Director Balaji Tharaneetharan’s Seethakaathi created intrigue among fans as soon as the film’s first-look poster was released. If the film’s unique title isn’t reason enough, Vijay Sethupathi’s look has only amped up its mystery.
Seen playing the role of a veteran thespian, Vijay Sethupathi as Ayya is the focal point of Balaji’s Seethakaathi. The director tells us that the reason behind the film’s title will be understood upon watching it. “There’s a famous Tamil proverb - ‘Sethum Kuduthan Seethakaathi’. You will understand the meaning of this proverb much better after watching the film,” says the director with confidence.
But who is Ayya in the film? Is he Seethakaathi? “Ayya is a common man. He is every well-known stage artiste's reflection.” Surely, Balaji is a man of few words.
But the director gets chatty as soon as you ask him about what inspired him to come up with Seethakaathi. “I saw a stage play five years ago. I’ve not seen many plays, only a few during school days. So when I saw this stage play, it stayed with me for long. It left a lasting impact and I was drawn into its world. The actors, their mood, their passion - all of it drew me to them. I spent time with them backstage. I had seen them on TV when I was young and so I was very happy to see them again.”
Detailing his experience the director says, “The mood this created in me was quite intense. It made me think for long and also raised a lot of questions. You see, very few audiences had come to watch the play but these actors were performing like they would for a huge gathering. This mood gave birth to a story. This happened immediately after Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom.”
While talking about the film’s inspiration, Balaji insists that the “high” that comes when a story comes to you in its entirety cannot match anything else. “Sometimes you might get a storyline but for the ending, you might have to take some more time. When the story comes to you fully, it’s the greatest excitement. The spontaneity is unmatched. This is the only high. Rest (filmmaking) is all experience.”
Balaji began working on Seethakaathi in 2013 but it had to be shelved for one main reason - “I did not find the right lead for this film back then. I wanted a 75-year-old actor of repute. I had to drop it a few months later since it was not going anywhere,” says Balaji.
But Vijay Sethupathi, who had heard the film’s story soon after NKPK, was quite disappointed when the director went to him in 2017. “He, in fact, had offered to play the role in 2013 itself but I thought he must be joking. When I finally went back to him in 2017, he teased me saying I didn’t trust him back then. The thing about Vijay Sethupathi is that if he likes a story, he jumps at every opportunity to be a part of it. Working with him was a very pleasant experience,” he adds.
Balaji also thanks the film’s producer who had a vision for this project. “The producers at Passion Studios were very encouraging. They had a vision and valued my project. My work is done with filming but the producers have positioned the film quite well. I should thank them.”
While Ayya is not inspired by any real-life theatre artiste, his look has been based on two important figures, shares Balaji. “I had Ki Rajanarayanan sir in mind. I also like J Krishnamurti’s face. I gave this idea to Viswanath Sundaram, who had worked in films like Baahubali and 2.0, along with Vijay’s photo. An artist from Los Angeles, Kevin, sculpted the mould and Alex did his make up.”
Balaji also tells us that Seethakaathi has a number of professional stage actors whose performances have been very valuable to the film. “All the actors had a very child-like excitement and they did a brilliant job. More than anything else, they were thankful for the opportunity. I never understood why they thanked me. I should be the one doing it,” he says.
Talking about Seethakaathi’s female characters, Balaji says actor Archana’s role as Ayya’s wife was played quite beautifully by the veteran actor. “She is a woman next door who loves her husband. She also has a good understanding of life and its complexities,” says Balaji.
Another important character to look out for is the one played by actor Mouli, he tells us. “Mouli sir plays Parasuraman - Ayya’s friend and aide. He was a big gift for me in this film. An excellent character and you can see the rest for yourself in the film,” he smiles.
Talking about the recent MeToo movement that took the film and entertainment industry by storm, director Balaji says that the issue at hand has to be dealt with very sensitively. “A person’s safety is very important and exploiting someone at work is very wrong. If someone comes forward with an allegation, it has to be treated very sensitively. Everyone has to be aware on how to deal with such situations,” he says.