Director Gautham Vasudev Menon recently completed 20 years in cinema. In a conversation with Baradwaj Rangan, he speaks about his creative collaborations — meeting and working with Madhavan in Minnale, working with Kamal Haasan in his third film, and more. He's also sought to work with Vetri Maaran and Vignesh Shivan. Excerpts.
If you met Gautham 20 or 25 years ago, would you tell him: 'Stick to this and continue in this line?' or would you say 'Don't do this, stick to something else?'
The first, absolutely, there's no two ways about that. When I write, I don't check with people or make sure things are all placed. I put it out, waiting to see what the reactions are like, and it's only the audience reaction that matters, and the numbers at some points. It's not the critics I'm talking about or the reviews that come out. They might decide the mood of the audience to a certain extent, but we've seen films going even beyond that. So, I was very sure of this line 20 or 25 years ago, but I only thought that instead of making your first film at 27, maybe I should make it at 23 or 24 years.
So you recommend starting early?
Yeah absolutely. I keep telling the guys who are with me for two to three years that 'it's one feature film to learn the ropes and you just need to go out there, communicate your script and put it across and know the technique.'
You were also lucky in a way because your first film was a hit. I wouldn't call it luck entirely, but it worked, and there's an element of right place and right time, and that doesn't happen to everybody.
It doesn't. This right place, right time happened to me even before I made my first film. For one or one-and-a-half years, I kept begging to meet Mani sir and Kamal sir to work with either of them, and that didn't happen. So, the luck factor didn't work for me, so I was wondering what it's going to be like. I was an introvert, but watching Rajiv [Menon] sir at work helped break the shackles that bound me.
I realised if you have to get your mind across, you shouldn't be worried about people around you, no inhibitions. And, he was showing Prabhu Deva how to dance! 'Vennilave' was completely him, so I realised I have to be like this and that helped me a lot, and it was the right decision to work with Rajiv sir. I felt I was in the right place. Then, I met Maddy, I was there in a particular restaurant where Mani sir's team was there and he was doing Alaipayuthey. We met and with everybody there, he connected with me and we spoke for 15 minutes and he put the entire film in place. He took me to the producer, we even had music sessions before we went to Harris [Jayaraj]. He changed the idea of the script by putting me in touch with a writer from Bombay, and we discussed it extensively.
I spoke to him three days ago and laughed about it. He said 'You were really shy and somebody had to take the step forward'. So, you can label it under luck, but I was in the right place at the right time and, maybe, that won't happen to a lot of people, but you have to keep prodding it, and keep trying to be there in that space.
Do you think it's become easier or tougher for youngsters, because on the one hand, technology has become much more democratic, which means you don't have to rely on heavy budgets to make a movie. But, at the same time, it has increased the number of people going to make movies. How does that balance work out?
Firstly, it's become easy for somebody to access a filmmaker or actor. I get a lot of these WhatsApp messages directly and even songs and films reach me on WhatsApp, and I like to watch them on the big screen. I have a problem with the phone. So, that way, it has become easy, anybody can send something across.
I don't agree with you entirely. Anybody can make a film, but to make that right film land is not going to be easy at all. For that, you need to have a lot of writing in place, and your communication skills have to be really good for you to go on and make that journey for 15-20 years. You can make your first film, but the producer you land up with having reach is something that does not happen to a lot of people.
GVM is a brand, that immediacy is still there. One of the things that's becoming increasingly difficult for younger filmmakers is that it has become much more difficult to build a brand as a director now, simply because of the distractions and availability of other media. Would you agree with me on that?
I completely agree with you on that, and it's also the kind of films that you make. Since we're talking about me here, I'll have to say that the shift from Minnale to Kaakha Kaakha, the genre of films that I made and even though I wanted it to be my first film I couldn't do it, that shift got noticed to a large extent, I think. Then there was Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu and Pachaikili Muthucharam, then Vaaranam Aayiram and Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, so there was a journey there itself.
I want to congratulate Lokesh [Kanagaraj] on landing a Kamal sir film as his third film — Master happened before that, though. I got Vettaiyaadu, which is my third film. I'm not drawing parallels, but I think it's difficult to land that one film that will sort of put you out there on the map.
It's going to be difficult to make that range of films in your journey. Maybe one in 10 will stick out, and I'm looking at it like that. If you ask me personally, I've not been insecure about my work and I didn't try too hard. Whatever came to me at that point, I did. Making a film with Simbu was a huge call. I was going to film with two newcomers but I got Simbu in and that remains to be my best work. There was Rahman sir, making it reach out to a world audience.
In the 20 years that you've seen, how has the industry changed?
Actually, not much. There are producers who still talk the same way as I've known them to talk 20 years ago — they take out a paper and write the business of every area. Maybe, this one year alone, there has been a lot of change, because everybody stayed at home and we were watching a lot of films in the comfort and within the confines of our home.
Distributors are also the same, your issues are also the same. You get stuck with one film not doing well and you're not able to move on. That hasn't changed at all. I believe you can put out anything to the audience, and there are no rules. There are people who say: 'We need a song in this place'; 'Break your film here or do this here'; or 'Why is the opening like this', and I feel there are no rules at all. Just put stuff out, and they will lap it up in a new format.
What do you think the next 20 years are going to be like? You've already kind of laid the foundation for the long run, because you're the king of experimenting with formats and you're platform agnostic.
Yeah exactly that, and in terms of content, which is a taboo word right now, but even in terms of stories and areas I want to get into, I'm really looking to make it different. Sometimes, you're not able to do that right. So, I'm really open to collaborations and I've always been right from the beginning. For example, I've asked Vetri [Maaran] if we can do a film together, I've asked Vignesh [Shivan] if we can do a film together, so it's two different ideologies and mindsets. I ask a writer to develop what I've written, I shot Queen that Reshma has written, I'm getting into a feature film with something Reshma has written… so, I'm hoping that my next 20 years will be different from what I made so far.
But you will find a one-off touch from the first 20 years — like Kamal Kadambari, which I'm looking to pull off with Suriya, and that will go out to 50 per cent of the people who like that work.