Between Reviews: Shooting from the Lip

Posted on February 12, 2011

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Gautham Vasudev Menon opens up about his latest I-don’t-care film, and explains why his wife’s fondness for Tarantino augurs well for his kind of cinema.

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FEB 13, 2011AMONG THE CIRCUMSTANCES that prompted Gautham Vasudev Menon to persevere with Nadunisi Naaigal is his longtime costume designer’s confession that she read the script and wanted to puke. “That interested me,” he says, with the smug satisfaction of a five-year-old who’s just deposited his pet toad next to his mother at suppertime. “That’s the kind of reaction I wanted.” His team pointed out that he’d alienate the female audiences who like the way he portrays love, the way he treats women on screen. “But I don’t believe in that. Nadunisi Naaigal is an I-don’t-care film. I had somebody who’s a rank newcomer. He works with me. I kept looking at his body language and said, ‘Let me write something bizarre.’ And while in the US, I met a shrink who narrated something from his files, without mentioning names. I was inspired by that. I also read a novel from which I was inspired to write this story.”

Afterwards, he realised there might have been an additional fount of inspiration, this time from his own backyard. “Maybe Sigappu Rojakkal was in my head while making the film. Bharathiraja, who made 16 Vayadhinile and Pudhiya Vaarpugal, switched to something that people might call vulgar or obscene but it was a psychological thriller. The unraveling of the human mind – that’s what I’ve tried to depict in Nadunisi Naaigal.” He knows that, under two hours, it’s a multiplex kind of film. He knows that it caters to a very young audience, whose years on the planet he pegs from 18 to 35 or 40. He knows people above 50 might be squeamish about some scenes. “But I wanted to make it, that’s all. While writing it, while making it, I just didn’t care whether it will reach out to a certain section of the audience.”

Last year’s Vinnathaandi Varuvaaya – that lacerating anti-romance – was another I-don’t-care film. “The characters kept talking throughout. There’s a violent side to this guy. When she keeps him at a distance, he reacts in a violent way – not in the sense of using his fists, but he kind of mocks her dad, he treads on that space. How many women would have liked to see somebody like that? But I just felt that’s inherent in most men. They tend to react like that if their love doesn’t come through. So even as I wrote it, I felt some women might say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is not right!’ But that didn’t worry me.” Put differently, he didn’t care.

But there is a point the armour cracks and he begins to feel vulnerable, the point he begins to care. “I make films without worrying what the audience will think. But once the first copy is ready and we wait for release, I’m in a very nervous state, because it’s our money now and there is a distributor involved and a theatre exhibitor involved. I go into a major shell thinking whether this will be accepted.” He is concerned about how much money the film will make because Nadunisi Naaigal is the first film made under the company he and his partners have listed on the London Stock Exchange. “There are investors. If it does well, people will invest in the company. So I need it to work.”

Like every smart speculator, he has taken precautions to insulate himself against financial shock. He’s already earned back the movie’s micro-budget from satellite rights and Telugu rights. (Nadunisi Naaigal will be released in a dubbed version, with a few scenes reshot to accommodate local flavour.) “We’re releasing it ourselves in all theatres, so I’m not taking any money from distributors. Nobody can come back to me and say we lost money on the film. So that way I’ve covered all angles.” But he still hopes it will do well. “I really want to see what kind of opening this film will take. I know the two films released yesterday didn’t take an opening at all. And somehow this industry is still stuck about what kind of opening every film takes.”

The bigger the name, the greater the pressure. Despite the incessant success of a string of Madurai-based films – made by no-name directors, with no-name stars, with budgets that would barely cover the song shoots of Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya – he feels people still care about big stars and big directors, and he counts himself as one of those people who still care. “I have a problem with stars and the way they behave. But give me Kamal Sir any day and I’ll do a film with him. I know it’s an ordeal to actually get to him, to convince him about a script. He’s going to try and give you something that he’s written. But having said that, once you get him on board, I know he can do something great, and there will be this big buzz everywhere. People will flock to theatres. And there’s money for the director.”

He outlines the lay of Tamil-cinema land. “Once the film is released, there is a distributor, there is a mediator, there is a theatre owner, there is a theatre commission, there is a tax – it’s all gone away, it’s piecemeal. And then what comes back to the producer is after three months of releasing the film. The money starts coming back immediately only if you do your own release, but that’s risky. Everybody wants to get their money back the day the film is announced. So give me a star any day. I’d love to work with him only because it’s financially viable for the cameraman, for the music director, and everybody else. With Nadunisi Naaigal, I’m not taking a big remuneration up front, but if I’d done this film with, say, Suriya I can take my remuneration up front.”

He knows somebody like Vijay will never do his kind of film. “But Suriya will. He’ll reach out with a Singam, and then he will come back to a Vaaranam Aayiram at every point. We are doing something together next year.” The star who surprised him the most was Simbu, whose constituency, before Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, was perceived as the rickshaw-puller and the cobbler and the honest labourer who sneered at the westernised affectations of the Gautham Vasudev Menon brand of cinema. “I was one week away from filming with a rank newcomer. My producer said, ‘Look at Simbu, Maybe we’ll get three crore more for the film, and the release price is also three crore more.’ The film needed spend in locations like New York and Malta. I didn’t like anything he’d done from before. When I met him, he said, ‘Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do.’ I thought this guy’s been here for some time. Maybe I could work around him.”

“But on Day 1, he surprised me with his one-take performance. Whatever I wanted, he gave me – in terms of dance, in terms of look, in terms of expression. I’ve spent less film stock on that project than with my other films. My wife said at first that she’d not watch the film, but she loved it and saw it many times.” Perhaps, through Nadunisi Naaigal, he’s hoping to accomplish a similar kind of transformation with his skeptical costumer designer. Making believers of non-believers comes with the territory of wanting to make different films in different genres. “I’ve always tried to make something different from what everybody is making. I don’t know if it’s accepted like that, but there is a need to try to stand out, try something different, something urban, something that hasn’t been seen recently on screen. I was very kicked about shooting on Air Force choppers for Vaaranam Aayiram. I haven’t seen these visuals in Tamil cinema before.” There, once again, is a glimpse of the boy with the toad, thrilled with his new toys.

Sitting across him, he’s the embodiment of composure. His voice, if mapped, would approximate to a straight line, and even when he utters the sole swear word of the afternoon, he dips his voice, as if lower volume could lessen vulgarity. And yet, he admits he’s aggressive. “I think I’m like the hero in my film. I think I’m bipolar.” He laughs. “I’m kidding. If I’m really friendly with somebody, if I know them for 10 or 15 years, my wife for example, or some friend, and if they have a problem with me, my first thought is, ‘I haven’t done anything wrong. Don’t they know me?’ I’m like that. I don’t feel the need to explain myself.” The only reason he subjects himself to interviews such as this one is to reach out. “I need people to know this film is coming out. I’d like to follow the Mani Ratnam path where he doesn’t talk before any film, but I saw him doing that with Raavan and, with all due respect to him, that worried me.”

These ten days leading to the release of Nadunisi Naaigal are lined up with interviews. But for Vijay TV, he’s doing something different. “I’m doing Koffee with Gautham, where I’m trying to talk to Bharathiraja and Kamal Sir, showing them the film and saying this is, in some way in my head, inspired by your film.” But a more interesting tryst with television lies ahead, a long-running thriller in five-episode chunks that will plant the seeds of a crime on Monday and dole out a resolution on Friday. “That’s the most exciting thing on the anvil now. We’re producing. I’m directing. And Rahman has said he’ll do the music. It’s going to have Parthiban in the lead. It’s not inspired or adapted from 24 or CSI, but it’s along those lines. It’s written entirely, 150 individual episodes. We’re waiting to see if Vijay TV will pick it up.”

If this film director does not mind devoting a portion of his life to television – time that could be spent crafting the next big-screen, I-don’t-care envelope-pusher designed to cause involuntary bodily reactions amongst longtime associates – it’s because he wants to change as well as create content. “We want to put ourselves out as content creators and providers. I even want to do stuff for mobile phones – apps and games.” He’s also producing films with other directors. “I’m making it easy for them to do films. Once I listen to the script and we thrash it out before production, not one question is asked. I have a very creative team handling every project.” Among the more exciting films, in his estimation, is Thanga Meengal, made by Ram, the dyspeptic director of Kattradhu Thamizh. “When I heard the subject, I had tears in my eyes, so I thought this will be the reaction in everybody in the audience. It’s a film made at 2 to 2.5 crore. It’s very different from anything we’ve seen on screen.”

It’s interesting that, here, he admits to extrapolating his gut-feeling to that of a mass audience, while with the reactions to his own scripts, he seems to occupy the opposite corner, running the risk of alienating these very audiences. “See, there will be people like me. My wife has not come to a theatre to watch a film after we got married. She watches some films I pick up on DVD. But she loves Quentin Tarantino films. She loves Hostel. Nadunisi Naaigal is not a scary film. It’ll make you squeamish at a couple of places. I liked Nalini’s [his costume designer] reaction but I knew there’d be people like me. The whole idea is getting people ready for what kind of film it is. My promos haven’t lied. My trailers haven’t lied.”

Whether Nadunisi Naaigal finds its audience or not, he says it’s not going to be easy to put together his next film. “It’s always been a struggle. I was not in the industry per se. I was not with the industry folk, so to speak. I worked with Rajiv Menon, who is outside the industry. He worked with AVM but he had a separate room for himself. I was conditioned to work with people like that, so when I made my first film, it was only Madhavan I was in contact with, and Madhavan was not from the hardcore industry here. With Harris Jeyaraj, it was his first film. We didn’t know anybody. The only established person on the team was Suresh Urs, the editor, who was like a mentor, a guide, at the time. So I didn’t think Minnale would be taken seriously and make things easy for me.”

His thoughts drift to Anjana, who’s making Veppam for his production company. “The film is not released yet, but she sent me an SMS a few days back asking if she’ll get a second film very easily. I was wondering how people think like that because I never thought like that.” Then again, he had bigger worries during his first film, whose hero insisted that he narrate the script to Mani Ratnam, upon whose approval the project would proceed. “Imagine my plight. I said there’s no way I’m going to do that because whether he likes the script or not, I can’t actually go in, sit there and narrate it to him.” This hesitation sprang from hero worship. “In my school days, Nayakan was the film that made me rewind and forward and see where the camera is and how they cut the scenes. I started learning to be a filmmaker by watching Nayakan.”

But Madhavan insisted. “I asked for some time. I went through some crazy moments in that one week. Then I did it. It was a pathetic narration and he hated it. He called Maddy and said there’s this other film called Ennavale that would take him to the masses, and that he didn’t know what I was talking about.” So Madhavan started work on Ennavale, “but somewhere along the line, he felt sorry for me or I don’t know what, and he said he’d do this too. That film came a week before Minnale and it tanked. But Minnale went on to do well, because of the songs or I don’t know what.” This self-effacement, he insists, is genuine. “I said this a few days earlier at Ethiraj College. I believe there are people who don’t like my films, and I’m not being humble or modest or anything like that. If someone comes and asks me why the houses in my film are painted white, to me it’s bizarre that somebody even thinks like that. I’ve done that with Mani Sir’s films. I know every line, every moment from his films. But I can’t take myself so seriously as yet.”

Despite the success of Minnale, the second film proved no easier. “It took me two years to put together Kaakha Kaakha. I wanted Suriya. I wanted a little more money for the film. But with Suriya, me and Harris, they said ‘this is how much we can give you’ – 2.50 crore; I wanted 4 crore – without even reading the script.” Vaaranam Aayiram was the biggest struggle ever. “Suriya and I broke our heads as to who would produce this film. Once I had the screenplay ready, I said we’ll do it. We’ll raise the money. You have a certain market. We’ll put together something. Suriya was not so sure. He didn’t want to work with Oscar Ravichandran, and Oscar himself was not so keen on pitching for the film initially. Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya was the first film we decided we would produce ourselves. So even now, I can’t think I have it made and the next film will fall into my lap. I put together a concept. I put together a script. Then I think about taking it to Kamal Sir. Last week, I met Rajini Sir. But nobody’s ever called me and said: Let’s make a film.”

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