Simbu and Gautham Menon on ‘Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu,’ friendship, and the ‘Atman’ philosophy

In an exclusive interview, STR and GVM talk about collaborating for a third time with ‘VTK,’ moving out of their comfort zones, and their respective 20-year journeys in the film industry

September 13, 2022 03:17 pm | Updated August 29, 2023 04:58 pm IST

Gautham Vasudev Menon and Simbu

Gautham Vasudev Menon and Simbu | Photo Credit: Velankanni Raj

They are back. Six years after Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada (2016) and 12 years after Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa (2010), Gautham Vasudev Menon and Silambarasan TR join forces again for Vendhu Thanindhathu KaaduPart 1: The Kindling

In a marked departure from their earlier projects together (as well as the pandemic short Karthik Dial Seytha Yenn), the filmmaker-actor combo brings us a “low-lying gangster film” revolving around a village teenager Muthu — yes, Simbu does play a 19-year-old — journeying to the big city and getting embroiled in a series of events that turns his life upside-down. 

VTK also sees Gautham partner with acclaimed writer B Jeyamohan; the film was born out of a short story written by the latter, in an unusual collaboration that everyone in the industry — as well as the audience — now anticipate with curiosity. 

But back to the GVM-STR relationship; Gautham debuted with Minnale in 2001 and (an adult) Simbu with Kadhal Azhivathillai in 2002. Their 20 year-long careers have traversed remarkably similar paths of glory and frustration since then, pockmarked with blockbuster successes and floundering misfires in equal measure.

What has remained constant though, is the attention and allure that both of them command from the public; neither is far away from the headlines, controversy, or indeed, fandom. And if their easy bromance in person is anything to go by, VTK could just be the latest in a fledgling line of future associations to expect from the duo. Produced by Ishari K. Ganesh of Vels Film International, the movie also stars Raadhika Sarathkumar, Siddhi Idnani and Neeraj Madhav, with a theatrical release set for September 15.

Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

We know Gautham Menon as a director who does beautiful love stories and cool action sequences. But the first look of ‘VTK’ was starkly different. With this, are you moving out of your comfort zone?

Gautham: To shoot a love story like Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya was actually more difficult. Or Vaaranam Aayiram, when we recreated moments that happened in my life. The most difficult thing to do was shooting that funeral scene when Suriya is lying down, where my father was in real life. To relive that emotion was difficult, and there was no comfort zone about it. 

Gautham on the sets of ‘Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu’

Gautham on the sets of ‘Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu’

But I loved doing VTK and felt one with it; when I read Jeyamohan’s short story that had an open ending, I wanted to know where it was going. I wondered if it could go into the space of a gangster tale that we haven’t seen much of in Tamil cinema. Jeyamohan sir initially mentioned that this could be done only by a newcomer and not a star with a mass image. There was no question of doing it with Simbu back then, but he (Simbu) was kicked about the idea and said that he’d work on it. 

I enjoyed the process. In my 20 years of work, I have narrated many stories, primarily from my own life; in fact, both Karthik and Jessie, the main characters of Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, are based on me. But now, I want to foray into newer areas and VTK is the beginning of that.  

Simbu, you have played many urban characters before. But how did you prepare yourself for becoming Muthu in ‘VTK’?

Simbu: While playing Muthu, I consciously reminded myself that I was not Simbu. My body language, walking style and weight had to be changed. Even by the end of the film, when he actually gets to don a coat and suit, it is still not Simbu but a transformed Muthu that you’ll see on-screen. 

The trailer gives us ‘KGF’ vibes, especially Muthu’s final look… 

Gautham: The KGF films were spectacular no doubt, and they created a fantastic new world for us. But it’s not something we can relate to, unlike Vendhu.. which is set in a very real environment that we all know of. Simbu was taking on a new look for another film (the bearded avatar), so we decided to run with it, that’s all. We aren’t trying to ape KGF nor is the film based on a similar narrative. 

GVM and Simbu during the shoot of the film

GVM and Simbu during the shoot of the film

The romance angle in ‘VTK’ was not there in the original story; why did you feel the need to include it?

Gautham: Jeyamohan sir’s story had the space for that; in the original narrative, Muthu meets a woman, but the story does not take it forward. I used the set-ups in the story to write some romantic scenes, which includes a song. Jeyamohan and I never spoke about the body language of Muthu, but Simbu chose to play him in a certain manner, which I totally loved. He also picked up those mannerisms from someone in real life, which we won’t talk about now. We packaged that with certain inputs I gave, like how some boys from the south have this practice of wiping their hands inside their pockets after eating, which is something I observed from some of my college-mates in Keeranur (near Tiruchi).

Over two decades, both of you have witnessed extreme highs in the first few years, and a period of struggle and evolution in the later stages. Would you say it’s shared empathy that sees you understand each other so well?

Simbu: We keep wanting to collaborate all the time. But, stagnation happens. Financial issues, health problems, life in general… get in the way. But I hope Maanaadu was an answer to everyone who questioned me. With Vendhu.. I am genuinely trying something different, to the point where its success — or failure — won’t affect us. Everyone talks about belling the cat, but it’s important who tries it first (smiles). 

STR and Gautham Menon in conversation

STR and Gautham Menon in conversation

Having said that, we are both people who move on very quickly from setbacks. I think that’s what has forged the biggest connection between us. We never dwell on the past; we keep moving forward. 

Gautham: We are very respectful of each other’s space, and that’s really nurtured the friendship as well as our working association. But he’s just a phone call away; that’s literally how Karthik Dial Seytha Yenn happened during COVID. It’s a very easy relationship I have with Simbu, and I never have to think twice about reaching out to him. 

Tell us about your working process together, and how has it changed since Gautham the director also became an actor? 

Simbu: There’s a very comfortable give-and-take process between us as director and actor. Some filmmakers are quite strict and I have to work within their restrictions. But with Gautham, he gives me a mood and setting, then lets me take over and give my inputs as well.

Him becoming an actor has actually added another facet to his personality as a director now! I’ve always enjoyed seeing him act and explaining scenes to me on set; some portions truly come across well, and I happily mimic him for those scenes. Now, watching him on-screen actually fills me with excitement. I loved his role in FIR as an NIA advisor; I felt the casting was so spot-on. Sometimes, we see miscast actors look awkward in these “official” kinds of roles, but Gautham has a certain believability to him, in how he carries himself when it comes to such characters.

Gautham: I have always known what a performer Simbu is, but he really has evolved more as an actor now. I don’t know if it’s the age or the whole ‘Atman’ philosophy, but I can see the difference. You will never see the Simbu of yore in VTK, except for just one tiny moment where Muthu will remind you of Karthik from Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa. It happened unintentionally, but I decided to keep it. Maybe just for myself. (grins).

Simbu and Gautham Vasudev Menon in conversation

Simbu and Gautham Vasudev Menon in conversation | Photo Credit: VELANKANNI RAJ

He’s also very intuitive as a person; he knows exactly what people will say and how responses will be. He even predicted the reaction to the voiceovers in the Vendhu... trailer perfectly! As for my other projects with him —VTV 2, Ondraga and Nadhigalilae.. — I really want to see Simbu in that romantic drama space again, and I’m sure he’d be happy to do it. 

Gautham, you have this knack of having lyrically-eloquent film titles. How do you resist the temptation to shy away from commercial ones? For instance, ‘Accham Enbadhu Madamayada’ could easily have been titled ‘Rajinikanth’ and ‘VTK’ as ‘Muthu’...

Gautham: Room pottu yosikamaten (laughs). It just comes to me in a whiff of fresh air. Just two people need to be convinced of it; the hero and the producer. I’m lucky that they also loved it as much as I did. 

Simbu, you seem to have matured over the years. But it’s also intriguing how, after two decades, your personal life still generates so much attention. Looking back at your career, would you call yourself a misunderstood person?

Simbu: I think everyone is misunderstood. When we see someone, we are quick to judge them. But only when we interact and get to know them better, do we understand them. But I guess I have been misunderstood more than others.

Simbu and Siddhi Idnani in a still from ‘Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu’

Simbu and Siddhi Idnani in a still from ‘Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu’

All the drama my personal life attracts… maybe that’s why I’m still considered a star? Maybe that’s why Maanaadu worked on the level it did. I take it as a positive thing. Something Buddha said always sticks to me; when you receive something (criticism) from someone, then it becomes yours. But if you reject it, it stays with them. You understand? That’s what I follow these days, and it’s a solid philosophy to live with. For me to actually imbibe this into my life though, that took time and space.

Gautham, clearly, your collaboration with Jeymohan has excited you. Can we see you work with him more going forward?

Gautham: I’m in love with the man and his process. VTK originated from a short story he wrote, and then we charted the screenplay together. We explored a whole gamut of topics in our conversations — from how the drug market operates to land-grabbing issues — and finally came up with a fabulous plot. He’s so prolific as a writer, that I already have four other plot points and ideas from him for future films. 

I also didn’t want to dub VTK in other languages; it would feel so artificial watching a Tamil boy going to Mumbai speak in Hindi or Malayalam, don’t you think? Though the trailers have voice-overs in different languages, I feel a rooted Tamil film is best watched in Tamil, and with subtitles for those who don’t understand it. That is my definition of pan-Indian.

Would you call ‘VTK’ your second coming of sorts in filmdom, then?

Gautham: Jeyamohan sir told me that a director stands out only when he makes something out of his comfort zone, and that I’ve achieved that with Vendhu... I want this to be called a cult film as I’ve worked really hard on it. From keeping it technically unique and the camera movement staging, to the epic single shot sequences that chart the transformation of the lead character, we have made the visualisation of the script edgy and different. 

Gautham: “Muthu is not a mass hero or trained assassin, he is just a raw young guy coming to terms with his circumstances”

Gautham: “Muthu is not a mass hero or trained assassin, he is just a raw young guy coming to terms with his circumstances”

Even the action sequences are as real as possible; Muthu is not a mass hero or trained assassin, he is just a raw young guy coming to terms with his circumstances, and he reacts exactly how anyone in his position would. 

This might come across as quite an elitist analogy, but you know how perfume stores offer you coffee beans to reset your sense of smell while you try on various fragrances? VTK is that coffee bean, so to speak; a palate cleanser experience that will set my next four films in motion.

You have constantly spoken about having several ideas for more slice-of-life romantic dramas. Do you see yourself making a full-fledged web-series from one of them?

Gautham: Yes, definitely. Bollywood is doing their take on The Archies, maybe we should do our version of FRIENDS now, eh? (laughs) It’s a fact now that theatrical releases co-exist with streaming, and I’m straddling both worlds, as a professional working in those spaces and as an audience. 

I recently narrated something really interesting to a female lead star; an experimental film in a Vicky Donor + Rajkumar Hirani zone, and she told me she can’t see me making it work. That has now spurred me to take it up as a challenge! But there’s also a rom-com series we have pitched to the streamers recently. 

Finally, Simbu, your new sobriquet is ‘Atman’. What exactly does it mean?

Simbu: Basically, it means that we are not who our body presents us to be; after all, the body is just a mere conduit for our soul to exist in a physical realm. The soul or atma, that is the real essence of who a person really is. The fact that my name is Simbu, and that I’m a Tamilian, Hindu, Indian... Atman is removing all these labels completely and being stripped down to the bare essence of who we are. 

On song with Simbu

Simbu: I have sung a track in VTK; the melody number Kaalathuku Nee Vendhum. I changed my singing style to suit the track’s melody pattern. Initially, we recorded a few takes with the sound engineers, and it wasn’t working out well. Subsequently, A.R. Rahman sir, who was in Dubai, guided me over a video call and the song was completed within 10 minutes. He really knows how to extract the soul of a song from a singer.

Up next for GVM

Gautham: Going by the response to VTK, we will start working on its sequel soon. I also have Vikram’s Dhruva Natchathiram up for release, hopefully in December. The second season of Queen is in the works too; I have already shot a few episodes. We have also acquired the remake rights for a couple of popular Malayalam and Kannada films. 

In addition to this, Jeyamohan sir has worked with me on the script for Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu 2, and Kamal sir has heard it as well. I’m hopeful that the project will materialise soon, especially after the success of Vikram, which really was validation for Kamal sir after 50 years of work.

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