‘When working with a star, everything is magnified’: Thunivu director H Vinoth speaks

Vinoth is cognisant of the criticism that has come the film’s way, but maintains that a star vehicle demands something different and that he does not believe in pandering to emotions.
H Vinoth
H Vinoth
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Of his three collaborations with Ajith, H Vinoth seems to have charmed the box office most with Thunivu, co-starring Manju Warrier. The film, that’s part heist and part action, has its problems and logic issues, but you see an Ajith who is having the time of his life on screen. He plays a role that is distinctly grey, and seems relieved to not spout any philosophy on screen or be an honest-to-goodness person that he is in most films. 

But, that was not how the film was originally written.  

Imagine a film with music at its core, with the scaffolding of a heist plot? That was what Thunivu once was. “It was meant to be a film about a big singer who faces failure, and a heist was part of the plot. I’d meant to make it with a hero, not a star, and this was during the pandemic,” recalls Vinoth.

Vinoth happened to narrate this one-liner to Ajith, and he was keen to hear more. “And then, this turned into a story meant for a hero. The bank angle came in then. I know banks do a lot of good work, but there are rotten apples there too, and so we got into full-fledged research. It’s a very complex area and so we decided to focus on one greedy bank owner and not the system as a whole. I am more than happy to see people finding it relatable,” says Vinoth a week after the film’s release. As always, he was far away from the buzz in the initial days of the release.

Vinoth is cognisant of the criticism that has come the film’s way, but has always maintained that a star vehicle demands something different and that he does not believe in pandering to emotions. Even his Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru, which showed how a gritty thriller can be made, faltered only in the romance and/or emotion portions.

In a post-release interview, he addresses some of the criticism, the choices he made, and what he’s writing next.

After the trailer, everyone presumed the film will be something on the lines of Money Heist, and you did nothing to stop the rumours.

Ah yes, that’s because I knew what I had made. For me, this film was about Dark Devil aka Michael, the greedy banker(s), the innocent public, and the conflict that was created.

After watching your movies, there’s a section that always goes, “Ada, that’s so true.” Did this idea also originate from a report in a newspaper?

Not quite. We first looked at transparency issues and the complex ways in which products are sold, and the rules in fine print. We created a story around that, and later realised when people spoke to us that we had connected many dots. 

Critics (including me) speak of the lack of emotion in your films. Do you aim to make that kind of film?

Yes. I give more importance to the issue than emotions or romance. I did not want the film or Ajith’s character to be heavy. It demanded a certain lightness and non-seriousness, and we retained that consciously. 

After making three films together, do you have a better rapport with Ajith?

There always was an understanding. He trusted me with the first film. He picked a subject (Pink, that became Nerkonda Paarvai) that a star wouldn’t risk working on. He convinced me that I could do it. 

He pushed me towards Valimai. We meant to shoot it in Europe, Turkey, and Sudan, but then we tweaked that due to practical difficulties.

For the third, I wanted a film that was in direct contrast with the two previous films. He listened to my one-liner and came on board. And then, we rewrote it to suit a star. 

Some of the portions that worked for me was that of the sleazy journalist and the toxic link between cops and news reporters. However, instead of disgust, the audience laughed. What did you really intend there?

Originally, Mei Pa was written with more intensity. He was a really bad character, but then we toned it down. Yes, I meant for people to be disgusted by his behaviour and ethics, but I probably missed something. Or, do people see life like that? The situation and the satire wrote themselves.  

Another common grouse is that if you can’t write emotion well, you should at least get someone to add that bit to your writing.

In my opinion, in a star vehicle that’s a thriller, the thrills should get you interested. I think the backstory does not matter. I would have to devote 20 minutes to that, which I don’t want to do. My aim is not to wait for the audience’s tears. I would gladly work with a writer, but the only issue is that there is a tremendous difference between writing and writing for cinema. I am less interested in drama, and more in information. I think that should be the connect.

Some people like films to leave them with an emotional high. I don’t think that way. I think that when you speak about an issue in a film, it will play in the back of the audience's mind for a long time. This is a slow process, and it needs that time. I like to first share the taste of data or primary facts. The story follows. 

Does working with a star restrict you?

Restrictions are common across industries. You will have certain restrictions with any actor. If you’re a beginner, you’ll have financial restrictions. A mid-level actor’s dream will invariably be to become a star. The producer will have a different dream to become a superstar producer. None of these will sync. 

When you’re working with a star, you have to ensure that it works across languages, that it does not offend anyone. You cannot hurt anyone. When you factor in all these, sometimes, a conflict might not have fizz, and appear flat. The film might not appear perfect, but it will work. For instance, in Thunivu, there’s so much gunfire, but almost no blood. That was intentional.

Most importantly, when you’re working with a star, everything is magnified, including the budget. You should not do anything as director to hurt that project.

Producer Boney Kapoor with Ajith at the shooting location of Thunivu. Twitter

What are you writing next?

Many projects are being written. One of them is with Yogi Babu. As for the Kamal Haasan project everyone is talking about, he should believe me first. For that, I need to surprise him. 

But for now, I am taking a break. I’ve worked non-stop for four years. My child is now two years old, and I missed hearing him speak for the first time. 

What kind of films do you like to watch?

I stay away from films when I am shooting. I am too involved in work and can’t seek relaxation there. I watched Manikandan’s Kadaisi Vivasaayi and loved it. 

What are the learnings after making five films?

I’d improve craft wise, and emotions will fit into this too. But I concede that sometimes we cannot solve all the puzzles. In this film, the backstory was not needed because we shot it like that — every knot is tied up. For instance, you realise why Michael wants only the cop Antony to deal with him towards the end. There was a scene where that was explained but we removed it later. I hoped people would get it, and many did.

Subha J Rao is an entertainment journalist covering Tamil and Kannada cinema and is based out of Mangaluru, Karnataka.

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