Movies

20 years of Gautham Menon: A retrospective on his movies, romance and everything in between

Gautham Menon: The guy who made ‘Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa’ is the best version of me   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Gautham Vasudev Menon is a pop-culture phenomenon. He grins when I suggest it, just like he grinned a few weeks ago when I told him his debut Minnale — which released on February 2, 2001 — would turn 20 soon, as would his journey in cinema. Would he like to go on a trip down memory lane?

“Wow, I actually didn’t even realise that it has been 20 years. Yes, I'd love to talk about it."

A few days later, I walk into his tastefully-decorated office in Alwarpet (the same house which featured in the Avarum Naanum, Avalum Naanum segment of Amazon Prime’s Putham Pudhu Kaalai), that pops with his now-familiar aesthetic in every corner; from the many bookshelves teeming with film literature to a sketched silhouette portrait framed on the wall, simply titled ‘Dad’.

GVM interacts with P.C. Sreeram on ‘Putham Pudhu Kaalai’

GVM interacts with P.C. Sreeram on ‘Putham Pudhu Kaalai’  

I am seated opposite Gautham at a gorgeous space on the terrace — the kind of setting any writer would covet to work from — and apart from a few cursory looks at his email every half hour, I have his undivided attention.

“That is because I am always waiting to see if I get a mail from [AR] Rahman sir. He only emails and it’s the reason I check my inbox excitedly. It could be anything; the link to a song, ideas for a future project, or what he thinks of my albums with other composers,” he explains.

You sense that he is itching to work with the Mozart of Madras again. But it’s not that Gautham has been anything less than busy over the past 12 months. In fact, a case could be made for him being the country’s most productive filmmaker during the pandemic: a slew of music videos and anthologies bearing his name (with more to come) hit OTT platforms, and he’s moved on from the erstwhile drama that surrounded his last theatrical release, Ennai Noki Paayum Thota.

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A history of romance

“Filmmakers have had such a huge role to play during the pandemic. Entertainment has helped people take their minds off their worries, and I am glad to have been part of it,” he says, adding that he quite enjoyed all the creative challenges that has come his way lately, such as Vaanmagal, which was part of Netflix anthology Paava Kadhaigal.

Looking back at it all, is Gautham pleased with his evolution as a filmmaker over the years?

“The guy who made Vaanmagal is definitely better than the guy who made Minnale in terms of growth, technique, and understanding the medium. But the guy who made Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa is the best. The chemistry I shared with the team and cast during the making, the thought process inhabiting me then... I haven’t been in that space since. Which is why I want to make the sequel; I want the magic to come back again,” he says, breezily.

But back to him being an integral part of Tamil pop-culture as we know it today — and going beyond the obvious impact of his films — why does GVM’s personal life and history with romance attract so much interest?

Could it, perhaps, be because most of his male characters derive their traits from his own personality? Whether it is Simbu’s Karthik (Vinnaithaandi), Jiiva’s Varun (Neethane), or, of course, Suriya’s Suriya (Vaaranam)... they are all versions of Gautham Menon in some way.

Simbu and GVM in New York for the shoot of ‘Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa’

Simbu and GVM in New York for the shoot of ‘Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa’  

“My wife also keeps telling me that I am the problem. She tells me that when I work with people, I put so much of myself out there, that when I later move on from them, they can’t handle it and come after me adversely. I don’t know if that is the truth. I have actually spent a lot of time thinking about this: do I really give away too much?”

“Even on flights, sometimes random people come and ask me if I am visiting someone special or an ex (laughs). I understand that all my films have a personal connect, and many assume that they reflect my life. The way I am these days, I am completely open and threadbare,” he muses.

Against the odds, and some life lessons

Gautham may have been through a rickety five-odd years since his last genuine commercial success with Yennai Arindhaal in 2015, but his influence on the medium has hardly waned. Terms such as ‘GVM-esque’ have become the moniker of choice to describe modern romances with urban characters in the past two decades, and few Tamil directors have ever been afforded such effusive homage by peers and fans alike.

Twenty projects in 20 years makes for one hell of a portfolio, but that does not take away the fact that we could have seen more of Gautham Menon, if not for a couple of business decisions that went awry.

“First of all, there are no regrets. I am built like that. I have generally understood that this is how the industry works. You take a risk; it either pushes you ten steps ahead or bites you in the back. I look up to very few people in films, and even their careers have gone through lean phases,” he says.

It is generally known that problems first arose when Suriya — his long-time collaborator and friend — publicly walked out of Dhruva Natchathiram in late 2013, citing creative differences. Suriya has since apologised for his open letter on the same, and has reunited with Gautham for the upcoming Navarasa set to release on Netflix in 2021, while the duo also deliberate over returning to the big screen with the feature Kamal & Kadambari.

Gautham Menon with Suriya

Gautham Menon with Suriya  

Without getting overtly specific about what exactly transpired over the years, Gautham explains that the ramifications of the aforementioned turn of events spilt over into the films that followed.

“Because of the problems surrounding one project, I had to then make other films to fix the initial issue. Films shouldn’t be made for such reasons, right? They should be made because you have a story or an idea that is begging to be told, and only that.”

But if the “business of cinema” could ultimately affect even an accomplished filmmaker like Gautham, what does that say about the industry?

“The difference is that I talk about my problems, but nobody else does. There are definitely lessons to be learnt here for newcomers: make yourself safe, work with producers who won’t cite you liable for the film’s box-office numbers or hold you responsible with a contract. That is how you get sucked into the vicious cycle of needing money constantly.”

“The world of cinema is absolutely a fantastic place to be in if you have great content and know how to communicate, but it’s important to be wary. I could do a masterclass on this, really,” he smiles.

“I’ll give you an example: When you take money from the market, you give away parts of the film. If a big music label is willing to give you one crore in exchange for the audio rights of the album, you don’t think twice about it, as we need that money desperately to finish the project. Now, imagine you had the foresight to retain the rights. You can monetise the audio on YouTube and other avenues, and profit from it for perpetuity. It is important to learn about the dynamics of IP, ownership, and the like, going forward.”

He adds that this was the reason he released the albums of both Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada and Enai Noki... on his own Ondraga Entertainment channel, a move that has paid off well in the long run.

“With Ondraga, though we get money from the music, we don’t really look at it as a business venture. From commissioning our own short films and videos, we are now looking to promote more independent stuff through the channel. We have had people approaching us to ask if they can release full-length feature films on it, instead of going to an OTT platform. We are also setting up a writers’ room, and are actively looking for people to collaborate with. Anyone — and I mean anyone — can approach us with a script and I'd love to see if I can work with them.”

Collaborations and changing perspective

But why would a seasoned filmmaker like Gautham direct a newbie’s script?

“Why not? One of my friends gave me the most profound bit of advice recently after watching a short film of mine. He went, ‘Machan, I really liked it, but it is about time you told a story; you don’t have to tell your story every time. It really struck me then that I have only been making stuff from my own life experiences.”

Not that there is anything wrong in it — Gautham says he still has over 15 stories from his personal life to adapt into film — but the writer in him feels he needs to change his game. “That is why I want to work with other scriptwriters, as I know I can direct it really well. A director can put himself into the character, but the character needn’t be from his life necessarily.”

Gautham and Trisha share a light moment on the sets of ‘VTV’

Gautham and Trisha share a light moment on the sets of ‘VTV’  

“In fact, Vetri (Maaran) and I are planning to collaborate soon, but it is a little too early to talk about it. There are also eight to 10 filmmakers coming together to create something and look out for each other. You will hear the announcement very soon.”

However, the general perception around GVM is that he is still waiting for the financial crunch to be resolved, so he can get around to taking on the projects he actually wants to make. When will he finally breathe a sigh of relief and move on?

“That time is now. I’m genuinely in a very happy space at the moment. People are calling me, and new doors and windows are opening every other day. A meeting with Anwar Rasheed and Fahadh for Trance has led to me becoming an actor! It has been such an interesting learning curve. As a director, Netflix’s Paava Kadhaigal was an experimental effort, and I look forward to tackling more such challenging, different subjects over the next four to five years. I have the liberty now to write a script and then cast an actor, not the other way round, as we have become accustomed to.”

“Also, I am not at all insecure about my work and accept everything happening around me; I only ask for strong shoulders to deal with it. I have learnt that from people like Rahman sir,” he adds.

Quick takes:
  • You had years of your own romantic experiences to draw from when you made Minnale in 2001. But the concept of love and relationships on-screen have since evolved with time. Where do you find inspiration to write a romance today?
  • Of course I talk to people around me to get ideas, but there are a lot of experiences I’ve had, before and after my marriage, conversations with my wife, that are still very relevant today. In fact, so much of Jyotika’s character from Kaakha Kaakha is derived from Preethi. She’s going to hate me for saying this (laughs). My family immediately spotted it when they watched the film.
  • Even the genesis of VTV came from watching two people who lived upstairs and in my house. As I write the story, I also put a lot of myself into these characters and take it forward; you’ll notice that in Navarasa too.
  • Should aspiring filmmakers assist an established director, before taking the plunge on their own?
  • Being an AD helped me a lot personally, particularly in losing my inhibitions. I learnt that from Rajiv (Menon) sir. He’s such a classy guy, but incredibly vociferous on set. I still remember the shooting of Vennilave… from Minsara Kanavu. Imagine Rajiv was actually telling Prabudeva, who’d choreographed the song, how to dance and do certain steps.
  • An often-heard complaint I get, even today, is that I don’t talk much. Even my wife is very surprised to see my interviews. That’s because I’ve understood it’s important to put yourself out and be vocal to get things done.
  • I finally quit Rajiv sir’s team because of the confidence I’d gotten from him to move on! Then I worked with G.B. Vijay (who’d directed Kalaignan with Kamal Haasan) who taught me a lot about the technique and physicality of camera work. From coordinating with the actors to costume design, I was doing everything.
  • But the turning point was when I wrote the concept for a friend’s music video. On the day of the shoot, a situation arose where I had to step in suddenly and take initiative, but it was like clockwork. If I’d still had that inferiority complex of yore, I’d have just stood by.
  • Theory is important, yes (one book Gautham highly recommends is Joseph V. Mascelli’s The Five C’s of Cinematography), but unless you work on a film, handle the production aspects and take it to upto release, deal with actors, their tantrums, and so on, you don’t understand the whole picture.
  • How important is it to watch films from all over, and learn from them?
  • Very. In fact, I always watch a film more than once. The first time, I watch it as an audience, and the second time, as a filmmaker. Recently, I was blown away by Pieces of a Woman (on Netflix) and kept thinking about how they cracked that incredible opening shot. Last week, I watched Guru (by Mani Ratnam) again to study it.
  • Not only do other films inspire you, but it also tells you what not to do sometimes. Since Tamil cinema is driven by stars, it also teaches me how a certain actor looks at himself or herself, and how to get into that pattern.
  • It helps that we are all film buffs in my family; my mom has been binging The Crown of late all the time. (laughs)
  • Do you work on multiple scripts simultaneously — and if so — would you recommend it?
  • I wouldn’t recommend it, but I do so, and I love doing it. I try to capitalise on my thoughts and what frame of mind I’m in, and write accordingly. For instance, I was in London for a meeting and found some time. So I went to a coffee shop and soon, I had 80 pages of Kamal & Kadambari. But the meeting didn’t go great, so I kept K & K aside, and started writing something else more dark and intense. I’m able to switch between scripts and the emotions portrayed in them quite easily.
  • How do you pick composers for films, and will you turn music director anytime soon?
  • I actually have a lot of tunes ready. But I have access to people like A.R. Rahman, Harris, Darbuka Siva, Karthik, and I also want to work with Anirudh and some new guys on the block... so it stops me from doing it myself.
  • How I choose a composer for a particular project, happens completely on a whim, just like how the titles of my films waft through the air and come to me.

There is someone else he calls his biggest mentor in the industry, and that man inspired Gautham to become a director in the first place.

“Speaking to Mani (Ratnam) sir has gone a long way into helping me deal with the rough patches. The biggest lesson I learnt from him was to not read reviews — not just of my films, but of any film — and let them affect me. The last review I read was for Ek Deewana Tha in 2012. I remember him telling me, ‘Gautham, you’ve made a film with all your heart. The numbers matter to the people, not to you. So why let it even reach you in the first place?’ Mani sir is as young as you can imagine even today. The man says things you cannot believe, and even small conversations with him inspire me greatly.”

On wife Preethi, his sons and family being his backbone

Gautham is as millennial as he can be, and it comes across in his personality. The filmmaker, just like the protagonists from his scripts, admits he is always swayed by the vibe, the possibility of chemistry in the space that exists between two people — be it in love, friendship or a professional relationship. In other words, he always goes with his gut.

“If I hadn’t fallen in love or been such a hardcore romantic, I wouldn’t be making films today. Everything I’ve done in life has been based on instinct. Right from finding my life partner, to getting married, to making the films that I have.”

“My original career choices were to become a full-time musician or a cricketer. Luckily, I have passed that sporting gene on to my three boys who are all excellent cricketers. I believe they can make it to the next level and play professionally even. It is too early to judge if they are interested in a career in film though,” he says, almost wistfully.

Gautham says that wife Preethi is his “biggest critic”

Gautham says that wife Preethi is his “biggest critic”  

It is interesting to note that one of the few aspects of Gautham’s life he has never opened up about — safeguarding them almost zealously — is his family. “It is because they like it that way. Very rarely have my wife and the boys even come to audio launches. But they always rally behind me, no matter what. Recently, I wanted to shoot a scene with a few teenagers, and my eldest, Arya, brought in a few of his friends to help. But he insisted that he wouldn’t appear on camera. He is a great kid, who balances his education and passion for sport perfectly, I have learnt to let him figure it out on his own,” says Gautham, with an air of unmistakable fatherly pride.

However, he does call wife Preethi his “biggest critic” and that every film he makes also has to pass his mother’s test. “My mom sometimes isn’t happy — with something like how ‘Thoothu Varumaa’ from Kaakha Kaakha was picturised — and I’ve internalised all this into my psyche. I think this subconsciously goes a long way into how I write women and depict them on screen.”

“I initially even used to show my scripts to Preethi. But when Vaaranam.. was being shot, I wanted it to be a surprise. I had recreated my house inside Prasad Studios, and my family didn’t know that the older Suriya character was a tribute to my late father. It was a real emotional journey for all of them who watched it upon release, except my mom, who was her usual stoic self and said the film was ‘nice’,” he laughs.

Dancing with the stars

These days, it is unsurprising if at least one leading actor isn’t linked with a Gautham Menon script, every other month. And that is understandable given that, after years, several stars (from Rajinikanth to Vijay) are finally in a zone where they are looking to experiment.

“I sometimes feel that the big-name actors may have a concern that it’ll end up becoming my film more than theirs. But I really wish they’d trust me and give it a go. I don’t have an ego. I don’t yell, rant or rave. I’m not a filmmaker who doesn’t make movies with his heart. Why not take a chance then? I’m not going to make a disastrous film by any stretch of imagination, but even if it doesn’t work as commercially well as they expect it to, it still goes out into the universe and will strike a chord with people.”

Gautham adds that while he believes a big-budget project isn’t too far away from happening, he’s looking forward to working on smaller, less challenging films in the near future, perhaps a throwback into the realm of a rom-com musical like Minnale. Considering music is such a big part of his journey and films, would he ever do a full-fledged musical?

“I’d love to do it! We have actually pitched an idea like that to Netflix. In fact, Kamal & Kadambari could be a musical. There’s a world-wide audience for films like this, and I’m sure a producer will be on board,” he responds, excitedly.

Minnale turns 20

Gautham hasn’t shown the slightest sign of impatience in the nearly two hours since our conversation began. Considering the whole basis of this interview was to celebrate 20 years of his first directorial, I ask him if a film like Minnale, as quintessentially charming as it is, could be made today. Would the ‘woke’ gene in him prevent him from writing a character who essentially masquerades as someone else to woo a lady?

“You know, even back then, we spoke about this while making the film. Yes, he does stalk her initially, but he never crosses the line at any point. Even at the end of Vaseegara, there’s a point when he could get physical with her, but he chooses not to.”

Reema Sen and Madhavan in ‘Minnale’

Reema Sen and Madhavan in ‘Minnale’  

“Having said that, I think criticism of films today for not being woke, takes it a bit too far. Trying to be politically correct always sometimes hampers the creative process. Vetri, in fact, is someone who is actually very conscious of these things, and I keep admiring him for it. My point is, it’s a film and that’s all it is always meant to be. Watch out for a scene in Navarasa, I make a little dig at this,” he chuckles.

Ultimately, Gautham’s career, one suspects, will continue to be fascinating, eventful and even frustrating at times, akin to the coming-of-age journeys his on-screen protagonists embark upon. For now, two decades down the line, his legacy offers a tantalising mix of inspiration and caution to those who follow in his wake, even as he gets ready, to prove his doubters wrong again.

The man loves movies so much, of course his life plays out like one too. Gautham may disagree, but he really wouldn’t want it any other way.

Down memory lane

We asked GVM to go through his (Tamil) filmography and list the first image, memory or emotion that comes to mind, when he thinks of the different titles in chronological order:

Minnale (2001)

I started writing the script with this first image that popped in my head: that of a girl stepping out of a car and playing with some kids on the street, while a guy watches her.

Cue: Poopol Poopol!

Kaakha Kaakha (2003)

20 years of Gautham Menon: A retrospective on his movies, romance and everything in between

That of a wooden cabin by the lake and the camera going towards it, but as it pans, someone crashed out of the top windows and falls into the water below.

Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu (2006)

Kamal sir in New York. The idea was to put his character in a foreign country — in this case, the USA — but have Raghavan behave his old-school, typical way. I told Ravi Varman too (the cinematographer) that the city shouldn’t be in your face, and just be part of the film. So many of the scenes we shot were candid; even the portions in the NYPD precincts were very spontaneous and Kamal sir supported us greatly.

Pachaikili Muthucharam (2007)

Definitely Jyotika’s character in it, and she was one who suggested we cast Sarath sir in it too. It’s also special to me as it’s the last film of mine my father saw before he passed away on February 14 that year.

Vaaranam Aayiram (2008)

20 years of Gautham Menon: A retrospective on his movies, romance and everything in between

Somewhere along the way, it became a larger story of the relationship between a father and son. But initially, it was supposed to be just a coming-of-age saga of a simple boy from Anna Nagar going through life, heartbreak and an epic journey towards becoming a commando in the army.

So the most pertinent image is of us shooting inside those massive aircrafts up in the air, and Suriya gazing into the skies heading towards a mission.

Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa (2010)

Since I was a teenager, the sight of this boy standing by the gate and looking up at the girl on the balcony has stuck with me. That was my exact brief to A. R. Rahman sir to compose Hosanna.

Nadunisi Naaigal (2011)

I thought that if I was going to make a film about serial killers, I might as well go as extreme as I could. However, people came into it expecting a Vettaiyaadu… kind of affair, and got something different. I remember all the rioting and picketing outside my house, and the cops had to come sort it out.

In a way, the film was me questioning myself and pushing myself into a zone where I could be experimental. Honestly though, I have no regrets, I think it was ahead of its time.

Neethaane En Ponvasantham (2012)

20 years of Gautham Menon: A retrospective on his movies, romance and everything in between

When it comes to NEP, working with Raja sir dominated everything else. The sheer gravity of the experience I went through was unbelievable. We went to London to record the songs, and I witnessed first-hand how music unfolded as a song, and how it was produced the way it should be.

Yennai Arindhaal (2015)

At the end of Vettaiyaadu.. Raghavan (Kamal) marries a woman who is a mother and accepts her child as his own. In Yennai… I wanted a continuation of that. After Hemanika (Trisha) dies, Sathyadev (Ajith) takes responsibility for someone else’s daughter, gives up the job that he loves, travels with her, and is ready to do anything to protect her. The dad-daughter journey is the motif which stays with me.

Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada (2016)

20 years of Gautham Menon: A retrospective on his movies, romance and everything in between

The movie was supposed to be predominantly about a guy and his bike, and the road trip he takes. I don’t think that came across ultimately with the end product, but I’m still glad that Simbu and I worked together on this.

Enai Noki Paayum Thota (2019)

The drama surrounding the film. And to a large extent, it was great working with Darbuka Siva and Megha Akash too.

Queen (2019)

Understanding that this is the way forward, that OTT could co-exist with films. Remember Queen happened way before the pandemic. Lots of people asked me if I didn’t have work and if I was selling myself short doing a web-series, but I didn’t look at it that way at all.

Karthik Dial Seytha Yenn (2020)

20 years of Gautham Menon: A retrospective on his movies, romance and everything in between

The fact that it took just one call each to Simbu and Trisha right in the middle of the lockdown, to get the project underway. There were no back and forth, no whys or whats. It also took just one e-mail to Rahman sir, and five days later, he had composed the score for the short film.

Putham Pudhu Kaalai (2020)

When I watched Nayakan, I promised myself I’d someday collaborate with four people who were part of it: Mani Ratnam, Ilaiyaraaja, Kamal Haasan and PC Sreeram sir.

Before last year, I’d worked with Raja and Kamal sir. With Mani sir, I’m constantly connecting and speaking with him, and having a lot of discussions on everything. In my mind, in my world, I’m associating with him.

So to have the opportunity to work with PC sir finally on PPK was phenomenal. During the pandemic, we scouted a couple of locations, but then he came to my office to see me, took one look around the place, and said great, ‘We’ll shoot it here!’ And it was simple as that.

Paava Kadhaigal (2020)

We had to be really careful working with the child actors, as it was such a sensitive subject to be portraying. Thankfully, I have a fantastic team who know how to pick the talent. Still we had to make her comfortable, ensure her mother was okay with the scene, and so on. I’m glad it came out well.

On that note, even working with Anikha in Yennai… and Queen was fantastic. I’m telling you, that girl is rock-solid; she’s going to rule the industry one day in the future.

And a quick word on his projects to come…

Dhruva Natchathiram

20 years of Gautham Menon: A retrospective on his movies, romance and everything in between

A chopper lands with an ensemble of 10 people walking towards the camera. They are a team of epsionage experts. But nobody knows that a team like this exists. One day, one of them is taken away and therein ensues the mystery.

Joshua Imai Pol Kaakha

It’s an out-and-out action film. The fight sequences as well as the raw, visceral type of action in it will be a huge highlight.

Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa 2

Even when I finished the first part, I knew — as did Simbu and Trisha — that there would be a continuation to it. The idea always was to take their story forward, I was just waiting for the right time.

VTV 2 is about Karthik, Jessie and another woman in his life. Some people are not meant to get together at one point, or when they wanted to, but what if there comes a second chance later?

Ondraga

Four friends from college reunite after 10 years to go on a road trip to another friend’s wedding. Along the way, their respective stories and issues unfold. It is in that Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara zone. One of the four friends is the character Karthik from VTV. And yes, Jessie will be in the film too.

Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu 2

20 years of Gautham Menon: A retrospective on his movies, romance and everything in between

The script is ready, but we have to wait for Kamal sir to finish the elections, and find time in between his political commitments. Hopefully, it will happen.

In VV2, we meet Kamal, Jyotika and their daughter’s characters around 15 years after the events of the first film. The introduction scene is the same as the Royapuram Mani scene from VV1. (grins)

Navarasa

All the proceeds from this initiative goes to charity, and all it took was one call to Suriya for him to come on-board. We have a new girl as the female lead. Each director had to pick an emotion to depict in their segments, and I chose love. Raja sir was also gracious enough to give us one of his songs to use, and the film revolves around the song.

Kutti Story

It’s a really fun anthology on stories about love, as the title indicates. Vijay Sethupathi is part of it, and Amala Paul acts in my portion, which is yet another story from my life. It’s ready for a theatrical release soon.

Kamal & Kadambari

It’s a travelogue about two musicians who connect, travel on world tours together and open for big bands. They have their own issues, and it’s a film which really gets into how the minds of these musicians work, which I’m super excited about. Will they get together in life and will music take them forward?

I’m talking to Suriya about this, and in a few months, think we will reach a point where we are ready to collaborate again. All he's got to do is to trust me.


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