J Mahendran, the reluctant filmmaker: What the man who gave us Rajinikanth was like

I first met J Mahendran in 2013 for an interview. Sometime last year, I met him again at an awards event, without realising it would be my last meeting with him. In between, whenever we met, Mahendran exuded the same warmth that he did when we met for the first time.

The 2013 meeting was not easy. Mahendran was contemplating the idea of directing a movie after a long hiatus but was still keeping aloof. I convinced him through a friend – Manivannan – who had produced a programme on the director for Kalaignar TV –  to give me an interview. But once the ice was broken, Mahendran was in full flow, without any inhibitions – just as he was in his films.

The director was in his trademark white shirt and pants when we went to his Pallikaranai house. It was before he would become an actor but in the course of that interview, I knew director Mahendran was a born actor. I asked him about Archana in Johnny – my most favourite character of Sridevi's – and Mahendran swung into action. Years after he had created her, the director still appeared fascinated by Archana. Through every motion of Archana – spoken and silent – love and vulnerability shone through. The scene in which she curls up on a sofa, looking at ‘Johnny’ sleeping at some distance is perhaps one of the best love sequences in Tamil cinema (of course along with another scene where Archana expresses her love to Johnny).

Soaked in the warmth of colours and heaviness of silence, the scene re-imagined love for Tamil cinema – that it need not necessarily be reciprocated to remain love, that it can still be dignified even if the partner is not so romantic.

Mahendran recreated the scene for us. He curled up on the sofa just as Archana did, leaving a pause impregnated with love – waiting for Johnny to wake up and see ‘her’ sleepless. Only, there was no Rajinikanth opposite him to do it. There was only us – myself and Manivannan - too stunned for words and awkwardly so. When I came back home, I ran through Johnny on YouTube to find out if what Mahendran had recreated for us was exactly what Sridevi had emoted on screen. He could even bring her feminine vulnerability into his body language! Sridevi, I realised watching Johnny again, was immortalised as Archana only because a director like Mahendran could make her be one. Archana was living in Mahendran as an idea and he made her come alive on screen through Sridevi.

Perhaps every character whom Mahendran so lovingly sculpted on screen was a passionate idea residing in him waiting to find the right person to express himself/herself – like Kaali of Mullum Malarum. Who would imagine now that Rajinikanth could be so unabashedly raw on screen? It's impossible not to fall in love with a Rajinikanth who dances his heart away to the song 'Raman aandalum' or the Rajinikanth who keeps his face straight and ego tight even when his sister opts to marry a man of her choice – the one he so viscerally hates. Till the end, Rajinikanth plays the egoistic man, relenting only when his sister calls off her marriage. He finally agrees to the marriage not because he has a change of heart about the man (played by Sarath Babu) but because his sister (played by a phenomenally talented Shoba) demonstrates that her love for her brother was supreme.

“How can I show him as having a change of heart in the end? It would be so unreal,” Mahendran told me in that interview.

Rajinikanth perhaps played some of his career best roles in Mahendran’s movies. Mahendran directed only 12 movies. Rajinikanth was the hero in three of them. In Mullum Malarum, he is this raw young man who shares a lovely bond with his sister. In Johnny, he plays dual roles – that of a conman in love with singer Archana, and barber Vidyasagar who develops a hatred for women after his girlfriend cheats him.

Rajinikanth as Johnny is not the hero we would later encounter in Tamil cinema. He is not the macho kind of guy bashing up a hundred men and has women drooling all over him. In Johnny, he is vulnerable and loving. He falls in love not with Archana’s beauty but her voice. He was humane – not the superhero of later movies. In Kai Kodukkum Kai, Rajinikanth plays Kaalimuthu, a man married to a visually disabled Seetha (Revathi) who is raped by the villain. Kaalimuthu finally lets the villain go and starts a fresh life with Seetha.

Films like Uthiri Pookal in which Vijayan plays the ruthless villain torturing those around them enjoy a cult status in Tamil cinema even today.

Mahendran said his women were like those ‘in real life.’ “I don’t believe in exaggerated presentations of women on screen. They have to be like what they are to me in my real life," he said. They could cheat on their boyfriends but then they could also unconditionally and infinitely love someone beyond any reason. 

For the spell of magic that he had cast over Tamil cinema, Mahendran took me by shock when he said that he doesn’t like cinema. More recently, Super Deluxe filmmaker Thiyagarajan Kumararaja came up with a similar answer when I asked him about cinema - half expecting him to say how passionate he was. Kumararaja’s response, that cinema to him was just like any other job, instantaneously reminded me of Mahendran. There was another similarity too – Mahendran directed only 12 movies. In 10 years, Kumararaja has two. When I asked him if he could be compared with Mahendran, Kumararaja was startled. “In terms of the numbers, maybe yes. But not otherwise,” he said hesitantly.

But if Kumararaja looks at cinema just as another job, Mahendran's idea was even cruder. “It is a forced marriage for me, but even in that I have to live my life. It has become an act of sex or like a prayer to me” he told me.

But he was still willing to do it all over again, because he was confident he could. It did not matter that he was out of touch for so long or that the field is now populated by younger minds. He believed he could still do better than many others.

“I am like a soldier, you don’t need a war to stay alert” he said when I asked him if he could.

The war remains unconquered. Just as the lengthy interview he had promised me during our last meeting. There were so many questions I had wanted to ask him about the women and men in his films, about Ponniyin Selvan that MGR wanted him to work on, about Rajinikanth, and Kamal Haasan whom he never got to direct though they shared a heartwarming friendship, about all those characters residing in him as ideas waiting to come alive.

It would remain my lasting regret as a journalist – that the promised interview of a director who awed me never happened. But as an avid film buff, I shall remain deeply grateful to him for gifting Archana and Kaali to Tamil cinema. We couldn’t have asked for better.

Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist with two decades of experience, writing on politics, culture, literature and cinema.