Tamil Interviews

Gautham Vasudev Menon On The One Scene He Regrets Shooting, The Women In His Films, ‘Dhruva Natchathiram’, Dhanush, and more…

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It’s not easy being a creator and someone who handles finances. No one knows this better than Gautham Vasudev Menon, the director who has been beleaguered for a few years now, with several film delays, financial issues and spats with friends.
Enai Noki Paayum Thota (ENPT) is all set to release on September 6. Gautham seems to be in a good space and has been speaking to the press after a while, fielding difficult, pointed questions with a casualness that’s stumped scribes. This is someone who not just acknowledges the elephant in the room, but also engages with it.

A creator who is in love with the idea of love, Gautham refuses to submit to the darkness. Which is why, in the midst of speaking of troubled projects that were made with heart, his voice turns soft when recollecting a recent trip to London. “I was there for a meeting, walked into a coffee shop {but, of course! Gautham and his love for coffee shops are a thing of legend in Chennai, so much that our famous meme-makers have also caught on} and wrote for half an hour. It’s about two Indian Tamils who meet up at a music lounge in London and converse for half an hour. After a long time, something I wrote inspired me enough to want to film it immediately. I wrote with that fluidity after two years. I was surprised at the output, I don’t know whether it was the place or the ambience, but I was inspired to write. I’ve pitched it, and if everything falls into place, you’ll see it soon on screen, and remember this conversation.”

To write, says Gautham, he needs to fall in love with the subject. “I don’t try too hard to write, it flows. It’s a two-way street – I give a lot of myself to what I’m writing and take from it too. The only time I struggle is when I am bogged down by other issues. Otherwise, all I need is a pen and some tranquillity. That’s why the London café was so special.”

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Gautham is known for the patina of dignity he lends his men and women; even his antagonists have a soft core, usually. It is, he says, the result of the kind of people who surrounded him in his growing up years. “These are the people I know, and this is the only way I know to write. These are the women I’ve known and wanted to know. My mum, sisters, girls in school and college… they influence the women I write; they ensure I can handle women only in a particular manner. Remember ‘Thoodhu Varuma’ in Kaakha Kaakha? There’s this scene where I ended up doing a low-angle shot with Ramya Krishnan sitting on a chair. The producer insisted and I did not have much control, that being my second film. When my mother watched the film, she asked me why I had to do something like that. That question still stays in my head. I am answerable to some women in my life who think I have to be a certain way,” he says.

Yennai Arindhaal Trailer
Arun Vijay (left) and Ajith in a still from ‘Yennai Arindhaal’

This desire to keep things real also extends to the antagonists. “Who is an antagonist? Someone who has a belief that is vastly different from yours. It’s like a difference of opinion with someone in real life. It’s a clash of ideology, that’s all. They too fall in love, have relationships, lead regular lives. It’s just that their behaviour spoils the work of the protagonist. I give them all backstories because I believe different people with varying moral cores can co-exist. Be it Yennai Arindhaal’s Victor (Arun Vijay) or Pachaikili Muthucharam’s Geetha (Jyotika), their lives are driven by their relationships.” While they can look menacing, the screen does not have much blood and gore, just a hint of it that is far more violent. After watching Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu, it took me two months to open the car door at night without looking over my shoulder in an ultra-safe office parking lot. “I want violence in my films to be realistic but also aesthetic. I want it to minimal, yet affect you profoundly. That’s a problem too. The lesser you show, it reaches the target audience differently. I need to be careful and strike a balance.” Gautham refers to Vettaiyaadu again, to talk about how he toned down the violence in the film during editing, because people were squirming… “The idea is to make the audience experience what the protagonist is experiencing, to get them to be more careful, to scare them. Else, I would have failed as a filmmaker.”

Gautham has faced a lot of flak for the delay over ENPT’s release, and it’s possibly one of those rare star vehicles where the only people promoting it online are the film’s director and actress Megha Akash. There have been rumours about a fallout between lead actor Dhanush and Gautham, but all the director is focussing on now is what Dhanush brought to the project. “Our collaboration was looked forward to because we make different kinds of movies. The idea was to break preconceived notions. I’m not so influenced by what he’s done before on screen. His image did not bother me so much. This film ideally needed a lesser-known actor, because it’s about a simple guy who gets into a situation, and how he copes with it. I was a little worried about his stardom and what his fans would expect. Even when writing it, I knew there were certain moments where he would fit in easily, where he would just get down and be that character. And then, there are others where he occupied a space he has not so far. In one scene, he’s angry with the girl, but he reacts in my way. He’s a restrained performer, and it is breathtaking to watch him perform when he enters the zone,” says Gautham.

Over the years, the director has been privy to the talents of actors known for their ability to enter that ‘zone’. Despite that, he has some favourites. “For instance, Kamal Sir in Vettaiyaadu. I wrote thinking his Raghavan will behave in a particular manner, but he always gives you something edgier. There’s something special he does with every shot, it stuns you. There’s an easiness about the performance of Suriya, Simbu, and Dhanush that’s delightful to watch. You expect Vikram to lend a certain something, and he gives you just that. With Simbu, you have to have the camera ready to grab what he does; he gives it all in the very first take.”

Much has been spoken about the ‘medical shop’ dialogue in YA between Trisha and Ajith, and the scene in Vinnaithaandi where Simbu caresses Trisha’s feet with near-devotion. If the former married fervent desire with responsibility in one line, the latter made clear what Jessie meant to Karthik. “When a man and woman are in love, I think a man has to be on the woman’s feet. It’s the natural thing to do. I know some don’t conform to that idea, but that’s my idea of love. I think it’s a sweet thing to do.”

The other big criticism of Gautham’s films is how his women end up as tragic pawns in the games men play or because of some quirk of fate. “That has never bothered me because it’s not true. Except for Kaakha Kaakha, Vettaiyaadu, Yennai Arindhaal and Vaaranam Aayiram, that logic does not hold good.”

But, in the business of films, where the money generated decides futures, does Gautham allow himself to be reined in by pragmatism? “Some things don’t bother me. I make a movie because I want to, and I believe people might want to watch it. I don’t do focus-screenings or ask people if something worked for them. There’s a certain magic you feel in certain films, and you are transported to the world on screen. When a filmmaker manages to draw you in repeatedly, it’s a good space to be in. Sometimes, some films reach people later. Neethane En Ponvasantham is now a huge favourite among so many. It was heartbreaking that it did not get the appreciation it deserved. Even Nadunisi Naaigal. But, that’s something every filmmaker is prepared for. That said, I believe all my films are the kind that don’t make you fall in love with them immediately. They need to be savoured. Sometimes, you get it when you reach home from the theatre, sometimes, years later.”

The pressure of being the face behind a ‘Gautham Vasudev Menon’ film does get to him once in a while. And, he tries to protect people in his team from that pressure. Which is why Darbuka Siva, the music director of ENPT was referred to as Mr X for a long time before his name was outed. “We did not have Rahman Sir on board. I wanted people to like the music without knowing the composer, so they heard it without expectation.”

Over the years, Gautham has forged many collaborations with artistes and technicians that will be remembered for long. Some have stayed in, some have fallen by the wayside. How does he deal with them? Does he hold on to the memories, or move on? “Actually, both ways. I have to move on, that’s life. You like someone as an adolescent, as a teenager… finally, as an adult, you marry someone and live four decades with that person. You reflect on those past loves too. I can sit and ponder what would have happened had Suriya done Dhruva Natchathiram or if Vijay had done Youhan… life would have been very different. But, I’ll always be happy I worked with Suriya in KK and VA. People still remember Simbu in VV. Some collaborations live on in people’s minds forever. I think very fondly of what Thamarai and I achieved as a team. She pushed the bar with love, lyrics, and poetry. Now, I’ve found a certain rapport with Karky (Madhan). SR Kathir is shooting all my films now, there’s a certain rhythm we have reached, and he knows what I want. We know what Harris Jayaraj and I managed together. With Rahman, the composing sessions were life lessons too; deeply soulful. Working with Ilaiyaraaja Sir was educating. His is the music that I still listen to every day.”

Someday, when all the financial issues are resolved, possibly, we will get to see the Gautham that we once knew. A man who made movies without much fuss. A man who wrote men and women with a certain ‘classiness’. But, till he gets there, Gautham has been working on scripts written by others too. There’s Queen, based on the life of Jayalalithaa, which has been directed by Gautham and written by his associate Reshma. It will be released on an OTT platform soon. “It’s nice to bring my sensibilities to someone else’s writing,” he says. Then, there’s the Netflix anthology on love in Chennai/Madras, directed by four people. “It’s a 30-minute film that can be perky, edgy, but based on love.”

On September 6, an update will be made available on Vikram-starrer Dhruva Natchathiram too. Gautham is also working on a “full-blown action film with emotion” with a young actor who is willing to work, “no questions asked”.

These financial issues have chipped away at Gautham’s soul, and he takes full responsibility for what has happened, because it is his film, after all. “If I just write. I won’t get funding. I know I can be a much better creator without these issues, but the goodwill of fans keeps me going. No one knows what is happening in my house or office. Those who question must know it is not my intention to keep a film in the cans for years. It bogs me down too. These four years have been the worst phase of my working life. It’s been a vicious cycle, and every project has been clamped down upon. But, I am walking towards hope. There’s solid support from home, and friends who make you smile. There’s music, thank god for that, and good people and films around. I’ll get over this.”

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