Kallakurichi, a small town around 200 kilometres southwest of Chennai, did not have an adequate government school. AR Murugadoss, who was born and raised there, studied in a school without a compound wall and a proper classroom. There was no railway station either. The town, obviously lacking in much, however had two reasonably good cinema halls, which were also its only source of entertainment. It stands to reason that Murugadoss, at a young age, would become interested in the movies. It is also self-evident that the early exposure would have helped shape the 42-year-old filmmaker’s sharp understanding of what his audiences—really, really—want. And the proof of his acumen is in the numbers. Here are the facts.
In 2008, his maiden Hindi film Ghajini—a remake of his own 2005 Tamil psychological thriller—starring Aamir Khan became the first Bollywood movie to gross Rs 100 crore in collections (source: boxofficeindia.com).
His last three films, Thuppakki (2012, in Tamil), Holiday (Hindi) and Kaththi (Tamil), have been similar blockbusters. In fact, he is the only director in the country to have scored two Rs 100 crore hits (Holiday and Kaththi) in a year and that too in two different languages. You could call 2014 the year of Murugadoss and the reason why he finds himself ranked 39 in the 2014 Forbes India Celebrity 100 (having not even made the cut last year).
With his slight build and a soft-spoken and shy demeanour, it is easy to lose Murugadoss in a crowd. But put him behind a camera and he knows how to make his presence felt. “When you make a movie, you are actually playing a game with your audience. Every scene must give out something new while, at the same time, get them [the audience] to guess what will happen next,” he tells Forbes India. Sitting, legs folded, in his spartan office in Saligramam in Chennai, Murugadoss lets us in on his simple formula: “A good film is one where the audience fails to guess correctly.” And he would know.
Murugadoss’s ability as a storyteller surfaced early, when he began to write short stories during his college days in Trichy in Tamil Nadu. Most of them even got published in Tamil magazines. But, when his application for admission to the Madras Film Institute—one of the two premier film institutes in the country at the time, Pune being the other—was rejected, Murugadoss was hurt. “What hurt more was the fact that I was rejected by the panel in three minutes, without them looking into the short stories that I had written,” he recalls with a tinge of lingering disappointment. But, as it often transpires, this rejection proved to be a blessing in disguise.
At that point, Murugadoss, who was in his early twenties, began to assist veteran script writer P Kalaimani, who had penned some of the best known Tamil hits of the 1980s such as 16 Vayathinile, Mann Vasanai and Muthal Vasantham. Murugadoss’s work with Kalaimani was menial—it involved serving food and liquor and taking copious notes. But the two-year stint also proved to be an education in the art of scriptwriting and the fundamentals of making a commercial film.
“Looking back, I realise that had I gone to the film institute, I would have learnt more about the art of filmmaking and less about writing a strong script,” he says. “The technical aspect of filmmaking is a team effort and I can overcome that shortcoming by employing experts in the field.”
Aalif Surti, chief creative officer, Fox Star Studios, agrees: “Murugadoss is primarily a storyteller and technique comes next.” Surti and Murugadoss have a close working relationship as Fox Star Studios and AR Murugadoss Productions have jointly produced four Tamil films; the fifth one has just gone on the floor. “His style is like that of Raju Hirani—take up an issue-based subject, package it around entertainment and style, and deliver it in a manner that reaches the audience best,” says Surti, underscoring the reason why Murugadoss himself pens the script for all his movies.
Another yardstick of Murugadoss’s success as a storyteller (apart from box office collections) is the extent to which his films are remade in other languages. Ghajini
was first made in Tamil before Aamir Khan, impressed by the script, agreed to do it in Hindi.
Murugadoss’s second Tamil film Ramanaa
has been remade in Telugu and Kannada. Its Hindi avatar Gabbar
, with Akshay Kumar in the lead and produced by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, is currently being filmed. (Viacom 18 is part of Network 18, the publishers of Forbes India.)
Murugadoss’s Telugu film Stalin
transformed into the Salman Khan-starrer Jai Ho
in 2014. The Tamil film Thuppakki
, released last year, led to the Akshay Kumar-starrer Holiday
: A Soldier Is Never Off Duty and was also remade in Bengali as Game. (A few of the remakes, such as Ghajini
…, were directed by the man himself.)
His movies usually have a strong social message: Be it corruption/ student power (Ramanaa
), terrorism (Thuppakki/Holiday
…), helping society (Stalin
), fighting injustice (Ghajini
) or farmer issues (Kaththi
). “It is a reflection of his strong social consciousness,” says Surti. And this consciousness within Murugadoss was once so acute that he even contemplated becoming a Naxalite after finishing college. “I would have become one if someone had shown me the way then,” he says calmly. “Having become a filmmaker, I am ensuring that the message is delivered through my movies.”
And he has mastered the art of delivering that message. “He does not pontificate or get his hero to launch into a lecture,” says Surti. “The message is subtle and is delivered in a manner that the audience can easily absorb.”
Sensitivity to real-life issues typically germinates in, well, real life. And, for Murugadoss, life was difficult growing up. His father, who owned a shop that sold vessels, had a meagre income but his family was large—father, mother, three elder sisters and two younger brothers. “One of my earliest recollections of my family is the competition between us siblings every night to sleep right under the only fan in our single room house,” recalls Murugadoss. But, despite the hardships, his father understood his passion and talent. “My father used to read my short stories and love them. He thought I would become a good journalist,” says Murugadoss.
Though always manifest, it was in college that Murugadoss’s passion for cinema increased manifold. There, he began to write sketch comedies and even acted in them. That was when he told his father, Arumugam, about his dream of becoming a director. “That was the time when working in the film industry was frowned upon. I had three elder sisters to be married off and the whole world around us wanted me to finish my education and help my father in his business,” he says. “But my father let me pursue my dream.”
Not just that. As his son struggled to find a break, Arumugam constantly wrote letters motivating Murugadoss not to give up. “But for his letters and words, I would have given up and gone back home,” says Murugadoss. It was five years before Murugadoss’s name first appeared in the titles of a film (as an assistant director for a Tamil movie Madhura Meenakshi
) and his father took a two-hour bus ride to Salem (a bigger town) to watch the film. “Initially I lived on the Rs 400 my father sent me every month. Then, as assistant director, I began to earn enough to sustain myself but could not send any money home,” says Murugadoss. “My father married off my three elder sisters without taking any help from me.”
Murugadoss worked as an assistant to director SJ Surya for the Tamil film Kushi
. But he got his first break as a director only eight years after he had moved to Chennai, and on the recommendation of Surya. The Tamil film Dheena
, starring Ajith Kumar, released in 2001 and was received well. Murugadoss’s regret: “My father, after all his encouragement, was not alive to see the film.”
During his period of struggle, Murugadoss had noticed many other talented people who were also waiting for an opportunity. “All they needed was a break that would lift them to glory but for many that moment never came,” he says. To that end, he set up AR Murugadoss Productions to give such people a chance. The production house focuses on low-budget films and its tie-up with Fox Star Studios helps him further this cause.
“At a time when people look for experience, even for menial jobs, it requires a lot of courage and self-confidence to entrust a film involving a budget of Rs 5-10 crore to a new director,” says P Kinslin who worked as an assistant to Murugadoss for eight years. Kinslin directed his first movie Vathikuchi
as an AR Murugadoss Productions–Fox Star Studios co-production. He has learnt much from Murugadoss and says his learning is not complete yet. “Murugadoss Sir is able to play a game with his audience in every scene because he knows his ever-changing audience well. He keeps himself updated to ensure that he understands them well,” says Kinslin.
Murugadoss sees another benefit in this endeavour. “When I work closely with young aspiring directors, they remind me of my past and the struggle I faced. It is a constant reminder of what I should do to hold on to my success,” he says. “Handling success is more difficult than becoming successful.”
At the same time, Murugadoss has so far avoided producing the films he directs. “I want to avoid a conflict of interest,” he says. “I do not want my producer mindset to affect my quality as a director.” But some of his critics see it differently. They say that Murugadoss’s films are big-budget and he would never risk his money on it.
But, says Murugadoss, “It does not matter whose money it is. A director has to keep the return on investment in his mind and spend just what the script needs.” Surti has his back on this. “We have worked with Murugadoss on many films,” he says. “He never spends unnecessarily, finishes the film within budget and on time.”
Initially, Fox Star Studios was hesitant about entering Kollywood—how the Tamil film industry is locally termed—as it is notorious for time and cost overruns. “Our partnership with Murugadoss has been a dream run,” he says. Bollywood star Akshay Kumar too points out Murugadoss’s efficiency. “His discipline helped complete Holiday
… in time and it was fantastic working with him,” he says.
Discipline has also kept Murugadoss tied to his roots.
Despite immense success, he continues to be a simple man and lives a simple life. He does not attend parties and avoids the social circuit. When he goes on long shoots, he carries a trunk of books and DVDs. He prefers to stay in a hotel that is located near a movie hall or a library. He is also a man of few words. The only time his face lights up and conversation becomes animated is when he is narrating a story. That is when he is at home.
(This story appears in the 26 December, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)