In Gautham Menon’s Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada (Fear is Foolishness), a young man and his girlfriend set out on a road trip, but nothing goes as planned. The November 11 release hasn’t gone down too well with critics, but it is working its magic on the box office. The action drama stars Silambarasan, also known as STR and Simbu, Manjima Mohan, and rapper Baba Sehgal in a villainous role. Menon has previously given Silambarasan one of his best-known roles in the romantic drama Vinaithaandi Varuvaayaa in 2010, and the new collaboration raised several expectations from Menon, who made his debut with Minnale in 2001 and has directed many urban dramas, including Kaakha Kaakha, Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, Vaaranam Aayiram and Yennai Arindhaal. In an interview with Scroll.in, Menon talks about his rapport with Silambarasan, the challenges of being a director as well as a producer, and his upcoming multi-starrer production.
After working with Silambarasan in ‘Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa’, were you apprehensive about the expectations placed on ‘Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada’?
I never think about living up to expectations. It’s about the comfort zone. We have a good rapport. He is on the ball, he is ready to do anything, and it comes easily and naturally to him. This is the story of a boy who becomes a man and what happens to the man. It was a question of extending the character in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa.
Until I met Simbu, I was a bit apprehensive of how I would gel with him. But the minute I met him, I found him so casual and easy-going that I knew he could pull off the role easily.
You have said that you have tried to include more commercial elements in ‘Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada’.
A section of the audience seems to be saying, “Why did Gautham make a film like this!” But that’s also probably the hardcore kind of audience who are used to seeing me make a certain film – the kind that you sit back and enjoy and you’re drawn into an intense world.
While I was making this film, I wanted to cater to the other kind of audience – the ones who whistle and clap. I knew that the critics would not be very favourable to some of the stuff that I have done in the second half. It might shock audiences, but it will set the cash registers ringing. The last act is debatable and there are going to be discussions, but that’s good.
When I told Simbu, “We’ll have all five songs in the first half and none in the second half.” He was, like, “Bro, are you sure? Let’s push one song to the second half.” I told him, “There’s death chasing you, there’s fear all round, there are people coming at you – there’s no time even for a background score there.”
Wasn’t ‘Yennai Arindhaal’ a commercial film too?
When I made Yennai Arindhaal, people expected me to go a bit massier, they wanted a lot of Ajith in the film. But I wanted to make my kind of film with Ajith, which he was totally okay with. The film was made at Rs 52 crore and ended up collecting Rs 70 crore. The earlier films of Ajith collected around Rs 90 crore, so that way, Yennai Arindhaal was an average success.
Manjima Mohan has only been in the Malayalam film ‘Oru Vadakkan Selfie’. Why did you pick her?
I wanted someone who looked like she is my sister’s friend. When I met Manjima, she looked perfect for the role. We made her look a little different and despite being from Kerala, she got the lines right in both Tamil and Telugu. She’s in that Anushka Sharma and Deepika Padukone league. I told her that she does not have to be glamorous at all, even if she doesn’t get films, just sit at home and they will come to her.
Do you always write keeping a hero and heroine in mind?
Not unless I am writing the last 30 minutes of a film. I always go to work with only 70 per cent of the script. I do not write the last 30 percent until I start filming. So I film and get the mood of the character through the actor. Dhanush, Suriya, Simbu, Kamal Haasan, Ajith and Madhavan, they do something to your characterisation in their own way, which is more than what you have written.
Do the economics dictate the star?
No, I don’t have to take the 70 per cent script to the producer ever since Minnale. I take it to the actor and they get the producer. So it’s always the actor first. For example, Vinaithaandi Varuvaayaa was first presented to Mahesh Babu, then to Allu Arjun and then to Simbu. The economics changed and it becomes a lower-budget film.
The songs in ‘Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada’ are very popular. What was it like collaborating again with AR Rahman after ‘Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa’?
Rahman had been working for two-and-a-half years on the Tamil version of the album. I told him I needed a road trip song, I wanted the entire music to be in the first half and I wanted to treat it like a musical. Many industry pundits told me that if I kept back-to-back songs, people would go out for nicotine breaks. But nothing of the sort happened. That’s because of the power of the music and somewhere the visuals collaborated.
I told Rahman that I need an introduction song for the hero. He gets a bike and he really loves it. He said he liked the idea of doing it like a rap war. I said he’s got a best friend, so the friend can talk about girls while Simbu can talk about bikes. That’s how Showkali came about.
When we were writing the second song, the lyricist Thamarai said, why don’t we do it like an imaginary conversation between the bike and a bird, with them racing one another? She came up with this word called “rasaali”, which means falcon, and Rahman liked it. He composed the interludes after seeing the visuals for the song.
Thalli Pogathey happens in the middle of an important moment. I said I wanted to cut away to a fantasy and disturb the audience, so he said, let’s do a string melody and that’s how it was born.
Do you read reviews of your films?
No, I stopped reading reviews because they bother me at some point. I used to read reviews till Vaaranam Aayiram. When the Hindi remake of Vinaithaandi Varuvaayaa, Ek Deewana Tha, didn’t work, I asked Mani Ratnam, who had just done Kadal, how he handled reviews. He said, “Gautham, I don’t read any reviews. Did you make your film with conviction? Did you call hundred people to discuss the script? Then why are you worried about it now?” From that day on, I stopped. I doggedly write my scripts and put a lot of effort into my films. I don’t want to be affected by what critics say.
You had announced ‘Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada’ in 2013 itself, but the project got delayed. As a filmmaker who is clued into trade economics, what do you worry about when a project gets delayed?
What kills us is the interest cost, which nobody wants to waive. When there’s a delay, there is interest upon interest to calculate, which has to be put out on the day before the release. Most of these guys have a hold on the film at the laboratory. When you think that you have made a Rs 11-crore film and that when money comes from the market, you have to pay Rs six crore to the financier, he will tell you it’s Rs 11 crore. So you end up signing a film with somebody else and getting some money in advance and use that money here.
We need to be weaned away from these people and get corporate funding. Then the funding will come in not just for one film, but a portfolio, and with each and every film, you pay back a certain amount. The producer council doesn’t let in corporates, or you have to partner with a producer here.
Does producing your own films offer you anything more than creative freedom?
It’s only that. You do not make much money. I’m not saying this egoistically, but when someone tells me something about my work, it upsets me. Like when the producer had a different opinion on my treatment of Yennai Arindhaal, I was bothered by it and kept making changes throughout. If it were my own film, I wouldn’t have anybody telling me what to do.
How are your production companies Photon Kathaas and Ondraaga Entertainment different?
Photon Kathaas is a company that we started with money that came in from London, and it is listed there. There was a vision, but we faltered because of the films that we did. There were cases against us because the producer of Nee Thaane En Pon Vasantham said he had lost money. We had to back down and close down the company.
Ondraaga Entertainment is a company that I set up in partnership with two of my friends. It’s a platform to bring people together, like Selvaraghavan and Lingusamy. Nenjam Marapathillai was one of our initial projects. We are listening to scripts, we have access to people willing to put in the money. These are not loan sharks. The idea is to work on my films and with big directors as well as younger filmmakers.
Under Ondraaga, we released the songs of Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada too. I lost another Rs 1.5 crore there, but I decided that this music had to be respected and owned by me and not subject to negotiations by audio companies. At the risk of zero money coming in, I put the songs out on YouTube under Ondraaga Entertainment and I am collecting Rs 8-10 lakh every month with the views. I don’t have the one and half crores with me, but at some point, I’m sure, I will.
Your future projects include ‘Ennai Nokki Paayum Thotta’, starring Dhanush. How’s that going for you?
Brilliant! He is so dogged when he comes to the sets. He speaks very little, but we have a great rapport. He reads the scene, he knows the lines and he’s spot on. If he wants to make a change, he tells me. He goes in with his blinkers on. He is the guy who will hold his lungi and dance on the streets and he can also be suave and sophisticated. I’m doing an intense love-story action film with him and he pulls off the action nicely. He’s like Bruce Lee, actually.
What are the other projects you are working on?
I am discussing a film with Vikram. I have been looking forward to this for 15 years. Now something is brewing and we are actually on the same page. He loves the script, I am going to finish it, and then we are bringing the producer in.
The other film I am excited about is with eight big actors – four heroes and four heroines, to be made in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. Puneeth Rajkumar is on board for the Kannada part and Prithviraj will do the Malayalam bit. The Tamil and Telugu versions are yet to be signed, but mostly it’s Simbu in Tamil. I have already signed Anushka Shetty and Tamannah, and AR Rahman has said he will do the music. It’s in the Dil Chahta Hai, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobaara kind of genre, though very different from these films.