Meena Iyer (MUMBAI MIRROR; October 03, 2010)


If you join the dots from S Shankar’s first film Gentleman (1993) to his latest Robot (2010) you’ll notice a common thread. For one, he has the finger on the pulse of the mainstream cinegoer. Plus, he knows how to embellish his work with gloss and grandeur at a scale still unimaginable by most filmmakers.

Real Indian palaces, heritage sights, Machu-Pichu, seven wonders of the world…he’s exploited them all long before Bollywood found their address.

But to grant the devil his due - his movies are not just special-effects ridden; there is a definite plot with a message. Also, the budgets get more phenomenal each time.

His first blockbuster Gentleman (1993) (with its iconic Chik paku raile number that introduced the world to Prabhu Deva’s dancing skills) brought a new style of filmmaking but his 90s protagonist is just a different avatar of Bollywood 70s phenomenon - Salim-Javed’s ‘angry young man’.

Quite like Amitabh Bachchan, Shankar’s hero has invariably been taking on the system, film after film.  But where he leaves his contemporaries way behind is his technical wizardry. A fact just reiterated by his latest Robot (Endhiran, Tamil).

Comparisons to West

Two days after the release of the Rs 150 crore film, Kollywood’s Shankar is drawing comparisons to none other than James Cameron.

Both are August born; both spare no expense when it comes to their budgets and cinematic vision. And quite like Avatar, the highest worldwide grosser, Robot too has opened to a thunderous start.

The filmmaker himself remains remarkably modest about being “India’s Cameron quotient.”  “Stop pulling my leg,’’ he says. “I don’t need any more spotlight on me than that is already there,” he laughs.

But with an enviable track record of seven of the biggest hits in Tamil cinema, Shankar is on the verge of rewriting history with his eight one. Trade sources confirm that Endhiran, has broken the record of the highest box office collections for a Tamil film - the film, they say, will cross the Rs 250 crore mark.

Decoding the director

So what’s Shankar all about?  Born in a fairly affluent family in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, he worked as a quality control supervisor till the movie bug bit him. On a telephone call he still introduces himself as, “Hi I’m Shankar, the director,’’ and when you incredulously ask him why he says that, he replies, “my films and I are twins, joined at the hip.’’

But while his on-screen heroes are the robust Robinhood-rascala amalgamation, Shankar himself is the anti-thesis. He’s more like a quiet mouse on set, rather than like a megalomaniac wielding the megaphone. And he lets his ADs have a field day liaising with Bollywood beauties and the crew.

But quiet demeanor apart, with his baseball cap and huge sun-shades, Shankar is the boss. He has worked with the legends of Tamil cinema - Kamal Haasan (Indian) and Rajnikanth (Sivaji-The Boss, Endhiran-Robot) but is neither in awe of his subject nor does he doesn’t brook any interference.

As he says, “Rajnikanth is the ultimate for any film-maker. His demi-God status aside, he’s the most obedient actor I’ve worked with. He doesn’t leave the set once he reports for work…and he still maintains a child-like curiosity about everything related to a film.’’

What makes him work

One of his assistant directors says the secret of his success lies in his engineering background - he goes about fixing each nut and bolt step by step while filmmaking. Robot was originally planned five years ago with Priety Zinta and Kamal Hasan.

The monies didn’t drop at that point. It was then revived with Shah Rukh Khan. Story goes when Shankar went to Orange County (with his wife, son, daughters Aditi and Aishwarya and team of writers) to give SRK a detailed narration, he had every colour scheme, every frame and other minute details worked out. SRK was visibly impressed but the deal fell through and the Rajni came on board.

He is also a tough cookie to please. A stickler for punctuality, years ago, when Manisha Koirala (Indian, Mudalvan) walked in just a few minutes late on a couple of occasions, he had turned shades of purple. And one has seen him lapse into complete silence after he and the Nepali actress had a slight altercation about a scene.

Of course all this doesn’t compromise his work relations. The next morning, he sorted the matter with  Manisha and shooting progressed at a brisk pace.

A simple man

In personal life he’s a plain-dresser. Though he arrives in a high-end automobile (he earlier drove a Merc but after his association with SRK, switched to a BMW) he has no shenanigans attached to his name. He’s the kind of guy who has no hesitation to eat food at roadside joints, goes about his work-home-work routine and shuns parties save for the occasional awards function.

But his budgets are the opposite. Ask him about why his budgets always get more prominence than his  reviews, and he says, “I don’t know the intention of the press when it highlights the budgets of movies. In my movies the money has always been well-spent. In Robot, the animatronics used is of the same calibre of The Jurassic Park, Terminator and Avatar. And since it was also done at the Stan Winston Studios in the US, the SFX cost huge money. I only put my money where my mouth is. Robot needed high-end technical effects. If Indian cinema had a wider release, then I would have spent at least half of what Avatar did on SFX. However, I’ve always believed in bringing in something new via technology in every film of mine.  And it is because of the novelty element that my films have a repeat value.”

“I think it’s wrong to talk about my movie budgets constantly. There is an equal amount of blood and sweat invested in the effort. The film took two years to make and we had a huge foreign crew involved. Every member of my unit and the foreign crew has worked so hard on this film that the money pales in comparison to the effort put in.’’

The journey ahead

Fair enough, but one wonders whether it is personal angst that is responsible for the Robinhood characters he writes. Says Shankar, “I’m a common man. And I’m fully aware of what is happening around me. As a journalist you have a pen that you use to highlight injustice. As a director, I have another medium to do exactly the same.’’

But the films he patronises are vastly different from the ones he makes. A self-confessed Mani Ratnam admirer, the other three films that have left an indelible mark on him are Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan, Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai and Raj Kumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots.  “When I’m in between scripts the only things I make time for are watching movies,” he says.

And though his movies leave gadget freaks gasping, he’s technologically challenged in real life.  “All the technology is reserved for my films. I don’t even know what hidden features my cell-phone has,’’ he laughs.

As he gets into his vehicle to visit the local Chennai theatres for reactions, he adds, “People want to know what I’m making next. I usually have some idea stashed away in my head for my next film even before the earlier one has wrapped.

In 17 years I have directed 10 films. I guess I have been prolific. But, this time around I want to wait for the hangover of Robot to subside. What I really need at this point is to splash some water on my face, clear my head and go for a long drive and feel the breeze blow.’’

(L) A still from Boys (R) Aparichit
(L) Sivaji-The boss (R) Robot