It’s fascinating to listen to Rajiv Menon speak. He discusses Tyagaraja, British invasion, Nandanar Charitram, Michelangelo, Mani Ratnam, KV Narayanaswamy and more — in an hour-long conversation. Though the ace cinematographer writes, directs and teaches, the one thing that majorly occupies his life is music — he learnt from his mother (renowned Malayalam and playback singer Kalyani Menon). In fact, he comes across as a connoisseur, who takes the music more seriously. His eyes gleam with a fiery excitement when he sings “Varalaama”, and I tell him, it sounds like KJ Yesudas. He breaks into peals of laughter.
Excerpts from a conversation follow:
Q. After Minsara Kanavu and Kandukondain Kandukondain, you didn’t direct many films. Why?
I could have done one or two commercial films, but didn’t. I do what I feel like doing. I wrote a lot of scripts, but nothing got materialised. Nobody would believe if I say I kept trying. I wrote and rewrote several drafts. You know, writing isn’t easy. It’s tedious. Ideas have a gestation period, and after a while, it becomes difficult. Everyone thinks I am rich, I have a plush office, I make advertisements and travel — but only I know the kinds of problems I face. I think I have underperformed as a filmmaker. I have been sitting on different scripts over these years. Some didn’t work because of casting issues. A few didn’t have producers. I wondered where I was going wrong. For quite some time, I was occupied with the research and pre-production of a film with Anil Kumble. It was a touching subject. Then Sarvam Thaala Mayam happened. My wife said why not we produce the film ourselves like we produce advertisements. I got convinced despite having multiple what-ifs in mind.
I am extremely critical of myself, what I do and what I write. Even I know the ideas that I have are not necessarily what the market might think is viable. I am not in a rat race to do films with any top star. I enjoy making stories that are personal, relatable and simple. When I write, there is always a conscious thought in me — it has to be authentic and honest.
Q. A film like Sarvam Thaala Mayam because you are into Carnatic music so much?
My mother was in the early 40s when my dad passed away. But I never saw her weep. She used to take charge of the home and practise music every day. It was inspiring to see a single-mother suffer and make a living. So, yes, Carnatic music and the desire to explore the art form — has always been there. Music helps one overcome his or her innermost struggles and I witnessed that. Music can elevate people in a schismatic society like this.
I have an insider’s view of the Carnatic music scene, though I am not a participant. I am good friends with TM Krishna, Sanjay Subrahmanyam and P Unnikrishnan. Four years ago, someone approached me that I make a documentary on veteran mridangam artiste, Umayalpuram K Sivaraman. I started documenting his life eventually. Once, during a kutcheri in Thanjavur, I met this guy, Johnson, who makes mridangams. I found out more than 80 families have been making the instrument traditionally, but never play them. Johnson told me he sends his son to Sivaraman though. That ignited the spark. Isn’t it something unfortunate? It’s like a gynaecologist who can’t give birth to a baby. Someone has been in this profession for ages, but she can’t indulge in it. Hey, have you seen young artistes who come from different parts of India to Kalakshetra to learn music? They could have easily taken an engineering job and settle for a solid monthly income. But they didn’t. The arts mean something to them, and they are ready to go through the rigour. It’s fantastic.
My films are musically-inclined. I like characters that can sing and dance. Minsara Kanavu is half Barber of Seville and half Sound of Music. Kandukondain Kandukondain was based on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
Q. How was it to make a film revolving around caste and Carnatic music traditions?
Sarvam Thaala Mayam has no mention of ‘caste’ anywhere. It is more of an underdog story. But the film questions many things — the system and people. It is also about learning and performing. It wasn’t an easy film to make. It has life in it. I have heard of stories about how some still hope their sons will play at the Music Academy. That’s what made me write Peter. He finds a guru and learns music. To achieve excellence and acceptance, he crosses boundaries. Sarvam Thaala Mayam makes you empathise with situations and characters. That’s what any cinema should intend to do — move people. What do you do when you want others to experience a feeling, which you are strongly feeling? In all probability, you make a film. The underpinning theme of this film points to the larger purpose of one’s life beyond ‘hero worship’ and love. Peter achieves his aim through music, which acts as a binding force. When the film was screened at the festivals, I saw the audience connecting themselves to emotions.
Q. Why mridangam when there are other instruments?
Mridangam is a terrific instrument. To make one, you need the skin of a cow, buffalo or goat, especially from the female of the species after it has delivered. People who are into the making of mridangam are largely Dalits based in and around Thanjavur, and the whole thing started somewhere around the 1920s. Further, if you are a performing musician, you need to get the skin changed once in three months. I never knew all this, and it seemed interesting.
Q. The cast of Sarvam Thaala Mayam includes professional Carnatic musicians.
I never felt I was making a film. The atmosphere was lively. We did live sound in many scenes. I chanced upon Sumesh Narayanan, a young leading mridangam artiste. Nedumudi Venu, Vineeth and Aparna Balamurali are also into arts. For the reality show episode, we got Sikkil Gurucharan, P Unnikrishnan, Srinivas and Karthik. It was total fun having them all on board. After finalising Nedumudi Venu, I couldn’t hear from him for three months. He wasn’t keeping well. So I waited for some time and approached Nasser. We are good friends. But Nasser couldn’t sit on the floor, fold his legs and play the mridangam. Glad Venu himself agreed to play Vembu Iyer at last. (Smiles)
Sarvam Thaala Mayam required someone like GV Prakash — who can act and perform the instrument. I had sent him to Sivaraman to learn mridangam. He is a quick learner, and I think he would have attended approximately 40 classes. Finally, Sivaraman told me, “Prakash-ku tala gnanam iruku.” I felt a huge sense of relief. I wanted him to be Peter until I complete the film.
Q. Tell us about the bond you developed with Umayalpuram Sivaraman.
Ever since I told him about Sarvam Thaala Mayam, he was thrilled. Half the time, he is either misunderstood or misinterpreted, but an absolute delight to be with. Whenever GV Prakash didn’t show up for the mridangam classes, he wouldd call me and ask: “Enga pa un paiyyan-a aala kanom.” He was very much involved in the film.
Q. You have worked with AR Rahman before. How has his contribution made the Sarvam Thaala Mayam album more special?
Rahman doesn’t get satisfied with tunes easily. He always pushes boundaries and looks for newness. For both of us, the process was fruitful. Rahman and I started out together around the 90s. Now, he is an international Superstar, and I am a small-time ad filmmaker. (Laughs) After him, I am not able to think of a breakthrough artist in Indian film music. I get goosebumps when I listen to “Kannamoochi Yenada” or “En Veetu Thottaththil” even now. Though I know him for 30 years, I was apprehensive when I took a tune to him. It was embarrassing. But he liked it. This “Varalama” plays out like “Varugalamo” from Nandanar Charitram. The toughest song in the album was “Eppo Varumo”. And I remember how we used to remain awake at his studio around 3 am. We would record something and not touch it for a couple of months. We would revisit later. It was a gradual process.
Q. You were initially offered Roja. Then the role went to Arvind Swami. Are you planning to act, at least, in future?
No. I have never wanted to act. I have some good stories to tell. Let me write more and direct more films. When Mani called me for Roja, I told him I wanted to simply shoot the film. He teases me about it even today.
Q. Is a film like Kandukondain Kandukondain on the cards?
No, a multi-starrer, again — never. (Laughs)
Q. When will you collaborate with Mani Ratnam again?
I am not the best person to answer this. He knows I am always a phone call away.