Watching Nayagan, Gautham Vasudev Menon’s dream was to work with four artists behind that film: Ilaiyaraaja, Kamal Haasan, Mani Ratnam and PC Sreeram. He has already worked with Ilaiyaraaja (Neethaane En Ponvasantham), Kamal Haasan (Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu) and PC Sreeram (Putham Pudhu Kaalai). And now, he gets the opportunity to work with Mani Ratnam too, in Navarasa, the upcoming Netflix anthology produced by the Nayagan-director. “This is a dream come true for me. Nayagan started me on my journey, and I am sure it was a stepping stone for a lot of other filmmakers as well!” says Gautham.
And yet, for Gautham, this wasn’t the clincher to get involved in this project. Navarasa, which explores nine stories around nine emotions respectively, was pitched by Mani Ratnam and Jayendra Panchapakesan as an initiative through which to give back to the film industry affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. All proceeds from the anthology are to be donated to the Film Employees Federation of South India. “We were all clear that we would work without remuneration. We will continue donating more,” says Gautham.
Out of the nine emotions (rasas), Gautham’s film—surely, you are not surprised—is about love, and has been titled Guitar Kambi Mele Nindru. A ‘musical love story’ that happens over an evening, the film is about “how both characters inspire each other. Imagine being on a lonely journey and finding that someone unexpectedly. Your entire journey might change thereon. In 40 minutes, I wanted to tell such a story in a musical format.”
Gautham adds that though he wasn’t picky about the ‘rasa’. “I can pick any emotion and weave a story around it: wonder, fear, peace, courage, anything. We go through all these emotions, don’t we? Also, I like to keep it real.” However, like with his protagonists, love chose him. “And I was fine with it. I wanted to capture the attraction between these two main characters and make the audience fall in love with them.”
Gautham’s short stars Suriya and Prayaga Martin, with Suriya collaborating with the director after 13 years after their hit feature, Vaaranam Aayiram. The director says it’s like they picked things up right from where they left. “We felt a great vibe on the set once again.” For Suriya too, it’s a return to romance after a long time. “He liked the story. We discussed the script together, and did a reading of the script along with Prayaga.”
For Prayaga, this is her third appearance in a Tamil film. Casting the actor seems to have helped Gautham in more than one way. “After I write a character, I wait for the artist’s contribution to that script. Even when we were shooting the first shot, I saw Prayaga bring her uniqueness to the performance. We used that as the meter and as the mood board for the rest of the project.”
Many Gautham films have seen a young, new woman actor getting cast opposite a seasoned male star. “The opposite doesn’t usually happen because women stars aren’t easily approachable. All superstar actors have their own intricate ways of working. I think that’s why these combinations don’t happen more often. Still, this is only the beginning of the journey. I am sure we will crack it at some point,” assures Gautham.
Gautham is joining hands with singer and musician Karthik, with whom he worked in Kutty Story and another upcoming feature, Joshua Imai Pol Kaakha. “We connect really well. When we decided to make this film, we were already working on a few songs on our own. We then sat together to work on a few songs for this script. That connection drove us.”
The director is collaborating with another Karthik as well in Navarasa: Karthik Subbaraj, whose segment titled Peace, he’s a part of as an actor. “I see acting as a learning experience as you are in another director’s set and get to see how another crew functions. I watched Karthik’s way of functioning, and he showed me the short. I found mine to be an interesting role, be it the Tamil I speak, or the performance asked of me,” he says.
Gautham has now done both anthologies and a web series (Queen) in the OTT space. “I don’t see a big difference, whether it is a feature film, ad film or a short film. The effort, heart and thought that goes into all three are the same. I see every film as a new initiative. So, this 40-minute short was a fun, learning experience for me.” Before Navarasa, Gautham was a part of the Netflix anthology, Paava Kadhaigal—which took him into a different zone.
The director responds that he doesn’t believe in comfort zones. “You have to put your soul out there and you have to work for the philosophy you believe in. A love story is not a comfort zone for me. It is a challenge to bring the actors into the mood of this story and to tell the story in a musical format. I don’t complain because we enjoy the process. Similarly, in Paava Kathaigal, I challenged myself and wanted to see how I would delve into the story. I believe that we cracked it to a certain extent. During the web series, Queen, it was difficult because the script wasn’t written by me, and so, it takes a bit of time before you can own such material.”
He’s still learning and growing as a filmmaker, constantly, he says. “Being part of Navarasa was a lovely experience. I learned a lot from PC Sreeram sir, and it was fun to just watch the master at work. I also loved the vibe that Suriya and I shared. I extended a thread from Prayaga’s performance to carve out the rest of the film, and that was another beautiful learning experience.” On top of everything is, of course, the chance to work with his most favourite filmmaker, the director of Nayagan, Mani Ratnam. That’s a different type of love story entirely. “It’s a dream come true.”