film came in November last year and you’ve probably spent the whole of this year on Bigil. How was 2019 for you?

It’s been a great year both personally and professionally. A lot of important milestones have been achieved and it’s definitely a great feeling to be associated with such a project for the brand.

The last time we spoke you did tell us that you rarely participate in selecting scripts and that you’re more of a science and math person. Take us through the initial stages of Bigil.

Even in this movie my involvement is only with finance. A lot of people misunderstand that a creative producer gives inputs to the film. But actually we’re just a bridge between the direction team and the production house. ‘Where is the money going, is it going to show and justified on screen?’ It is very much a numbers role. But I was part of the initial script narration.

How was it planned, did you listen to the script?

The production house takes a call on the film that they want to do. My father and my two uncles are the producers and they decide whether to do a film or not. They’ve been wanting to work with Vijay for the past 6-7 years. And when the right story and team came forward, it fell into place.

So what impressed you most about the script?

I really felt it was going to be an entertainer. I was looking forward to a full-fledged family entertainer.

We saw in the trailer that the film is dedicated to women. The first song too was dedicated to them. Why?

That is the crux of the story and I can’t reveal it, you have to see that for yourself.

You’ve admitted that you’re a Vijay fan, so how was it working with a star you are so very fond of?

It was a very memorable experience. You get to learn a lot of things and he’s a great role model. The amount of hard work he puts in…

Did anything change? Because you went from being a Vijay fan to working with Vijay.

He’s always been a very approachable, down-to-earth person. He made sure everyone was always comfortable.

Tell us about the pressure of producing a “Vijay” film. Announcements had to be made frequently so as to not displease fans. This isn’t the case with most stars…

I don’t think I did a great job with the updates (laughs). We were too engrossed in the film to constantly give updates. But considering social media is everywhere, information goes out very quickly. People knew most of it before we could officially announce. This was one of the challenges when doing this film. We had to request people from spreading information, which was the reverse of what we do for our other films.

How do you feel when these hashtag fan wars happen? Some of them are very distasteful. They tend to troll you too sometimes, if updates are not coming in on time.

Honestly, I didn’t see most of it. As a policy if someone uses unparliamentary language, I block them. Most of the time I would not see. Unless someone sent it to me on WhatsApp and I manage to have time to check. 90% of the time it didn’t even reach me because it was a hectic schedule. We shot for 200 days without break, everyone working around-the-clock, 18-20 hours a day minimum. We didn’t have time to give updates, we didn’t have time to figure out what was happening. We were living in our own Bigil world.

But what are your thoughts on the fan wars?

I think one shouldn’t use social media for something negative. These platforms can be used for positive things. It can be used both ways.

There seems to be plenty of action, three different characters played by Vijay, romance, comedy, women empowerment…

I don’t want to give away any of it. Even the trailer, we wanted it to reflect only the making and the scale of the film.

We wanted to know how has Bigil balanced it all?

That was one of things that attracted us in the beginning. It has a great balance of everything. It will be a great entertainer for Deepavali, we believe in that.

The audio launch had fake tickets problems. What do you think could’ve been done to avoid it?

An audio launch is a function where the production house thanks its cast and crew. Because it is a Vijay film, it’s a great opportunity for him to address fans. We printed only 6,000 passes and 3,000 were for the cast and crew members and the remaining 3,000 were distributed to fans free of cost.

We printed holograms on the tickets but clearly a lot of people tried to make a profit and sold duplicated tickets. The people who bought those tickets were not allowed entry and started getting violent. Then the police had to threaten them, a lot of innocent fans got hit as well, which is very unfortunate and regrettable.

We could try an electronic method where the tickets have QR codes. But it takes time to scan. We basically need to figure out a way to avoid duplicate tickets. There’s no point in not having fans at all…

Almost all the big star films seem to be facing court cases. Some face title conflicts, some face story issues. Do you think it’s deliberate or attention-seeking? Bigil too went through the same…

We are a corporate and we have various departments to handle things. But none of it worries us. I think commenting on it would give it more attention. I don’t want to.

As someone who’s on all sides of the industry – producer, distributor, theatre owner – who do you think has it hard in this industry?

I think the producers are the most vulnerable of the three.

The Tamil film industry faces plenty of problems when it comes to releases. Last minute delays, financial disputes. What do you think are the reasons?

That’s up to each production house. We are very particular about not pledging any of our films. We don’t have any release issues unless there’s a natural calamity or something that’s beyond our control, and finance is not one of them. For a production house, financial planning is of utmost importance. That is our first job. Planning and execution is very important.

When it comes to announcing box-office numbers on Twitter, do you think they are exaggerated sometimes to influence the film’s perception of success?

I believe production houses will have to figure out a way to try and give actual numbers that will help the film. But honestly, I don’t know who is interested in such numbers (laughs). I don’t understand it. Within AGS we have our numbers for almost all the films based on our multiplex collections. An estimation helps us base our casting for future projects.

I don’t see any production houses doing it. We do put it out sometimes. If a movie is doing well, it sends out a positive message to the cast and crew.

Also, most films are uploaded on digital platforms within months of release. The movie watching experience too has changed drastically. Do you think this might reduce theatre-going audiences?

I always think or associate theatres with an experience and not just cinema. It’s a place to hang out with friends and family and more importantly, it’s a form of entertainment. As long as you provide good food and entertainment, I think theatres are a good space to go to.

Also, digital platforms are important because there are more films that don’t see the light of day because they get stuck in the distribution process. In that sense, it is a great way to showcase these films.

Digital platforms have reduced a producer’s risk. It’s not just performance in theatres anymore. But more than anything we are all fighting piracy. That is what is killing all of us – production, distribution, exhibition. Piracy is our biggest threat. With digital platforms, it feels like more soldiers are fighting the piracy war.

October is the month of #MeToo movement’s anniversary. Chinmayi is one of the most important voices of the movement in the south and you’ve shared that she’s one of your closest friends. What are your thoughts on how the industry has reacted to it over the past year?

I am very proud of what Chinmayi has been doing. It takes enormous courage and strength and I’m glad she’s done a song in our film, which is my favourite – Maathare. If you see the film, it plays at a point that’s so emotional. No other voice could have done it better.

But on the movement, I think we need to do far more. This is just the starting. As more women come into the film industry, working behind the camera, I can see things changing for the better.

And finally, before we sign off, tell us – is Shah Rukh Khan making a surprise cameo in the film?

(laughs) Not to my knowledge, unless Atlee has a special surprise for all of us. You must ask the director that.