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April 4, 1997


'We have not made a film of international
quality after Satyajit Ray'

WRajiv Menon hen Shobha Warriermet, Rajiv Menon, the young film-maker and cinematographer, was on a high: his first directorial venture, Minsara Kanavu (Electrifying Dreams) had been declared a hit after the initial dull weeks. Minsara Kanavu has been in the news ever since the movie was announced with Kajol, Prabhu Deva and Arvind Swamy in the lead.

Menon was, no doubt, lucky to get a break as a director from AVM in its 50th year in film-making. Along with Mani Ratnam's Iruvar, this was the most eagerly awaited film for Pongal. But public response was initially lukewarm to both the movies. People were so shocked to see a poor film from Mani Ratnam, they didn't talk about it.

Prabhu and Kajol in Minsara Kanavu But they did say Minsara Kanavu was disappointing. Then the distributors suddenly changed the end of the movie, and, magically, the audience was dancing, whistling and clapping in cinema hall whenever Prabhu Deva appeared. Kajol too earned her share of whistles.

Menon was first noticed in Bombay, his first film as a cinematographer. As the Hindi version of Minsara Kanavu, Sapnay< readies for release next fortnight, the director discussed his career, the late G Aravindan, the Malayalam film-maker/writer M T Vasudevan Nair and, of course, Mani Ratnam's Iruvar. Excerpts from the interview:

How did your initiation into cinematography and films come about?

When in school, I was interested in many things other than studies. I was a quizzer, so in order to prepare for quizzes, I was forced to read a lot of books on art. Thus I was exposed to the world of art. Otherwise, in Indian schools, you are not taught visual arts. Slowly I got interested in arts. So I thought, I must do something different, other than becoming an engineer or doctor.

Was that what was expected of you?

Yes. That was what everybody expected you to do; study science and become an engineer.

Were you a good student in school?

I used to be a reasonably good student. I was the school pupil's leader and al that. I studied at the Central School (Kendriya Vidyalaya), IIT. We had a very liberal atmosphere in school, we could read a lot, we could interact and slowly the desire to do something different, something purposeful and something I like grew inside me. It did not interest me to be an engineer or a doctor just because the people around me expected me to. When I was in the 12th standard itself, I decided to join the Adyar Film Institute and study photography. I specifically chose photography because I see photography as an applied science. There is an artistic element also in it. If you perfect your scientific element, you can attain certain quality.

So, you were more interested in the scientific aspects of photography.

Yes... not that way. Unlike painting or music, photography is more of an applied science. That is one of the reasons why I chose it. But creative aspects like composition, colour, texture, tone cannot be taught. You should have an inclination for art to understand all the creative elements. I didn't see photography as a separate unit from cinema. I was mainly interested in cinema. I love telling stories. But I believe that nobody could teach you to direct a movie. That's why I chose to specialise in cinematography.

You were a good student in school. So, when you decided to join the Film Institute, how did your teachers react?

They were bewildered. They thought I was mad.

Did they try to dissuade you?

I didn't listen to anybody. I don't have that kind of interaction with teachers. They knew that I would come out successful in whatever I did. Some of them were disappointed. Now, of course, I am sure they would have changed their mind. More than the teachers, it was my relatives who were disappointed.

Are they all professionals?

They are mainly teachers. They felt the child was spoilt because the father was not there. (He lost his father when he was 15.)

With his family Was your mother supportive?

She was supportive in a different sense. She told me, if you feel very strongly about something and want to do it, go ahead and do it. She didn't want me to say, when I turned 40 that I sacrificed my life for the family. I was the eldest, and my brother who was one year younger than me was going to college then. It was a tough decision.

I do not know how my mother had the courage to do it. I do not know whether I will be able to say the same thing to my daughter if she comes and tells me that she wants to be a circus clown! In our family, being a photographer was as stupid as being a circus clown (is to me). But my mother had the courage and foresight to tell me to do what I wanted to. It is amazing. I am really indebted to her for having allowed me to do cinematography.

When you actually started studying cinematography in the Institute, was it any different from what you expected it to be?

Yes, it was. First of all, I found the atmosphere very lax, the quality of the students very poor and teaching abysmal. We had only a few friends and few teachers who were inspiring. Soon I understood that I should not expect an institute to teach us, that is the place where we can grow. I used to get up in the morning and read photography. I can answer any question on photography. Even today I study photography with that kind of passion.

From there I went to America with a scholarship which opened my eyes. Knowledge gives you confidence, knowledge gives you a sense of achievement. But theoretical knowledge beyond a point is unless. But creativity is a wholesome process, you don't know from where it gushes forth, you don't know how it happens. Sometimes you marvel at your own work. You may wonder whether a piece of work was created by you, whether you are capable of such a creation.

It is not something you can prepare yourself for. This is what I understood when I went to the US. They may not know anything about India or Sweden, but they are very good in their job. Suppose you want evening sunlight, you should know how to fix the light in such a way that you get what you want. You yourself should know how to do it. I saw them doing such work themselves till they got what they wanted, instead of asking somebody to do it for you.

Do they not do such work here?

(Here) People tend to gloat over their achievements very easily. Really.

Why is it so?

I don't know. At the Institute, I found that out of 15 students, three would work very hard, most others would be uninterested and the rest think so high of themselves that they wouldn't touch the camera. They would sit sipping tea and say all the others were fools! Malayalis are classic examples of such a phenomenon.

They think they are great but they are nothing today. Even cinematically speaking, they have just deteriorated over the years. You don't have an Aravindan or Adoor coming up. It is primarily because we think, we presume that art is very highbrow. Actually, art is not highbrow; it is a process of creation. I think you should take yourself as seriously as a weaver or a potter. It just happens for them. The same way creativity has to come from within.

Photographs: Sanjay Ghosh

Rajiv Menon, continued