Gautham Vasudev Menon is full of stories, and this is what anybody would say if they met him. He falls among that rare breed of directors, whose films are trend-setters, and in fact, a genre, in itself. The filmmaker observes people around him and creates beautiful stories on screen—be it Kaakha Kaakha, Vaaranam Aayiram or Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa (VTV). What makes his films extra special are the real, genuine, relatable and, above all, flawed characters. In an exclusive chat, Gautham Vasudev Menon discusses his journey into cinema.
Excerpts from a conversation:
Let’s rewind to the past. Did you think you would become successful when you were assisting Rajiv Menon?
No. I never thought I would be where I am today. (Pauses) I am not saying this to be modest, but I had no idea all of this would happen. A song or even a script, for that matter, I come up with is based on what I feel at that moment. Generally, I don’t think much about the numbers. Many filmmakers have a dream project but I don’t. I never thought I would work with Kamal (Haasan) sir, and Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu would be my third film. When I was assisting Rajiv, I remember telling my girlfriend (now my wife), “Let me make my first film. We will get married then because I don’t have money now!” She said, “There is no need for that.” Trust me, we got married! I am not a planner. I simply go with the flow. The same applies to films, as well. Say, I have 60 to 70% of the script complete, I go ahead and shoot. I know it will shape well because I am confident about what I write. Also, I want to see what an actor can bring to the table. Many directors don’t believe in this process, but I like to do it this way. At the same time, I keep my budgets in control.
Since you were mentioning about Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, do you revisit your films? A closer look at your filmography will reveal that most of your plots have influenced and inspired movies of later years.
I don’t like to watch my films as I feel I could have made them in a much better way. But I am revisiting some of my earlier films because people are asking me to. I am open to doing sequels, but it should not look like I am capitalising on the success of films. Suriya says I should never do a sequel to Kaakha Kaakha. (Smiles) As for Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, Raghavan is at the stage of life where he has a daughter. Maybe, she is 15, and there could be wife Maya. I may not remember the ‘moments’, but I can start from where I left even now. There’s no disconnect at all. They are my characters, after all.
I am sure. Until Pachaikili Muthucharam, you were just ‘Gautham’, and not Gautham Vasudev Menon. What’s the story behind it?
Are you referring to the credits? I had no choice because that was the producer’s call. He did everything – right from setting up Minnale to bringing Harris Jayaraj and Thamarai on board. Further, he insisted, “Shankar maadhiri, Gautham-nu vechchuko!” (Laughs) It worked, and I am glad it did. Since Vaaranam Aayiram was a tribute to my father, I wanted to put out my full name in all its glory.
Here is something I have observed. Sometimes your heroes are Gautham Vasudev Menon. They wear kada. They sport a similar hair-do. They are eloquent and poetic.
Imagine me telling Dhanush, “Neenga enna maadhiriye pesanum!” (Laughs) I understand what you are saying, but it is never intentional. Suriya, to an extent, imitates my body language. That happens because we have known each other for several years. It is not the same with Kamal (Haasan) sir. He always gives you more. But I make a conscious effort to make actors look different from their earlier films.
How do you pick yourself up after a failed film?
The support system is incredible at home. We are victims of the business of cinema. I don’t think critics have trashed my films, and I was never made to question my work. Even Enai Noki Paayum Thota (ENPT) for instance – some liked, some didn’t. Many had problems with voiceovers, which was a creative choice I took. But most of my films are liked and appreciated in a much better way later. At times, things don’t go the way you want, and it hurts. That’s all right. We learn. We move on. When a project fails, it’s better to take the blame on me. When I sat on the edit table of ENPT, I had a gut feeling that it wasn’t going to be good. There is a reason I didn’t want to push. Maybe, this is how it was destined.
But the debate over Dhanush’s voice-overs in ENPT continues.
See, in Kaakha Kaakha, Suriya’s voice narrates the film. In VTV, it was Simbu’s voice. The same happened in Yennai Arindhaal, besides some parts of Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada. Strangely, nobody had problems with any of these. But somewhere, this bothered the audience only in ENPT, and I don’t know why. Take The Irishman or Marriage story, for instance, voiceover narration is a style that a lot of filmmakers have. I can still argue, it was in pretty much sync with the visuals, but I don’t want to. (Smiles) I understand, these days, the audience doesn’t want to be spoon-fed.
What does brand GVM mean to you?
Is there one? (Smiles) When someone calls GVM, it doesn’t register because I am used to hearing people say, ‘Gautham’, ‘Vasu’ or ‘Gauthu’. The brand, of course, helps. Say, someone comes from Mumbai, and they want to collaborate on a web series. Otherwise, brand GVM means nothing to me.
Is there anything you wish you could change in cinema?
Creative-wise, I am happy the way I put projects together and how I write. You say, “There is no location for today”, I can even shoot in a coffee shop. I don’t rant, yell or whine. But I am unhappy about the business aspects of cinema. There is no transparency regarding the box office collection.
Ishari Ganesh helped you with the ENPT release. Is that why you are doing a film with his nephew, Varun?
No. I know Ishari Ganesh as an educationist and a film buff. My kids went to his school. Ishari Ganesh did ask if I could launch Varun as a hero six years ago, but I was waiting for the right time, and that’s how Joshua Imai Pol Kaakha happened. I showed ENPT to Ishari Ganesh. He liked the content and released it.
Is Joshua Imai Pol Kaakha the same script that you had pitched to Vijay?
No. Both are different. It will be too much for Varun to handle. Joshua Imai Pol Kaakha is the toned-down version of a similar idea.
In an interview, you had said those who know you refer to you as Jessie, the character from VTV.
Writing Jessie was easier because I am Jessie. (Laughs) But women who know me say, “Don’t even attempt to write female characters!” (Laughs) But I enjoy the process. To an extent, I am confident that I am good at it. I grew up with two sisters. Also, I grew up watching films of Mani (Ratnam) sir, K Balchander sir and Balumahendra sir. Also, I am writing something interesting now, the story of Kamal and Kadambari, that I am pitching it to Suriya. It is a complete love story, about two musicians who are in their 30s. They live abroad and go on a road trip.
You make no bones about being called “elitist”. Most of your films cater to the upper-class audience.
I don’t think demarcations exist anymore. We think we cater to a particular section of the audience, but not really. Today, the audience is clear that they don’t want to watch certain films on the screen. Their mind is tuned to watching them either on Tamil Rockers or Amazon.
It is not easy to write in Tamil cinema as, largely, you cater to the heroes. Is that why you never made a film with Rajinikanth or Vijay?
Vijay and I have had discussions. Once, he asked for a full narration. I gave him one, but he wasn’t convinced. He felt, “English padam maadhiri irukku!” I completely understand him because as an actor, you need to be comfortable with what you are trying. The film was set in England. The protagonist falls in love with an American girl, and I wanted to see Vijay in a swashbuckling James Bond-kind of action film. Of course, there was an Indian angle to it. (Smiles) I pitched Dhruva Natchathiram to Rajini sir. He said, “Super, romba nalla irukku. We will have Harris Jayaraj on board.” Thanu sir had confirmed I was directing Superstar. But the same evening, he called, saying the project was not happening. Instead, Rajini sir chose Kabali, and worked with Pa Ranjith. (Smiles)
You have been extremely vocal about a lot of things. It is a sure way of getting you into trouble.
Honestly, I don’t give a damn, although, I am a tad careful about what I say to the press. But I can’t be someone I am not. I don’t depend on anybody for my survival. This is what I am.
Your films mostly have a delayed release. Does it bother you?
The past six years have been tough for everyone, and I am no exception. The situation is better now. For Dhruva Natchathiram, Vikram sir has been paid fully. And, Naragasooran will also release eventually. The issue was neither Karthick Naren nor me, but the investors. I have done my best. As a filmmaker, he should do his bit, too.
You have directed almost all top actors including Kamal Haasan, Ajith, Vikram, Simbu and Suriya. Who was the best of all?
Suriya is extremely friendly and nice, but Simbu is the best of the lot. He’s super chilled out. He’s a single-take actor. I can run the camera even while rehearsals. Still, he gives his 100%. Though Simbu prefers that I prompt him the lines while he is acting, it is evident some magic happens. Directing Kamal (Haasan) sir was an extremely rewarding experience. You write how an actor should perform on the paper, but with Kamal (Haasan) sir, it is 10 times more than that. Also, Ajith is a thorough professional.
Your choice of antagonists intrigues me. They are never conventional villains. Maybe, is that why ENPT and Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada bombed at the box office?
I met Baba Sehgal for a song recording. I felt he would be an apt choice for Achcham. But, sometimes, your decisions fail. I have no regrets. Also, I had to shoot the climax portions of Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada without Simbu and Baba Sehgal. ENPT went through a lot of changes, and it wasn’t the same film that I had originally envisioned. I wish Dhanush showed some love towards the film, but nevermind.
Do you write regularly?
None of the scripts that I write has been planned. I don’t set out to make targets. Pachaikili Muthucharam was first narrated to Kamal (Haasan), sir. But he didn’t like it. Then, Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu happened. At that point, I was writing about two serial killers. I was in the balcony, sitting in my Hyderabad apartment, observing two boys. The whole day they were discussing something, and they didn’t move anywhere. So, I thought what if they were like-minded serial killers, and also homosexuals. I was writing from their point of view and brought the cop character in later. Again, Vinaithaandi Varuvaayaa was written for Mahesh Babu. The first thing I wrote was, “Ulagathila evlo ponnunga irundhum, naan yen Jessie-a love pannen!” (Laughs) I knew Jessie and Karthik will never be together. Now, if I step back and wondering why I wrote those lines, I don’t have an answer. But when I am stuck, I don’t push myself. I write stunt sequences in detail and act them out. The same applies to songs, as well. When I meet my music directors, I give them 25 lines of song descriptions, saying this is how the situation is, this is how the characters are, and this is what goes on their mind. Every single detail is on the paper, including the physical moments they experience.
Is that why every time you collaborate with a music director, the magic happens?
Absolutely. I am blessed! I believe it is about meeting the right people at the right time. I inspire music composers to a large extent. We just finished composing a song for Joshua Imai Pol Kaakha. I am introducing singer Karthik as the music director with this film, and he has given some soul-stirring music. With me, it is always the first tune. (Smiles) No, it’s not me being sentimental, but this is how it is. As a writer, I realised I have to rise above my earlier films and situations. I can’t walk into AR Rahman’s studio and ask for a love song. Because he has composed several love songs, and to be able to make him understand the kind of song I want, I need to brief him in detail. Like the specifics. That’s how Aromale was born in Los Angeles. After I explained the story of Jessie and Karthik, Rahman suggested that we have a Malayalam song. He is very sweet and treats everyone equally. Say, even Mani (Ratnam) sir was inside, he would ask ten minutes and come out. I have written Tamil dialogues for his 99 Songs, and I am looking forward to seeing the film.
I met Mysskin recently, and he said he was not a fan of creating content for OTT platforms. On the other hand, you made your web series debut, Queen, which received an overwhelming response.
Mysskin is a dear friend. If that is his opinion, so be it. If top filmmakers like Martin Scorsese are into it, I shouldn’t have problems with it. Directing Queen was a liberating experience. I enjoyed collaborating with Prasad Murugesan. For a change, I didn’t have the restrictions, and I loved it. We are looking to shoot season two of Queen soon.
Take me through your day.
I don’t work on Sundays unless there is a crisis scenario. I spend time with my family. My mother makes good food, and we let her cook only on Sundays. Weekdays, I wake up early. Even if I sleep at 4.30 am, I can’t sleep beyond 7.30 am. I make it a point that I write at least for a couple of hours. I lunch with my team. Before shooting, I make shot divisions in my head. Normally, I don’t talk much. (Smiles) But I transform into a monster on the sets. I learnt from Rajiv Menon on the sets of Minsara Kanavu. I have seen him showing Prabhudheva how to dance, and that’s the kind of command he has over the medium, which is terrific.
Tell us about the status of your upcoming projects.
Dhruva Natchathiram will be released by June maximum. Meanwhile, Joshua Imai Pol Kaakha will be out. I am always looking to collaborate with writers because I am a reluctant writer. We have set up a writers’ room in my office. Exciting times are ahead, I guess. Netflix has approached me for an anthology. Vetrimaaran, Sudha Kongara and Vignesh Shivn are done with their films, and I have my half-an-hour slot. I wanted to see if I could see something like Asuran, breaking away from my template of films. I want to step out of my comfort zone and explore different stuff. I don’t mind visiting the interior parts of rural Tamil Nadu for a project.
Your world of films reminds me of Mani Ratnam’s.
Thank you! I don’t want to be put on a similar pedestal, because that’s blasphemy! I am nowhere close to him. His films Naayagan and Bombay are studying examples.
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