Interview: Gautam "Vasudev" Menon

Posted on June 5, 2008


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If Gautam Vasudev Menon is feeling the stress of working on two films at the same time – ‘Varanam Aayiram’ is in postproduction and shooting is underway for ‘Chennayil Oru Mazhaikaalam’ – it doesn’t show. Sitting behind a laptop containing his work, he could be just another journalist shooting off a last-minute story. That is, until he puts on his ten-gallon, bite-me hat and shoots straight about everything – and everyone.

JUNE 6, 2008 – After your comments about “hating” Bheema, you seem to be getting known – or perhaps the word is “notorious” – for your frank, forthright opinions.

I think so. I was built up for Bheema. The director Lingusamy, I know really well, and Vikram and I keep running into one another. And Harris (Jayaraj), who did the music, kept saying, “It’s such a brilliant film.” But when I went and watched the film, I was so disappointed that I just had to say something about it. It was disappointment more than anything else. And I also said, “Yes, they can talk about my Pachaikili Muthucharam.” I don’t mind at all. I’m open for debate. Let’s talk – because that will be a very positive approach towards films that come out.

But doesn’t this rub people the wrong way? We don’t have a Koffee with Karan culture here, or even an Om Shanti Om culture, where industry folks talk freely and also laugh at themselves.

Yeah. I think I have rubbed people the wrong way. I think Vikram hates me now and Vijay had a problem with what I said [about his giving me DVDs of his films so that I could incorporate elements from them into a script for him]. Even the guys in my team said, “You shouldn’t talk. Your words do have an effect.” But I don’t care. It’s my view. And I’m sure they can talk about my film. That’s the way it should be. I mean, if you’re going to tell me that Vikram and Vijay are not going to work with me because of this, I think it’s their loss. There are a lot of other heroes.

So you don’t think you’re cutting off avenues for yourself, in terms of working with these heroes.

I don’t think so. I’m making a film with newcomers – four boys. I don’t know how well the film will do, but at least I’m enjoying myself. These boys give me everything. If I ask them to perform 15 somersaults, they’ll do it. Even Surya has worked for me like that in Varanam Aayiram. The kind of hard work I’ve seen Kamal sir do in all these films from Satya to Virumaandi, Surya has done with this one film. I’m just saying in terms of effort, you know? I said, “At 17 [years of age], I need you to look like this, at 21, like this, and at 31, you’re a tough guy, so can we have a six-pack?” It’s only for one scene. And for four months, he went off everything. Anybody eating on the sets would feel really bad because he’d eat only boiled vegetables and chicken with no salt. We were shooting in Dehra Dun, and he’d go to a hotel and ask for chicken with no salt. They couldn’t understand what he was talking about. And he was going through all that just for a film.

So you’re saying…

I can always do a film with Surya, with Karthi – with so many youngsters. But I’m hoping the others will come around. I’m not saying we can do without big stars, but they should work on our terms. Vijay is a fantastic draw. The kind of money that he makes, nobody else does. Why can’t he do a film with Selvaraghavan or with me, on our terms? We’ve proved ourselves, you know? Why can’t he work with a good team? It’s only for the benefit of good cinema – and the producers and the distributors are going to end up happy. We need these big stars. I know how much girls like Surya, so when I knew Surya was my protagonist, I worked a little bit around his image. There are some scenes in the film which are for Surya, and which I know the girls will like.

Are you saying you’ve tweaked your screenplay to suit a star’s image?

The only time I tweaked a screenplay to suit an image was with Sharat Kumar in Pachaikili. We gave him a fight at the end, because everyone kept saying, “You can’t tie him up to a chair and have him beaten up.” Other than that, even with Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, we didn’t go with Kamal sir’s image at all. We went with what the script wanted. And in Varanam Aayiram, I’ve just used that image of Surya in the love scenes. There’s no heroism or anything like that. He doesn’t do anything outlandish that the screenplay doesn’t deserve.

That’s funny, because looking at the hype and the promos, I thought this was going to be some sort of spectacle.

I don’t know what gave you that idea. If Varanam Aayiram comes out well (and I hope it will), it will be my best film till date – because it’s straight from the heart. It’s emotional. It’s not unnecessarily commercial. But yes, the budget is 14 crores, and Oscar Ravichandran, the producer, wants to know that the film will do well, especially since Pachaikili didn’t do well for the same producer. So there are seven songs. They’ve come out really well. I’ve written a film that I hope the youngsters will like. Surya, Harris and I – we all have that kind of audience. I think anybody would identify with Surya’s story – so it is commercial in that sense.

Do you always see yourself as a director of commercially oriented films?

I don’t know about that, really. While making Varanam Aayiram, my assistant kept joking that this film is only for those who’ve done their PhDs.

Excuse me?

Oh, it’s not something like Schindler’s List, where you need to know about the Holocaust and stuff like that – but even in your blog, I’ve read comments that there’s a lot of English in my films. Well, why not? Everybody I know talks like that. There’s a line in the film where Divya looks at Surya and says, “You look like a million bucks.” Now, how do I write that in Tamil? We tried. Then I said, “Forget it.” Someone said this would be understood only by those who’ve done their PhDs. I said it’s okay if it’s understood by those who’re meant to get it. Then there was this sequence where Surya, who’s a guitarist, sees this girl and these songs come into his head. He thinks he’s playing unplugged, jamming with the likes of Eric Clapton and Ilayaraja and other guitar gods. But we couldn’t find look-alikes, so we dropped the idea. But there were moments like this…

These are the things, I guess, that have gotten you the label of an “urban” director. Would you want to make something entirely different and test yourself in the Thambi /Pazhani market?

But I don’t consciously work towards a subject. I get up in the morning and open my laptop and I begin to write. I have no idea what I’m writing about – so I’m not averse to a “rural” film. I’ve been brought up in Kerala. I know about life in small towns. I’ve studied in Keeranur, which is 25 kms from Trichy. I’ve seen, in real life, moments that were shown in Paruthi Veeran. So it’s not like I don’t know what that life is all about. What would you call Mani Ratnam? Is he an “urban” director? I would like to be compared to him at some point. I know I’m nowhere near there. When I heard that he called Selvaraghavan and said 7G Rainbow Colony was a great film… I wasn’t jealous of Selva, and he’s a good friend of mine, but I was hoping that, someday, Mani Ratnam would call me and say, “I liked your film.”

Maybe that will happen with this film. Tell us about Varanam Aayiram – without spoilers, of course.

It’s the story of a young man on the verge of life. He’s not an extraordinary human being. He’s not a superhero. The film traces his life from the time he is born, and up to a point where he realises he’s made it in life. We see the ups and downs that he goes through. We see his first love, whether he got to marry the girl he fell in love with, what his sister meant to him, what his mother meant to him, and above all, the equation he had with his father, who was an inspiration at every point in his life – including his falling in love. Now, how can a father be an inspiration for that? I’ve said that in the film. It traces parts of my life and the lives of everybody that I know.

So is it autobiographical – a sort of biopic of Gautam Menon?

It is, in a way, autobiographical. And it is, in a way, a biopic. It’s a very personal story. And if people didn’t know that 70% of this is from my life – let’s say we didn’t say that at all – what I’m hoping is that the guy next to you in the theatre will say, “Machan, this has happened to me.” Of course, there’s a little bit of fantasy. When Surya sees the girl on a train, for the first time, he can’t take his eyes off her – and he’s somebody who’s never looked at a girl like that – and the first song that comes to his mind is En iniya pon nilaave. So he pulls out his guitar and sings that song for her. That’s where a bit of fantasy, the commercial element, comes in. But I think this might happen in real life too.

Of course. Many of us define key moments in our lives through film songs and pop songs – or just pop culture in general.

Yeah. And I’m saying at the end of the film that this goes out to all the fathers out there, to all the sons and daughters and wonderful fathers. So when you get up, you remember your father. And if you are a father, you remember your son or your daughter. (My father passed away last year. About the “Vasudev,” that’s the name my father gave me. Somehow, it was connected with him, and after he passed away, I thought my name should appear as Gautam Vasudev Menon.) And I’m saying, now that your dad’s gone, you live life for your children. You shape their life. You can even rewrite their fate. Be there for your children like your father was there for you.

So is this the first time Gautam Menon has made a message movie?

Yeah, but the message is not in your face.

Let’s shift gears to Chennayil Oru Mazhaikaalam. This is the first time you’re juggling two films. Varanam Aayiram is in postproduction, and you’ve already started shooting this one.

Varanam Aayiram has been going on for some time, actually. We went into discussion almost two years ago, and I came out with a script last year. We started in April. But Surya went off and did Vel in between, for three months. I wrote this other script then. Pachaikili came out February last year, and I thought I needed two releases this year. Other factors of money were also involved. I’m producing Chennayil and we went over budget on Varanam, so there was some rotation of money that happened. I was ready with the script, so I felt, “Why not shoot?” There was no writing involved. I have a great team working on the postproduction of Varanam, and I was able to switch off.

The title “Chennayil Oru Mazhaikaalam” has been around forever…

Chennayil Oru Mazhaikaalam was what Varanam Aayiram was called earlier, but Oscar Ravichandran didn’t want that title. So we gave him Varanam Aayiram. I took Chennayil Oru Mazhaikaalam because it was my own title.

Again, without spoilers, what’s that about?

Varanam Aayiram is a very conservative film in terms of what Surya thinks about women, but this is a very in-your-face sort of today’s film, with four boys and three girls. We wanted to cast only newcomers. Then the co-producer said, “We need somebody in this film, other than Gautam and AR Rahman.” Then we pitched the idea to Trisha. She was always looking to work with us. It’s a purely business thing.

Speaking of Rahman, there’s been a lot of talk about the switch from your regular, Harris Jayaraj.

It’s not a switch, because I am doing a film with Harris in December, which stars Ajit (for Sivaji productions). We work really well together. I think we’re the only team that works really well together, because I know how he works with the other guys, and I know how I work with him. But I always wanted to work with Rahman, right from the word go, right from when Minnale happened – and Harris knows that. Yes, he said, “People will think we have a problem. Why do you want to do this now?” But I told him I need to do this because… You can always do a film with Surya but you still want to work with Kamal Hassan. It’s like that. When I pitched it to Rahman, the first thing he asked was, “You have a great record with Harris. They’ll think I’ve done something to that. I don’t want to get into the bad books of people. Are you sure it’s okay?” Secondly, he said, “There’s bound to be tremendous expectation. We need to live up to that. Do you think we will do that?” I told him. “Come on, let’s not worry about all that. What the film demands, we’ll do.” He’s pretty cool – very humble, very nice. I think we share a great rapport.

About that film with Ajit – with such a big star, will you attempt to tread a middle path between an Ajit film and a Gautam Menon film?

The only time it happened was with Vijay. I narrated bits of Varanam Aayiram to him. He said he loved it, but then he said, “Can you bring in some of my elements into the film?” I said it wouldn’t work in a film like this, and I walked away. (Surya was always on for this project, but while I was writing it, I had a love story ready, and that’s what I narrated to Vijay. This love story eventually became part of Varanam Aayiram, as the love chapter in Surya’s life.) So I don’t want to do that kind of compromise. I did that with Pachaikili and I made a mistake and I don’t want to do that again.

What exactly went wrong with Pachaikili? It had an interesting story, a good team…

Sharat was wrong for the film – which, of course, we realised only after the film was released. The first person I narrated the script to was Kamal sir, but he passed. (This was before Derailed, the Hollywood film based on the same book, had even gone into production.) The next person I spoke to was Cheran. He loved the idea, but he couldn’t give dates for three months. Jyotika was getting ready for her marriage, so we had to think of an option. I gave a narration to Madhavan. He said he didn’t want to play the father of a six-year-old. Then I met Sharat casually somewhere. He said he was looking to change what he was doing. He said he wanted to do the kind of roles that Amitabh Bachchan is doing now. I said I had an idea. He said he’d do it.

From the films that he usually does, you wouldn’t immediately think of Sharat Kumar for this part.

I was surprised when I met him. He’s very different from the films he does – very suave, very good with English, very good personality. We were working on a small budget, so he readily slashed his price. I was directing him just like I wanted, breaking the image of how he was earlier presented. Then the comments started to come in from the discussion team – that a fight is needed, that something else had to be there. So we tweaked the script, and it went away. You shouldn’t do that. I should have just gone ahead and done what the script demanded. Also, the film was made when my father was dying, and I couldn’t balance this and that together. I was mentally affected. I wasn’t spending time with him. I had to shoot this. Pachaikili was released on February 16. My father passed away on the 14th. Sometimes, things just don’t go your way.

Do you think you’ve reached a stage in your career where the non-performance of a film like Pachaikili doesn’t affect you?

I thought it might affect me, but, surprisingly, it didn’t. I have a couple of confidantes, who give it to me straight. One of them said, “We made a mistake. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of this hole.” But I got Varanam Aayiram immediately and Surya was gung-ho about the project. Simran, when I gave her a narration, said, “I always wanted to work with you.” Sameera Reddy changed around dates all over to work on the film. Then, the kind of people who came up to buy the film… Gemini bought the film for six crores more than the price the producer had in mind. They’re now the Tamil Nadu distributors, and I heard they’re selling it at two crores and above, so Oscar Ravichandran wants to buy it back from them. The audio rights, which the producer sold two years ago, are going for much more now, and they’re reworking the rates. So the debacle of Pachaikili hasn’t affected me is what I’m trying to telling you.

Have you ever thought of doing films in Bollywood? You can play around with a greater variety of subjects, and the higher ticket prices mean that recovery is also that much faster…

Plus, you can get four top-line heroes to act in the same film. I have a lot of ideas like that. But I don’t want to make the mistake I made with Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein. Nobody knows me there, so I want to go with a big actor that the crowd will come for. I am pitching something with Abhishek (Bachchan) right now. Hopefully, it will come through. I’m also thinking of a remake of Vettaiyaadu with Amitabh, taking out the love angle. It’s now just about a cop on the verge of retirement, who gets into the serial killer thing that he’s not able to handle physically. I’m talking to UTV and Suresh Balaji, just to get there and meet the big guy. Maybe something will happen.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil