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The sophisticated Gautham Menon gets candid on the portrayal of women in films, big budget aspirations and being smitten with the first flush of love

Gautham Menon is an unusual interviewee. You can attack his films without worrying about offending him. And so, we catch the bull by its horns — an analogy in keeping with the times — by telling him that the romance in his last release, Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada (Sahasam Swasaga Sagipo in Telugu) felt surprisingly tepid for a Gautham Menon film. Also, the second half, especially, seemed rushed.

He has an explanation, one he says he hasn’t revealed to anybody yet. The original plan was to shoot more footage to make the hero’s sudden transformation into a cop feel… not so sudden. “We had it all written. The hero trains to become a police officer, gets posted in Pune, investigates a series of cop murders… It was all there in the script, but we couldn’t shoot.” Courtesy Simbu. And yet, he doesn’t want to sever ties with him. “There are things he does as an actor… I pick them over his eccentricities.”

Eccentricities. Not a word too many South Indian filmmakers use in common parlance.

The critics weren’t kind to AYM. “Do you know that even Vaaranam Aayiram, which I consider to be a piece of art, was trashed?” And then, he trains his gun. “Critics don’t matter. I remember being heartbroken by reviews after the release of Ekk Deewana Tha. Mani Ratnam reminded me that we don’t ask permission from critics before shooting our films. Why must we seek their approval after making them?”

Gautham Menon is convinced that AYM was received well, especially in the B and C centres; that’s the sort of approval that gets him sleeping well. For long, he has resisted the urge to classify audiences so. “But I am convinced now that a successful big-budget film has to work in all the centres.” His last two films—Yennai Arindhaal and AYM—are indications that he is beginning to fuel his big-budget aspirations. There are more commercial elements than ever before in his work. “But the problem is, I can’t write fantasy like Rajamouli. I can’t make the sort of films Shankar is making.”

But Gautham can make an urban commercial film like Yennai Arindhaal. “If Yennai Arindhaal had been a regular big-budget film, you’d have had more rowdies flying in the air. Ajith would have had a lot more punch lines.” In fact, that was the plan until Ajith asked Gautham Menon not to do with
him what other commercial filmmakers were doing already. In a sense, the filmmaker seems to have dug himself into a hole with his body of work. The film he’s now making with Vikram, Dhruva Natchathiram, is an attempt to climb out of it.

It’s an ambitious spy thriller, and Gautham Menon hopes that it will be the first of many films in the franchise. The teaser has already been viewed more than 3 million times. “Vikram sir suddenly called me from New York and suggested that we shoot the teaser. I went, without a big crew, without really securing local permissions… It was an impromptu shoot.”

Even while preparations are on for the shoot of Dhruva Natchathiram, work is also underway with his next film, Enai Noki Paayum Thota, starring Dhanush. Though the team has already released a song, the composer’s name has been kept under wraps. “I’m furious that a couple of newspapers have claimed the authority to announce it. I’m running a thoughtful campaign, and I wish people would respect that.” The idea is to let audiences hear the music without the baggage of knowing the composer’s identity. “It affects how you consume music. You end up attributing qualities to the song that may not even exist. I wanted people to absorb ENPT’s music without preconceived notions.”

The film’s teaser, however, didn’t get received too well, with many accusing it of being a rehash of AYM. Gautham Menon doesn’t understand why. “A big team has worked on the teaser, and none of us felt this alleged similarity. I guess when people finally see the film, they will realise they are wrong.” For one, there is none of the narrative experimentation that was an integral part of AYM. “ENPT is more conventional. We start off with a bang, and then slip into a love story. If I can say so, we have treated it like a Guy Ritchie film.”

What is uniquely Gautham Menon’s is the emphasis on the female character, the insistence on showing her as an equal to the male protagonist. The conversation naturally veers to the recent Suraj controversy. It was Gautham who called Tamannaah first — to warn her about the director’s sexist remarks, and to commiserate with her, considering she had starred in Suraj’s last film, Kaththi Sandai. “I’m often told that I portray women beautifully. Heroines also tell me that they don’t get treated so well on the sets of other films. The truth though is that I’m just doing a very normal thing by being decent with them, by avoiding using their characters for just glamour value. I don’t think I’m doing a big thing, but given status quo, I understand why people feel that way.”

Gautham Menon also reveals that voice-overs, another staple in his films, will play a big part in ENPT. “If you think I over-used voice-overs in AYM, you should watch ENPT,” he says, with a laugh. He’s also given Dhanush a sophisticated makeover. “Dhanush thinks I’ve made him look good, but truth be told, he’s always had that in him. We have just refined his appearance a bit.” The film will show the actor as he hasn’t been seen so far. He’s well-dressed, soft-spoken, and comfortable talking in English. “He was initially a bit hesitant about speaking the English lines, but I knew it was a pretense. He talks very good English. And of course, as we all know, he is terrific with the local language. That’s the kind of variety we, filmmakers, are forever looking for.”

While on variety, hasn’t Gautham tired of romanticising the first flush of love in his films? You know, the ‘Hosanna’ stage, as he puts it, where the boy meets girl, discusses her with friends, chases her, imagines her presence everywhere… “No,” he smiles. “I’m still driven by that. I’m 44 now, but when playing cricket with my children, I don’t hold back on my run-up. I still feel very young.”

The romance may not be so novel anymore, but Tamil cinema definitely owes him for showing that mainstream cinema can be made with well-spoken heroes who aren’t hesitant to be in touch with their femininity. That scene in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa which has Simbu caressing the feet of Trisha… Imagine another filmmaker being able to convince a mainstream hero to do that.

“I was Hitch in my college. Once, a friend came to me crying about a girl leaving town. I told him to go on the same train as her, and talk to her. That’s the
inspiration for the scene in Vaaranam Aayiram.” He narrates another anecdote, one about a couple South India is rather familiar with. “During Kaakha Kaakha, Suriya had fought with Jyotika and seemed crestfallen. When he told me about it, I asked him to go, touch her feet and say sorry. I don’t know if he did that, but I really believe there’s nothing wrong in admitting your folly, in deifying your woman.”

There is another reason for this emphasis on feet: a candid admission. “I think the feet of good-looking women are beautiful things.” Hence, those extended visuals of feet in his films. Good luck getting another filmmaker to reveal something like this.

By Sudhir Srinivasan

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