‘Ajith was in the hospital bed when I narrated the script’ : Rajiv Menon on 20 years of ‘Kandukondain Kandukondain’

The director pulled off one of the biggest casting coups in south Indian film history with his 2000 flick that starred Mammootty, Ajith, Abbas, Aishwarya Rai and Tabu — now he goes down memory lane, two decades after its release

Updated - May 02, 2020 01:21 pm IST

Published - April 30, 2020 01:32 pm IST

“It is very difficult to make a multi-starrer film,” says Rajiv Menon.

But he did pull it off — back in the year 2000, a time when Zoom calls and WhatsApp were unheard of — with Kandukondain Kandukondain , a film that boasted names like Mammootty, Ajith, Abbas, Aishwarya Rai and Tabu, among others. Twenty years on, the film, reportedly based on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility , still grabs family audiences when it is played on TV, for its women-oriented storyline, colourful songs and emotional appeal. Director Rajiv Menon, who is using the lockdown time to complete scripting a thriller web-series, goes down memory lane.

Casting challenges

Tabu was the first to be cast; she loved the script. But casting her sister character (Meenakshi) had stumbling blocks. I approached Manju Warrier, who liked the character, but kept delaying the decision to take it up. Then, I approached Soundarya, who I knew because I had shot an ad with her. Her brother kept wanting to know what the climax was going to be, and we didn’t know that at that stage. The shoot date was getting closer, and I was getting nervous. One day, out of the blue, my wife suggested Aishwarya Rai’s name. She had very little time on her hands, but really wanted to do this character and worked out her dates accordingly.

The struggling filmmaker

We looked for a couple of actors to play the role of Manohar, the struggling filmmaker. Prashanth was one option, but he said he would prefer playing co-star to Aishwarya Rai and not Tabu. The name of Ajith came up, and I was told that he was injured and recuperating. I visited him at the hospital, and narrated the script to him when he was in bed. He then came on board.

What’s destiny?

I knew of a girl from a wealthy family who was blamed because the man who had come seeking her hand in marriage ended up calling off the alliance. She went into depression for three years. I drew from this real incident to shape the character of Sowmya (played by Tabu), who is considered to bring ill-luck to the family in the film. Writer Sujatha, who became a father figure to me during the course of the film, helped shape the character as well. We presented two different points of view in the female leads — while Tabu accepts destiny, Aishwarya wants to seek out her own choices.

From MKT to ARR

We cracked the tune of ‘Santhana Thendralai’ first and recorded it with Shankar Mahadevan, whom I specifically requested for, for the song. When he came down, AR Rahman and I were in the process of cracking another song based on the Nattakurinji raga. Shankar pitched in by giving some suggestions, but we were unable to come out with a tune that we liked. I was forcing ARR to come up with more classical tunes, but we were running out of ideas. Suddenly, I played an old Tamil song, ‘Kavalaiyai Theerpathu Naatiya Kalaiye’, from an MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar film... Rahman listened to it and then he was like, ‘Wow, now I get it’ and conceptualised the hook line of ‘Kannamoochi Enada’, a melody that appeals to film music listeners to this day. We shot the song in Kushaldas Gardens with the entire lead cast being part of it.

Where’s my castle?

To shoot the title song, I needed an exotic location because the girl (Aishwarya Rai) was living in a fantasy world. I wanted to shoot in a castle, but something that could be composed in one shot. We zeroed in on Eilean Donan castle in Scotland, because we had seen it in a James Bond film. As we had greenery and blue for Aishwarya, we wanted to contrast it with red and brown for Tabu. I had already shot the first line of the ‘Santhana Thendralai’ song in Karaikudi with a train in the backdrop, so I wanted to shoot the rest with a railway track in a hot, arid desert, and for that, we went to Egypt.

House in Kanadugathan

I remember seeing some photos of a Karaikudi house with traditional Tamil architecture, and being blown away. It wasn’t like anything I had seen before. When we went for a recce to the place (Kanadugathan in Karaikudi), we realised that the best-looking house there belonged to well-known industrialist MAM Ramaswamy. Fortunately, my producer (Kalaipuli S Thanu) knew someone who knew him and I went to the Chettinad Palace to meet him. I had written a one-page synopsis of Kandukondain Kandukondain , a practice that had previously helped me when I was scouting locations for Minsara Kanavu. MAM Ramaswamy read it, and liked it. He gave me permission to shoot, but did not agree to me filming the death scene in that house. So I had to find another house (the Rao Bahadur house) and what you see in the film is a combination of both these houses.

Line of thought

Vikram has a connect with the film — he dubbed for Abbas’ character. I had worked with him previously on ads and had always wanted to cast him — in fact, I recommended him for Bombay . When Minsara Kanavu was shot, the producers wanted a new voice for Prabhu Deva, and I had requested Vikram to do it then. He helped me again, dubbing for Abbas’ voice. I wish he had also acted in the film... it would have become the ultimate multi-starrer then.  

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