It’s a bit of an anti-climax when I discover Gautham Menon’s cup isn’t really filled with coffee. “It’s only green tea for me,” he says, at a setting that’s as Gautham Menon (an upmarket coffee shop in the heart of the city) as they come. As we wait for the camera to be set up, about two hours before the first show of Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada , questions I’d planned on asking him take the form of loud voiceovers. Gautham plunges deeply into conversation, as though it distracts him from the nervousness of a Friday release. Amid sounds of his kada clinking his tea cup, the filmmaker opens up:
You’re 16 films old, but you still seem nervous before release…
I write my scripts on a whim, without worrying about plot points and graphs. I don’t discuss my scripts either. I go straight into shooting with a script that’s 80 per cent complete and I wait for my characters to grow on me before I finalise the climax. But when it’s set for release, I start getting nervous. I start thinking if I should have hired script doctors. I go into a shell and I avoid reading reviews.
How do you explain shooting with incomplete scripts to people who insist on fully-bound ones?
I don’t go to sets with sketchy scripts… unlike what people think. It’s just that I’m clear about the 80 per cent that I have written. I just want to leave the last act open, because I don’t want to be restricted by a fixed ending. Not many people have that freedom. My next film, Yennai Nokki Paayum Thotta, was started with an unfinished script and Dhanush wants to know how the film will end. Even I want to know.
Are you an obsessive writer?
No, I’m a reluctant writer. I’m at a phase where I just want someone to give me a script to direct. I wish I could phone up Anurag Kashyap and ask him for a script.
Have actors begun to approach you as a bridge to build stronger fan bases in the cities, just like how they’d go to directors who specifically cater to the B and C centres?
I personally don’t feel an actor should approach his career like that… as just a star or a brand. But I know that they come to me for tastefully-made urban cinema with great songs. They also know I will make them look good.
But you’re accused of being elitist in an industry in which there are directors who specialise in making films that glorify particular castes. How do you see this hypocrisy?
I find it strange. But honestly, I’m happy being in that space, because who else is there? Today, I have the audacity to say that even if you’re taken to a theatre blindfolded without knowing what film they’re playing, you’d ask, “oh, idhu Gautham Menon padama ?”
This signature comes from your ability to create your own world in your films. But you’re still known to give technicians their space. Even A. R. Rahman first thought of you when he got the tune for ‘Thalli Pogathey’.
I had once given him a bizarre situation for a song. He called me a few months later and said that he had a string melody for me. I thought there was something about that tune… but my team didn’t get it. Thamarai (lyricist) didn’t get it. So we sat together until we figured out the tune and wrote the lyrics. Rahman sir went straight into recording after that. Simbu was going through the whole ‘Beep Song’ controversy then and it was Rahman sir who said, ‘Let’s release the song and change his image.’
Achcham…is a bi-lingual. Is it hard not to have favourites when you’re making two versions of the same film?
I shoot in Tamil first to establish a scene, as I don’t want anything to be lost in translation. The plan was to shoot with Simbu first and then shoot again with Chaitanya after we’ve set the scene. But that didn’t work at all, because Simbu would show up only at 3 o’clock. But even when he walks in late, Simbu still shocks you, so you can’t really be mad at him. Earlier, when I had shot both Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa and its Telugu version Ye Maaya Chesave , the latter turned out to be a bigger hit because of its happy ending. But Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa was always the film. Ye Maaya... was just its poorer cousin.
Yohan, Chennaiyil Oru Mazhai Kaalam, Dhruva Natchathiram ...These are films that you’d announced but they never materialised…
Of course, there’s a lot of disappointment when I think about them. Chennayil … was started with a lot of love, with a bunch of youngsters and the music of A.R. Rahman. Somewhere during the shoot, the film stopped working for me. But it’s a script that will work even 10 years later. When people think I’ve lost it, I’ll make Chennaiyil and show them I’ve still got it.
Yohan and Dhruva Natchathiram both faced similar issues; the stars felt they were international subjects that wouldn’t work here. Yohan was about an Indian covert agent, with missions around the world. If Vijay had trusted me and gone ahead with it, we would have made a state-of-the-art film.
You’re known to run into trouble during the making and release of most of your films. Is it difficult to maintain the same enthusiasm and love you felt when you started a project?
What you feel about a film is what you feel when you’re in love with a woman. You fight for her love and it’s always a struggle…there are misunderstandings and you’re always trying to prove that there’s more to you. Until four in the morning on Friday, I wasn’t sure if I could release my film. The interest amount that needed to be paid had mounted so much that I had to borrow and sign a new film overnight. It is the enormous interest rates that kill you. But everyone in my team worked doggedly through sleepless nights to pull this off. We were all in this tunnel, but we were working towards the light at the end of it. If that’s not like love, then what is?
You told us about the extensive detailing you give your characters. Do you wonder what Jessie from Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa is doing now?
(Laughs) I’m doing a film about four friends from the southern states coming together for a wedding. It takes off from Karthik’s life eight years after Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa … he’s finished his third film. He has lost the love of his life and that has changed his entire concept of women. He has become a playboy. Now, any film that has Karthik should have Jessie too right?