Frames for a reason
Indian cinema’s tryst with songs and dance run back to the twelfth century, says Rajiv Menon, adman, cinematographer and director. They are like sambhar or dal; you can’t take them out of an Indian. The challenge is to employ songs for the right reasons. Rajeev Nair met him in Dubai
Rajiv Menon hasn’t directed a film in the last four years. And yet, it surprises him that his last film, Kandukondein Kandukondein was picked up by the Dubai International Film Festival as representative of Indian cinema, and only one of five in the segment. The Aishwarya Rai starrer, inspired by Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, was also the only regional film in the whole Indian selection.
His film got some back-hand publicity too, with Rai’s own Bride and Prejudice, another take on Jane Austen’s work, gaining world-wide press, if not necessarily good reviews. That an Indian filmmaker (Bride and Prejudice director Gurindher Chadha insists she isn’t Indian, nor does she make Indian films) had already attempted Austen was another glowing tribute to the British author, whose works find relevance even after two centuries.
In the last four years, Menon was wearing many hats. He wielded the camera for the film Morning Raga featuring Shabana Azmi, did a few commercials most notably one for Air Tel with AR Rahman, and also wrote furiously. He wrote three scripts; one going into six drafts, two running into second writing. He also wrote innumerable three-page scenarios.
Now, he is ready, with a romance-thriller, a “different kind of film,” which could probably be in Hindi.
Born in Kerala, studying all over India, accompanying his father, a naval officer, who got transferred often, he joined the film school to study cinematography. Many ad films later, he started off as cinematographer for Mani Ratnam’s Bombay before directing Minsara Kanavu (Sapnay in Hindi) and Kandukondein…, apart from a few documentaries for Shyam Benegal and a short film for Girish Karnad.
Menon has definite views of cinema, its structure and flavour. He doesn’t hesitate to conform to the dictums of commercial cinema but he frames them for a reason.
He discusses his cinema in a free-wheeling interview:
It has been four years since you made your last feature, why the long gap?I have scripted my next film, one that puts together both – romance and thrills. In between I also tried writing two other films and making commercials, this one, for a living. I was very critical of the scripts I wrote. In India, you don’t have freelance scriptwriters nor are there producers who develop scripts. You have to write your own script and if you are not happy with it, especially after five or six drafts, it is better that you junk it than you subject a lot of other people to it. It must remain your agony.
Meanwhile, you had worked as cinematographer of Morning Raga. How does it feel to work for another director, now, though you had started off for Mani Ratnam in Bombay?
As a cinematographer, there is a faculty in you that listens to you and just visualizes. That is what I explore every day in my advertising work. When you hear something, when you hear the words, you start to see where the light and darkness and pauses are going to come from. That drives you to cinematography. Most people think cinematography is about what lights to put and what lens to use. I think that it is about the kind of emotions that are not written, which you would like to bring out. Today, I can feel better as a cinematographer but since I am a cinematographer-director, many directors might find it intimidating. When Mahesh (the director of Morning Raga) approached me, I thought: Why not, and that was it.
Do you feel you have been able to break the invariable potholes many admakers had found themselves in with their switch to films?
I think Bombay was as non-advertising a film as you could get. It was about riots and there wasn’t much pretty about the film. Yet, it had its moods. I don’t think I have a problem there. But when I did Minsara Kanavu, every said it looks like an ad film, and a musical. I thought to myself I would turn to a more heavyweight story next time around. That was Kandukondein. When you start off, you aren’t aware of genres. Minsara Kanavu started off as a romance and ended up in a melodramatic fashion. Kandukondein did not have that problem because it was Jane Austen, and a story that survived 200 years. The basic matrix is therefore fixed. All you have is to contemporise it. In stories, there is a basic sruthi (rhythm) of human struggle. If you can zero into that and find a resonance that transcends time, you succeed.
What is your impression of Bride and Prejudice?
I haven’t seen the film.
In Minsara Kanavu and Kandukondein, you employ a lot of sets. When outdoor is much preferred, almost the norm, why go for sets? Is it an ad hangover?
There is not much in Kandukondein. Yes, in songs, because songs are not realistic. And songs in India have a different meaning; in fact, they present a strange problem. When you go into Indian commercial film genre, songs explore the emotion that your character goes through. In Western cinema, the dialogue is supposed to explore the emotional twist of the actor and the screenplay is supposed to drive the story. In Indian cinema, dialogues move the story, and emotions are explored through songs. Using songs, on the surface of it, is bad. It is as bad as melodrama is bad. But then, the derogatory word, melodrama, is “melody and drama,” and if you see it in that light, it becomes positive. With Indian films, songs serve a purpose that is far removed from what we aim at. They could serve as fashion statements, for example. And in India, today, your songs, your promo decide how many people come to the theatre. If a film doesn’t open well, it is immediately written off as a flop.
So do songs serve that purpose for your films?
In India, at the moment, youngsters follow the promos, and for that, your songs better be good.
But don’t you think it is time that Indian cinema broke away from the song-dance routine?
We could. We should. But there are two ways of looking at it. Stopping the songs is as important as you stopping to eat sambhar. It has very glycaemic value and it is not right to go back home in the night and eat rice and sambhar. You must be eating wheat, or soup and salads. But we say: “What is wrong with it? People have been doing it for centuries.” Singing and dancing, similarly, has been our centuries’ old tradition of telling stories. In continuing that oral tradition of story-telling, our biggest problem is that our narrative content is wrong, not necessarily the narrative technique. You look at French films, they are very good yet their industry is swamped by American films. But Indian film industry has not been affected by America overtly because we are so different. In Tamil Nadu, there is no problem with McDonald’s because our idli and dosha are far better fast food. If you have strength be proud of it. But yes, it is wrong, when you use the songs for the wrong reasons. In today’s Indian films, singing is all about falling in love. That makes it repetitive. It is as ridiculous as seeing opera, you see serious kings and queens singing but you accept that as a form. You accept singing as a form in Kathakali. Songs in Indian cinema are therefore a formative problem, but it is also a formative device that makes it unique. I am not for one to say that songs are bad. If your film is not a love story, you don’t need songs. If you make a thriller, a war film, there is no need for songs.
So your next film, which is supposed to be a thriller, will not have songs…?
It is not just a thriller; it is also a love story.
Don’t you think Indian cinema has been pushing this too far? Every film is a family-action-comedy-thriller…
Yes, it is a very big problem. But it is as much a problem as Indian food. In a thali, you have at least nine dishes. Why? Why should you have them all? But that is the way we eat, that’s the way we are. If you make a film that is one-dimensional, which does not involve love, people don’t come to the theaters. The watershed in India in terms of aesthetics has been the importance of the shringar rasa coming out somewhere around twelfth century. It, a product of the bhakti movement, has taken over cinema today. Whatever they do, the hero has to fall in love. Only when that happens, do women come to the theatres. The same formula is now coming to Hollywood too. Take a film like Twister; it is about a man chasing a cyclone and they put a love story there. Titanic is the ultimate love story. The ying and yang, the understanding of man and woman, which we had cracked much earlier, is now being attempted by Hollywood. The danger with us is the repetitiveness. All the stories of the society have to be explored. You must find a balance in your narration.
Does it disturb you that Bollywood, the Hindi film industry, is being touted as Indian cinema, and you find hardly any place there?
I am not agonized by the fact that I don’t represent Bollywood. Why should I be? I have not made a film in four years. I made only two films and both have been well recognised. Here, in a film festival in Dubai, you have a Malayali making a Tamil movie about an English story – what more universal can it get? But what is worrisome is that Bollywood has come to mean merely spectacle. It was not the case twenty years back. You had conflict in the cinema. You had the angry young man. The problem in Bollywood is the absence of conflict. There is a celebration of life but no conflict. Stories can’t go ahead with out conflicting interests. When that doesn’t happen, your bandwidth becomes narrow, and you have to shout louder to be heard. You have to make music, sets and colours that are louder.
What is your kind of cinema?
I like to have emotional power in my films. I like to go and really make somebody cry or laugh.
Do you like to take out extreme reactions? I like it. I can cry at a film. I cannot claim to be sophisticated enough to hold back my emotions. I am notDo you probably expect the same from the audience?You can’t expect anything from the audience. I do something and I would be delighted if the audience reacts to it, the way I like.
You have sort of walked the middle path in Indian cinema, where you have typically three kinds of filmmakers: Arty, crass commercial and those who balance between the two? Do you think it is time we spoke of cinema as just good and bad, filmmakers as just one?
The basis of democracy is to have people express themselves. We are a free country. We ought to have as much width in our creative expression as there can be. So if you say there are three kinds of filmmakers, I would for one say, why only three, why not more. But the issue is in how our film industry is structured. People like Mani Ratnam and I have to incorporate songs in our films to reach out to a larger audience. Cinema cannot wait for centuries to be discovered. I can only make a next film if the current one works. I have a moral and functional responsibility to reach out to as many people as I can. That makes me explore a wider palette, more talent, more actors, better sound and light. And songs too. But the true reason why I should do a song should be because my story demands it. That is not happening.
In India, there is also a transformation in the theatres. There are no more A, B and C centres. The C centres are fast closing down. And there used to be A, B and C kind of films, which required a prescribed duration of run at the box-office for each. Today, all films are expected to do well. The stakes have gone up. This has pushed smaller filmmakers out of the scene. State-sponsored cinema is also come down. Anyway, I don’t think it is the job of the state to make cinema. We see defeated filmmakers go and become serial makers. Earlier, people could get away with bad editing, acting and filming because they had a good story. Today, the stories are there on television. What you need is a film that is so engaging visually that audiences are pulled out of their house into the theatre.
You have a god sense of music…
I didn’t work for it; it was in my genes.
Are you repeating AR Rahman for your next film too?
Yes, we have been friends more than anything else. We are close to each other. When he wants to model, do Air Tel, he doesn’t have to trust anybody else. He calls me. I really think he is very talented.
What gives you the kicks – advertising or cinema?
If I ask you, what gives you the kicks – writing a novel or doing this interview, obviously, it would be writing the novel, isn’t it?. In doing cinema, you are using all your faculties and exploring areas that you can’t chalk out in advertising. I do advertising for a living. During day I make advertising and in the night I dream of cinema.
You are from Kerala, but haven’t done a film in Malayalam? Do you feel like an outside in the Malayalam film industry?
It just happened that the stories were suited for Tamil. And anyway, I am not recognised in Kerala. You go to temples and you suddenly have this person who comes up to you and asks: “Aren’t you Rajiv Menon?” Invariably, he would be a Tamilian. I would love to do a film in Malayalam. I like Basheer and MT (authors) but I have to get into a groove and meet the right kind of people, find the right kind of story about contemporary Kerala. I don’t know how many films capture that spirit now.
As a cinematographer, what is your favourite colour?
Blue… Kandukondein has a lot of blue. In fact, I created an Indian weeding with no red. The whole Kannammpoochi song is a palette of the peacock feather. In Tuhi re, the song from Bombay, I used blue and green. I like yellow too; it is like sunshine. But I have not been very confident with red.
Would you ever do a film in black and white?
I would love to…
Do you dream in colour?
When I was studying at the institute, I was taught that we dream in black and white. One night I dreamt in colour and I got up and shouted: “It’s in colour.” That is the only occasion I saw a “colour dream.”
Are you hesitant to cast new actors?
No, but when I cast an established actor, I try to see him in such roles that I have not seen it before. This spontaneity in a role is easy with new actors. All directors actually act out and actors are expected to mimic you. That is not direction. It is letting something happen, let the magic come through. It is the spontaneity. Directors must make the dialogues pop out on screen and make audiences feel that they have seen it, felt it some time in their own lives. Then that barrier between the screen and you breaks…
But with Aishwarya Rai, who is not necessarily described as a great actress, is it easy to get that kind of spontaneity?
She is Miss World. She is pretty and she is worried of her looks. You have to tell her not to worry and deliberately create imperfections. Sometimes, perfection can be a bane; it can make things seem sterile. You must make it look real.
Who are the actors who have amazed you by their spontaneity?
I have liked Naseerudhin Shah in Monsoon Weeding. Tabu has such dignity; Manisha was very good in Bombay; Kajol has so much energy; I like Ajith in some scenes; then there is Mammootty, Mohanlal…
Do you think that despite being immensely talented our actors aren’t well utlised?
The bane of Indian cinema is poor writing. The true sense of a film’s architecture must come through in the script not in the décor, stage and lighting. Look at Malayalam cinema: Mammootty and Mohanlal peaked when the directors Padmarajan, KG George and Bharathan peaked. I guess you need a different set of directors to bring out the best in our actors.
Who among our directors would you go back to when in doubt?I have always adored Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, I have seen it many times. I have also loved Satyajit Ray’s Charulatha and Pather Panchali.
So, at heart, are you the old school guy?
Yes, I guess… I can’t say of a recent film, which I would like to see again and again. I would probably say that I liked Godfather, Apocalypse Now…- those are my kind of films.
No films in Tamil or Malayalam?
In Tamil, yes, Thevar Magan… But then its architecture is basically that of Godfather in a feudal setting…
Guess, at the end of it all, we have only one essential story…?
Yes, Godfather is perhaps the story of the prodigal son. The obedient son dies, and the one who doesn’t get along is the one you have to transform. If an obedient person takes on the mantle, where is the conflict?
Would it be true to say that more than love, it is conflict that drives your films?
I would say, it is conflict that will be driving my films. I cannot say I had this knowledge while doing my earlier films. I have been reading a lot on dramatic writing of late, and I am influenced profoundly by the works of Joseph Campbell, a mythologist, who wrote Hero with a Thousand Faces.