Her cosy work pad in R.A. Puram overlooks a cool terrace. The colour scheme of the interior — earthy tones and pristine white — goes well with her unfussy persona. In a maroon angarkha kurta with delicate gathers that sway gently like in those textile commercials, ad film and documentary maker Latha Menon turns up mint fresh for an early morning interview.
“Time isn't a problem at all, I've had erratic schedules for 15 years,” she says, sipping warm green tea. For someone whose profession is defined by seconds and minutes, she sure understands the value of time. So without wasting a second, I shoot questions and she slips into rewind mode to trace her journey.
“It seems like yesterday… After completing Mass Communication at Sophia's, Mumbai, I worked for a couple of ad firms where I learnt discipline, planning and the importance of paying attention to detail from reputed international technicians. But the ad scene in Mumbai was already overcrowded, so I returned to Chennai and set up Iris Films in 1996. It's been an exciting run, not without struggle though.”
Quick to pick up the ropes of her profession and understand how branding could change the dynamics of competition, Latha created commercials for a range of clients — from Fanta and Arokya to Muthoot and Spinz. Today, after over a 100 ads, she says, “Like in any other profession, hard work, talent and grit matter. I learnt early in my career that when people know you are clear about what you want and are capable of delivering, they will take you seriously, no matter the gender. A director leading a crew of 60 people can't afford to falter. You have to think on your feet.”
Brevity is the soul of ad film making. “You are a storyteller in 30 seconds! Ads have to be bang on and reach the target audience.” So what's the mantra to those attention-grabbing commercials? “They have to be intelligent, artful and, at the same time, connect instantly with the audience. Good music and humour are imperatives that evoke the wow factor. When we featured actor Suriya in nine roles for the Aircel ad, I had to pack in so much in so little time. Guess it worked because of its novelty. It was interesting to add layers to one personality!”
Break ke baad?
The biggest challenge today is hooking the remote-happy audience. “We don't want them to return after the break, but stay tuned during commercials. Ads have to be extremely innovative so that they get embedded in the viewers' psyche and they love them better each time they appear. With so many channels addressing different target groups, ads are getting fragmented. So when they appear on a particular channel, we'd like the audience to watch them instead of switching to another show.”
A keen observer of life, Latha straddles two worlds with ease. While she pursues ad films as a serious profession, she loves making documentaries because they're a representation of reality. “Whether you make a documentary on history, an issue or a personality, it's about the simplicity or complexity of life. And I like decoding life in my work.”
While “Adhisaya Punnagai”, a documentary for Karna Prayag Trust, captured the emotional and legal issues relating to adoption in a sensitive way, “Oru Izhayin Payanam” looks at the plight of humble handloom weavers. “Documentaries cannot have a newsreel-like dry quality. You have a story — you must tell it well. It's about structure, narrative, aesthetics and persuasive images. Though backed by solid facts, it can't be boring.”
Having tackled varied social issues in her documentaries and short films, Latha says it's interesting to challenge the format each time. “There are no boundaries to creativity. There are interesting ways of reaching out.” For instance, in the handloom-centric “Oru Izhayin Payanam,” Latha used the fingers as a powerful metaphor. “Personally speaking, I learnt a lot about life when working on personalities such as Palghat Raghu and Headmaster Kuruvila Jacob. A documentary has to be intimate and insightful. I hope the public looks at documentaries with a fresh eye and helps create a new wave of truth-tellers. Cinema houses too must come forward to promote documentaries.”
Talk about her other passion — reading — and Latha, a big fan of Joseph Campbell, Malcolm Gladwell, Ian McEwan et al, says, “I create time to read. I'm part of a small group of book lovers that discusses books once a month. My profession has taught me time management. I'm also ready to pack my bags and leave for an outdoor shoot at any point of time. When the randomness of life challenges you each time, you have to simply devour it.”
Latha's list of documentaries include:
Palghat Raghu On mridangam maestro Palghat R.Raghu's journey.
Oru Izhayin Payanam A sensitive take on the fading handloom tradition in Tamil Nadu.
Adhisaya Punnagai A short film on adoption.
Thiruvanmiyur The Marundeeswara temple where the temple tank was turned into a rainwater harvester.
Headmaster Kuruvila Jacob On the life and vision of Kuruvila Jacob, the first Indian Headmaster of Madras Christian College High School.
The Hindu Brought out on the occasion of the newspaper's 125th anniversary.
NAB About the efforts of the National Association for the Blind towards inclusion of the visually-impaired in mainstream society.
Apollo AV On Apollo Hospitals' strides in healthcare.
Help Stop Child Abuse About awareness of child abuse the courage to speak out.
STORIES IN SECONDS
Over the years, Latha's Iris Films has done commercials for Hatsun, Muthoot Pappachan Group, Arokya Milk, Ramco on Demand, Aircel (with actor Suriya), Odyssey, Spice Telecom, Fanta (the Simran ad), Parle Biscuits, Britannia products, Sharon Plywood and Spinz.
TWO TO TANGO
Husband Rajiv Menon and Latha are not just in the same profession, they share similar tastes as well. “Though we work independently, our interests are in sync. We are passionate about films and travel and we have mutual respect when it comes to work.”
My favourite documentary filmmakers are Robert Flaherty, Werner Herzog and Anand Patwardhan. I enjoy all the documentaries featured by BBC.