Some of my earliest memories of great Tamil cinema revolve around the films made by this maestro. Be it the characters of Sowmya or Meenakshi from Kandukondain Kandukondain (both of whom I strangely and paradoxically identify with) or the bubbly Priya Amal Raj from Minsara Kanavu, a girl stuck between her love for God and her love for another man (again something I embarrassingly identify with). Growing up Christian in The Nilgiris, in a corner of Tamil Nadu, far removed from the cultural politics that now define and painfully restrict what being Tamil means — Rajiv Menon’s films gave Tamilians like me (from the margins), characters and films that we could identify with and celebrate. It should therefore come as no big surprise that I was petrified about this interview.

His studio, tucked away in RA Puram in Chennai, has no signage to announce itself. Yet, everyone around knows where it is. The pleasant January sunlight streamed through the many windows in his office and somewhere in that play of light and shadow, I wondered why this gorgeous man wasn’t an actor himself.

My filming crew was on tenterhooks. They couldn’t afford to screw up. Here was a man that had defined what cinema meant to them. Simply put, everyone was nervous other than our interviewee — he was just being himself: confident, charming and letting that beautiful sunlight frame his face in the most beautiful of ways.

“So you’re a Laisram?” he looks at me and remarks. I’m caught absolutely unaware and am shocked that a director from Chennai in Tamil Nadu is aware of my father’s Meitei clan name and pronounces it correctly. I look at him in awe and he continues, “I met a lot of pung cholom dancers from Manipur with your surname, we shot with them in the movie.” This endeared me more to Rajiv, a director who has done so much research into his script that he is familiar with the culture of a people far removed from himself — this is what evidently separates the gurus from the mediocre.

“Most people ask me: why did you take 18 years between films? People are curious, they think you’ve been trying to do some other job or that you’ve found some other interest in your life. I’m glad that people are not saying: why don’t you take a break from films! Instead, they’re saying: why didn’t you make a film? That means my last two films were liked by people. To be honest though, I tried everything. I wrote many scripts. I tried many projects. But each project got held up for different reasons. But then Sarvam Thaala Mayam happened. I think, in some ways, the idea was germinating inside me and conspiring against other scripts. Or maybe, I’m in a better position today to make Sarvam Thaala Mayam than I was a few years ago,” he begins.

“Sarvam Thaala Mayam began as a documentary. While filming that documentary, I was shocked to find out that the people who make the mridangam are not the people who actually play it! I really wanted to know why and discovered that the people who make the mridangam are from the dalit community. They moved to the city of Madras, 4-5 generations ago, converted to Christianity and continued in this business. These people make the mridangam because the mridangam required cow skin, goat skin and buffalo skin – this skin and this wood is manufactured by them. They make the best sound that you can get from the instrument by choosing the skins from the female of each species right after the mother has delivered and the skin is stretched. So much goes into it. The most interesting thing is that for the mridangam to sound good, you have to change the skin once in six months. A great vidwan therefore has a sort of symbiotic relationship with his mridangam maker and the person who maintains the skins. So, there’s an attachment, but there are also hidden boundaries. People who make, don’t play. This is where my story began. I interviewed some of the mridangam makers and found my story in one of them. The mridangam maker, during the course of the interview, said, ‘one day, my son will hopefully play in the music academy.’ When he said that, his voice choked and I said to myself: here is a man who comes from a lineage of probably five generations of mridangam makers and what he yearns for is to play the instrument he has created. He has been denied the self-belief and opportunity to do it. This is where Sarvam Thaala Mayam was born,” Rajiv explains.

And how did you go about creating this narrative? “Well, according to me India is changing. We are in

a time that’s welcoming change. Kedar Jadhav is playing cricket for India. Meritocracy is coming in. It’s coming into cricket; it’s coming into music, so why can’t

it come into classical music? So, I imagined a story. Thanjavur Johnson is a real person and so I’ve got someone to play him, but Peter (played by GV Prakash) is a fictional character and his journey is fictional. So, I’ve taken something from society and I’ve imagined the rest. It’s really a story of young people trying to achieve something, crossing barriers,” Rajiv answers.

Going back in time, we ask Rajiv about where his previous films — Minsara Kanavu and Kandukondain Kandukondain — were inspired from. “In Minsara Kanavu, I was really inspired by Broadway musicals, so I was creating that kind of an environment. There are two musicals that I really like, one being Sound of Music and the other, an opera called Barber of Seville. The character of the barber came from the opera and the nun walked out of Sound of Music and they met in some fictional space. In Kandukondain Kandukondain, I move from this imagined space to a real household, but I have stars playing feisty women who are struggling with inheritance, their identity, and all those elements of the feminine in a patriarchal world. And then, they come into an urban environment, and struggle, find love and themselves, and fight to retain their honour. When it came to Kandukondain Kandukondain, I was really looking at an Indianised take on Jane Austen. I saw Jane Austen, of course, as someone who wrote the comedy plot in a different way, but also wrote powerful female protagonists. But you have to understand, she wrote it before the suffragettes movement, before women got voting rights, before they got land rights… all they could do then was wait for love and honour. I believe if films are very plot-driven but not character-driven, it sort of feels manipulated,” elucidates Rajiv.

Inspirations aside, we move to the next big thing that one ought to ask Rajiv about his films. Music is an essential part of your style of film-making — how deeply do you immserse yourself in the music of the film? “I do very actively involve myself in the music. I know ARR from when he was Dileep. When he wasn’t ARR and when he wasn’t famous. We used to jam together and discuss ideas. I would sometimes have tunes. When we were doing jingles (for ads), there are tunes that I have sung and he would compose to them. Like the Cinthol jingle was my tune and we did it together. When it came to feature films, it requires a different skill set. I would have some ideas in my mind, ARR would listen to me explain the scene and start humming the tune. If you tell a music director to compose a tune, he would sit in isolation and just compose a love song. But if you explain the lead in, what the environment is and what kind of sound will work in an Irani café, it helps him be more creative. But in Sarvam Thaala Mayam it was much closer, much more intense. It’s classical music, it’s my domain knowledge, but we also needed to ensure it reaches the people. So, ARR had to pull his A-game because he’s been doing a lot of western projects, and was waiting for an opportunity to do some good Indian music. ARR is now much more verbal, he talks about concepts and he’s interested in your scripts… conversations are longer now and we’re able to discuss the music in more detail. I first narrated the script to him and he was completely moved and said that you have to make it because there are very few films on music. He said, ‘I want to go and interview K Vishwanath. I want to do a masterclass with him on how he did Shankarabharanam? How did he make that music so popular? How did he make it so accessible?’ So, ARR was really keen about the film and needless to say, so was I,” shares Rajiv.

So, is Sarvam Thaala Mayam your ode to your love for music? “In many ways, yes. I think all of us have a core memory, a kind of core emotion that we really connect with. I do believe that music heals and unites people in a way that everything else doesn’t. When Illaiyaraja started creating his magic in Chennai, I remember people in Kerala and Mumbai wanting to know what the latest from Illaiyaraja was. It was such a revolution in terms of composing style that he influenced everybody. Even today when you see the music in a film like Sairat, you can see clear influences of Illaiyaraja’s style in Marathi songs. When ARR came in with his simplistic style, he was accepted and he brought a child-like joy into his compositions. I think music and innovation in music has an ability to transcend. When somebody can really take that leap and do something unique. I believe taking no creative risk is the greatest risk in creativity. I’ve pretty much done everything I wanted to do with music in this film,” explains Rajiv.

Sarvam Thaala Mayam, which is slated to release in the first week of this month, is produced by Latha Menon. “Once we had ARR on board and most of the cast was decided, we had to find a producer and get everything going and eventually, my wife had to step in as a producer. We said, we don’t have to listen to anybody, let’s do it, let’s make the film and then worry about everything else. We believed in the script and we needed to tell this story. I believe the story has an inspiring quality which even people not related to music will relate to.”

And what do we expect from you in the future? “Hopefully, I won’t have such a big gap between my films and I will be a little bit more prolific… I shouldn’t procrastinate so much and start my next film right away. I’m writing a thriller now,” concludes Rajiv.

On cinematography
“As a child, I was very fascinated by National Geographic and when I grew up, I would browse through India Today and see Raghu Rai’s pictures — he was a big influence. This is before I knew anything about International photography. I slowly started getting influenced by realism. People like Cartier-Bresson were big influences. If I were to talk about shooting in Turkey for Guru, most people would just look at the black book and try to find some images and get location pictures. I studied the work of Ara Güler, who is Turkey’s equivalent of Bresson. What’s interesting is that Güler had come to Tamil Nadu and in a village in Chengalpattu, had shot women washing clothes. They’re wearing bright red clothes and in the sky are palm trees. In all his Istanbul pictures, the horizon would have minarets. So that’s the motif. If I in shoot India, the horizon would be cut by a tree, and in Istanbul, it would be the minaret. Once you have a design idea like that, then it becomes easier to construct. You need design ideas. Great images unravel when the presence of nature is strong.”

On singing
“If somebody asks me to, I would sing. I always sing and my children keep saying: you’re always singing dad, it’s annoying. I think I basically started singing on shoots. You don’t want to keep screaming at people and so you might as well sing and take your mind off the shoot as people fix things. My mother (renowned Carnatic and film singer, Kalyani Menon) had once visited my set and said, ‘This is so difficult… 50-60 people and you’re all trying to work together to take one shot. For my art, I don’t need anything. I just need my breath.’ That’s what makes singing so incredible. You just need your breath. Your life force! I have great respect for people who can sing well or compose well or write well.”

On films in Tamil
“It just so happened that I made all my films in Tamil. I have tried making films in Hindi and Malayalam. I’m not catholic about which language I make my films in. I think every story that comes my way lends itself to a certain language and in my case, I’m fairly comfortable with both Hindi and Malayalam… I don’t know where I will make my next film. I’m open to anything. All that matters is that the story has to be interesting and be powerfully told.”

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Watch the full interview on ProvokeTV

PHOTOGRAPHER: Nithin Bharath | @nithin_barath
STYLING: Style Sundaris (Saraswati Menon & Madhavi Gangadharan) | @style.sundaris
WARDROBE: Grey Plaid Suit — Vivek Karunakaran | @vivekarunakaran + Bomber Jacket — Nee & Oink | @nee_and_oink
HAIR & MAKE-UP: Sweety Kabir | @sweety_kabir (Toni&Guy | @toniandguyindia)
LOCATION: theDomotics Experience Centre, Chennai