‘If a creator becomes too woke, they cannot create art’

Rathna Kumar, the co-writer of Leo, talks about the foundation of Vijay’s character in the film, boundaries of artistic expression, and facing a tsunami of expectations 
A still from Lokesh Kanagaraj's 'Leo' starring Vijay.
A still from Lokesh Kanagaraj's 'Leo' starring Vijay.

Magic is an oft-used term to highlight the power of films. Interestingly, the art of magic also shares its basic tenets with storytelling. In both these art forms, you have to keep the audience engaged, make them think they know what is coming, and then enthral them with an exciting subversion. “Everyone wants to guess the film but as a writer, you need to be one step ahead,” says Rathna Kumar, the co-writer of Leo, as he further illuminates the parallels between magic and storytelling. “Everyone tries to tell you how they’ve guessed the ending before you even finish telling the story but they don’t really want to guess it right because then they will be disappointed.”

As the excitement around Leo reaches a fever pitch, you wonder how the makers planned to face the mounting hype. The situation gets trickier, especially when Lokesh has been vocal about how Leo’s story is something we are already familiar with. “Subversion is a powerful storytelling tool,” says the writer. “Take Game of Thrones for example.

They wonderfully led us to believe that Jon Snow is going to take the throne, and then they kill him. None of the characters in that series end up like we thought they would.” If you caught yourself thinking about how the GOT finale was poorly received by the audience, Rathna hammers home his point with another, more effective example. “At its heart, Titanic is a simple love story that we have all seen before in many films but Titanic was the one that got the Oscar. With Leo, the audience will think they know where the story is going and the way we subvert their expectation will be satisfying for them. I think the execution is our biggest strength,” says Rathna.

The man responsible for said execution, director Lokesh Kanagaraj apparently makes sure that freshness in execution starts from the writing room. “It is Lokesh’s story at the end of the day but he makes sure the writers get the freedom to play to our strengths. For Leo, Deeraj (Vaidy) has taken care of the portions with dark comedy and the ones involving quirky characters while I wrote the emotional scenes and the dialogues that serve as the connective tissue.” As someone who saw how Lokesh evolved Vijay’s character in Leo from up close, Rathna shares an interesting detail about the shaping of the character. “If you look at Mahanadhi (1994), you can’t help but think that that is how Kamal sir would have looked and behaved if he had never become an actor. That was our starting point. Vijay sir’s character was shaped by thinking how he would have been like if he hadn’t become an actor. We imagined him not as a character in a film but as a common man with an unassuming life. That is why we think you will see a different dimension to his acting in Leo.

While he reveals that an emotional outburst between Vijay and Trisha’s character was his favourite scene to write the dialogues for, Rathna couldn’t help but contain his excitement for the interval sequence. “You will see two different genres in the film and the midpoint is the trigger,” he says before elaborating, “The first half is like setting fire to an atom bomb and the second half is full of continuous explosions but the interval is when the first bang arrives. I am excited to see the audience’s reaction to that scene.”

However, the collective creativity of the audience has already run amok, building its own expectations. “We know that the audience is waiting to see if the film is part of the LCU and most of them are expecting cameos but we tried not to let those expectations lead us away from focusing on the story.” He then adds a dash of optimism, “Rolex had the same amount of cheers that Agent Tina had in Vikram. So it’s not always about the cameos. If the audience are looking for such high moments they will surely not be disappointed.”

Along with being an effective catalyst for the pre-release hype, the trailer also became a centre of controversy for its supposed glorification of gangster culture and the use of cuss words. Addressing that through the lens of creative freedom, the writer-director says, “If a creator becomes too woke they cannot create art. A gangster has to be a gangster, a good gangster is an oxymoron. Justifying a gangster protagonist by showing he also has a good side is a really old trope and it is tiresome to write. The audiences have also gotten tired of such writing. That being said, I completely understand that this doesn’t give one a free pass to glorify the bad guys.”

Rathna seems to share his views on writing with his friend and fellow filmmaker Lokesh Kanagaraj, who has written the script for Rathna’s upcoming directorial. “As far as writing is concerned, he has contributed more to my next film than I have done in Leo,” he says with an ample dose of humbleness. He then adds, “That will be a pucca Lokesh film, it will be raw and gritty. It is currently in the post-production stages and we will reveal more soon.” As for Leo, he says, “To go back to my earlier analogy, I’m like one of the lifeboats in Titanic. It is Lokesh’s ship all the way and I am as excited as any fan to see it on the big screen,” he departs with a smile.

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