Tollywood is a largely hero-driven industry that banks on portraying its leading men as demi-gods who are invincible and are perfectly etched characters. But apart from the Kung-fu Hustle moves and the inevitable ending where the guy-(always) get-the-girl, our directors, of late, have been trying to infuse a sense of (sur)realism with a few dents to our well-chiseled hero.
So what happens when one of the biggest stars is portrayed as someone who is losing his marbles and is desperately trying to maintain sanity? Well, day one at the theatres turns out to be a bust.
However, director Sukumar’s Nenokkadine has managed to climb up in the box office. In fact, it picked up so well among the audience that it scored a third rank on IMDb for the highest rated thriller films, leaving even Christopher Nolan’s Inception behind (no really!).
The thriller, featuring actor Mahesh Babu with a case of Schizophrenia, is perhaps one of the first movies of its kind in Tollywood, and thus, though it didn’t open with the kind of BO numbers that Mahesh Babu films usually draw, Sukumar is a happy man.
“It was always an experimental movie, and we expected the audience to be a little confused initially. But they soon caught up, and we’re doing well now,” he says with a calm assurance of a man who knows he’s weathered the worst.
Talking about how he came about the story, the director who debuted with Arya which also had an atypical hero mentality, tells us, “I’ve always been interested in the human psyche. I would watch how my friends reacted to certain instances and just generally observe human interactions. Somewhere in all of this, the idea for Nenokkadine sprung.” Funnily enough, Sukumar used to be a mathematics lecturer before he took to direction.
Perhaps it was his affinity for numbers that helped him predict the odds and juggle the logistics to help push the movie in the right direction. For as you speak to him about the industry and being a director in Tollywood, he shows an acute understanding of the pulse of the situation.
“You can’t fathom how star power runs this place. Which is why only an actor like Mahesh Babu can carry a film like Nenokkadine; he is the crowd-puller. It wasn’t me, the director, or the story; it was him. However, if the film hadn’t worked, I would’ve taken the biggest hit,” he says matter-of-factly.
Explaining that the movie industry is a fickle mistress trapped between star actors, the story and the audience/fans, he says he is the kind of director that tries to tell a good story from within these constraints.
To make the the best of the situation, Sukumar went ahead and scripted his story keeping Mahesh Babu in mind; the film, he says, was never meant to be anyone else’s. “What makes Mahesh Babu the star actor today and the only actor who could’ve carried off the film, is his performance. He analyses his character so well and understands them from the director’s point of view. When he comes for a shooting schedule, I have to explain the script to him again, just before the shot. He manages to capture my vision as the director beautifully,” explains Sukumar, in full praise of his lead actor. However, he doesn’t discount Kriti Sanon, who made her film debut with 1.
“She was a quick learner who was also very adaptable. It was quite easy working with her. I found the same ease with Tamannah as well.” (Sukumar had directed the lass in 100 % Love).
Another ‘actor’ that Sukumar expressed ease with was Mahesh’s son Gautam who essayed the protagonist’s younger self in the film. “Directing children can be quite tough. You can explain the scene and they might do the physical side of it. But he was so natural with his emotions as well; for instance, when he forgets his way home and his mother comes to pick him up, the mixture of love, joy and relief on his face was brought out so well.”
Post a week and especially given the initial mixed reactions, we wonder if Sukumar thinks he could’ve done a better job.
“No, I wouldn’t change anything in the movie. It is pretty well connected and the narrative is linked so tight that if I changed anything, I would have to rearrange the entire film. Besides, since it is now considered a success, I don’t have to,” he chuckles.
While the poster of the film kicked up a major fuss on social media (actor Samantha had called it “regressive”, inviting a hailstorm of hate mail from fans), Sukumar attributes 50 per cent of the success to the very same platform.
“Discussions on Facebook and constant Tweeting really helped the movie. As for the clip from the movie that Samantha commented on, we removed it even though the Censor Board didn’t object to it. We didn’t mean to offend anyone. The reality though is that Kriti actually holds on to Mahesh’s leg, making him trip,” he clarifies. With plans on to dub the film in Japanese and French, and possibly German, besides regional languages like Malayalam and Tamil, Sukumar has the smile of a Cheshire cat.
Coming up next, he has a movie planned with Tarak Ratna, though the specifics are yet to be finalised.