In an exclusive interview to Only Kollywood, Hema Rukmani, CEO of Thenandal Films, talks at length about her passion for stage plays, their prestigious projects Mersal and Sangamithra, and the upcoming slate of movies.
Plunge into stage plays
Hema Rukmani floated Thenandal Entertainment to support stage plays after hearing a story from Billa fame writer Era Murukan. “We travel abroad quite often. And, wherever we go, we watch plays. I always used to think why the stage play culture is not vibrant in our region. It was initially just a rant. Later, I decided to take the plunge after hearing a brilliant sci-fi story from writer Era Murukan. He quoted a paltry sum as the production estimate. It was like just one percent of what we usually spend on feature films. So, it was an impulsive decision to set up ‘Thenandal Entertainment’ to support stage plays. Lastly, we worked on a Hindi-language stage play in Chennai featuring Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta. I will definitely go back to stage plays. It’s just a matter of time,” she told.
Thenandal’s success formula
While Thenandal Films released a slew of devotional films a decade back, they took advantage of the horror-comedy craze in Tamil cinema in the last few years. Giving a glimpse into their release strategy, Hema says, “The strategy of Thenandal harks back to my father-in-law’s days. He always used to go on a spree of subjects. There’s a mindset of people which tempts them to watch a particular genre if the previous movie they had watched in the same style was a success. I think we just captured that mindset. It’s the trick my father-in-law used all his life. He was a good director but a better strategist.”
Producing online content
“I don’t think people are ready to pay money to watch content online. The online audience is enjoying the web content for free. We definitely have plans to collaborate with online streaming platforms. Paid watching is not preferred so much yet. We have ideas and web content. But are waiting for a more conducive market.”
How challenging is it to release small-budget films?
“We know few supporting artists who have done some incredible roles. But, outside Chennai, people hardly know them. Only a star can pull the audience to theaters. Even if you make an excellent film, it’s rare that it will run in tier-II areas like Madurai and Trichy. The most crunching factor for a movie to reach a wider audience is the cost. It’s tough, but we do it because we cut costs. “
About Pothuvaga En Manasu Thangam and Udhayanidhi Stalin
“Udhay is in the stage of establishing his niche in the industry. Actors like Sathyaraj, Prabhu, and Bhagyaraj had their markets even when Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth were ruling the roost. So, I think Udhay has that market where people like to see funny, silly, little romantic and jolly films. But he’s trying to prove his foothold as a more serious artist. We have worked with Udhay on a lot of movies and have a great working relationship with him. We might collaborate with him again.”
“PEMT is a colorful film as the first look posters suggest. Nivetha Pethuraj is youngsters’ favorite upcoming heroine. It’s come out very promising.”
Maya director Ashwin Saravanan’s Iravaakaalam
“I was really blown away by Ashwin’s Maya. When we approached Ashwin to check if he has any script, he sent us ‘Iravaakaalam.’ It was just fascinating and absolutely gripping. I was staying up till 2 AM when I wrapped up the script and was sleepless for another hour. I pin a lot of hope and respect on this script. SJ Suryah is a phenomenal actor, and I’m looking forward to this film.”
On Mersal, Vijay, and Atlee
“This project kicked off only because of Vijay. If not for him, Mersal wouldn’t have happened.”
“The person he’s off-screen is not the person who’s performing on screen. Once the director says ‘action,’ he just becomes a different person altogether. I had the great joy of watching him improvise. In the whole Europe schedule, I was there every day on set. So, I could see him improvise, and it’s a treat. He’s a great actor.”
“When we were shooting in Europe, most of the junior artists there didn’t know English. And, Vijay is usually so simple, and they didn’t know how big a star he is. During the second day of shooting, they asked about him and appreciated his acting skills. I said he’s a big star in the South and told them to google his name. And the next day, they were all quite shocked to see how humble he’s on set despite the huge stardom he enjoys. Then, everyone clicked pictures with Vijay, and he coolly obliged everyone.”
“Atlee is very talented. When you take ‘Theri,’ the story had a nice graph about when to position action scenes, emotions, and sentiments. Vijay has worked with a lot of directors, but none capitalized his successful equation with kids. Atlee knows the strengths of Vijay and what has not been exploited in his career. What he does is not impulsive but very strategic and organized. He’s very good at that.”
On comparisons with other movies
“If you are doing a big budget film, you are bound to hear comparisons. We are working on Sangamithra, and it’s already compared to Baahubali. We can’t take one scene and say it’s ‘inspired.’ Just because you had watched a similar scene before in another film, you cannot call it as a copy. Everybody is inspired. Accusing a filmmaker solely because he’s working on the same idea you have witnessed before is like undermining the capacity of a filmmaker and overseething your position as a film critic.”
“We were flooded with inquiries for Sangamithra in Cannes. We had a stall there, and Chinese people were very interested in the project, thanks to Dangal and other films. And, you won’t believe the kind of fame AR Rahman enjoys there. I went to a random coffee shop and ‘Jai Ho’ was playing there. I told this to Rahman, and he was quite surprised too.”
“Sangamithra shooting will commence in October. We will announce the heroine at the right time.”