Yet Another Episode In A Film Journalist's Life
There's a lot one can say about a person based on their favourite Gautham Menon film. Correction. There's a lot one can say about a person's love story based on their favourite Gautham Menon film. It's perhaps more interesting to grab a drink with a person who calls Vinnaithandi Varuvaaya his favourite, rather than the guy who probably has a secret Minnale tattoo. And if you've noticed a sadistic streak in you, I can't imagine many things being more fun than cracking open a cold one with the guy who absolutely loved Pachaikilli Muthucharam. We've all had that moment when it felt like one of his characters were saying exactly what you've said yourself…or more devastatingly, something someone has said to you.
In his films, falling in love is never the finishing line. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The film only begins after the I Love Yous have been exchanged. One of the reasons why one finds beauty in his messy relationships is because both characters remain equals. In the mise en scène of commercial Tamil cinema, a heroine carrying a book is often used to further the class divide between the middle-class hero and the more sophisticated upper-class woman he's fallen for. But in GVM's films, the heroines don't just carry around books, they also speak like they've read them. So when you're falling in love with one of his characters, it's not just because they're beautiful, which they totally are…it's also because you want to just talk to them till it's 6 in the morning; I mean, just uraiyaadal and stuff.
I'm guessing it's the same the other way around as well. When Malini (Simran) falls in love with Krishnan (Suriya) in Vaaranam Aayiram, she sings, 'Mugam Paarthu Pesum Unnai, Muthal Kadhal Sinthum Kannai, Anaikaamal Poveno Aaruyire', because he's the kind of guy who would look solely into your eyes (and nowhere else), when he speaks to you. Lines like these are why relationships in his films feel like they are as much about respect as they are about love. Just think about it; can you even imagine what Jessie would have had to go through if she'd been the heroine of an M Rajesh film?
His films also did a lot more. They gave us heroes who defined our idea of 'cool', not because they were macho men, but because they were gentlemen. Long before Livestrong bands took over practically every wrist in the world, there were hundreds of young engineering students (probably mechanical) you'd spot wearing a kara because GVM's heroes wore them. His films were also finishing schools because it even got us to behave a certain way; people started taking guitar lessons, shirts suddenly looked better when it was tucked in and clean-shaven was the look of the season as one got ready to go to Ispahani Centre. In a sense, he gave us a South Indian Hugh Grant we wanted to copy.
He's also one of our most idiosyncratic/stylish directors. A single frame would suffice to make out that you're watching a Gautham Menon film. The voiceovers, his cameos, the bluish tone, the cops, the karas, ECR, the flashy edits, the poetic titles, sets that are meant to look like sets, the sister characters…his films maybe easy to parody but impossible to recreate.
And then there is his music. I'd argue that he is as good as Mani Ratnam at coming up with THE best album, every year he has a release. GVM's films bring out a side to familiar composers we didn't even know existed; like how Harris, in a GVM movie, is like Sachin in Sharjah.
With ENPT finally releasing this Friday, here's what's left of a dangerous exercise to rank his films. Dangerous, not just because it could leave anyone feeling confused like Jessie; but also because picking one film over another meant picking one phase of life over another. Because before it became cool to take potshots at the man for the delays and the issues that plague his career now, GVM was the daddy (read in Suriya's voice) of style. Hosanna to that.
None of the words expressed until now apply to Nadunisi Naaygal, the director's passion project, which traces the life of a serial killer. This bizarre film begins with Sukanya (Sameera Reddy) but it soon becomes the story of Veera (Veera Bahu) her stalker, who narrates his past in an interrogation with gory details that sound like tales of valour. Despite Sukanya's plight, we never really feel trapped or the tension of being locked up in a psycho's house. A lot of that has to do with Veera's imaginary adopted mother whose makeup would embarrass the Ramsays. The director attempts to get into the mind of a schizophrenic by repeatedly using POV shots but the result is confusing at best. What's worse is how the film ends with a PSA on the need to treat mental illness. The coolest thing about Nadunisi Naaygal is that this is the film director KS Ravikumar is editing as Karthik goes to meet him in the beginning of Vinnaithandi Varuvaaya.
This is the first film that springs to mind when I think of casting choices ruining a movie. Sarathkumar barely fits into the GVM hero archetype and this was made significantly worse when Andrea was cast to play his same-aged* wife. As a couple, they had the chemistry of a physics text book but that wouldn't have been such an issue in most other films. But it does here because you're not supposed to feel a sense of relief when Venkatesh (Sarathkumar) meets Geetha (Jyothika). In fact, the romantic portions set in the train between Geetha and Venkatesh work so damn well that you're almost hoping he leaves his wife for her…karma be damned. Also, Derailed was a reasonably popular film back then so a lot had to be riding on what you make of the film's big midway twist. Alas, this is easily the most underrated GVM-Harris album.
Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada is polarising in a new kind of way. I know many people who love the first half…the road trip, the romance, the wonderful songs. I also know a few who really liked the film's second half…the hospital, the fights, the chases, THE Baba Sehgal! But I still haven't met a single person who liked both. The film's 'shift' felt more tectonic than tonal and I'd always argue that we would have been better prepared had it retained its original title Satrendru Maaruthu Vaanilai. It felt like a Gautham Menon film trying very hard to be two Gautham Menon films. But it sure was classy. How else would you explain two lovers easily getting seats in two-tier AC as they run into a train after being chased by a bunch of goons?
You may have grown to like or dislike his films but almost all of them have this strange ability to age very slowly. When you watch Vettaiyadu Vilayadu today, it looks a decade ahead of the other big films that released in 2006. But if there's an exception to this, it has to be PEPSI Minnale. It's a film he made before he developed the signature style he's now known for. A GVM hero today won't ever sniff the receiver after the girl he loves makes a call. Vivekh's comedy track feels like they're from another era and another filmmaker. The staging is clunky and old-fashioned and the songs too don't look as fresh as they are in memory. But if there was one sign of his filmmaking abilities, it has to be that sensational love-at-first-sight scene. It's a moonlit night in Bangalore and it suddenly starts to pour. Rajesh (Madhavan) runs to a phone booth to call his grandfather as kids start playing in the rain. Through the glass window of the booth, we zoom in to see Rajesh watching them play. There's the sound of thunder as the silhouette of a woman emerges from a car parked nearby. His eyes widen. The kids stop playing thinking the woman will ask them to. But the woman just takes off her shoes and joins them in their mad senseless fun as Harris Jayaraj kills you with the flute. It's only when lighting strikes (Minnale, get it?) does Rajesh see flashes of this woman. But that's enough. Love has struck. I bet you're whistling that tune now.
It may not be number one on this list but my favourite scene from all of his films is in Yennai Arindhaal. An unmarried police officer (Sathya) asks his divorced single parent girlfriend (Hemanika) to marry him. But the effect isn't that of a saviour helping the helpless. It isn't heroism either. It doesn't matter what people say because all that really matters is that he loves her. He says 'your daughter is my daughter' and he wants to keep it that away, even if it means running to the medical shop from time to time. He uses the term periyavanga to address the daughter and asks her to convince her mother to marry him. There's more dignity in this one scene than entire films that come with taller promises. It's a mass hero film that achieved several great things without it trying hard to do so. One of our biggest stars made chappattis, wore an apron, held a handbag but it never shouted 'equality' either. If Yennai Arindhaal had remained a father-stepdaughter relationship drama, it may have been one of our best. Despite a great villain in Victor, GVM's third film in the police trilogy came with a loads of déjà vu, a confusing organ-trafficking angle and a really talkative second half.
This film singlehandedly made it an unwritten rule that every actor worth his salt must star in a police drama. It managed to find that perfect soft spot between the realism of Kuruthipunal and the heroism of Moondru Mugam. But the film worked even better because it derived its emotional core from its excellent love story. Back then, similar films would develop a close-friend or a sister character only for them to be killed off in the second half to enrage the hero further. But Khaakha Khaakha raised the stakes to another level. It was assumed that the heroine would generally return unharmed even if she were to be kidnapped by the bad guys. So when Pandiya (Jeevan as one of the great villains of the time) kills Maya (Jyothika) it felt like a punch to the gut, making it that rare action movie that stayed with us for weeks after we left the theatre. Almost everything came together perfectly, creating the mould for the GVM police drama.
If Kaakha Kaakha created this mould, Vettaiyaadu Villaiyadu perfected it. I believe that this was the last time we got to see Kamal Haasan step out of his universe to remain a character in the hands of a "real director". His opening scene is one for the ages but strangely, its another one I find myself watching over and over again. After his friend's daughter gets kidnapped, Raghavan (Kamal Haasan) makes a trip to Trichy to investigate. And when he goes to the bus stand there, he speaks to a beggar to see if he's seen her. I love the close up here of Kamal's hands as he asks if the kidnapper's car door opens outside or sideways. This is the kind of hyper detailing you'd only find in GVM's films and its proof of how the littlest thing goes a long way to bring a scene or a character alive. The investigation itself is kickass and we got villains that really matched up to Kamal. 'Raghavan Instinct' became a thing and we got two very different love stories that worked equally well.
For those who never cared for this underrated masterpiece, I hope you take the time to sit down with that friend who loved it to understand why they did. Terms like 'cult classic' are used so freely these days that the phrase has lost meaning. But if there was any film that deserves such a title, it has to be NEP. For the fan, the fact that so many people dislike like it only makes the film even more personal. You don't just love the film then…it becomes your film. The connection with this film was so strong that after a point we never saw Jeeva or Samantha…we were just seeing ourselves. The fights, the career conflict, the class issues felt like they were taken verbatim from our lives to the point where you suspect that GVM and his co-writer Reshma had access to your Facebook account and the many, many FB messages that became the film's dialogues. Illaiyaraaja's music may perhaps have worked a bit better if the film was set in the 80's or early 90's and the VTV parody starring Santhanam may seem a bit indulgent, but these are tiny issues this cult member has with what is, THE story of his life.
VTV wasn't just a film…it was a season. Few films have the power to become an obsession like this one. A close friend who had never watched a Tamil film before became so obsessed with VTV that he spent an entire week repeatedly watching the film from day to night. Think back of the time you watched it first and that entire month felt like we were living IN the film's blue toned world. A large reason for that is Rahman's incredible music. But a bigger reason, IMHO, is Jessie. Because everyone has had a Jessie in their life. A "Jessie" isn't merely "the one that got away". It is so much more. Jessie can be that old best friend you don't speak to anymore. It can be your life's biggest passion you had to let go of for family or stability. It can also be the person you once wanted to be, even as you look in the mirror today to find a stranger look back at you. In Orson Wells' world a Jessie can even be called 'Rosebud'. It is life's most profound pain…the reason why you've become who you are, for better or for worse.
We reserve the term 'epic' only for big budget extravaganzas which come with mythical proportions. But Vaaranam Aayiram is an epic too in its own middle class way. It's the coming of age story of Surya (Suriya) as he goes through life's great tragedies and little joys, transforming him from an innocent fun-loving boy to a strong responsible man. Suriya is phenomenal in this role; he even smiles differently as we go along as we find a man struggling to smile like he used to in his younger portions. For a filmmaker who now finds it difficult to balance a film's shifting moods, it's a miracle that he once made a film that deals with so many emotions and events with the dexterity of a poet. More than just a coming-of-age tale it is also profoundly moving as a 'letter' from a son to his father. The voiceovers does wonders to get us into Surya's headspace as he thinks back at his life before a major military mission.
Yet what makes this film a classic is the honesty with which it has been told. More than it being merely a film, it had the purity of a work of art you create as a dedication to THE most important person in your life. And when as artist pours himself into a work with that kind of honesty, it speaks to people like nothing else does.
Which is why Gautham Menon is who he is to many many people. Watching Vaaranam Aayiram again, a few months after my own father passed away has been one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do. It's the kind of power only one filmmaker gets to have in every generation. And when an artist speaks so directly to you, you don't get annoyed when his films get delayed by a year or two. You wait patiently because you begin to understand him like he understands you.