'Simran made me lose my inhibitions as an actor'
...says Gautham Menon, as he joins his co-star Simran in a conversation about their upcoming short, Vaanmagal, which is a part of Netflix's upcoming anthology, Paava Kadhaigal
More than two years since first setting foot in the Indian originals space, Netflix has started its southern sojourn with Paava Kadhaigal, an anthology based on honour killing. Tackling themes like caste-based violence and atrocities against the LGBTQ+ community, Paava Kadhaigal is not just a widely-anticipated release, it is also expected to start conversations about the central themes. The four-story anthology, which is directed by some of the biggest names of Tamil cinema — Gautham Menon, Sudha Kongara, Vetri Maaran and Vignesh Shivan — will premiere on the streamer on December 18.
Ahead of the film's release, Gautham Menon, along with Simran, his co-star in Vaanmagal, his own directorial venture, talks to us about their shorts, moving away from comfort zones, the responsibilities of handling sensitive themes, and more
You are thought to be a quintessentially urban filmmaker. In Paava Kadhaigal, however, your short, Vaanmagal, seems to be set in a tier-2 city. When handling a film based on honour killings, were you worried that your decision to move away from the city could be thought to reinforce the myth that the city doesn’t see caste?
Gautham Menon: Actually, this was something we discussed a lot. There was a six-month period between the project being commissioned and it going on floors. In the meantime, Sudha Kongara, Vignesh Shivan, and Vetri Maaran had completed their projects. So, I knew what they had done, and even contemplated doing this film in my usual ambience. But then, we felt there might be a chance that people might see the film being set in a city as something artificial or forced. Interestingly, the family in Vaanmagal is the kind of family you have seen in my other films. The central problem is something that can affect families irrespective of tier or class. The social pressure is the same everywhere. More importantly, this is a film based on a real-life case, and I wanted to shoot it in a similar milieu. I also decided that exploring a new setting would be a change for me.
Simran, your character Madhi undergoes much emotional upheaval and you are asked for a raw and intense portrayal. How do you step in and out of a role like that?
Simran: There was nothing easy about that role. Just before the shots, the director (Gautham) clearly explained what he wanted and gave me a narration of how it was inspired by a real-life incident. I was influenced by a real mother going through all of this. And then, as the cameras switched on, I felt a rollercoaster of emotions. This was a difficult topic and we had to be sensitive and careful about what we were doing. After the scene was canned and they cut the camera... there was pin-drop silence on the sets. That’s when I knew I did the shot properly. To carry and deliver such emotions, it is important the camera continues to roll, and the artist be allowed to delve into that emotion. Gautham is great at giving an actor that space.
Gautham, how did the actor in you adapt to this script you had written?
GM: Every actor brings something to the table. A director’s responsibility is to provide the necessary embellishments to help the actor do what they do. I don’t believe a director should act out scenes to the actor, and it isn’t easy for the actor either to reproduce it as is. That is why you yearn to work with brilliant actors who can make your job easy. You see, I am a learner as an actor. I observed a lot of Simran’s expressions while directing her. The way she transformed into the role, and the body language that she was able to pull off when the camera was on was such a lesson. In fact, I first shot all my scenes with her. Even the first scene featuring both of us was improvised on the sets. I fed off her body language, and it helped me lose my inhibitions.
Simran, unlike in the past, an actor’s transition to TV isn’t seen as a stepdown anymore. Given that you are making your OTT debut with Paava Kadhaigal, can we assume that you will be up for more offers for OTT projects?
Simran: Definitely. It’s a positive thing. I have never differentiated between cinema, TV, or now, OTT. When you stand in front of the camera, irrespective of the medium, an actor has to give their 100 per cent. That’s how you can be versatile and have a long career. I was 24 when I did Kannathil Muthamittal. I did a negative role in Paarthen Rasithen. Then, in Vaaranam Aayiram, I played a mother and a grandmother... And now, this... honour, sin, pride... I was never hesitant about taking up such challenges. It is important to understand that one doesn’t become popular only after an appearance on the big screen. Hard work is paramount, not the size of the screen.
Your project is quite unusual in how it handles the central topic of this anthology.
GM: Definitely. Right from the writing, I was very sure of this. In fact, I had long conversations with Simran about it, and she was also clear about not going down the traditional route. Madan Karky, who wrote the lyrics for this film, also felt the same. We didn’t want to do something just to create an impact. Just like how you asked me about moving away from the urban setup, we knew questions about our ending would come up too. Actually, even people at Netflix wanted to know if this was the route I intended to take. But they were appreciative of it.
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