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Fascination with conflict

He is an accomplished cinematographer and director. His advertisement clips are simply lapped up. Writing, however, is what he likes most. Rajeev Menon shares with CHITRA MAHESH his views on film-making.

Anil Kumble and Rajeev Menon... a docu-feature on the cricketer is on the cards.

THE NEW year has just been ushered in. It is, in a way, time for introspection and re-assessment. There is a long way to go, a lot to do. There is a quietude about him that seems to pervade all that he says. His energy is unflagging despite busy schedules and he is certainly in a mood to look back. At what has gone past and the niche he has carved for himself.

It is Rajeev Menon at his quiet best. It's a balmy morning sans noise and activities. He wants coffee — filter coffee. ``None of the instant stuff I make ad films about,'' he chuckles. He settles down and we get talking.

Anything special happening these days?

More and more ads, a lot of reading and listening to music. If I read, hopefully, I can re-charge my batteries and won't repeat myself.

What kind of books do you read?

Oh quite a range — a lot of non-fiction. I just read the complete works of A. K. Ramanujam. Also Indian authors' translated works in English, a lot of Dalit literature.

How do you find those?

Very nice. Mostly works centre around people we meet. We can write about that. But those on the fringes of society, people who have to struggle for the basics, when you write about that, there is a kind of rawness you experience. It is not possible for me to experience everything in life. But at least through reading I can expand that horizon.

``We can't keep making films on love and marriage alone,'' Rajeev Menon.

A small sensibility creates newer matrices for conflict. Take for example, the Austen story that was the subject of ``Kandukondein Kandukondein." The issues are about honour.

Did you consciously choose to use Austen?

Yeah. I found the idea of honour, family, sibling rivalry and the ability to hold pain and not talk about it, interesting. The characters belonged largely to that time. Money was not an issue, nor was success. In fact successful people were looked down upon. Honour and loyalty were important. Two things that were taken up to adapt to modern days while making the film. Indian cinema thrives on love and money. It is about successful people and about falling in love. Indian writing is exploring a new set of characters you know. We are lucky to have access to translations.

How do you compare that, like for instance, with Arundati Roy? Do you think writers like her are also able to touch upon those little issues, those little nuances that come through when you are writing in the vernacular?

You could. It is very difficult for me to judge because I am already reading a translation. But the translation skills are improving a great deal now. Like when we read Latin American literature we are not reading it in Spanish or Portuguese or whatever. We are reading it in translations and enjoying it.

When you read a book, do you read it with the intention of making a visual thing out of it at some point?

Earlier I didn't. I was just reading for the joy of it. Now when I read and I see something charming I do think of it. Once you've done two films you have written, you're conscious of the writer and the intelligence and craft. The moment you see something interesting, you go back and read a couple of pages. This, however, doesn't mean that I cannot read a book for the sheer pleasure of it.

Do you think it is better if you wrote your own story for a film?

I try to. That's what I did in the first film (``Minsara Kanavu") and I felt there were certain things wrong. So I decided to take a novel and adapt it for the next one (``Kandukondein... "), which was in many ways better. But whatever you write, it has to relate to young people, Indian cinema and the kind of sub-culture that Indian film writers work on. There is a difference between what Hindi films are about vis-a-vis Tamil films. If you were to consciously write for young people with an eye on the box office it is slightly difficult. When you write a novel/book it is a one-to-one exercise. It's between the author and the reader. Whereas for cinema you have to keep in mind that it is for a collective audience. And you need the applause, the appreciation. The same person who would enjoy a serious novel may not really like a serious film.

What is your motive when you make a film? What are the elements that you consider important?

Rajeev's maiden attempt at direction ... "Minsara Kanavu".

Earlier I would probably consider the interest a character would generate. Now I see it more in terms of conflict, issues that are thrown up — what the character is trying to say and what prevents him from achieving his goals. That classical structuring is what I am looking at. This is something that worries me — that films don't seem to have that conflict. It has been removed in many cases. Films are dealing with what I call the mating game - about a few young people who want to get married, how they do it, and how they settle down. It's not even about success, money. Struggling to survive is no more an issue. I don't think you can make films only about love and marriage. That essential conflict about what a man wants to achieve against odds — we haven't seen a film like that for sometime. That is why I like ``Lagaan" so much. It re-affirmed my faith that if you have a classical structure, written in a classical manner it can be very appealing. It is not just about one hero, it could be about a group of people and their success.

We seem to have lost obvious causes for struggle, conflicts. Earlier we had the Freedom struggle — now the only struggle that we seem to have is to rise above a particular level?

It's a very important social issue that you are talking about. I mean it's not something that can be dismissed. There is an ideological vacuum. That is what you are addressing.

There is no particular thing for which you could say ``Let's all gather together and fight for it." That passion is not there.

That becomes a larger issue. But human conflicts are always there. For instance, if a person who wants to go to college suddenly wants to become a clown or a musician there is a struggle.

But it is not so rigid now. The attitude now is `OK if one is good at music let him pursue it. There is a chance that he might turn out to be an A. R. Rahman'. The only major conflict is on the grounds of religion. As a film-maker is there any way you can address this?

No. Religion is far too complicated for films to take up. It would mean a project like ``Bombay'' where you're essentially talking about what irrational hate can do to a city and what it can do to so many, the ills of it. I am fascinated by those timeless human struggle stories like ``Hamlet". And as a film-maker I would like to take the same kind of situation as Hamlet or something like that and may be rewrite it/reinterpret it.

When you have this combination of two skills — cinematography and direction — do they work out well together in one project?

Jane Austen was a powerful influence -- Ajit in "Kandukondein..."

That is one of the reasons why I don't shoot my films. But I can only speak for myself. Others may have the ability to do two things at the same time. I could never study and listen to music at the same time. I could do either one of those. And that happens to me even now. I feel more relaxed if someone else shoots my film, but that does not mean I don't enjoy shooting. I really enjoy cinematography.

What do you think of the state of films today?

We are in a crisis. Other than one good ``Lagaan'' where are we now?

Is it because of the quality of films or other factors?

I think there are two or three issues. The business side of the industry is extremely disorganised. We don't know how much a film collects. There is no place, a centralised body, which you can approach to find out how much ``Lagaan" has collected or for that matter ``Dil To Pagal Hain".

Unless the industry knows how much it earns, how can it get organised? So first we need to fix that element of accountability and do some streamlining. Once you do that, once you can get a balance sheet, then you can get organized sector funding .The Government has introduced IDBI and all that, but most of the producers do not know how to read a balance sheet and cannot write one. Nor can they do accounting because the income is so vague and inconsistent.

With corporate funding, you need a blueprint, which in this case is the script. If you give importance to script and funding is organised there will be a more effective method of judging the creative process. That is our second problem — writing. If there is a production house that says that four films are going to be made — one targeted at the youth, one for a festival time, and one at the above 30-year old — you would have various kinds of films. But there is no particular target. Everybody makes a youth film, or en masse they make an action film. Now of course it is love.

But do you think this whole thing is dictated by the star system — costs escalating due to the huge amounts that have to be paid? If that were scaled down would films be a less risky business?

There's no way you can scale it down — because it is based on demand and supply. You are not giving importance to scripts, you are giving importance to actors to make the project take off. And only when the actor says `yes' to a script, the project takes off. So what happens is that the actor asks for almost five per cent of the entire cost, thereby making it unviable. And you can't blame them because they get such lucrative offers.

What are you going to do next?

I am hoping to write a film about a boy who wants to achieve something — and how he goes about it. But I don't know which language to make it in. I spent a year writing a documentary feature about Anil Kumble. But he has gone back to playing so I can only probably pursue it later. In the meantime I probably will write something else.

What are your views on digital film-making?

It's very good.

As a technician and as a director?

People have apprehensions about it. Understandable, because it democratises the medium. There was a time when in order to run an advertising agency you needed 50 people and a studio. Now with one computer you could probably do it. And one computer can be a desktop publishing house. I think digital film may bring that about. The picture quality may not be as good as what you'll get in chemical recording of images. But that is a progression. It will eventually come and I think chemical film-making and chemical recording of films will go out. It will only be digital in the future.

But one of the things that you notice in this kind of film-making is that you have several small cameras and the actor is not sure which one is picking up his act. So the performance is a lot more real. In the conventional method the actor is always aware of the camera.

I think there is also a lot of resistance here — the picture quality may not be very good...

It is true. The picture quality will be bad initially. But it's just like recording on a cassette. The spool gives you better quality but the cassette is so convenient. The progress of technology is strong and inevitable.

And it also reduces the cost, does it not?

Yes. Ultimately it's economics — how many more people it can reach and how many more film-makers can make films at smaller budgets, how you could digitally flow it from the computer on the net and somebody could see it and pay for it. And there are so many possibilities.

Will conventional cinema have its place?

Yes, of course. It will co-exist with the newer method.

What do you feel about this spurt of serials? They are not particularly progressive as far as women are concerned...

Well, here again nothing is constant. When television started, most channels survived on film based programmes. And then the weekly soaps started and they were doing very well. Then weeklies gave way to dailies and now with the new shake out films will come back. It is a cycle. I thought serials like ``Chitthi" actually reflected some sense of suppressed position that women have. And they like ``Chitthi" going ahead and achieving.

Have you also got into serials?


Are you just producing them or will you eventually direct them?

No, I will stick to producing. I don't think I have the ability to direct them — I take too long.

Which is the process you enjoy most, writing the film or making it?

Writing. Strangely it is lonely but it's calming because everybody listens to you on paper. Also it seems so simple to write but impossible to shoot. For instance, there is this scene and you write... ``it was raining, and she left the studio. The earth had caved in and she got sucked a manhole." Now to actually shoot a scene of her going into the manhole is extremely difficult. You have to create a massive hole at a certain depth and it is a lot of effort. But there is an excitement in seeing what you have written come alive in front of you — it is like, a mother seeing her child walk.

When it is not ad films or feature films what do you do with yourself?

I go for walks — sometimes I go to my kids'school to pick them up. I am not a social animal. I like to cook and eat of course (laughs). I adore people who cook well. And people who cook with passion. There is so much to learn from them. Spend time with the family — I like singing so I do that sometimes...

So any good films other than ``Lagaan," which you have seen recently?

Oh, a lot of good International cinema. I'm kind of watching all the Chinese films and the Iranian films which are so different. I like watching Satyajit Ray. I love the way music and melodrama were used by Guru Dutt.

Is it so essential to have so much of music and songs in our films?

That's Indian. That's what has helped us fight Hollywood. Our films are unique just like our food is unique.

Is there anything else you would do besides films?

I feel eternally grateful to God and my family and everybody for letting me study and do films. I have never really thought about anything else.

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