Gautham Menon talks about 'Thala 55' [Interview]

Thinking director Gautham Menon talks about 'Thala 55', the biggest film of his career, in this exclusive chat with Sudhir Srinivasan.

Gautham Menon walks into Lloyd’s Tea House in Gopalapuram apologising for the delay. A rare spell of Chennai rain has interfered in his shooting schedule with Ajith and made him available for this interview. We are not complaining.

I believe you like the city’s coffee shops. Do you unearth potential love stories here?

I like writing in coffee shops; I haven’t had coffee or tea ever! There’s nothing quite like a quiet corner in a coffee shop to gather your thoughts and begin writing. Let me know if I look away even once during our conversation.

What’s Thala 55 about?

That’s only the temporary title; it’s a form of reference to Ajith and his 55th film. The story traces the journey of a man between the age of 12 and 38. The boy has everything, growing up, and then suddenly it’s all taken away. What happens to him? The film, a drama, is made on a budget of around Rs. 50 crore and is the biggest of my career so far. It’s an intermingling of several things that have worked for me. There’s action, romance, and even a family angle. Ajith plays a sophisticated character, and if I had to title it in English, I’d probably call it Distinguished Gentleman.
I believe you started shooting with only around 75 per cent of the story being ready. Would the full story not enable you to infuse more detail into the narrative?

I write linearly without knowing the full story. I discover it as I write it. I knew Simbu and Trisha had to part in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa after travelling with their characters for months. Films like Vaaranam Aayiram and this one are about the changes in a person’s life over the years. What he becomes at 38 doesn’t quite affect what he was at 12. These stories are not plot-driven in that sense.
Does the pressure of working with a leading star in a big-budget film force you to make certain compromises?

Ajith helped a lot. The first thing he told me was to forget about the pressure. ‘I’m in your film,’ he said. I have travelled the length and breadth of the country with him. He is not one of those stars you have to be on guard with all the time. He allows you to relax and do your thing. In fact, whenever I was tempted to spice up a few lines and play to the gallery, he reminded me that it was a Gautham Vasudev Menon film and that I didn’t have to do that.

You have wanted to do a film with Ajith for quite a while, haven’t you?

Oh, yes. Even before Minnale, I approached him with the script of Kaakha Kaakha. I was supposed to do his 50th film, but that didn’t happen and Venkat Prabhu did Mankatha instead. I was supposed to do another, but the dates were pushed and Saran did Aasal. I guess, in a way, when it has to happen, it will.

What can Ajith fans expect?

He plays a dynamic character called Satyadev. His on-screen persona is quite different from his other films and he has four different looks too. I want to explore the possibility of making several films with Satyadev; make this a franchise like Dirty Harry. I had the same idea with a film called Dhruva Natchathiram but that didn’t take off.
Your last film, Neethaane En Ponvasantham, was criticised for its slow pace.

Truth be told, it is one of my favourite films. I guess it worked only for those who could relate themselves to the story. Even with Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa, men who liked it called me up to tell me about the Jessie in their lives. Those who say her characterisation is not believable should ask if a man flinging a villain against an incoming train, only for him to bounce back, is any more believable. I don’t find too many people complaining about realism in such films. When I made Pachaikili Muthucharam, the same people had a problem with the idea that a man could be shown having an affair.

Did you aspire for realism again with Nadunisi Naaygal which didn’t do that well?

Well, people were furious that the lead character had sex with his ‘mother’. The woman wasn’t his mother at all in the first place! I don’t think the film was given a chance. There were several groups lobbying for its immediate removal from theatres. Perhaps they didn’t expect such a film from me, despite my warning that it wasn’t a romance.

Ravi K. Chandran, in a recent interview, with us, referred to his Yaan as a glossy, romantic entertainer; like some of Gautham Menon’s films, he said.

I’m not sure mine are glossy. I call them slice-of-life films. For instance, you’d never have a hero in my film jumping off walls or flying to beat villains.

Your films do have songs as escapes, don’t they? That steps out of everyday life, wouldn’t you say?

I agree I have played to the gallery with some songs, but even there, I have tried to make them as real as possible. Look, I’m a die-hard romantic. On an overcast afternoon like now, I’d love to be sitting by my window with a cup of hot chocolate and a pretty woman (my wife) by my side. Such situations awaken songs in my head. When Simbu sees Trisha for the first time in VTV, he jumps over the gate and dances. Suriya (Vaaranam Aayiram) breaks into song when he sees Sameera Reddy for the first time. I try as often as I can to show experiences through songs, like in ‘Manjal Veyil’ (Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu) when the song plays but the actors don’t lip-sync. There’s a similar song here with Trisha and Ajith that goes ‘Mazhai Vara Pogudhu, Thuli Vara Thoorudhu, Nenayaamal Enna Seiven’.

It must also be difficult to resist the temptation of shooting the songs composed by the likes of A. R. Rahman or Ilaiyaraaja.

Yes, sometimes you can’t help but get carried away by the quality of the composer. For instance, ‘Kaatrai Konjam Nikka Sonnen’ (Neethaane En Ponvasantham) became a full-fledged song after I heard part of it and insisted that Ilaiyaraaja give me the complete track. In VTV, ‘Aaromale’ came as an afterthought. You want to get as many great tracks as possible out of such composers. In fact, I’ve never said no to any tunes given to me by them. Never asked for replacements.
What are your thoughts about making Hollywood-inspired films?

If it’s a random line that inspires you to come up with a new story, that’s fine. However, the original creators must be approached for rights. For instance, I wanted the film rights for Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns and Kite Runner. But I was told Hollywood had picked it up, so I backed off.

What about Pachaikili Muthucharam inspired by Derailed? The body-in-the-box scene in Kaakha Kaakha was allegedly to have been motivated by Se7en. Some argue that VTV has influences from 500 Days of Summer.

Anurag Kashyap gave me the book (Derailed) and asked me to make a Tamil version. The publishers told me that Hollywood was making a similar film, but said it was all right that I go ahead and I did. About Se7en, I learnt of the scene after I’d shot it. I didn’t want to reshoot it but in the Telugu version, you’ll see that I have shot it differently. I haven’t yet seen 500 Days of Summer but 20th Century Fox saw VTV and requested me to make the Hindi version. I don’t believe it would have happened had the company had doubts. I firmly believe in copyrights and am put off by plagiarism.

Women in your film sometimes are usually strong characters, and sometimes more extroverted than the hero (Maya in Kaakha Kaakha and Nithya Vasudevan in Neethaane En Ponvasantham). Do you do that to fulfil a your social responsibility as a filmmaker?

Oh, no. Writing these roles comes naturally. All the women close to me — my mother, sister, wife and friends — are strong and independent. Also, I don’t like the women in my film to show skin. For instance, for a song in this film, we had a sequence with gangsters where I noticed that some women had on low-waisted saris. I re-shot the sequence immediately. I am not one to stare at women and I won’t encourage it through my films. I look at them in the eye when talking.
To quote a line from ‘Ondra Rendaa’ in Kaakha Kaakha,‘kangalai nera paarthudhaan nee pesum thoranai pidikkudhe.’

(Laughs) Hey, you remembered! I wrote that line in English and asked Thamarai to translate it.

Your heroes fall in love pretty quickly though.

Well, it’s like that sometimes in real life. is it not? In fact, in this film with Ajith, Anushka expresses her loves for him, and before he can respond, she tells him that her love stands even if he is already married. Many other Tamil films show the heroine hating the hero for the first half hour and suddenly falling in love. I think that’s more unbelievable.

You are often asked about the use of English in your films, aren’t you?

Well, what’s wrong, I ask in return. That’s how we talk in real life. If somebody in the audience doesn’t understand the English, I’m sure they will have somebody else tell them what just happened. It’s not like I’m showing a milkman talking English. Do you know of one couple who tells each other “Naan unnai kadhalikkiren”?

- Sudhir Srinivasan (The Hindu)


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