Flawless protagonists don’t allow writing flexibility: 'Leo' director Lokesh Kanagaraj
Ahead of the release of his much-expected second collaboration with Vijay, Leo director Lokesh Kanagaraj speaks of Western influences, the action genre, reimagining Vijay, getting better at writing romance, and a lot more
Lokesh grew up admiring the Western action films of the late 80s and early 90s—and you know this by now if you have watched any of his interviews. You’ll often find him mentioning Rocky or Cobra; you may find him dropping a reference to Die Hard. In this conversation that happened ahead of the release of Leo, the inevitable words of admiration for these films came at one point. Lokesh, specifically, was speaking about using minimal dialogue to create memorable hero moments. “You remember how in Die Hard, John McClane is thought dead, but then someone sees the bad guy going crazy, and John’s wife remarks that he is alive, and when asked how she knows, she replies, ‘Only John can drive a person this crazy!’” Lokesh said, savouring the moment yet again.
“More recently, did you see that scene in Mad Max: Fury Road, when Tom Hardy’s character comes back after a fight and someone says there’s blood on him and someone else remarks, ‘That’s not his blood’?” he went on. “It’s these little moments I’m trying to recreate in our cinema.” It’s hard not to immediately think of that line in Kaithi (Lokesh’s second film) when the protagonist goes, “You know that I’ve been in prison for ten years, but what you don’t know is what I was doing before I got jailed.” Or how about his last film, Vikram, in which Amar (Fahadh Faasil) sees the unmasking of the protagonist and remarks, “Once upon a time, there lived a ghost. He’s not a myth anymore”?
Young Lokesh Kanagaraj saw these action films again and again on television. “I only knew these heroes then. Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger… It was only later that I began watching films for directors like Martin Scorsese.” And yet, he remembered the enjoyment that early exposure to these Hollywood action films gave him. “I’m trying my best to do something like that here,” he said, his voice low and modest, almost like his last film (Vikram) had not rewritten box-office records in Tamil cinema. You can see what he means though. Lokesh’s films, including his new film, Leo, all firmly belong in the action territory. While the emphasis is on realistic action, the violence isn’t out to give you sleepless nights; it’s all meant to entertain you and take your mind off everything else.
“I don’t even like to call it violence; action is a better word.” It helps that the much sought-after action choreographer duo, Anbariv, are his close friends. “They know me from before I made my debut. They gave me money for sustenance when I was struggling; they gave me a house to sleep in. I know that for them, I’m not just another filmmaker they are working with.” Another filmmaker might only provide placeholders in the script for action set-pieces and let the choreographers do their thing, but Lokesh is quite specific about his requirements down to the last detail, including the framerate at which he shoots action. “While many shoot at 60fps, I like to shoot at 30fps. I think it makes my actions ‘feel real’. I think we were really involved with the action scenes from films like Sathya, Virumandi, Pithamagan… for this reason.”
Of the three examples he provided, two stars his beloved icon, Kamal Haasan. And again, if you have read any of his interviews, you know that Lokesh’s admiration for the legendary actor is boundless. Given the feverish excitement around Leo, I asked whether Lokesh remembered any film that made him feel as excited, and Lokesh, no surprise, mentioned a Kamal Haasan film. “Viswaroopam. I remember travelling to Kerala first, and then to Bangalore later, to try and experience it in the best way possible,” he said. “I’m now excited about the Mani Ratnam-Kamal sir combination, given that their last collaboration resulted in Nayagan. I’m also eager to see what TJ Gnanavel does with Rajini sir in their next film.”
Right now, though, all eyes are on Leo, and whether or not, it belongs in what has come to be dubbed as the Lokesh Cinematic Universe (comprising Kaithi and Vikram so far). The trailer of Leo betrays some visual likeness to those two films, and while Lokesh, understandably, preferred to retain the suspense about Leo, he spoke freely about reimagining actor Vijay in a new light. “When we did Master, I told everyone that the film was half-mine and half-his. There was an introduction song, a mass hero entry moment… you know how it was. Leo, however, is 100% my film, and this was as we planned after Master.” Lokesh was thrilled to see Vijay climb into the world of Leo and channel the performer within him. “He can deliver more than you expect of him. There’s an eight-minute monologue scene in Leo, and I’d earmarked an entire day to shoot it. Vijay Anna came at 11 and nailed it with his first take, and by 11:30, we were done and not sure what to do next. I said it was time to pack up, amazed at how quickly he aced the difficult scene.”
Lokesh’s filmography has shown his disinterest in perfectly good protagonists, and we can expect this to continue in Leo as well. “Flawless protagonists don’t allow you writing flexibility; they come with rigid rules that you cannot break in the narrative. However, if you establish early on that they are not straight arrows, it allows us to keep things unpredictable,” Lokesh said. “Vijay Anna completely trusted in my vision; if he had wanted to change even a single aspect of Leo Das’ characterisation, this film might not have been possible. If Kamal sir didn’t feel that some of his dreams weren’t necessarily encouraged, and so, mine shouldn’t, this whole universe might not have existed. I’m grateful that these towering personalities trust me.” I asked how this trust came to be. After all, it’s an industry full of filmmakers often lamenting the lack of flexibility from stars.
“I guess I’m a good narrator,” he replied and then warmed up for a more revelatory answer. “I think a lot also hinges on whether they trust you to execute your vision. At the end of the first day of my shoot, I always make sure to show them the footage, so they know that the plan is in action. From my experience, it’s only when actors are unsure about their ability as a filmmaker that they begin to intervene. If you keep your promises, you usually get the freedom you need.”
It’s fascinating that Lokesh’s films, with all the emphasis on escapist action, are still about something as real as the drug problem. It enables him to bring in unpredictable events and hyper-violent characters—that, of course, justify all the action.
While the drug problem is the overarching evil in LCU, Lokesh doesn’t show interest in biting into other real problems like political issues or caste oppression, for instance. “Half-knowledge is a dangerous thing,” said Lokesh. “When you’re not completely informed, it’s better to be completely silent. I know a filmmaker admitting ignorance is not desirable, but that’s really the truth. I have sacrificed everything to make the kind of films I grew up watching on television—and that’s kept me away from being informed about many other issues around me.” The honesty is unnerving and frankly, refreshing.
Where Lokesh admits to having become better is in his writing of romance—which has come to be thought of as an Achilles’ heel for him. “I think I have learned a bit more in that area now,” said Lokesh, laughing. “At least a couple of love scenes in Leo have come out really well, I think.” But Leo, despite the proclaimed improvements in the romance department, is, at its heart, an action film, but one extremely rooted in our ethos.
“We can adapt ideas and tropes, but our emotions are still fundamental to our cinematic experience,” he clarified. So, while he might be influenced by Tarantino’s focus on food in cinema and channel this quality in his universe (the biryani-making around Vikram interval, for instance), Lokesh is careful to ensure that familial motivations are well-established. “That’s because the scariest aspect of drugs is the possibility that someone in the family could fall prey,” he said and turned to, where else, but late 80s Hollywood for a reference. “Even in films like Die Hard and Predator, you will see that all the action is only to enable familial togetherness.”
This is a fascinating departure from many prodigious filmmakers who take refuge in the Fellinis and the Tarkovskis or even the Kubricks and the Scorseses—this unabashed love Lokesh has for the crowd-pleasing action films from Hollywood. While it is all yielding great returns, he isn’t as charmed by cold box-office numbers. Similarly, while his LCU may be a derivative of MCU, that didn’t stop him from declaring that he, in fact, preferred DC over Marvel. “I enjoy the darkness of DC and my favourite character is Batman. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy is where it began for me,” he shared, and suddenly, that final shot of Vikram gazing at his grandson from a distance felt very much like a homage to that end scene in The Dark Knight Rises. All these influences, all these stars, and not a single misstep yet in his career. You keep cooking, Lokesh.