The film 12B (2001), directed by the late Jeeva, has two endings, and one gets the sense that the career of Deepak Bhojraj, the man who edited the trendsetting trailer of the film, could have gone either way. He could have easily been a farmer, but decided to be a designer of posters and trailers. He has now taken up the job of creative head for actor Karthi’s next.
His office is centrally located in Ooty, just half a kilometre from the town’s nerve centre, Charing Cross. It is drizzling and I am late. An employee from Rising Apple, Bhojraj’s four-man company, ushers me in. I find the man in the drawing room, next to a dark brown, worn-out sofa set. We go inside to the boss’s room and get on it.
“We are doing some posters. One is with Moodar Koodam director Naveen called Alauddinin Arputha Camera. The first look poster was released only two days ago,” he tells me.
Bhojraj is heftily-built and is dressed warmly for the occasion. The temperature is a bit lower than most days at the popular hill station. He has a pepper beard tied into a tuft at the lower chin. During the course of the interview, he frequently uses words like creativity, entertainment and excitement. It is clear these words mean a lot to him.
What else is he working on? “I am discussing with director Vikram Kumar (of 24 fame) on his next Telugu project. He has asked me. But till it gets started, I don’t know when and how. Two more Tamil films are also on the works,” he says. “I did the promos and posters for Na Nuvve, and the film was released last month, but didn’t do well.”
The word film is sprinkled liberally all over our conversation, but never movie or picture. “Then, we are doing Vellai Pookal shot entirely in the US. The brains behind the film are in Amazon and IBM and all these places. It has three producers, but some 25 friends are funding it. It is a crowdfunded project. Vivek is the hero. It’s a murder mystery, a whodunit, with a detective trying to solve a crime,” he says.
Bhojraj is most known for the poster of 24. “I set up this design studio (Rising Apple) in Ooty about eight years ago. Earlier, I had to design posters after they completed the film. But in 24, I heard the narration of the film and did concepts. We did a photo shoot for that and created a poster. We planned that every month, on the 24th, we would release a poster. It was conceived completely by me and we strategised the planning of the promotions. We did seven first-looks. That was never done before. That’s why it worked,” he said.
“The best part about 24 is that Suriya and Vikram Kumar gave me a free hand. Suriya, as producer, went all out to promote the film. That’s why the film stood out from the rest,” he said.
“I did Manam with Vikram Kumar. That was my first film with him. We created quite a buzz with the promotions there (in Andhra Pradesh). There were three generations of actors in the film from Nagarjuna’s family. The film had very big expectations. We had to keep that in mind while promoting the film,” says. “You need to drive the message (of the film) to the people, but this has to be the right message. Whatever you are preparing the audience for, that has to be right.”
Bhojraj has worked closely with Mani Ratnam for Guru (2007) and Yuva (2004), among other films. “Mani Ratnam never tells you what he wants. I think he chooses his team very carefully. He is always open to an idea. We get a chance to challenge ourselves more,” he says.
How did he get a chance to work with Mani Ratnam? “I did the promos for AR Rahman shows. At the time, these shows (the Unity of Light series) were happening in Chennai. After seeing them, Mani sir called me. Then I did Shankar’s Boys and Virumandi for Kamal Haasan. For Virumandi, before the film started, we conceptualised, shot and edited the trailer,” he says.
“Directors like Vikram Kumar and Mani Ratnam give you inputs. But they never tell you what to do. That’s what they pay us for. They have created from scratch. I have to excite the soul who conceived the idea with every poster and trailer that I do. If I convince them, I am sure that the audience are… That I am in the right direction,” he says.
Bala is another top rung director Bhojraj has worked with. “Directors like Bala…he is very defined. He is sure about what he wants. I worked on (the Atharva-starrer) Pardesi with him. Initially, he was not very open, but changed later. I did the sound mixing and determined the colour, look and feel of the film. I got the background score done. I even trimmed the film. I told Bala to look at what I had done. I had told him that we could go back if he did not like something. He liked it,” Bhojraj says proudly.
“The first cut of Irudhi Suttru (2016) was done in Ooty on this table,” he says tapping his desk. (The editing of the film is credited to Sathish Suriya).
Bhojraj comes from a joint family of Badagas, an indigenous tribe in the Nilgiris, and is the oldest of three brothers. “From school, I was into photography and had this point-and-shoot camera. I was shooting landscapes and portraits. Later, I got an SLR and put together a portfolio,” he says.
“I used to take pictures of my family. In all functions, I used to be the official photographer. People started appreciating me and that is when I realised I had talent. I was never good with academics. So I had to look for an alternative,” he explains.
“I wanted to get into cinematography. I went to Film Institute in Chennai, but they turned me down, saying I needed science schooling. But I was in the accounts group,” he says. “My father said ‘finish your basic degree and then decide what you want to do’. So I finished my college in English Literature at Government Arts College in Coimbatore,” he says.
After passing out, Bhojraj met director PC Sriram. “I asked him to take me. He could not take on assistants as he had too many. He told me to work in the direction department of JS Films, which he runs along with Jayendra. He asked me to be around and learn direction. I worked there for four, four-and-a-half years,” he says.
Bhojraj’s first trailer was for 12B. “I decided to start on my own after that. Jeeva is PC’s colleague and has worked with him. That’s is how I know him. He had made 12B. When I approached him, he said ‘no’. He said ‘only the director and editor can edit the trailer’,” he says.
“‘How will third person do it?” he asked me, and told me to meet him after three weeks…So, I was driving back (from the meeting) and I got an idea. I got all the technicians’ names. I devised a concept. I made the title sequence with all the credits coming on like a bus horn and going back. I did all this by myself. I created the music for it and went and showed it to Jeeva about 3-4 days later. Then he said, now, you do whatever you (want),” he says, with a chuckle.
The trailer for 12B set a new benchmark in Kollywood. “It got to be known as the fastest-edited trailer. Everybody started calling after that. I got big films,” he says.
“I come from an audience’s perspective. You (the director) will be part of a film for over a year…two years. You may not like a lot of things. Stuff which is exciting for you may not be so for me and vice-versa,” he says.
Asked about the controversy over the promo for Pardesi, Bhojraj said it showed Bala explaining to an actor to be aggressive in a scene that involved hitting a person. “The film is set in a tea estate in the pre-Independence era portraying the British as being harsh on estate workers. The hitting scene was in the promo and people thought he was treating actors very badly,” he explains. “There would have be no problem if people had seen it along with the movie.”
Behind Bhojraj there is a collection of painting and posters, all of them in frames neatly displayed. “I have been collecting them for a while,” he said.
Bhojraj thinks of himself as a juggler with many creative hands. He is even involved in a bit of farming. “I have some land in Red Hills (Ooty) near Emerald. I won’t be doing any farming for six months though. I have people looking at it. But, you have to put your mind to it. Otherwise, it will take a different course. We used to cultivate vegetables. It is actually more than a full-time job,” he said.
“For me, what is important is, anything that comes to us that is challenging and exciting and we have not done before, we take it up. As long as it is creative, we do it. There is no self-limiting line,” he said. “I named my firm Rising Apple to indicate imagination, as a falling apple signifies gravity. For me creativity is imagination.”
Until 3-4 years ago, Bhojraj was making ad films. “My production company out of which I did ad films was called Rancouter,” he says.
“I have shot some 45-50 ad films. There is a Pothys ad which is spoken about even till today. The owner of Pothys came up with a four films concept. They wanted one film each for one saree that is worn during a specific occasion like Muhurtham or First Night. I explained to them my time slice concept, but they were not convinced. The idea cannot be narrated like a story. We discussed the project many times across the table, but they simply could not visualise it,” he said.
He asks me graciously if I want to watch them on his big Apple screen. When I decline, he goes right ahead. “They said finally that if you are so sure, let’s go ahead with it. We shot with 54 cameras and did a half circle. It’s called a time slice. We were the first to do that in India. The technique is similar to some scenes in the Hollywood film, Matrix. The ad film was made just before Boys,” he says.
Bhojraj also shot a film with cricketer Sachin Tendulkar for Shakti Foundation, a Chennai-based NGO, which was demanding ramps in public places for disabled people. “They had approached Mani Ratnam to direct the film. Mani sir said that he would write the script but asked someone else to direct it and suggested my name. I took it up. I was a challenging project. Rahman did the music for the film and Mani Ratnam produced it,” he says.
Bhojraj stopped making ad films 3-4 years ago. “I still get offers. But there is nothing very exciting. It is regular, man, and there is no great idea to take up. In South India and particularly in Chennai, there are no companies making great ad films,” he said.
“We have multiple verticals. Film posters, packaging, branding and brochures are among the things we do,” he said, showing me a brochure for an Italian paper company. “They wanted us to do the creative for the brochure. From concept to execution, we did everything,” he says, asking me to touch and feel the brochure. The texture of the paper is in meticulous detail; one of them has a skin texture and another has a metal feel. “We are diversified. We do the branding for the educational branch of Chettinad Group,” he said.
“Have you heard of Nilgiris Alive,” he asks suddenly. “We make this merchandise and sell it all over town. I realised that tourists do not have souvenirs to take back with them apart from tea and coffee. This is my own brand. This has nothing to do with film. I am here in Ooty and giving it back to society. We make things relative to Ooty like stuffed versions of animals that are here,” he said.
I asked him to name the directors he admires. “I love every director for a certain ability that they posses. I see the quality of the director from different perspectives. Bala sir draws out the best performance from actors. The way Mani sir approaches a subject is very different. There is a way a film is written and another in the way it is visualised. Shooting off the top of my head, among the younger crop of directors, there are Thiagarajan Kumararaja and Karthik Subbaraj. Directors like them are rocking the scene. They are creating their own genres,” he said.
“A film like Aruvi had me thinking for the next two days. It has an unusual format, but still has entertaining aspects. Sometimes, you look at a film, you are in awe. Sometimes, films are big hits, but without any great direction. Some films flop, but are well-made,” he said.
Is it difficult working out of Ooty? “Right now, we are in the process of setting up a branch in Chennai. My office was in Chennai for 20 years. We had an independent house in Chennai and an office there. I decided to take a break from ad films and direct my feature. I wanted to do something that I love, but have never tried. I was on a break for six months and then I decided to do graphic design,” he said.
Bhojraj had to go through a process of finding his feet before he got into graphic design. “When I first came back to Ooty, I did not know what to do. Then I started learning graphic design by myself in those six months. We slowly set up shop. I was not in a hurry. Talent came slowly. Once we were confident, we began taking up projects,” he says.
“Lots of people still didn’t come to us because we were in Ooty. But I had done Guru (Hindi) by then, so I thought why can’t I deliver to Chennai when I can deliver to Mumbai. So it doesn’t matter if a person is in Anna Nagar or Aminjikarai (localities in Chennai) because connectivity is like that,” said.
Bhojraj has plans to direct. “I am working on a couple of scripts. I should have gotten into directing long back. I just pushed it, and pushed it and hopefully, it will soon happen. One of them is a love story, and the outline of the film is its USP. So I won’t tell you more. I am collaborating with a writer in Australia. Another is a thriller, but I am not getting any time to sit on it,” he says. “I consult for a quite a few feature films. I even do some fine tuning on scripts,” he says.
Asked about his opinion on New Wave (Independent) Tamil cinema, he says: “I think, we still need to explore a lot. We are still very conservative. Everybody says the audience has to accept the film. Audience expects good entertainment, that’s about it. We are failing to package films in a better way.”
“Some films run for entertainment value. There are a lot of directors who are doing the usual stuff. End of the day, a lot of money is involved and so people want a safety net, which is not there at all. Every Friday determines the fate of the film. Some films we thought were not good, turned out to be fantastic at the box office,” he says.
An edited version of this story was published on The News Minute.