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Sarvam Thaala Mayam is a joyous tale: Rajiv Menon- Cinema express

Sarvam Thaala Mayam is a joyous tale: Rajiv Menon

The cinematographer-turned-director fields questions about his upcoming film starring GV Prakash Kumar

Published: 28th January 2019

As Rajiv Menon talks, it is fascinating to see how he seamlessly eases into a tune or two in between the silences. "There is Thaalam in everything. Sita Kalyanam, a song sung at Brahmin weddings, is the same raaga as Kuttanadan Punjaiyile, a song sung by men at boat races," he explains. This omnipresence of music is what he wishes to bring out with his new film, Sarvam Thaala Mayam. The film documents the life journey of an aspirant mridangist who wishes to break communal hurdles. "All of us have an innate sense of rhythm. Only if I kindle that emotion will the film not get stuck within an instrument. It's meant to appeal to the sense of music in us," he explains. 

Excerpts from a conversation:

There is a lookbook you create for all your films. What did that comprise for Sarvam Thaala Mayam?

There are two kinds of lookbooks -- one that is done after the shoot and one done before. It basically has design references so that I don't get lost in a swirl of ideas. In a film like Kandukondein Kandukondein, where I have two beautiful women as leads, instead of choosing random colours, we gave them a colour scheme according to their characters. However, Sarvam Thaala Mayam is not a stylised film like Kandukondein Kandukondein. Here, the lookbook is a post-device that is used to give style to the visuals. The first song, Peter Beatu Yethu, has a cold, celebratory tone. The film's palette then starts changing for each song, morphing in sync with the emotional graph of the film. Before grading, we needed a lookbook to ensure that the change happens smoothly and gives the desired effect to the viewer.

You say Sarvam Thaala Mayam is rooted in reality, but for us, so were your other two films. There seems to be a deep sense of realism that powers your cinema. 

It is something that stems from the story. But between 2000 and now, technology has advanced, and the way these stories are delivered has also changed. There is more access to world cinema these days and that has seeped into Tamil cinema. The tradition there is to root their stories and also ensure the character progression happens faster. That has influenced me as well. There is beauty in observing vis-a-vis creating. I would say I have observed more in Sarvam Thaala Mayam

You had earlier worked on a documentary on Mridanga vidwan, Umayalpuram Sivaraman. At what point where you convinced that you had an idea for a mainstream feature film about classical music?

The documentary only focusses on the greatness of Umayalpuram Sivaraman and the position that mridangam holds in Carnatic music. When I was shooting with Umayalpuram sir in Tanjore at a music festival, I noticed that he had someone named Johnson around all the time. So I was curious about who Johnson was. Then, I came to know that he was the one who repairs the mridangam, and later figured out that he was the one who made it. That led me to the eighty families who do this for a living. When I asked him, he said that his son was learning with Umayalpuram. He further added that it was his wish to see his son play at the Music Academy one day. It was then I realised I had a concrete story in hand.  

The film is coming at a crucial juncture when there's a debate in the musical community about the music played and the people playing it.

It is a combination of two things. Art not only needs talented young practitioners but also needs a thriving audience to acknowledge and consume the same. Right now, there are more practitioners of Bharatanatyam than people to see it. For both to happen, you need as many people as possible to get into the art sphere.

An explicit desire might not have been expressed but nobody stopped people who chose to learn music. Nobody stopped Ilaiyaraaja, Mandolin Srinivas or AR Rahman from becoming legendary musicians. Music is something that is beyond caste and religion. It unites people and should not divide people. If it is used to blame one community, I don't subscribe to that thought. Anybody who wants to learn music should learn music. Talent always reaches the audiences. 

Have your musical sensibilities influenced your filmmaking?

You should tell me that! (laughs) I enjoy music and I enjoy using music in my films. Even with the song, Varlaama, (which he composed), I didn't intend to it; I just got a word and a melody that just fit. I am not sure I have such intricate knowledge of the craft. 'Rasanai iruku. Arivukum gnanathukum rasanaikum vidhiyasam iruku.

You make ad films, feature films, work as a cinematographer, and also run a film school. Have the learnings from one helped with the other?

I have always wanted to try live sound. We experimented with the short films students used to take, but now, I have used that in Sarvam Thaala Mayam. I have also experimented with dialogues. There are different dialects and you need to use the right one to get the punch needed. I used to not take that seriously. But now I know what it is, and I have tried that. 

Is that why GV Prakash plays a Vijay fan in the film?

Maybe. (laughs)

What can the audience expect from Sarvam Thaala Mayam?

It is a joyful film. In fact, it is a film that will give young people hope. Sarvam Thaala Mayam is a film that is inclusive and is meant to bring people together. It will spark the creative flair in youth and give them the confidence to pursue that passion. 

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