Atlee has probably been to Tamil cinema what Rajkumar Hirani has been to Bollywood. He’s made films, each a bigger hit than the last. After starting off with a romantic comedy, Raja Rani (2013), he went on to make three star vehicles with Vijay, inventing the mass formula that’s become synonymous with him.
In an exclusive interview, Atlee talks about his latest mass actioner Jawan, painting Shah Rukh Khan in his trademark colours, and constructing the irresistible appeal of Vikram Rathore. Edited excerpts:
You said you’re a fan before a filmmaker. But which Shah Rukh Khan are you a fan of? The one from the romantic films of Karan Johar and Yash Chopra? The one from the negative roles like Darr, Baazigar, and Don? Or the one from patriotic films like Chak De! India, Swades, and Hey Ram?
Whatever films you mentioned. There’s an element of each in Jawan. I’ve watched them all, without any reason. If any film of his plays on television or on OTT, I’ll watch it. I was a kid when I watched most of his films. When I grew up, I watched Chak De! and others. I just love him, for no reason. Whatever he is in, I’ll watch it.
But what kind of Shah Rukh did you want to channel, pay tribute to through Jawan?
I wanted to create a mass avatar of Shah Rukh Khan. I think that was an area a little bit unexplored. He also didn’t explore it, maybe he was saving it for me (laughs). He did go wild, with films like Don. But the mass layer was pending. So I grabbed it. As a writer-director, I feel I’m very good at it.
How difficult was it to overcome the perception that SRK’s persona comes with?
See, when he called me and I met him, I thought I’d make something in the zone of Raja Rani with him. But he said he wants to a film that belongs to the Atlee world. He said he hasn’t tried anything like that yet. So to bring him into my world, I had to come up with something new. Whatever people are enjoying and appreciation in theatres is all because of the thought Shah Rukh Khan sir gave to me.
When you’re making a star vehicle or a tribute film like this, how do you strike the balance between fan service and storytelling?
I stuck to my basics. Whoever the actor, music director, director is, at the end of the day, the film has to be responsible with a takeaway. You should have something to take home. All your favourite films may have your favourite director, actor, technician, but they’ll always have a core thought that will connect with you. Without that, no film will connect with you, even if it has your favourite actor or director. I had a core thought, around which I built the mass moments and the tribute to Khan sir. That’s why we love the moments, but the core thought still connects.
I believe that the core thought you’re referring to is patriotism. But I wrote in my column that Shah Rukh Khan belongs to the school of soft patriotism. Why was it important for him to sit down, face the camera, and urge people to vote wisely? What was the reason behind this urgency?
Jawan talks about an emotion. It doesn’t address one particular issue. It talks about a lot of things. But all of those our problems, our issues, our emotion. In one word, if I have to say, it speaks about the emotion of being Indian. So whoever actor, star, comes in the film, they speak the language of Jawan, the flow of emotion that Jawan stands for.
A lot of people have said that’s their favourite scene from the film. But my personal favourite is when Vikram Rathore’s memory comes back. The trigger for that is literally a trigger. How did you come up with that?
Nothing new. Cinema has taught us a grammar. It has been thought of by Amitabh sir, MGR sir, Rajini sir, a lot of filmmakers like Bharathiraja sir, Sridhar sir. I’m aware of that grammar, so I thought that moment demanded something from that grammar. It’s my favourite scene from the film too.
Speaking of Vikram Rathore, he is a soldier, who is presumed dead after a plane ‘accident,’ and resurfaces years later by reuniting with his long-lost army. His son is named Azad. Is he your tribute to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose?
Ah, no. This a new perspective. But I love Subhash Chandra Bose sir. But I didn’t go in that direction. It just came in my flow.
Was Vikram Rathore’s entry the reason why you decided to put the back stories of the rest of the girl gang away?
No, you can’t be doing the same thing. You may have then complained that the second half is the same as the first half. Until and unless you’re not missing what the film is trying to say, you’re on the right path. It didn’t distract me, it didn’t take me away, it was just living up to the promise, it was answering all the questions that rise in the first half.
After doing three films with Vijay, you work with Shah Rukh Khan. What was your takeaway from stepping out of this comfort zone?
When Shah Rukh sir asked me to make a film with him, it was like a lifetime opportunity for any director. I was very happy, I said yes. Then I went to Vijay sir and told him. He said, ‘Are you serious? He came to you?’ I said he did. He said, ‘Give your life to it.’ So, everyone was very supportive.
When I was making Jawan, I had a similar comfort. I felt as if I was making the same film. I learnt a lot from Khan sir, by being patient, getting everything right, taking the film to the next level. Shah Rukh sir has taught me to raise the bar. My next film will have even better energy and we’ll make something bigger than Jawan.