âI found myself with Kaakka Kaakkaâ
Catching up with Gautham Menon, whoâs readying the release of his âBalu Mahendra-meets-Quentin Tarantino kind of filmâ?…
DEC 17, 2006 – COULD GAUTHAM MENON STILL BE SMARTING from a past slight? Sitting across the director in his icily air-conditioned office â the steam from the coffee disappeared in roughly thirty seconds â Iâm half listening to him, half psychoanalysing him as he narrates why heâs referred to merely as âGauthamâ? in the credits sequences of his films. âIt was time for the cassette release of my first film, MinnalÃ©. My name had to feature on the cover. The producer said there was something against Malayalis in the industry, so he asked me to ditch the âMenonâ. I had no choice.â? The reason Iâm finding this fascinating is that Gautham has subsequently turned Tamil with a vengeance â at least with respect to naming his films. Kaakka Kaakka comes from that singsong paean to the Tamil god Murugan, kaakka kaakka kanagavÃ©l kaakka. VÃ©ttaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu and the soon-to-be-released Pachaikili Muthucharam can be traced to the Tamil demigod MGR; theyâre the opening lines of songs in his Arasa Kattalai and Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban respectively. And Gauthamâs under-production film goes all the way back to Tamil saint-poetess Andalâs dream of marriage to her Lord: Vaaranam Aayiram. Doesnât it appear â just a mite â that this is the directorâs take-that to the Tamil film industry, his way of showing that this âMalayaliâ? can be more Tamil than a Tamil, considering that the films from âTamilâ? directors these days barely bother to reflect the beauty of their language?
Gautham, expectedly, offers a different spin. âFor VÃ©ttaiyaadu, I wanted a title with a hunt kind of feel. I was talking to (the lyricist) Thamarai, and she said thereâs this old song and started humming it. And that was it.â? As for Pachaikili, it was first called Silandhi. But when the original producer opted out and Oscar Ravichandran stepped in, he didnât want any attachments to the older project, and that included the name. And Gautham says, âSo I was thinking of a new name, on the lines of a slender thread,â? because the story is about the ties that bind a family. âThen the song came to me,â? and he launches into its na-na nana, na-na nana rhythm. The literal translation of Pachaikili Muthucharam would approximate to a parrot and a string of pearls, and âthat suited my story. The pearls can fall off and scatter, just like what happens to the happy family when somebody comes in and scatters their lives.â? All that, over a title â and frankly, if he hadnât explained this, who would have understood that thatâs what Pachaikili Muthucharam really stood for? Suddenly, itâs no longer about me analysing Gauthamâs work; itâs about Gautham analysing Gauthamâs work.
SPECIFICS appear to be very important to Gautham. His favourite music director, Harris Jayaraj, would clearly agree, for when I ask Gautham about their all-hits association, he says, âHarris and I, when we work together, we put in a lot of effort. I give him the entire script. I give him inputs. When we sat down for VÃ©ttaiyaadu, I told him to do away with the traditional pallavi-charanam format in the Manjal veyyil song. I said, âLetâs make it like an English song,â with a stanza followed by a verse and so on. Nobody else works like this with Harris.â? He points out that other directors arenât even there for the recording, and they just ask Harris for a âlove songâ or something equally generic. Thatâs the other thing about Gautham â heâs not entered this business to be a diplomat. He labels at least one leading actor as âstupidâ? and another starâs film gets trashed as âidiotic.â? Thatâs possibly the brashness that comes with his age. He was, after all, just in his tenth when Nayakan â the film that âtotally blew me awayâ? â came out. (Heâll be 34 this February.) Even his talk is young. He refers to his parents as âmomâ? and âdadâ? â in case you want to chew more cud about the whole language aspect, âdadâ? is a Malayali and âmomâ? is a Tamilian â and when he talks about the problems that plagued VÃ©ttaiyaadu, he brings up the producerâs âsuicide thingie.â?
This irreverence extends to Gauthamâs education â a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Mookambikai College of Engineering, Trichy. âI was more interested in filmmaking,â? thanks â along with Nayakan â to Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Mahendran, Spielbergâs Indiana Jones series, the Godfather series, and other one-offs like Scent of a Woman and Dead Poets Society. Remembering the latter, Gautham says his film-buff dad âfreakedâ? on the film. âThat got me interested and I must have seen it 25 times since.â? And while in college, Gautham was writing short stories, sometimes developing them into scripts, âwithout having an idea whether Iâd ever get to be a filmmaker.â? But after graduation, he decided he didnât want to be an engineer. âI tried to work with all the big directors. I looked around for almost a year-and-a-half before landing up with Rajiv Menon. I started with ad films. I was hoping heâd do a feature, and Minsara Kanavu happened. I worked as Assistant Director. Then I came out on my own.â? He says there was no dearth of ideas for projects because he always read a lot. âI remember my dad had a Jackie Collins book. He said I couldnât read it at that age.â? The question, really, is whether people should be reading Jackie Collins at any age â but Gautham redeems himself by naming, âThomas Hardy, a little bit of Shakespeare. Right now, Iâm into (the Swedish writer) Henning Mankell. He writes stuff like VÃ©ttaiyaadu â crime novels.â?
I want to know what made Gautham confident that he could successfully splash this urban sensibility across the hero-worshipping screens of Tamil Nadu, but he dismisses the notion. âThe audience is getting more âmultiplex-orientedâ. Everybody wants to speak English.â? He says he went around the smaller centres to gauge reactions to VÃ©ttaiyaadu, and âwhen the English portions came on, they were still watching. I believe in making very visual films. The presentation has to be extraordinary, so even if they donât understand, theyâll sit and watch.â? And this becomes a springboard for a rant against producers. âThe producer told me not to have these English portions. I said, âSir, this character goes to New York. He canât talk in Tamil.â Then the producer asked me to at least have subtitles. I said you canât read it because it goes by too fast.â? But they insisted, and now, Gautham says, theyâre saying the subtitles shouldnât have been there because no one can read them. âAnd it didnât make a difference because the scene was self-explanatory. I hate the fact that producers come and tell you that something doesnât work â just because theyâre putting in the money. I definitely believe the producer is number one. Even at the Oscars, itâs the producer who collects the Best Film award. But they donât understand my sensibility,â? and heâs never going to compromise again. âBecause Iâve reached a stage where I can produce my own films.â?
This way, he hopes he wonât have the heartaches he did with MinnalÃ©. âIt was a very juvenile and clichÃ©d film. My original script was different. It was actually the story of two friends who fall in love with one girl. Then Madhavan got in. Vipul Shah â heâs from Bombay; he does stuff for television, and heâs a good friend of Maddyâs and mine â got in. And we changed it around to two guys who hate each other, falling for the same girl.â? The script didnât change entirely, for the vignettes that Gautham had incorporated from his own life were still there. âLike the Madhavan character, I liked to be with my own set of friends. We never interacted with the girls, and I used to hate those girls in college. Then the whole church wedding concept was mine; Iâm married to a Christian.â? But otherwise, the smash hit Vaseegara, for instance, didnât come out the way he wanted it to. âI had Madhavan and Reema together for just half-a-day. That was the last song to be shot, and the film was ready for release. Iâm not blaming anybody for the way it turned out, but… I wasnât sure of myself. In your first film, you get carried away.â? Even with the Hindi remake, Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein (RHTDM), âMaddy carried me to Bombay, literally. They made me shoot Bombay in Durban. I told Maddy itâs not going to work at all for me, but he said, âItâs a good ride, boss. Have fun.â I wouldnât have done it if I had known the world a bit better.â?
SO itâs quite easy to believe Gautham when he says that, at that point, âKaakka Kaakka was everything.â? He feels itâs his best work, followed by VÃ©ttaiyaadu and finally that first film. âI found myself with Kaakka Kaakka, and hopefully itâs getting better.â? Gautham says he saw Kaakka Kaakka as a romance. âIâm quite a romantic, actually, and it was the story of an encounter specialist who falls in love with this woman, and thereâs no way he can have someone around him like that. He keeps telling her this, but he gives in because he loves her. Thereâs a line she says: âI want to make love to you.â I donât think this has ever been said in Tamil cinema, but somebody who likes a man will say that.â? But Madhavan didnât think he could play an encounter specialist. Ajith and Vikram didnât want to do a cop script, never mind that they said yes to other cop scripts â Anjaneya and Saamy â around the same time. âWhen I took it to Jyotika, she said, âWhy donât you try Suriya? Heâs done a film called Nanda.â So I saw Nanda, and there was something about his eyes.â? Gautham then did a rehearsal of the script with the actors, he had a costume trial with Jyotika, he shot with a handycam the way Suriya would talk, the way he would walk. âWe took him to a commando training school. We made him work with guns. A lot of work went in for about a week-and-a-half. And then we started the shoot.â?
âIt was a very planned shoot,â? says Gautham, âexcept that no money was coming in, because Suriya wasnât yet a top hero and I was new at the time.â? He says his original climax was set in Varanasi, which is where the villain takes off to after killing Jyotika. âBut we didnât get the money, so we shot in Chennai, at Royapuram.â? He could have shot a similar climax in Russia â for after the film became a hit, there were talks of a Hollywood version with a Chechen background. âWe went there â the producer Mr. Dhanu and I â and they loved the film. They talked of adapting it. They wanted me to direct.â? Gautham is a bit vague about who âtheyâ? are; all heâll say is that âit was an independent thing. Dhanu was going to produce it, with NRIs. He was going to talk to Ashok Amritraj after the final draft was ready.â? But he says he chose to wait, âbecause I felt I hadnât established myself really well here, and I needed to do that first. If they adapt it well, letâs see, but not before that.â? And instead, he returned to India and made another cop movie. âThanks to Kaakka Kaakka, I had a lot of research on police officers. And Iâve always liked Ram Gopal Varmaâs work. Heâs done a trilogy on gangster films, and I thought â not that Iâm equating myself with him; I know Iâm not in that league at all â let me also make a trilogy. I thought Iâd play it like another episode in a police officerâs life. Kaakka Kaakka was the first one, and in the future, if Iâm working with Vikram, maybe, Iâd like to make a third cop film.â?
ROUND about the time Kaakka Kaakka became a huge success, Kamal Hassan agreed to make a film for the producer Kaja Moideen, and Gauthamâs name came up as a possible director. âI was off shooting Gharshana (the Telugu remake of Kaakka Kaakka), so they went ahead and signed the deal,â? says Gautham, who then presented to his star a one-liner of the story that would eventually become Pachaikili. âHe said it was nice and asked me to work on it. So I wrote the entire script in 40 days. But then he had second thoughts and said no. Then for a month I sat and thought about what Kamal could play. A cop? A convict on the run, like Sigappu Rojakkal 2? And I decided to make him a cop.â? Then the suicide episode happened and, âKamal said the entire thing had left a bad taste in his mouth, and he didnât want this film at all. But the producerâs council told him heâd taken an advance â Iâd also taken an advance â so we had to finish the film.â? So Gautham narrated the story of VÃ©ttaiyaadu. âHe said, âI donât have time to get fit if Iâm playing a cop.â I said that wasnât a problem. He asked if I could start shooting right away and finish the project. I said yes.â?
And thatâs how they started the film, âwithout Kamal sir getting a full narration of the script,â? says Gautham. âHeâd get the scene, read the dialogues, and start acting. All he knew was that he was a cop. He didnât know where Jyotika would come in, where Kamalini would come in. He didnât know who the two villains were â I didnât introduce them to each other. The first time they acted together was the first time they met.â? Some people said Kamal Hassan didnât look very interested in the project, âbut it worked for me, because I wanted the character to be like that. We know every expression of Kamalâs. Iâve watched every film of his. Iâm like a die-hard fan. I wanted a character that is very simple, very underplayed. And he was brilliant. There are some things you cannot write. You can write the dialogue, you can say the artist is going to look at Jyotika like this â but what he adds to that is mind-blowing. All of us were stunned.â? But this excellence came at a price. âIn VÃ©ttaiyaadu, the first half is what I wanted to do. The second half is what I did for the producer and Kamal sir.â?
GAUTHAM sighs. âItâs very difficult to write in a Tamil cinema setup because you have to cater to the hero. That entire opening ten minutes is just an introduction of the hero. You can remove those ten minutes and start the film when Kamal touches down in Madurai. In fact, when Kamal first heard the script, he had reservations. I asked why. He said, âYouâre making a film with a hero. Now this script will shift to the antagonist at some point. Then thereâll be a cat-and-mouse. Thereâll be footage where Iâm not there on screen. Thatâs not the kind of film you want to make.â I understood. Heâs a superstar. He has fans who need to be catered to.â? Gauthamâs original version of the script had a lot more background on the villains, âwhat their psyches are, what their ideologies are.â? But that had to go, because there were some 20 minutes of screen time when the protagonist â the star protagonist â was not there at all. âAnd thatâs not done. Even now, people say they would have liked to see more of him.â? The compromises werenât always regarding the hero. âI had only three songs in my first draft. Harris comes to me and says we have a track record, so we need to have five songs. And the guy who comes to buy the audio rights says the same thing.â? So the situations for UyirilÃ© and NeruppÃ© were shoehorned in. âI was not even there when they shot the song, because I didnât like the situation and Iâd already started Pachaikili. But then these are factors that you have to play with.â?
Still, Gautham feels he manages to score over the competition. âIn other films, itâs too larger than life, itâs too loud. With my films, I think the audience will identify with some of the characters. Theyâll know that this can happen in their life. Even my dialogues, I try to keep realistic. Like the one in VÃ©ttaiyaadu, where Jyotika asks Kamal if heâs in software, and he says, âIlle, naan hardware.â Thatâs the way we talk, itâs not a forced dialogue.â? And Gauthamâs team helps him with this. âAfter I write my draft, I call my guys and we thrash out the script. Theyâre my friends, and they all know what I am doing. So itâs not just what I want to do. Even after a shot, Iâll look at these guys, take in their reactions â then finally itâs my judgement.â? Gautham talks about the climax in VÃ©ttaiyaadu to show how no judgement â not even his â is set in stone. âWhen Kamal finally faces the last villain, I wanted a fight sequence. But he felt the audience would want to know about Jyotika, and a fight would only prolong this discovery. And so we had the villain die instantly.â? But a lot of people came up and said that this villain was so evil, he needed to have been the recipient of some dishoom-dishoom from the hero. âIf I hadnât let Kamal tell me, I would have shot it. Even now, I feel there could have been a 100-feet fight between both of them.â?
BUT enough about VÃ©ttaiyaadu, for Gautham is now busy with the release work for Pachaikili Muthucharam, which is expected around Christmas. He calls this an adaptation of âDerailed â the book, not the film. Iâve totally worked from the book and Iâve given it a very Tamil, very Indian feel.â? We got around to talking about this because he mentioned that he was reading a lot of books of late, wanting to adapt them, trying to pick up rights, âwhich is how it works in Hollywood.â? It was Anurag Kashyap who gave the book to Gautham, suggesting a possible film version, âand I said letâs buy the rights. We contacted the publishers, but they said Hollywood has already picked up the rights. I still thought I could make this with Kamal sir and release it before Derailed gets released. Iâd give credit to the writer.â? But, of course, Kamal sir said no. And meanwhile Derailed, the film, came out. âI sent my assistants to watch it, and they said it was quite different.â? Gautham makes a point of this because âI have a problem if people say I took off from the movie. I generally donât do that at all. Even when I made Gharshana, I never tried to copy shots from Kaakka Kaakka. In fact, Venkatesh â who played Suriyaâs role â would remember my earlier shots and argue that we were doing it differently. I said, âIf you wanted a frame-by-frame remake, you should have gone with some other director.â I was giving this my own feel, trying to better something I have done. I had no interest in recreating the same thing, because I had a bad experience with MinnalÃ© and RHTDM.â?
If Gautham agreed to do Gharshana, it was only because of the money. âWe put in 60 lakhs of our own to finish Kaakka Kaakka, because Iâd crossed Dhanuâs budget and he wasnât going to give me more. The original budget was two-fifty and it eventually came to three-ten.â? Thatâs cinema-speak for Rs 2.50 crore and Rs 3.10 crore, and pay close attention now because more numbers are coming up. âDhanu said if I did the film in Telugu, heâd give me 80 lakhs, out of which 40 was for me. And Feroz Khan wanted to buy the Hindi rights. That was 60, out of which I would get 30. 40 plus 30 is 70, so I said yes to Gharshana.â? (He was 60 lakhs in the red, remember?) âI wanted Prabhas, but Venkatesh was more keen on buying the rights. Halfway through, I realised it was not going to work, but then Venkatesh went on to become a good friend. And it did do well in the cities.â? After that detour, we return to Derailed. âWhen Kamal said no, I spoke to Sharath Kumar. He said heâd always been looking to break his action-hero mould.â? Gautham says Sharath Kumar is a big Amitabh Bachchan fan, and he wanted to chart a similar career shift to playing strong characters that werenât necessarily heroic. âIâve made something with Sharath Kumar that is so non-Sharath Kumar. And heâs very good in my film. Itâs a Balu Mahendra-meets-Quentin Tarantino kind of film.â?
IF that sounds risky â among a whole lot of other things â Gautham says, âMy only advantage is that I donât shoot films on big budgets. Without Kamal sirâs remuneration, VÃ©ttaiyaadu was shot at five-seventy five, which is awesome. Itâs only because of Kajaâs â the earlier producerâs â overheads that it became a breakeven film, with a little bit of profit. Otherwise itâs a major money-spinner.â? Gautham goes on to crunch the numbers (and you may need a stiff drink before reading what he has to say; I came out with my head reeling). âThey sold the film at something like sixteen-five to seventeen, and nobody has lost money. So itâs definitely made about seventeen. Oscar Ravi released it in (Chennai) city-NSC, and heâs given us a 40 lakh profit. The film was sold in city-NSC alone for three-thirty. Now at the last minute, when it looked doubtful whether the film would release or not, Oscar Ravi asked us to buy the film from the current buyer, and we bought it back at four-thirty, which is one crore more than the market price. So the man who first bought it made a one-crore profit even without the filmâs releasing. Now the film makes business of more than four-thirty, but actually the price is three-thirty. So itâs made around one-and-a-half crores profit in city-NSC alone. And maybe itâs not done as well in the smaller centres, but itâs made up for that in the main areas like Trichy.â?
Even if that came off like a post-lunch sermon from a professor of Latin, you probably came away with the realisation that Gautham got himself his third consecutive hit. Heâs famous â and I tell him itâs becoming distracting to see him in his films. He says, âIn MinnalÃ©, Maddy insisted I do the flower sequence. Kaakka Kaakka was again forced on me, because on the way to the shoot, we stopped to have lunch at this restaurant that had glass all over, and the cinematographer said it would be nice to shoot the encounter there. I got in because the actor who was to play the role wasnât there. As for the song in VÃ©ttaiyaadu, it was (choreographer) Brinda who insisted on the entire unit being behind Kamal and Jo.â? But we may not see him in Vaaranam Aayiram, which was once titled Chennayil Oru Mazhaikaalam. âIt was supposed to have started about a year-and-a-half ago, but I couldnât do it then because of personal issues.â? And now, Gautham says heâs âbringing down Suriyaâs screen age. Heâs a boy just out of college. Heâs 21.â? And since you donât get to be the director of back-to-back hits by giving away your story, Gautham sums up the film in an understandably vague fashion. âThereâs a lot of society in the film â what the world sees, what this youngster faces. It doesnât work for him. He comes across this girl. He wants her badly. Then something big happens on a national level, and itâs about how this guy takes it upon himself to solve that, with just his band of friends. When Rambo came out, the US President said every country needed a man like him. Iâm not propagating a message or anything, but I think this is how everybody should be.â?
Copyright Â©2006 The New Sunday Express