Most people know that Gautham Vasudev Menon is not just special, he is important. We met him on a rainy day. And the conversation that ensued was as good as a Gautham Vasudev Menon movie. Here’s how the ace director charmed us…
Rains have been a part of some momentous moments in your movies. How important are rains to you?
If rains inspire me, it is because of several incidents that have happened in my life during rains. I can remember a lot of ‘rainy’ moments in my life. Lots of romance, lots of love, obviously. I still remember the times when I’ve gone out to feel the rain. I would never let that go. Rains are very inspiring. As it is, our city needs rains so badly that we don’t complain about rains at all. Every time it rains I would feel like drinking hot chocolate… I feel like having one right now, in fact! I feel like writing. I would feel like settling on a window seat with a book, or songs. Sometimes I feel like taking the bike out for a ride in the rain. But now I am not brave enough to try and shoot a rain sequence, because you need to create it. Nowadays, you cannot trust rains to last till you finish shooting a scene. We’d have to arrange for water lorries and in the current situation, it won’t be ethical. Even recently, we had to shoot a rain sequence but I decided against it. The sequence still came out very well because we did have a small shower that day and the atmosphere was fresh and clean while we were shooting. Rain is inspiring, anytime.
Let’s talk about the major elements in Gautham Vasudev Menon’s life.
I was expecting questions on my financial situation, Enai Noki Paayum Thota and stuff. I would have worn a different shirt otherwise! (Laughing)
How important is paper and a pen to you? When did the relationship between you and writing crop up?
I began writing probably at the age of 13 or 14 – in the eighth standard. I studied at Madras Christian College school and we used to have debates. I used to be a quiet boy back then, but I used to somehow transform on-stage. I began participating in debates and such programmes. Sometimes, I would feel like an imposter- that the person who is speaking is not me, but honestly, I used to just feel differently onstage. Probably I began writing from then. I began with short stories and the like…. couplets of poetry in English, Hindi and then copy out the lyrics of some Tamil songs. I have passed some of them to some people as notes. The relationship with pen and paper began that way. It is interesting as now I’ve gone back to writing on paper. I had taken to typing out my thoughts on a laptop as it is easier to format a soft copy. If I’m writing on paper, I would still have to type it out on the laptop, so I tried to simplify the process. Then when I hit writer’s block, I tried writing on paper to see it if it helps. Even recently, I finished a script on pen, typed it later and sent it across to an actor. He liked it. So I’m back to pen and paper. I’ve heard Mani Ratnam sir also says the same thing. There’s nothing like writing an idea down using good old fashioned pen and paper.
Even my heroes don’t go beyond some standard – they will not be violent or impolite to women!
How important is travel?
Of course, I would miss my kids, wife, and mother and they would also feel my absence even if it is for 10 days; but when they say ‘Ok, go have your writing break’, I would go. All my writing is across travel. I have owned this place for the past 20 years and I have stayed here and written when it was impossible to travel. I would sit and write in coffee shops… But 90% of the time, I would travel to write. Even the latest script that I was referring to was written when I was on a flight. Later, I also wrote with the Apple pencil. When I landed, I went to a coffee shop, found a great spot and formatted the script. Without travel, something changes in me. The longing to write peaks once in a while, and say once in three months, I would seek to travel. In my movies, there’s always a journey that somebody takes to meet someone. That’s me. And I like surprises. I never plan my trip or inform anybody. I never tell anybody that I’ll be visiting: I just land and knock on the door. My grandmother, cousins on my father’s side, are all used to it. Even now, I never call my wife and tell her that I would be coming. I would reach around midnight, knock on the door and that would be it.
There is this scene in Vaaranam Aayiram, where after the Okhlahoma blast, he would be traveling home and he gets a friend on the plane. That is something that happened in my life. When my father passed away, I was writing down all the memories I had about my father. I began writing from the first memory I had of my father, till the last thing I could remember him telling me. I cried while writing that. The man in the seat next to me asked me if I was ok and a conversation began. I still keep in touch with him. I was inspired by that autobiographical bit. I’ve been through the situations that I’ve shown in my movies. However, it is not a comfort zone. Recreating something from my life is also difficult because I’m going through an emotional journey there. Watching Suriya act as my father in Vaaranam Aayiram was taxing, emotionally. My father was not a great man – nobody knew him as such. But he was my father. Everybody would want a father like that or they would have a father who has a very similar character. I have not reached a pinnacle and my father was also not a famous man. But, the relationship between a father and son is something that everybody can relate to.
I believe in whatever is shown in my films. I want the women in my life to be like the women in my movies: or, I would love it if women everywhere are like that. Even my heroes don’t go beyond some standard – They will not be violent against, or impolite to women. The maximum of anger that Karthik shows towards Jessy is yelling and chucking his phone. He doesn’t do anything more to Jessy; he is not like Arjun Reddy.
Music affects everybody. Has music inspired Gautham Menon?
Today morning, I woke up listening to some soft melody that my wife was playing on the Bluetooth speaker. While I was coming here, I was listening to an Ilaiyaraja song on the phone. I wrote the entire script of Vaaranam Aayiram –especially the parts of Sameera Reddy – listening to ‘Nee paartha paarvai’ from Hey Ram playing on a loop. Music inspires me completely. Even though I try not to be affected by it or show it, I go through a lot of stress. Music helps me sidestep stress. If I pick up a book to read, in 10 minutes, I would either be engrossed or bored. Music is the best avenue to let everything out.
With nothing going for it, if it is still garnering so much attention, I think Enai Noki Paayum Thota will be a special movie!
What are the three great decisions you have made in your life?
At every stage, you would have made a decision, be it good or bad. Even a bad decision will serve as a warning later in life. I’ve been making some bad decisions in the past three years. I don’t want to go into the details, but some bad decisions led me to the situation I am in right now. There are no regrets. There is only a lesson that you should not repeat the same mistake. Also, if you ask, some people they may tell you it was a bad decision on their part to work with me. Speaking of good decisions, maybe around 1995-96. I used to visit Mani Ratnam sir’s office, Kamal Haasan sir’s office and Bharathiraja Sir’s office every day for a while. After a month, people began recognising me. Assistant directors and the women staff and all would talk to me, telling me not to lose heart and that I’d get a chance. I never met any three of them back then. I also hesitated to tell my parents that I was interested in the movie industry after having taken a degree in Engineering. I am not sure why I was hesitant, they are very forward-thinking. AutoCAD, marketing, mechanical engineering… that is the field, where I was headed. One day, I told my parents that I was not interested in the job I had and that I wanted to pursue a career in the movie industry. They took it very well and even asked me if I wanted to go to a film institute. I told them I wanted to join a movie production and learn that way. In two weeks or so, my mother told me, “there is a director named Rajeev Menon. He is beginning a new project. Why don’t you go meet him?” I remembered having read a newspaper report about that. Rajeev Menon was working on an untitled picture starring Prabhu Deva and Kajol. I met him at his office and he accepted me right away. Telling my parents about my dreams was a good decision. I worked in Minsara Kanavu and it was life-changing. I felt that working on just that one movie was enough. It was a massive movie with big actors; I learned a lot, watching Rajeev Menon handling the actors and the project. AR Rahman would bring in raw edits and let us listen to songs. It was very inspiring. We were born to Ilaiyaraja’s songs and Rahman’s songs attracted us when we were in college. I learned massively from Rajeev Menon. I used to be very introverted. But, he would teach Prabhu Deva dance moves. He would even scold Kajol. He was just a director trying to get his feel right.
Today, my fall-back and my support system are my wife and my kids. I knew my wife since childhood. We studied in the same school – she was a year younger than me. We fell in love and we were doing good. But I had a mandate, that I would get married only after I had made one movie. She disagreed. According to her, marriage and movies didn’t really have a connection. Her idea was that we should get married and movies may happen as and when they do. If no movie works out, we move on. Fame, movies, huge house and luxury aren’t all necessary. Let’s face it together, she said, and I took a call on that. We got married long before Minnale happened. So at various points, she has been a fall-back for me. She helps me make decisions even today. Lately, I had asked her about beginning a new project with somebody and she said no. I decided to go to with that too. I am that person who likes validation from somebody while taking decisions. Even if I have a decision formed, I would like to make a phone call and consult somebody before acting on that decision.
I work with my technicians similarly. I would tell my technicians what I need, but I never force my thoughts on them after that. Till today, I have never rejected a song tune. There’s been that – I’ve always gotten the tune I needed. Casting Suriya in Kaakha Kaakha was a great decision too. Ajith sir had said no to the script, Vikram sir also said no. I had approached Vijay sir but he also was not happy with the second half. Suriya was relatively new and the production didn’t cost me much. But deciding to take that movie changed both our lives. It put me on the map – I was able to meet Kamal Haasan sir after that. It put him (Suriya) on the map too.
How important are conversations for Gautham Menon?
Very important. I’m enjoying this right now. It brings out something in me. I look forward to it. We don’t even know if we would be able to release ENPT, but still, we have put out a release date. A 100 people are working against the movie’s release. A lot is going on right now. In between, when I got your phone call, asking if we could have a conversation, I realised it would be interesting to talk to you. I could have postponed it – we’ve been waiting for a long time, there was a power issue, I know that you would be out of town tomorrow – I could have asked you to come 3 or 4 days later too. But I know that I’d be having a conversation on life and films after one-and-half years. I enjoy being asked questions and it brings out something in me. It defines a lot more for me and the day seems a lot better. I take something from every conversation – the understanding of people, what they have understood about us; the small things that people say can be thought-provoking.
Parthiban sir sent me a voice message this morning. It was nothing related to work – it was a general message. But him sending me a sweet message, shows me how he feels about me. With his stature, and with the fact that he is far away, he does not have to text me. There is no benefit in it for him but his message touched me – I felt good, feeling that love.
I take Mani sir as a mentor. I’ve never worked with him. Even now, I ask some people in his team to let me know when they are shooting the next movie, so that I could also go to work, maybe in one schedule. When I say the same to Mani Ratnam, he’d say, “What’s wrong with you? You’re already at a good spot. Dude, be happy you are not my assistant.” Sometimes he would joke, “Maybe that is the best thing that could happen to you.” I got to talk to him for three hours. Later, I talked to him for another three hours when we were both attending a celebration thrown by Shankar sir. We had a conversation. It was nothing about work – just about life, fun, Ilaiyaraja’s music, etc. I got something that I’ve never gotten from somebody.
90% of the time, I would travel to write!
How is ENPT important?
I enjoyed writing it. Even as I was writing the script, Dhanush kept flitting in my mind. While writing some portions, I had Dhanush in my mind. The rest is all me. When I finished the script, I texted Dhanush to see if it would work out. He told me he didn’t have dates for a year. I sent over the script saying just read through and see if you like it – if you do, we can work on the movie after a year. Dhanush replied saying he loved it and I asked him when can we begin shooting. His reply was, “immediately!” That’s how ENPT came about. It is a very important film in my career. When I was coming for this interview, my wife was teasing me, saying don’t say it is a different movie, like everybody else. It is a regular film, but it is my film. So there will be fresh things in there. The movie portrays how I’d react if I’m in certain situations. I may not bash up a 100 guys; I would run scared. I may face some issues. The way we’ve treated Dhanush, the love scenes… the way the movie is shot… the screenplay pattern… is all mine. Even after two-and-half years, if there are such high expectations on that movie, it is all because of Siva’s music and the Maruvaarthai song. And then there are other elements too. I want to see how big the opening will be on Day 1. Because, with nothing going for the film, if it’s still garnering so much attention, with people wanting to watch it, I think it will be a special movie.
What is happiness, to Gautham Menon?
Happiness encompasses every day. What I do in a day would make me happy. I’ve been to Court a couple of times for cases regarding ENPT. I’ve asked people around me to try and avoid calling me for the case because it affects my mood, but I learned something from that experience too. While in Court, I was thinking several times if we took a legal movie, wouldn’t this be how I respond? When I wake up, I can hear my kids getting ready for work, they would be talking about cricket, it makes me happy. There’ll be a song playing on the speaker that makes me happy. Breakfast at home, then the bike ride to the office makes me happy. Some people know me, but some don’t understand why I’m on that bike. It is not only convenient in today’s traffic, I also think a lot on the bike. I’d gotten several ideas for Minnale while riding the bike. Food makes me really happy. People who like to cook make me happy. A simple cup of green tea makes me happy. Several such small day-to-day things can delight me.