Menon cut his directorial teeth in 2001 with Minnale, a love story in Tamil that was both critically and commercially acclaimed. Success followed him withKaakha Kaakha, a cop saga starring Surya, and best remembered for its racy screenplay and peppy music. The wave of success continued with Vettaiyadu Villaiyaadu, a thriller led by veteran Kamal Hassan. Catapulting him into the spotlight was his fifth venture, Vaaranam Aayiram(VA), a romantic film that hinged on a father-son bond, and brought home several awards, including the national award for Best Feature Film in Tamil. His filmVinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa (VV), a realistic take on unrequited love made simultaneously in Telegu and Tamil, was a huge commercial success in the South, prompting a Hindi remake titled Ekk Deewana Tha. Shot in Chennai, Agra, Mumbai, Delhi, Goa and Kerala, the film has music by A.R. Rahman who has retained the same tunes for the Hindi version.
The Hindi version stars Prateik Babbar and introduces British model Amy Jackson to Bollywood. It is not Gautham’s first film in Hindi. His earlier outing was Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein, (2001) a remake of Minnale starring Madhavan and Diya Mirza that made no ripples in Bollywood.
Menon, despite a hectic schedule with post production work and shooting for his trilingual upcoming film, made time for a chat.
What changes were made in the story of Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa to suit the Hindi audience?
The story is the same. Sachin an engineering graduate and an aspiring film maker,falls in love with Jessy, a Christian girl, who is older than him. I have made some changes to keep my own interest alive since this is the third time I am working on this story [after Tamil and Telegu]. Some moments in the film have been changed to reduce the length of the film from the Tamil one. And the climax is different from the original.
What was the thinking behind casting Prateik Babbar and Amy Jackson?
We wanted fresh faces and not stars. Ranbir [Kapoor] and Imran [Khan] were on my wish list, but I don’t know if they had heard about me and my work. Prateik is a director’s actor. You keep drawing stuff from him. While working with him, I found him more vulnerable and endearing than aggressive, unlike Simbu who was the lead in the original. So I toned down the aggressiveness in his character and brought out his vulnerability. Yet his angst comes through. As for Amy Jackson, I wanted someone fresh and new who would walk into the audience’s heart just like she walks into the hero’s heart. She is very good. We had no problem with her lip sync. She worked so hard on her lines, despite not knowing the language. To get her accustomed to Indian attire, we got her wearing Indian clothes even off the sets.
Since this was your second outing in Bollywood, how did you ensure that you did not repeat the mistakes of Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein (RHTDM)?
I don’t think there were any mistakes with RHTDM. When it was made, I was not ready for a Hindi film. Besides, I realized within ten days of working on the film that it was no longer in my control, but in the hands of the producer who planned the locations, costumes, and dialogues. Maddy [Madhavan] was not keen on losing weight. It clearly was not progressing the way I wanted it. Although the film did not do well initially, it was popular on television.
What are your plans this time around?
I wanted to share the story of VV with a larger audience and 99% of the film has been in my control. If the film does not do well with the Hindi audience, I take responsibility for it. And if it fares well, I take the credit.
What made you choose a career in films?
I worked for a year as a mechanical engineer before following my heart. My interest in the performing arts came to the fore in college where I wrote short stories and actively participated in cultural events, singing, and choreographing shows. From an introvert I grew into finding what I wanted to do in life. I realized then that I wanted to make films.
I was exposed to old Tamil and Hindi melodies as well as Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt films, thanks to my parents. I was fascinated by those love stories and black and white pictures. Later Mani Ratnam’s Nayagan defined my interest in films.
How has your family responded to this career?
I would not be here had it not been for my family. My parents never had a problem. Yes, there was a time they wanted me to become an engineer and go abroad but when I explained my ambition, they were supportive. Being totally unrelated with the film industry, their only concern was “How do you go about this?” I told them that I would have to work under someone initially. Thankfully my sisters were supporting the family and they took the burden off of me.
Who would you consider your mentor?
I learnt the ropes while assisting Rajeev Menon on the sets of Minsaara Kanavu. I also learnt to shed my inhibitions after observing Menon on the sets. Rajeev would act out scenes for his actors. Watching him I learnt that you have to demonstrate what you visualize. Initially I was reserved and conscious of people around but, with Minnale, I overcame that.
When it was released, I was clueless about how it would fare and what I would do next. In fact, I was not too happy when I saw [the finished film] in the theaters. I felt I could have improved on some scenes.
Scriptwriter, director, producer and a family man—how do you juggle between the various roles?
That’s what we all strive to do. I set aside time early morning for writing. While travelling, I jot down things on my iPad.
Where do you get the ideas for your films?
I write my own scripts. They are all inspired from life, not just my own, but people around me. My stories are relatable. People can identify with the characters. In my films, there are bits about me.
Vaaranam Aayiram is semi-autobiographical. Many moments that I shared with dad were translated onto screen. When my father passed away I was not in town. On the flight back home, I penned down memories and used them in the film. It was my way of holding onto those memories. The mother’s character is drawn from my mother and the daughter-in-law’s character in the film was drawn from my wife. She was my friend before we got married.
What are your upcoming movies?
Coming up is Neethaane En Ponvasantham, a trilingual in Hindi (with Aditya Roy Kapoor), Tamil (with Jiiva) and Telegu (with Nani). Tamil and Telegu actress Samantha plays the love interest in all three films. Seventy percent of the production is complete. It’s a love story but the treatment is different and has been structured differently. Once again, it has been inspired from life.
On the anvil is Yohan: Adhyayam Ondru, an action thriller with Vijay.
What about Friday blues?
Yes, I am nervous before a film’s release and withdraw into a shell. People around tell me, “It’s just a film.” For me it’s not just a film. It’s something I have created and you want people to like it. When Nadunisi Naayga did not work, I was upset for two weeks and then moved on. What gives me joy is when people tell me that they could relate to a character or that the story is a leaf out of their life. Or that they knew someone like one of my characters. When people relate to your film, that’s when you’ve achieved something.
Mythily Ramachandran is an independent journalist from Chennai, India.