After Maa, I’m motivated to make a short film myself: Gautham Menon

Maa’s director Sarjun and its producer, Gautham Menon, analyse their second collaboration, and among other things, talk about the short film’s rousing reception in this elaborate conversation with me

Three days. One million views. Maa, Sarjun’s second film, has shown that his first, Lakshmi, was no flash in the pan. This film too, like the first, is about the travails of a homemaker, and is, again, sensitive to a fault. Now, for the first time, Sarjun and Gautham Menon touch upon the issues surrounding Lakshmi, and more importantly, discuss their latest, Maa, that’s whipping up a YouTube frenzy:

Was there some good to come out of all the controversy surrounding Lakshmi?

Sarjun: I didn’t even imagine that there was a possibility of such outrage. For the first five days after Lakshmi’s release, it got about 50,000 views, and I was content. Suddenly, over a night, it reached half-a-million views and since then, it’s kept exploding. That’s when the vicious, personal attacks began. Strangers dug out my Facebook ID and began sending me abusive messages. I was quite hurt.

Gautham: He was. The backlash was new for him. I’d faced something similar for Nadunisi Naaigal when a group of people created some trouble outside my house. In fact, it was that unsavoury experience that made me advise him not to react at all. That’s why we didn’t give any interviews or send press releases about Lakshmi. We didn’t want to feed the controversy.

Surely, all this must have been running in your mind when you were contemplating making Maa?

Sarjun: Of course, it did. The crazy outrage over Lakshmi made me lose my sense of judgement. I couldn’t tell if Maa would also result in a controversy.

Gautham: We picked Maa off two stories he narrated to us. The other was a lot more touchy. Also, I chose Maa because I have a 15-year-old son myself, and the topic hit home. My only request to him — again, from my capacity as the parent of a 15-year-old — was to desist from vilifying the son. Thankfully, the script didn’t. The sensitive portrayal of the mother and the daughter may be new, but the depiction of the boy is truly unprecedented.

Both of Sarjun’s short films so far have featured a female protagonist. If I am right, your upcoming feature film, Echarikkai Idhu Manithargal Nadamaadum Idam, also has a woman playing the titular character?

Sarjun: Women have influenced my life profoundly — in both good and bad ways. I cannot escape that. No matter what I write, their influence will always be felt.

Gautham: When I approach leading heroes, they often tell me about their concern at the villain being stronger than their character. I think Sarjun will face a similar problem. They will tell him that the women are stronger. (laughs)

Gautham, you called Vettaiyadu Vilayadu the ‘second episode in a cop’s life’. Could we call Maa the second episode of a homemaker’s life?

Gautham: Yes, I think so.

Sarjun: The story was written from the perspective of the mother. It’s about her journey from denial to acceptance. It’s a classic struggle of a middle-class family whose members are constantly scared of society’s judgement.
In fact, I’d approached many parents, including my mother, and asked them how they’d react if they were in a similar situation. Some of their responses have helped shape Maa. My mother’s response was quite similar to how the main character responds. That’s one of the reasons I’ve dedicated the film to her.

Is the mother in this film conflicted about lying to her husband?

Sarjun: I think she crosses that obstacle in the story, when she cries in the terrace. I think more than worrying about how she’s lying to her husband, she’s focused on protecting the girl.

Can Maa also be seen as a commentary on how homemakers don’t quite get their due?

Gautham: Sure. I genuinely think they don’t. ‘Homemaker’ is a fairly new term, after all. They are often taken for granted. I’ve always drummed the importance of that role in my family.

I found it refreshing that in this film about two women, there’s a general reluctance to vilify the men.

Gautham: Yes, even the father character is shown to be helping his sister, in a scene. After the events of the film end, I hope the father character comes to know of what happened and can make his peace with it.

Sarjun: Yes. The mother took a while to accept the issue at hand. Perhaps the dad will take longer.

The film also makes you wonder about the lack of sex education in our society.

Sarjun: While it’s important that it come from schools, I think it’s even better when it comes from parents too. I hope we reach that stage in another 10-15 years. Parents must teach their teenage children that it’s natural; that it’s just science.

Gautham: I’ve had the big talk with my boy. Given I have two other boys, I guess I’ll have it twice more. I thought it would be awkward, but it wasn’t — perhaps because we have always been like friends.

Did you intend for Maa to be seen as a pro-abortion film?

Sarjun: The film’s idea — that children should be brought into the world not in fear, but in joy — applies to everyone. But no, I don’t see it as a pro-abortion film. Maa is more about the circumstances of one particular family. Adult couples can still change their mind and have children. A 15-year-old can’t.

Given how millions have taken to watching both Lakshmi and Maa, it seems like there’s a future in getting short films released on YouTube.

Gautham: In fact, I’m motivated to make a short film myself. Imagine if directors like Selvaraghavan and Lingusamy released such short films on YouTube every once in a while. These films barely take a couple of days of shooting, after all.
Also, as you know, for many feature films, we often end up stretching material that’s perfect for a short film. A film like Minnale was formulaically designed. With these 20-30 minute short films however, you don’t have to add flab. You can just say what you want. I think Maa is the most satisfying project I’ve been part of in my career. Also, from the perspective of a producer, YouTube content pays well in the long run. In fact, songs like Maruvaarthai and Thalli Pogathey continue to keep us running.

Sarjun: Also, there’s far more freedom in creating content.

Gautham: Well, we probably won’t really do it too differently, but still. (laughs)

This interview was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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