From Minnale (2001) to his recently released 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, especially 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 work. 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 4pm 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?