Gautham Menon: Queen is NOT based on any real person
The filmmaker talks about various aspects of his web series debut, which will begin streaming for free from this Friday on MX Player
Episode 1 of Queen begins by showing you an assertive, promising student, Shakti Seshadri (Anikha). Her name, of course, is a metaphor for the repository of strength within her—strength she will draw from as she transitions from promising student to successful actor to powerful politician. The school she’s in is named St. Louis Park. By now, you know what these fictionalised names and places represent. Every now and then, the school scenes cut to a later point in the future when a middle-aged Shakti (Ramya Krishnan) is being interviewed by someone who seems suspiciously modelled on Simi Garewal. The thrill, partly, is about making relations to real events and places and people you are already familiar with. Unfortunately for the showrunners, MX Player, and the directors though (Gautham Menon and Prasath Murugesan), a case has been filed against them for allegedly presenting the story of Jayalalithaa without seeking permission. You can then see why director Gautham Menon is careful to avoid any mention of the Late Chief Minister or imply that the story bears any resemblance to her life.
In this brief conversation about the series at a press conference organised on Tuesday, he elaborates on the excitement of stepping into the OTT space, working with another director, and on directing a script by Reshma Ghatala again, after Neethaane En Ponvasantham—all while consistently denying the series has anything to do with the late ADMK supremo.
How did this web series debut come about?
The MX Player team procured the rights to the book, The Queen, and approached us. My partner, Reshma Ghatala, who wrote the script of Neethaane En Ponvasantham, adapted it into a screenplay. It came through to me as the inspiring story of a woman who was forced to quit school, and went on to become successful in films, and later, in politics. I hoped Ramya Krishnan would accept the project, but was not sure if she would, as it’s a web series, but the writing convinced her, I think.
Anjana Jayaprakash, one of the three actors to play the protagonist, Shakti Seshadri, spoke about how a defining characteristic of her personality was the desire to be the best at whatever she did. What else did you find to be striking about Shakti’s character?
While directing Ramya Krishnan, I could see that she was impacted by various portions of the series. She was moved sometimes, awed, or occasionally, surprised. The writing really hits you, as does Shakti’s character and her thoughts. I think the story of this woman will really resonate with people.
This is the first time you are working together with another director (Prasath Murugesan). Was it hard to maintain consistency in execution?
I think we have maintained it. There were times when we would be shooting simultaneously. Actors who would shoot with him in the morning would come to my sets by evening for other portions. We have taken notes from each other, and we have really collaborated. We have had so many conversations, and I don’t at all mind collaborating with him regularly and creating our own version of Abbas-Mustan.
What, according to you, did Prasath bring to the table?
He is particularly strong with the political angle of the story. We had discussed a lot about feature films, about stories we were both interested in, and when this idea came my way, I immediately went to him with it. I knew that given the difficulties I was going through, I couldn’t direct all the 11 episodes of the first season.
There’s been some criticism over the first look of a Jayalalithaa biography that came out recently.
I wish that team the very best. In Queen, we haven’t tried to make Ramya Krishnan transform into another person. The first thing I told her about the character was that she would not have to use prosthetics or excessive makeup. In fact, with some effort, Ramya could have easily played the young adult portions of the character too, but she didn’t want this. We have Anikha playing Shakti as a child, and I think she really looks a lot like Ramya Krishnan. Ramya truly steps into the series only at around episode 8, and then sees the season through.
You mentioned in the press conference that a certain filmmaker frowned upon your choice of directing a web series. Despite this space being thought of as the future, why’s the OTT medium still thought to be lesser than feature films?
I think that’s because the web series that have been made so far have not provided viewers with a feature film experience. I hear that some corporate organisations backed out of funding OTT content due to this. I hope Queen can change their minds.
What about Reshma’s writing won you over?
I can try and get into the mind of a female character, and write, and I have done to some success. However, I’m a reluctant writer, and I want to break out of my unidimensional writing. I want to work on content by other writers. This is what directors in the West do. This is how it should be. I know firsthand that writing this story really moved Reshma. She went through an emotional phase while working on this script. In fact, while making the series, I really got the feeling that we were all being watched by a protective spirit—like someone watching over us from the outside.
Typically, in biographies, I notice a tendency to romanticise the central character. How have you handled it here?
I really liked that Reshma’s script does not romanticise Shakti’s character. It talks about her lows. It shows that she’s powerful, vulnerable, emotional, selfish… If I had written it, I may have glorified her character, but I liked that Reshma did not do that.
Let me once again reiterate though that this is NOT a biography. In Hollywood, stories are made about real people, and nobody bats an eyelid. You could make a film about Trump and not be sued. We are not used to that. But it is all right; I also understand the other side. If I do get around to making a story about a real person sometime, I know I need to be responsible. We have made Queen to be the story of a woman coming trumps against all odds. We haven’t tarnished anybody’s name.