In this interview with Baradwaj Rangan, the cinematographer-director Rajiv Menon talks about his film Sarvam Thaala Mayam, which releases 16 years after his previous film, Kandukondein Kandukondein . Edited excerpts:
When Kandukondein Kandukondein released, you said it was kind of auto biographical. Is there something auto biographical about Sarvam Thaala Mayam, given the fact that you are so into Carnatic music?
I guess the love that one has for art and the desire to excel in it…that as a premise is not possible if you haven't heard or lived with it. My earliest memories while living in Vizag, where my father was a naval officer, was how my mother would start playing the tambura by 7 pm everyday. This was a ritual my mother practised in the evening while we studied. So it is natural that over the dining table, I'd ask "what was the new song you sang?" and my mother would talk about that. This was before TV, so the only way I could listen to Carnatic music was when my mother would sing it.
And when she moved to Chennai after losing my father, she managed to then make it as a devotional and film musician. I think that aspect of how important art is, is something I probably picked up from her. And that ennobling quality of art which can help people overcome their inner most struggle is to me a huge idea. Music is something that can unite and elevate people in a divisive society. It can give a young person a purpose of what his life is all about.
Indian films traditionally are about a guy finding his love interest or slaying the villain. But there is something else, where we make up our mind between 18 to 25 on what we are going to do, what is that job that can really drive you for the rest of your lives, and that is something rarely explored in Indian cinema.
How you learn an art form, how you discover a guru, how you change as a person, what happens to your philosophy of life, this hero's journey in art is what I was trying to explore and I guess it was because of the music I heard as a child and made me musically inclined. I have seen the power of music and how it can heal.
This a story of a Dalit youngster who wants to make a mark in the world of Carnatic music by becoming a mirudhangam player. Now this is the watershed moment for the Dalit narrative in Tamil cinema. Did the fact that you're a person from a dominant caste making such a narrative play on your mind while conceiving this film?
Not really. If you believe in the story that I am telling, that why art should be available to everybody the same applies here. I am eligible to make things that move me, and I am moved by the fact that somebody like Mr. Yesudas, coming from Kochi to study art, sings in Mylapore and has so many people loving his voice is an ennobling quality.
So that, in one level is there inside you. Pretty much the same thing applies when I am trying to make a story. Ben Kingsley wasn't an Indian to play Gandhi, he was a white man. Richard Attenborough made such a fantastic film on Gandhi, but if we had said only an Indian can make a film on Gandhi, we wouldn't have had a film like that. Or if the British were foolish enough to say only a British person must make a film on Elizabeth, then in that case Shekar Kapoor couldn't have made that great film. So, if I believe and can understand the agony of Peter and his journey, then I cannot say that I have the story in my hand but I am not qualified to make it.
Why did you take such a long time after Kandukondein Kandukondein? Were there other projects which didn't take off?
Yeah, I wrote a lot of scripts. I didn't want to get stuck with doing multi-starrers and I was trying various things. But for some reason even when the scripts were finished, films just kept getting pushed. I once met Aamir Khan and showed him a script about wrestlers, but something else happened. Of course, my story was about two young boys whose father had failed as a wrestler and wanted to make them wrestlers, but there it was about two women. These things keep happening in your life and you think "God what is this?What am I doing wrong?".
To the outside world, they think Rajiv Menon has a plush office, making a lot of ads and he's flying around. He has no problem and has no time for cinema. No, I have been writing and agonising over scripts. In some cases, it was a problem with casting, some it was with producers. So eventually I said screw all this, we have got this story and my wife said, we'll produce it ourselves just like we produce ads. If the only way the story can be told is, if we step in as producers, I said okay despite the fear of failure and that's what brought us to this position where we can talk now.
Watch the interview here: