Arunraja Kamaraj was in middle-school when he stole a cricket ball. It was the only object he'd ever coveted in his life. And so, now that the actor-lyricist-singer is making his directorial debut, it's not surprising that the subject of the film revolves around cricket. Kanaa, produced by his close friend actor Sivakarthikeyan, stars Aishwarya Rajesh in the lead role, and is about a young woman from a village who wants to become a cricketer.
Speaking to TNM, Arunraja, who shot to fame with his song 'Neruppu da' from Kabali, says, "I had no dreams of joining the film industry when I was a child. I'm from a village and my connection to cinema was limited to watching films in the theatre. When I was in college, Siva, my other friends, and I would go and watch movies. We would talk about them. But we never imagined that we'll one day enter the industry. I was doing my engineering but it was after I finished that I realised it was not for me. I was thinking I'll join some company and work like everyone else."
But life had other plans for Arunraja. Sivakarthikeyan, who is now among the top stars of the Tamil film industry, participated in the Kalakkapovathu Yaaru show on Vijay TV and won it. And it was through him that Arunraja got his break in Kollywood.
"In our college days, we used to do mime shows. Everyone would use film music for it, but we would compose our own music. Dhibu, who was our classmate and is the composer for Kanaa, was my benchmate and he'd do live music for our mimes. Everyone used to like what we did, the originality of it. We got a lot of confidence through such shows," he says.
A mime show that they did in those days stands out in Arunraja's memory. He was studying at the JJ College of Engineering and Technology, Trichy, at the time.
"Back then, there was a girl in NIT College (which was then called REC) who was stalked and murdered by a boy in the corridor of the same college. We made a fictional story based on this incident and turned it into a mime. Everyone appreciated it and the students from that college told us that they'd not thought of doing anything with that story though it happened on their premises," he says.
Though a few women actors in the Tamil film industry are doing films as solo leads, it's still far from being the norm. How did Arunraja decide on such an unusual subject for his first film?
"I am a cricketer myself," he begins. "Not too big a cricketer but I have represented my college team. We won the zonals and in the inter-zonals, which had teams from all over Tamil Nadu, we were the runners-up. We lost the final against SSN. Actually, we had no hope at all. When we came to Chennai to play, we never thought we'd reach the final."
In fact, Arunraja and his team had brought with them only one set of clothes for changing, convinced as they were that they'd return home the very next day!
"But we played for four days and it was on the fourth day that we lost the final. Cricket is something I've loved from childhood. I always wanted to play leather ball cricket. It was college by the time I got to do that, after I finished my second year. I became close to my friends by playing cricket, including Siva. A part of my life is owned by cricket," he says.
However, Arunraja felt enough cricket films had already been made.
"I wanted to do something new. That's when I realised nobody has made a film on women's cricket. And also, all the stories have been about batsmen, not about bowlers. So, I decided to make a film on a woman bowler," he explains.
To write his story, Arunraja met young women who were playing cricket. He didn't have to go too far for a start – actor Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli (of Lakshmi fame) used to play in the B team at the national level.
"I knew that she was a cricket player, so she was the first person I met. I told her about it and asked her if she could share some experiences from her life – how and why she started playing cricket, interesting incidents that happened to other girls who played with her and so on. I thought a story about a Chennai girl going to play cricket wouldn't be that exceptional. There's greater exposure here, it's enough if her parents allow her to play the game. But what about someone from a rural area? A girl who has reached puberty won't be allowed to go anywhere. She will have to live with a lot of restrictions in an orthodox society. Her struggle will be bigger but the victory will be sweeter," he says.
Therefore, Arunraja questioned Lakshmi Priya about the women players she'd met from rural parts of the state, and her observations on their body language and strengths.
"I switched on the camera and she spoke for nearly four hours. She shared many issues. In her days, women's cricket was not under the BCCI. The Women's Cricket Association did not have much funding. They had to pay for themselves, from travel to their kit bag. But my story is not set in those times, it starts from 2002-2003 to contemporary times," he adds.
Through Lakshmi Priyaa, Arunraja met Aarti Sankaran, who is a coach with the Tamil Nadu women's cricket team. Aarti invited Arunraja to watch a few games and that's how the director ended up chatting with the parents of the girls.
"I'd ask them how they knew their daughter liked to play cricket, and they'd say that they had no clue...it was the neighbours or teachers who told them. Or they'd say that she always used to play with the boys. A few said they wanted to become cricketers themselves but couldn't, so they wanted their daughter to become one. There were many angles to this story," he shares.
Interestingly, the players all had their fathers cheering for them from the stands.
"It was the fathers who encouraged them, gave them glucose in between. I could see how invested they were in their daughter's dream. That's when I decided I'd make a film on a father-daughter duo. The mother-daughter relationship has been shown often and usually, it's the moms who support their daughters. But what I observed was that it's in homes where the daughters are close to the fathers that they are able to live their dreams," he says.
When he wrote the script, Arunraja also wove in his own aspirations from his cricketing days to make it as authentic as possible. From his yearning to graduate from the tennis ball to the leather ball, to the time when his father beat him up because he was hooked to a cricket game on TV without studying for his exams.
From the stands to the pitch
The script for Kanaa was ready in about four months and Arunraja was wondering how to move ahead when India won against Australia in the semfinals of the ICC women's cricket World Cup.
"Siva called me and asked if I'd sold the script to the ICC," Arunraja laughs. "He then started his production company and everything took off."
In a shot in the trailer, we see a picture of Periyar in the background as Aishwarya Rajesh is stepping out of her house. Ask Arunraja about this and he says, "The film isn't preachy. It doesn't talk about his ideology explicitly. But the idea of a woman being independent and allowed to lead her life the way she wishes to were Periyar's thoughts. When I closed my eyes and thought of who stood for such ideas, it was Periyar who came to me. I haven't seen him or spoken to him. I haven't even read him in-depth though I'm familiar with what he said, but it was he who came to my mind."
Besides, actor Sathyaraj, who is a rationalist and had played Periyar in a film earlier, is the father in Arunraja's film. A man who supports his daughter, come what may.
"I saw a photograph of Periyar in the very room that Sathyaraj sir was seated in when I went to tell him the story. It was only when I looked at it intently that I realised it was Sathyaraj sir as Periyar and not the actual Periyar!" Arunraja exclaims. "So that's how, the very first photo we hung in the house was that of Periyar. There are others inside and in the heroine's room but the one in the courtyard had to be Periyar. That shot has come out beautifully. Just as it comes at an important juncture in the trailer, when she's stepping out of the house, so, too, it is in the film."
Though Aishwarya Rajesh was Arunraja's first choice for the film, the director lost hope when he heard that she had never played cricket. He'd asked Sivakarthikeyan to put the question to her and did not pursue it further when he heard she hadn't played the game ever.
Arunraja then held auditions for fresh actors – but none of those who turned up were from Tamil Nadu. He was particular that the actor had to look the part. And finally, it was Aishwarya Rajesh herself who called and asked him what had happened to the script.
"I told her that it'd be very difficult to do a film like this when she doesn't know cricket, but she said she wanted to try. She told me that if she wasn't able to do it, she wouldn't jeopardise the film by insisting. She convinced me and we went ahead with it," Arunraja recalls.
Within a week, Arunraja says Aishwarya was able to pick up the basics and her dedication made him believe his Kanaa was coming true at last.
"She wouldn't rest even if I told her to, She'd say let's do one more over. It was easier because she's a bowler in the film and she has some experience playing javelin. So the coaches started with that. She was taught everything that beginner level cricketers are taught strictly," he says.
Aishwarya had three coaches – Ashok Kumar (who has also acted in the film and was the captain of the inter-zonals team Arunraja played in), Aarti Sankaran, and Thyagarajan (who took the final session of coaching).
"I too would use the opportunity to go and play in the nets," Arunraja chuckles. Though he calls himself a "part-timer" and "night watchman" when it comes to his different avatars in the film industry, his success in each department may make the "all-rounder" label more suitable.
Sivakarthikeyan is playing an extended cameo in the film and Arunraja confirms that he will not be in a lead role. Though the team is trying for a December 21 release, they are yet to receive the approval from the Producers' Council because there's a long list of films waiting for a release date.
So what was it like to make a film with his best friends?
"Exactly the same as college," says Arunraja with a smile. "You can see the effort on the screen, each person ensuring that the film doesn't lack in anything, whether that's production or music. We gave our 100% to the film. If I wanted an international ground for an international match, Siva gave it to me. Nobody else will get such a producer, a friend who wants you to win."