Interview: Gautham Menon

Posted on December 17, 2006


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‘€˜I found myself with Kaakka Kaakka‘€™

Catching up with Gautham Menon, who’s readying the release of his “€œBalu Mahendra-meets-Quentin Tarantino kind of film”…

DEC 17, 2006 – COULD GAUTHAM MENON STILL BE SMARTING from a past slight? Sitting across the director in his icily air-conditioned office — the steam from the coffee disappeared in roughly thirty seconds — I’m half listening to him, half psychoanalysing him as he narrates why he’s referred to merely as “Gautham” in the credits sequences of his films. “It was time for the cassette release of my first film, Minnale. 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 ‘Menon’. I had no choice.” The reason I’m finding this fascinating is that Gautham has subsequently turned Tamil with a vengeance — at least with respect to naming his films. Kaakka Kaakka comes from that singsong paean to the Tamil god Murugan, kaakka kaakka kanagavel kaakka. Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu and the soon-to-be-released Pachaikili Muthucharam can be traced to the Tamil demigod MGR; they’re the opening lines of songs in his Arasa Kattalai and Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban respectively. And Gautham’s under-production film goes all the way back to Tamil saint-poetess Andal’s dream of marriage to her Lord: Vaaranam Aayiram. Doesn’t it appear — just a mite — that this is the director’s take-that to the Tamil film industry, his way of showing that this “Malayali” can be more Tamil than a Tamil, considering that the films from “Tamil” directors these days barely bother to reflect the beauty of their language?

Gautham, expectedly, offers a different spin. “For Vettaiyaadu, I wanted a title with a hunt kind of feel. I was talking to (the lyricist) Thamarai, and she said there’s this old song and started humming it. And that was it.” As for Pachaikili, it was first called Silandhi. But when the original producer opted out and Oscar Ravichandran stepped in, he didn’t want any attachments to the older project, and that included the name. And Gautham says, “So I was thinking of a new name, on the lines of a slender thread,” because the story is about the ties that bind a family. “Then the song came to me,” 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 “that 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.” All that, over a title — and frankly, if he hadn’t explained this, who would have understood that that’s what Pachaikili Muthucharam really stood for? Suddenly, it’s no longer about me analysing Gautham’s work; it’s about Gautham analysing Gautham’s 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, “Harris 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 Véttaiyaadu, I told him to do away with the traditional pallavicharanam format in the Manjal veyyil song. I said, ‘Let’s make it like an English song,’ with a stanza followed by a verse and so on. Nobody else works like this with Harris.” He points out that other directors aren’t even there for the recording, and they just ask Harris for a ‘love song’ or something equally generic. That’s the other thing about Gautham — he’s not entered this business to be a diplomat. He labels at least one leading actor as “stupid” and another star’s film gets trashed as “idiotic.” That’s possibly the brashness that comes with his age. He was, after all, just in his tenth when Nayakan — the film that “totally blew me away” — came out. (He’ll be 34 this February.) Even his talk is young. He refers to his parents as “mom” and “dad” — in case you want to chew more cud about the whole language aspect, “dad” is a Malayali and “mom” is a Tamilian — and when he talks about the problems that plagued Véttaiyaadu, he brings up the producer’s “suicide thingie.â€?

This irreverence extends to Gautham’s education — a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Mookambikai College of Engineering, Trichy. “I was more interested in filmmaking,” thanks — along with Nayakan — to Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Mahendran, Spielberg’s 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 “freaked” on the film. “That got me interested and I must have seen it 25 times since.” And while in college, Gautham was writing short stories, sometimes developing them into scripts, “without having an idea whether I’d ever get to be a filmmaker.” But after graduation, he decided he didn’t want to be an engineer. “I 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 he’d do a feature, and Minsara Kanavu happened. I worked as Assistant Director. Then I came out on my own.” He says there was no dearth of ideas for projects because he always read a lot. “I remember my dad had a Jackie Collins book. He said I couldn’t read it at that age.” The question, really, is whether people should be reading Jackie Collins at any age — but Gautham redeems himself by naming, “Thomas Hardy, a little bit of Shakespeare. Right now, I’m into (the Swedish writer) Henning Mankell. He writes stuff like Vettaiyaadu — crime novels.”

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. “The audience is getting more ‘multiplex-oriented’. Everybody wants to speak English.” He says he went around the smaller centres to gauge reactions to Vettaiyaadu, and “when 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 don’t understand, they’ll sit and watch.” And this becomes a springboard for a rant against producers. “The producer told me not to have these English portions. I said, ‘Sir, this character goes to New York. He can’t talk in Tamil.’ Then the producer asked me to at least have subtitles. I said you can’t read it because it goes by too fast.” But they insisted, and now, Gautham says, they’re saying the subtitles shouldn’t have been there because no one can read them. “And it didn’t make a difference because the scene was self-explanatory. I hate the fact that producers come and tell you that something doesn’t work — just because they’re putting in the money. I definitely believe the producer is number one. Even at the Oscars, it’s the producer who collects the Best Film award. But they don’t understand my sensibility,” and he’s never going to compromise again. “Because I’ve reached a stage where I can produce my own films.”

This way, he hopes he won’t have the heartaches he did with Minnale. “It was a very juvenile and cliched 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 — he’s from Bombay; he does stuff for television, and he’s a good friend of Maddy’s and mine — got in. And we changed it around to two guys who hate each other, falling for the same girl.” The script didn’t change entirely, for the vignettes that Gautham had incorporated from his own life were still there. “Like 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; I’m married to a Christian.” But otherwise, the smash hit Vaseegara, for instance, didn’t come out the way he wanted it to. “I 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. I’m not blaming anybody for the way it turned out, but… I wasn’t sure of myself. In your first film, you get carried away.” Even with the Hindi remake, Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein (RHTDM), “Maddy carried me to Bombay, literally. They made me shoot Bombay in Durban. I told Maddy it’s not going to work at all for me, but he said, ‘It’s a good ride, boss. Have fun.’ I wouldn’t have done it if I had known the world a bit better.”

SO it’s quite easy to believe Gautham when he says that, at that point, “Kaakka Kaakka was everything.” He feels it’s his best work, followed by Vettaiyaadu and finally that first film. “I found myself with Kaakka Kaakka, and hopefully it’s getting better.” Gautham says he saw Kaakka Kaakka as a romance. “I’m quite a romantic, actually, and it was the story of an encounter specialist who falls in love with this woman, and there’s no way he can have someone around him like that. He keeps telling her this, but he gives in because he loves her. There’s a line she says: ‘I want to make love to you.’ I don’t think this has ever been said in Tamil cinema, but somebody who likes a man will say that.” But Madhavan didn’t think he could play an encounter specialist. Ajith and Vikram didn’t want to do a cop script, never mind that they said yes to other cop scripts — Anjaneya and Saamy — around the same time. “When I took it to Jyotika, she said, ‘Why don’t you try Suriya? He’s done a film called Nanda.’ So I saw Nanda, and there was something about his eyes.” 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. “We 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€?

“It was a very planned shoot,” says Gautham, “except that no money was coming in, because Suriya wasn’t yet a top hero and I was new at the time.” He says his original climax was set in Varanasi, which is where the villain takes off to after killing Jyotika. “But we didn’t get the money, so we shot in Chennai, at Royapuram.” He could have shot a similar climax in Russia — for after the film became a hit, there were talks of a Hollywood version with a Chechen background. “We went there — the producer Mr. Dhanu and I — and they loved the film. They talked of adapting it. They wanted me to direct.” Gautham is a bit vague about who “they” are; all he’ll say is that “it 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.” But he says he chose to wait, “because I felt I hadn’t established myself really well here, and I needed to do that first. If they adapt it well, let’s see, but not before that.” And instead, he returned to India and made another cop movie. “Thanks to Kaakka Kaakka, I had a lot of research on police officers. And I’ve always liked Ram Gopal Varma’s work. He’s done a trilogy on gangster films, and I thought — not that I’m equating myself with him; I know I’m not in that league at all — let me also make a trilogy. I thought I’d play it like another episode in a police officer’s life. Kaakka Kaakka was the first one, and in the future, if I’m working with Vikram, maybe, I’d like to make a third cop film.”

ROUND about the time Kaakka Kaakka became a huge success, Kamal Hassan agreed to make a film for the producer Kaja Moideen, and Gautham’s name came up as a possible director. “I was off shooting Gharshana (the Telugu remake of Kaakka Kaakka), so they went ahead and signed the deal,” says Gautham, who then presented to his star a one-liner of the story that would eventually become Pachaikili. “He 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.” Then the suicide episode happened and, “Kamal said the entire thing had left a bad taste in his mouth, and he didn’t want this film at all. But the producer’s council told him he’d taken an advance — I’d also taken an advance — so we had to finish the film.” So Gautham narrated the story of Vettaiyaadu. “He said, ‘I don’t have time to get fit if I’m playing a cop.’ I said that wasn’t a problem. He asked if I could start shooting right away and finish the project. I said yes.”

And that’s how they started the film, “without Kamal sir getting a full narration of the script,” says Gautham. “He’d get the scene, read the dialogues, and start acting. All he knew was that he was a cop. He didn’t know where Jyotika would come in, where Kamalini would come in. He didn’t know who the two villains were — I didn’t introduce them to each other. The first time they acted together was the first time they met.” Some people said Kamal Hassan didn’t look very interested in the project, “but it worked for me, because I wanted the character to be like that. We know every expression of Kamal’s. I’ve watched every film of his. I’m 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 — but what he adds to that is mind-blowing. All of us were stunned.” But this excellence came at a price. “In Vettaiyaadu, the first half is what I wanted to do. The second half is what I did for the producer and Kamal sir.”

GAUTHAM sighs. “It’s 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, ‘You’re making a film with a hero. Now this script will shift to the antagonist at some point. Then there’ll be a cat-and-mouse. There’ll be footage where I’m not there on screen. That’s not the kind of film you want to make.’ I understood. He’s a superstar. He has fans who need to be catered to.” Gautham’s original version of the script had a lot more background on the villains, “what their psyches are, what their ideologies are.” But that had to go, because there were some 20 minutes of screen time when the protagonist — the star protagonist — was not there at all. “And that’s not done. Even now, people say they would have liked to see more of him.” The compromises weren’t always regarding the hero. “I 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.” So the situations for Uyirile and Neruppewere shoehorned in. “I was not even there when they shot the song, because I didn’t like the situation and I’d already started Pachaikili. But then these are factors that you have to play with.”

Still, Gautham feels he manages to score over the competition. “In other films, it’s too larger than life, it’s too loud. With my films, I think the audience will identify with some of the characters. They’ll know that this can happen in their life. Even my dialogues, I try to keep realistic. Like the one in Vettaiyaadu, where Jyotika asks Kamal if he’s in software, and he says, ‘Ille, naan hardware.’ That’s the way we talk, it’s not a forced dialogue.” And Gautham’s team helps him with this. “After I write my draft, I call my guys and we thrash out the script. They’re my friends, and they all know what I am doing. So it’s not just what I want to do. Even after a shot, I’ll look at these guys, take in their reactions — then finally it’s my judgement.” Gautham talks about the climax in Vettaiyaadu to show how no judgement — not even his — is set in stone. “When 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.” But a lot of people came up and said that this villain was so evil, he needed to have been the recipient of some dishoomdishoom from the hero. “If I hadn’t 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.”

BUT enough about Vettaiyaadu, for Gautham is now busy with the release work for Pachaikili Muthucharam, which is expected around Christmas. He calls this an adaptation of “Derailed — the book, not the film. I’ve totally worked from the book and I’ve given it a very Tamil, very Indian feel.” 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, “which is how it works in Hollywood.” It was Anurag Kashyap who gave the book to Gautham, suggesting a possible film version, “and I said let’s 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. I’d give credit to the writer.” But, of course, Kamal sir said no. And meanwhile Derailed, the film, came out. “I sent my assistants to watch it, and they said it was quite different.” Gautham makes a point of this because “I have a problem if people say I took off from the movie. I generally don’t do that at all. Even when I made Gharshana, I never tried to copy shots from Kaakka Kaakka. In fact, Venkatesh — who played Suriya’s role — would remember my earlier shots and argue that we were doing it differently. I said, ‘If you wanted a frame-by-frame remake, you should have gone with some other director.’ 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 Minnale and RHTDM.â€?

If Gautham agreed to do Gharshana, it was only because of the money. “We put in 60 lakhs of our own to finish Kaakka Kaakka, because I’d crossed Dhanu’s budget and he wasn’t going to give me more. The original budget was two-fifty and it eventually came to three-ten.” That’s cinema-speak for Rs 2.50 crore and Rs 3.10 crore, and pay close attention now because more numbers are coming up. “Dhanu said if I did the film in Telugu, he’d 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.” (He was 60 lakhs in the red, remember?) “I 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.” After that detour, we return to Derailed. “When Kamal said no, I spoke to Sharath Kumar. He said he’d always been looking to break his action-hero mould.” Gautham says Sharath Kumar is a big Amitabh Bachchan fan, and he wanted to chart a similar career shift to playing strong characters that weren’t necessarily heroic. “I’ve made something with Sharath Kumar that is so non-Sharath Kumar. And he’s very good in my film. It’s a Balu Mahendra-meets-Quentin Tarantino kind of film.”

IF that sounds risky — among a whole lot of other things — Gautham says, “My only advantage is that I don’t shoot films on big budgets. Without Kamal sir’s remuneration, Vettaiyaadu was shot at five-seventy five, which is awesome. It’s only because of Kaja’s — the earlier producer’s — overheads that it became a breakeven film, with a little bit of profit. Otherwise it’s a major money-spinner.” 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). “They sold the film at something like sixteen-five to seventeen, and nobody has lost money. So it’s definitely made about seventeen. Oscar Ravi released it in (Chennai) city-NSC, and he’s 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 film’s releasing. Now the film makes business of more than four-thirty, but actually the price is three-thirty. So it’s made around one-and-a-half crores profit in city-NSC alone. And maybe it’s not done as well in the smaller centres, but it’s made up for that in the main areas like Trichy.”

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. He’s famous — and I tell him it’s becoming distracting to see him in his films. He says, “In Minnale, 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 wasn’t there. As for the song in Vettaiyaadu, it was (choreographer) Brinda who insisted on the entire unit being behind Kamal and Jo.” But we may not see him in Vaaranam Aayiram, which was once titled Chennayil Oru Mazhaikaalam. “It was supposed to have started about a year-and-a-half ago, but I couldn’t do it then because of personal issues.” And now, Gautham says he’s “bringing down Suriya’s screen age. He’s a boy just out of college. He’s 21.” And since you don’t 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. “There’s a lot of society in the film — what the world sees, what this youngster faces. It doesn’t work for him. He comes across this girl. He wants her badly. Then something big happens on a national level, and it’s 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. I’m not propagating a message or anything, but I think this is how everybody should be.”

Copyright ©2006 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Tamil