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It’s been quite a journey for me: Gautham Menon

From Minnale (2001) to  his  on-release  new film   Enai Noki Paayum Thota Gautham Menon is  the visual voice of  the  radical progressive Tamil cinema in  the post-Ratnam era. Clearheaded, softspoken , wry  and  sharp, in this interview with Subhash K Jha he tells it like  it is.

It’s  a pleasure  catching up with you,specially now when boundaries between mainstream  and regional cinema  have collapsed?

That’s true. But I don’t know  why  I end  up working with the wrong people who don’t share my vision of what cinema  should be,in fact must be.

You are among the most prolific  filmmakers  of Tamil Nadu…How long has  it been? Two decades?

Minnale my first  film was  in 2001. It’s been quite a  journey for me, and one that  has been filled  with highs and lows.All good.

Has  the mindset regarding  the walls dividing Tamil cinema from mainstream,Hindi, cinema dissolved?

Only in theory.In actuality  filmmakers continue think in constrained spaces.Having said this I must say Baahubali and  Rajamouli  helped  collapse those walls between  ‘our’ and  ‘their’ cinema. I think Baahubali  made us a lot More confident about South Indian cinema’s reach.It made us  more confident about  our  budgets and  vision.Baahubali made us  believe  that even small (budgeted) South Indian films can have a  big reach. Actors now  follow  a free-trade policy, moving effortlessly between Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Even  people in  Delhi who didn’t know Telugu  flocked to see  Baahubali.

But even before Baahubali you never followed rules?

I personally have never believed in doing what  is expected of me or giving  the  audience what  they want.I’d rather  do what comes naturally to me.I don’t do   focused screening before release. I just make  the  film that I  want to, and put  it out there  for the audience, and accept  whatever  verdict they have for  my  work.

You are  not touchy about  criticism?

Not at all. Criticism is a way to grow. Having said  that, I must tell you I  go into a shell before a film’s release .

Do  you feel there’s too much politics  in the Tamil film industry?

Oh absolutely. There  is  no camaraderie, no appreciation for a fellow-filmmaker’s work. It’s just  me me me.There are fan bases attacking rival  actors…It’s all very negative. This is  not the case in  Hindi cinema. Or Telugu and Malayalam  film industry, for that matter.

Why  do  you think this is so?

I wouldn’t like to say  it  is  the  mentality  here.But somewhere  the big actors  in Tamil Nadu are responsible for the negativity.I mean, unless they come down  to tell  fans that this is not the way  to take Tamil cinema ahead, how can anything change?

Do you  think the star-system  controls Tamil cinema?

It does. They occupy a large part of the budget. 

But you have  made  successful films with newcomers. In fact your first  film Minnale starred newcomers?

I have . And it did. But I’ve always  found  it difficult to  sell  a film with  newcomers. Funding  and  investors become difficult.

Many Tamil films have release issues due to the badly managed finances in the industry. As someone who has faced these problems, what do you think can be done?

Absolutely, we need  get more organized. Only then can we attract corporate  finances. As things are at  present money is borrowed  at huge interest rates from the market  , and then when the money is  used to somehow complete  the  film. We need corporate  governance.But at the moment there is no transparency  in the Tamil film industry  regarding  ticket sales, etc. Why would  corporate  houses be  interested in an opaque  industry?

Are inflated star salaries also part  of  the problem?

Oh absolutely, Sir.There’s so much money that they charge even  before the film begins shooting.And then when the  film get into financial trouble they shoulder none  of  the  responsibility. If stars charge less money there is so much we can do with that money to make  better films.I know it’s believed that actors bring the audiences into theatres. But if they can cut down their remuneration by  even 25 percent  that money can be  used by us filmmakers  to improve the  quality  of our films.

In Bollywood the  big stars don’t take an on-the-table salary. Instead they  take a cut from  the  profits?

No one in  Tamil cinema works  like that.

Your underproduction  film Dhruva Natchathiram features a big star?

Yes, Vikram. It’s a thriller and  it’s almost ready.We’re releasing it in December.It’s a spy film about a core team that works for the country without anyone being aware of them.

Are  you and  Dhanush looking at Enai Noki Paayum Thota as  the film that will do magic for your careers?

I don’t think  Dhanush’s career needs magical intervention.

 Have  you seen his international debut?

(laughs) No, I haven’t.

Who are  your influences as  a  filmmaker?

Myself, Sir. And life. My  films are drawn out  of my personal  experiences.  If at all I’ve to fall back on someone’s work it is Mani Ratnam. I  became  a filmmaker after watching his works. I wanted  to work with him. But then I  couldn’t  so  I  became  a filmmaker.

Do you  feel there is a downslide in Mani’s creative vision?

I don’t think so. It’s just that audiences may  have gone to some of his films  expecting something else.

Tell me  about  Enai Noki Paayum Thota?

It means ‘The  Bullet That’s Coming Towards Me.’ Quite indicative of  the way I feel right now(laughs).Essentially it’s a love story  and also the story  of two brothers. Dhanush  plays a man who decides he won’t take  the  bullet  coming at  him. He would rather be the  one shooting the bullet.

It’s been in  the making since  2013?

Yes, but there have been only 55 shooting days.Lots of issues of funding. Then dates…Dhanush did three  film in-between. He had  issues with  the  producer. I don’t want  to go  into all that.

Would the  delay affect the film?

Those who have seen  rushes,  say  it doesn’t look dated at all. So the answer to your question is , no.

The women characters in your thrillers often die violent deaths ,why so?

In two films, yes. It’s  not as  if I  hate women and want to kill them randomly or that I didn’t have the heroines’ dates and  had to bump them  off. It’s just that two  of my films needed a  strong emotional impetus and  that’s where the violent deaths came  in.

What  about the music  in  Enai Noki Paayum Thota?

It’s done by Darbuka Siva. He’s done one  film before mine.  We just connected on a common  level and  I think  what he has done  in  Enai Noki Paayum Thota is remarkable.

With the MeToo movement  do you  need  to be  more careful  about the way women are treated in your  films?

I’ve always been  very respectful towards women in my films. MeToo  or no MeToo,there ‘s only one way for  me to treat women. But  as a society  we have changed.

You are also an actor?

That’s a recent development. I  did a role in a Malayalam film where they treated me  very well. It was a  professional peaceful  productive  unit.Also I got a chance  to observe someone else directing for a change.

Are  you happy with  your journey so far?

Oh yes. Even the  bad experiences have been worthwhile. By now  I know whom to work with and  not work with.

You’ve never worked with Rajinikanth?

I’d   like to. I came  close  to working with him.In 2015 I went to him,  narrated a script for  2 ½  hours. He  loved it. He  told me to go home and  wait until EOD  for his final approval. I even had a producer. But then at  4 pm I was told he had  decided  to do  someone else’s  film instead  of mine. That film was  Pa Ranjith’s Kabali.I don’t  know  what happened.But I  look forward  to working with him .Who doesn’t?

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