A stint as a child actor, a course in film technology at the University of Central Florida, a small role in Dasavatharam, directing an actor of Kamal Haasan’s stature for Unnai Pol Oruvan in Tamil and Eenadu in Telugu that also had veterans Mohanlal and Venkatesh – these are salient features of Chakri Toleti’s fact file today. But relegating them to the background is the hype and hoopla surrounding his soon-to-be-released Billa II. Cautious in the early stages of the conversation, Chakri gets casual and chatty after fielding the initial round of posers.
His first film in Tamil and Telugu was a remake of A Wednesday. The second,Billa II, is a prequel. Is originality taking a back seat in Chakri’s scheme of things? “Not at all, though a remake, we customised Unnai Pol Oruvan andEenadu for the South audience. And in the case of Billa II, my team and I have worked on the story from scratch.” But it was Vishnuvardhan, who had first been roped in for the prequel. “Yeah, after IN Entertainment took me on board, we wrote an entirely new story, for which I share the credit with my team,” he says. Has he gone the formula way? “Semi, you could say. Billa II will fall into the category of the commercial with a mix of realism.”
Wide Angle Creations is producing Billa II with IN. Interestingly, more than three decades ago, yesteryear actor K. Balaji produced Rajni’s Billa, and now his son Suresh Balaje is part of Wide Angle that’s making Billa II! “Sunir (Kheterpal), Suresh and Georgie (George Pius) have been wonderful,” says Chakri. It isn’t often that a director is effusive in his praise of his producers!
When Chakri began work on the project he knew very little about the brand value of the Billa franchise. The role that was successfully portrayed by the Big B way back in the 1970s, reprised by Rajnikanth, and later by Shah Rukh Khan, and remade with the Ultimate Star, in that order, has made Billa, the don, almost a cult figure in Indian cinema. So expectation about the prequel is extremely high. “Though I had watched Bachchan’s Don and Rajnikanth’s Billa, I realised the magnitude of the don premise only after I became a part of Billa II,” laughs Chakri.
About working with Ajith, he says, “It was a breeze and the rapport continued till the end.” Much has been said about Ajith’s culinary expertise, as he is said to cook a meal or two for the unit he works with. “True, I enjoyed his courtesy and his cuisine,” smiles the director.
Style was a scoring point in Billa. Will the prequel be equally snazzy? “Here we are beginning with the don’s past. It will have the sophistication and polish relevant to the story,” is all he divulges.
Ajith is an actor who revels in risks. Recently the media went to town about Ajith’s daredevilry as he dangled from a helicopter for a vital action sequence inBilla II. “He did a brilliant job. We were on tenterhooks because action at a height of 10,000 ft is so very dangerous. In a foreign country and in weather conditions we aren’t used to, the human body can take only so much. Compounding it was the language barrier that made communication that much more difficult. I was sceptical but Ajith went about it with confidence,” Chakri can’t praise his hero enough. “We hired Stephen Richter from Germany to choreograph the sequence. A lot of technique has gone into the action segments in Billa II.”
Technically, Billa II is the first film in the country to have been shot completely in 5K resolution with the Epic Camera now used in The Hobbit films. “LikeUnnai Pol Oruvan was the first to be shot in RED with 4K resolution,” he adds.
Not just the camera, the cast of Billa II too exudes freshness — Parvathy Omanakuttan, Bruna Abdullah and Vidyut Jamwal of Force fame, the list is impressive. “Parvathy and Bruna aren’t the usual kind of film heroines. All actors have been chosen with their suitability to the characters in mind,” he says.
The music, another USP
Yuvan Shankar Raja’s music should be another USP of Billa II. “Yeah, the audio is rocking,” says Chakri. “Yuvan is a good friend, and his music is great. Most of the songs have been designed to suit the sequences. You won’t find numbers thrust into the narrative.” Beginning with a Kamal film and following it up with a biggie such as Billa II are breaks that don’t happen for everyone! “Kamal Haasan is a family friend. We would meet up often when he came over to the U.S. forDasavathaaram. I helped him organise a few things for the shoot in Florida. Our conversations were always about cinema. And when the remake of A Wednesday came up, he brought me into the picture. Then Billa II happened,” Chakri makes it all sound so easy.
As he lets his guard down, I’m able to gauge the points in the conversation he wishes to highlight. I list them and weed out the rest. “My God, how could you make out,” he asks. I wish to add that I can also tell him, the exact moment in our chat when he began to sound relaxed. Instead I ask whether he wishes to say anything more about Billa II. “The focus has been on creating a worthy product. We’ve shot extensively in Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Goa and Georgia. “The Georgian Government was very helpful, but the weather, thoroughly painful. The cast and crew slogged it out in extreme conditions. And I think we should turn up trumps,” Chakri strikes a confident note.