Cinematographer-filmmaker Rajiv Menon talks to Sudhish Kamath about what inspires his stories, the duality in his creativity and his recent short films
A cinematographer loves to focus. A storyteller finds the need to explore and wander. Rajiv Menon loves this duality. He loves to put himself out there between polar opposites and get sucked into the conflict.
He’s a traveller. But he loves being home. He’s a teacher. But he’s also a student of cinema. He makes a living shooting some very slick ad films anonymously and comes alive with deeply personal, moving stories when he’s filming with his students. The duality gives him a sense of balance. And, satisfaction.
“Even in films, that’s what I like? the ping-pong game between people, how they interact and affect each other through their actions?,” he says in the middle of an hour-long chat at his office last week, when we finally pin him down between his endless flight schedules.
His recent shorts, Sakhi Prane and Plain Sita, have a strong emotional core. “I like telling stories and over the last couple of years, I’ve written and rewritten scripts not because there are no opportunities, but because I am quite critical of my own work,” says Rajiv. “Some of these stories cannot be explored as a feature length film but lend themselves well to the short-film format. Considering how much my students pay for their course and the cost of making a short film by themselves, we make it a point to give them an opportunity to work on a film before they pass out.”
So what is it that provokes his stories?
“I was listening to this song called Sakhi Prane written by Dharmapuri Subbarayar who was said to be in love with Veena Dhanammal. She was celebrated among the artiste community and it’s believed that she went into financial problems and died a destitute. Subbarayar wrote this song from her point of view. Of how she fell for the man who was not just her sakhi (soulmate) but her prana (life). I thought of reversing the roles and making the guy the one who is abandoned. When we guys were studying in the Institute? when we didn’t know if we would make it or not, some of the students used to work in Matsya. Every time I see waiters, I wonder if they planned to be waiters? Or, did they end up there?” he explains.
Plain Sita is about a woman who wakes up one day and realises that her husband had abandoned her and her consequent journey of discovering her identity and finding strength.
Rajiv Menon has been fascinated by strong women characters and music and this, he believes, comes from his childhood. “My mother was 37 when my father died. She never wept or moped around. My hero (father) was 41 when he left the world. So, when I was growing up, I saw my mother take charge. She was a singer and used to practise every day. When other people watched TV, we would come home and find her singing. So to see a working singer, struggling and make a living was inspiring.”
It’s this that gave him a sense of conviction about art and living life on his own terms. After passing out of film school, he decided to be an ad filmmaker, as there were very few around. This was 24 years ago.
Starting his company at 22 gave him the confidence he needed. A few years later, when Mani Ratnam offered him Roja (a role that later went to Arvind Swamy) he didn’t hesitate to turn it down. He was financially independent. “I was never interested in acting or getting on stage. I am not an obedient person by nature. Cinematography is more technical, you are a co-creator with the director. After Minsara Kanavu and Kandukondain Kandukondain I could’ve done a couple of commercial films, but I didn’t do it. I just do what I feel like doing.”
“If I find that a script that I’ve spent two years of work not going anywhere, I just throw it,” he remarks. Like how he trashed days and months of research and pre-production of a film with Anil Kumble. He now has a couple of scripts ready including Dhun that he wrote with Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai in mind.
Do you always need to have experienced it to make it your own story? “Look at Richard Attenborough’s take on Gandhi. Could an Indian have done that? I don’t know. The same holds good for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Shekhar Kapoor’s Elizabeth. The backgrounds could change but you have to stage it in a way that it doesn’t look alien to a different culture. Like the masculine and the feminine, the heroic and the treacherous, the brave and the deceitful? that duality is what fascinates you, and in a story that has to be an aspect that you have to discover. The polar opposites, of what I know and what I don’t, pulls me into that story.”