His first feature film in Malayalam, Bhavum, won several awards -- including Best Feature Film, Best Background Score and Best Editing -- at the Kerala state awards this year. Jyothirmayee won the award for Best Supporting Actress, while Menon himself won the Best Debutant Director award.
Menon, in fact, has collected almost all the best debut awards in Kerala, including the Aravindan Puraskaram (instituted in memory of the late filmmaker G Aravindan) and the John Abraham Award (named for the late John Abraham, another well-known Kerala director).
Menon was born in Florida, USA. Though he spent a part of his childhood in India, most of his formative years were spent in Michigan. After graduating with a Master's in environmental engineering, he worked as a consultant until he was bitten by the cinema bug.
He wrote, produced and directed four short fiction films and one documentary before making his first feature. At present, the Chicago-based director is working on a documentary on battered immigrant women in Chicago titled Survivors on the Domestic Front -- Stories of Battered Immigrant Women.
Menon discussed his movie with Shobha Warrier. Excerpts:
The Kerala State Awards Committee judged Bhavum the Best Malayalam Film. Were you expecting it?
I was absolutely surprised! I owe it all to Mr Adoor Gopalakrishnan's generosity for choosing not to enter his film, Nizhalkattu, in competition in that category. I have heard it's an excellent film; I can't wait to see it.
You were born and brought up in the US. Why did you decide to make a film in Malayalam?
It was a matter of economics. I made this film to learn the craft of filmmaking from technicians who have been in the field and have a track record of being part of quality films. Given the resources at my disposal, it seemed like an ideal place for my schooling. Since Kerala was part of my background, it just seemed intuitive that I set it there. Malayalam was incidental to the decision.
Having been away from Kerala for most of your life, how well do you know the language and culture?
I speak Malayalam and can effectively communicate in it. But as far as culture is concerned, I have no idea. The word culture itself is such an amorphous entity. In this day and age, I wouldn't even claim to have a rudimentary understanding of it. But I saw Kerala, just like India and many other countries in the world, in a state of perpetual transition, and that was intriguing.
Many Indians born and brought up outside India make films in English on the 'confused, rootless life' they lead abroad. You, on the other hand, made a film on Keralites living in Kerala.
Perhaps I need to explore the narcissist in me and become self-obsessed with delusions of being confused and rootless. But that exploration would bore me. I will live in denial a bit longer. I am more of a voyeur, interested in other people's lives. What better place to begin than a land where my parents come from? If ever I feel rootless, I will just move to Kerala.
An engineer by profession, when did you become interested in films?
In my late 20s, after watching a slew of bad films, my arrogance got the better of me and argued, 'If they can do it, why can't I?'
You have had no formal training in filmmaking. What gave you the courage to start a feature film, that too in Malayalam?
I did make a few short films until I could muster enough courage to invest in a feature-length film. That was where I learned: avoid making mistakes from previous films.
As far as Malayalam is concerned, does language really matter when it comes to cinema?
What was your training ground in filmmaking?
Watching lots of films and learning the art by making short films.
Why did you choose to call your film Bhavum?
I can't take credit for it. Josy Joseph -- who translated the dialogues into Malayalam -- happened to use the word during one of our sessions and it just resonated with me. Once he explained its meaning, I realised it fit the context of the film.
At one time, Malayalam films were based on literary works. Now, stories are written for films, and that has affected the quality. Bhavum was inspired by the play, A Streetcar Named Desire. How important is it to have a strong story for a film?
Again, I would not make any pretence to being knowledgeable about Malayalam films or their history. Overall, I believe writing for cinema is an art by itself. Someday, I hope I can master it. A good story is the quintessential foundation of any great script and thereby a film. You can make a bad movie out of a good story, but never will you be able to make a good movie out of a bad story.
I have never been a proponent of adapting good novels or literary works directly for cinema. Most of the time, the essence of the novel gets lost since the filmmaker is forced to tell the story within a short period of time. The narrative structure of a novel is never didactic. A film by its nature demands that the filmmaker continue along the narrative path, frame by frame, without deviation.
Having said that, I am in favour of filmmakers being influenced by literary works and taking certain themes from them, as opposed to the entire text, and exploring them in the filmmaker's own voice; it would be of tremendous benefit to cinema. It could serve as an extension to the discourse, instead of being redundant.
I don't hide the fact that my film was heavily influenced by Streetcar, [but] I have to say it is only as far as the character relationship is concerned. The plot and character motivations are far from that play. In a way, the characters react in a way that was influenced by Crime and Punishment. I was more interested in the struggle of consciousness of my characters that, by the way, resembled Stanley, Blanche and Stella [the main characters in A Streetcar Named Desire] only in the nature of their relationship to each other.
Latha, the wife in Bhavum, is content while Joy, her husband, desires a better materialistic life. Did you consciously create them as two persons of contrasting nature?
Drama and conflict, by nature, demand contrasting characters. I hope they came across as such.
You have hinted that the reason for Joy's desires was the globalised materialistic economy. Do you feel globalisation has resulted in man becoming more materialistic irrespective of the place he lives in?
Acquisition of resources has been man's motivation since the dawn of time. He defines and claims a status for himself by it. That, by nature, makes man greedy, doesn't it? Greed prevailed even before we discovered the term globalisation.
Globalisation is nothing new. What the British were doing through the East India Company after the industrial revolution in essence was also globalisation, wasn't it?
Are you planning to be a full-time filmmaker and bid goodbye to engineering?
It's always good to have something to fall back on, in case your passion does not help pay the rent.