A glimpse into the life voyage of RAJIV MENON, the legendary cinematographer, focussed producer, staunch director, experimenting actor and passionate educator
By ANISHA GAKHAR
Sitting in his quaint Chennai office last month, I felt a sense of inspiration surging through my veins whilst conversing with the veteran cinematographer- turned-director, Rajiv Menon. The multi-award winner is a simpleton at heart with an insatiable quench for knowledge, and believes that learning never ends. His charismatic personality surfaced through his wit, intelligence and a never-dying zeal for his work. The passion and enthusiasm oozed manifold during his photo shoot, owing to his patience and eagerness to pose for the pictures! With a career spanning over three decades, Rajiv Menon has been a stalwart in the media industry.
Menon was born in Kochi, Kerala, to the popular Malayalam and Tamil film playback singer, Kalyani Menon. His father was a naval officer, because of which Menon got the opportunity to live in various naval bases of the country, and attend many naval schools throughout his childhood. The Menon family eventually shifted to Chennai, and Rajiv completed the rest of his schooling there. At an age as tender as his then, he was always fascinated by science and technology; which made him quiz everything happening around him. He recalled, “Those were the days when quizzes were purely visual. They’d show us a picture of a Western classical painting and we as kids, had to identify the same. Generally, not many people can look at a painting at identify the painter – say this could be Picasso and that could be Da Vinci? Exactly this curiosity proved catalyst in getting people attracted to art. This is how I started feeling a passion towards art forms, even though I was a science student.”
Menon was only in his tenth grade, when his father’s untimely demise made him realise how fickle and unpredictable life was, and if there was a time to do something – it was now. As he recalled, he got attracted to photography out of the blue, and went and joined the M.G.R. Government Film and Television Training Institute to study cinematography. After graduating, he couldn’t manage an assistantship with a leading cinematographer, owing to his newness in the industry. He hence, started working on the steadycam, and the company Prasad Productions sent him abroad to deploy the same. “While deploying the steadycam, I’d gotten opportunities to work with Ashok Mehta, on Akhree Raasta, and various versatile productions. I witnessed various styles of work, in different languages – one day it’s a Kannada film and the other day, it used to a Tamil one. Sometimes it was art cinema and others, it was commercial. It served as a rapid course in film-making for me,” said Menon. He had comprehended that it might be difficult to get into the film industry, and hence, focused his attention on industrial still photography. During his leisure time, Menon used to work with an industrial photographer, Krishnan, to learn the nuances of printing and photography. Krishnan motivated Menon to try his hand at ad-making, since it was a booming industry in Mumbai. Falling in love with ad-making at a young age, Menon kick-started his career in the field of ad-photography, and then went on to make umpteen TV commercials after. He fondly recalled, “While making commercials, one also ends making friends and creative associates. One young chap, by the name Dilip – who later on went on to become A.R. Rahman, was doing the music for us. The first commercial he did was with me for Allwyn Trendy Quartz.” The ad for Asian Paints, Menon recalls, was close to his heart. It had the theme of ‘homecoming,’ which reminded Menon of his childhood days when he used to run to his grandmother’s arms when he saw her from a distance. The ad was a 60 second one, while the designated time for it was 30 seconds. The look and feel of the ad was so well-received that the team decided to go with the entire 60-second version. This particular ad garnered a lot of affection from viewers across the country, and was specially commended and popularised by Alyque Padamsee, the ad-giant. The chain of ads followed with some names like Dove, Bru and other national brands, on his list.
Menon started to laser his attention to how he could use real light and enhance the process of shooting. He started off as cinematographer with Prathap K. Pothan’s Telugu film, Chaitanya at the age of 17. However, he got his major breakthrough as a cinematographer with Mani Ratnam’s Bombay; Menon’s second film. “I had to study the still photographs of the Bombay riots, in order to recreate the scenes with a set in Chennai,” commented Menon.
Menon was given a chance to direct a film by a leading production company, accidentally whilst introducing Rahman to the director. As a return gesture, Rahman suggested Rajiv as the director of the movie which starred Prabhu Deva. Menon was surprised and found himself amidst something he never thought he’d do. “I was thinking of saying something weird and outrageous, so they’d throw me out. So I narrated a story that involved a handsome boy who falls in love with a beautiful girl. The girl wants to be a nun. The boy doesn’t know what to do, so he takes help of a barber. The barber, while trying to set his friend up, ends up being the object of love for the girl!” joked Menon. After having expressed this idea, he assumed he’d be left out of the production. But the reaction he got from the company was far from what he expected. They liked the story and asked him to develop the same into a script. This is how Rajiv Menon was launched as a director. At that time, Menon’s hands were full – with the movie direction, running his own production house for commercials and cinematography.
His Tamil adaption of the movie Sense And Sensibility by Jane Austen, was called Kandukondain Kandukondain and garnered accolades across places, from movie halls all the way to film festivals. The movie brought recognition for Menon as a director that should be taken seriously. He still continued leveraging his love for cinematography in between directing movies.
Rajiv Menon’s latest venture, Sarvam Thaala Mayam, is and A.R. Rahman musical, starring composer-turned-actor, GV Prakash. The shooting of the film wrapped up in Meghalaya in April this year, and it premiered at the 31st Tokyo International Film Festival before releasing in Indian theatres. The movie is a coming-of-age saga of a young drummer played by Prakash, who succeeds against all odds to become a known Mridangam player. The musical drama employed live sync sound technology in the film. Along with being an intriguing story, the movie also addresses the social barriers that exist in our society.
CHENNAI AS HIS FORT
When asked about why he chose Chennai as his den, Menon explained, “My formative years were spent here. When the industry is well-established in a certain place, it leapfrogs when a group of talented people come together. Here in Chennai, the likes of Mani Ratnam, Prabhu Deva, P.C. Sreeram and A.R. Rahman had already raised the bar up a notch. Another good thing in Chennai is that is not much influenced by Hindi cinema. In fact it has always been a counter movement. Say, if Bollywood was doing marriages, music and dance; we were doing arty subjects and blood feuds.”
Chennai also proved to be a little cost-effective for production, asserted Menon. “Unlike in mainstream Bollywood where one requires a good star cast and producer/director to back a film, a very basic movie plot would earn a profit of around 8 crore in Tamil Nadu. Chennai is also culturally rich, which makes it a conducive environment to tell stories,” said Menon.
LEADING THE PATH
Menon led us to his film institute, Mindscreen Film Institute (MFi), post our photo shoot and interview.
It started as a school for cinematography in 2006, and branched out to include courses in screenplay writing, film-making, direction, photography and acting. It caters to many aspects of film-making, from the choices a cinematographer confronts, to understanding the director and his script, how sound and music transform a scene, and assembling of images in the editing room.
The institute offers aspiring students from around the globe, personal training under the guidance of some of the best teachers in the business, including sessions taken by Menon himself. Many of Menon’s students have worked in movies and web-series.
THEN AND NOW
According to Menon, in the black and white era, lighting as a concept was a confused subject, since people were struggling to introduce colour precisely. The light used to bounce into the ceiling and the colours were mostly flat. It called for a fine balance between the soft light and contrast, to make the film look realistic. Shooting indoors used to be a tedious task, given the low light.
“Back then, getting a realistic image, whilst making sure it was visually arresting, was a challenge. Now, with the advent of digital cinematography, exposure is not a problem. There are no sleepless nights spent after exposing the image, in wonder of how the image will turn up. Gratification is less, so we can be at peace,” explained Menon.
WORDS OF WISDOM
Menon brought attention to the fact that nowadays, lighting is more of illumination, which overlooks the finer details of cinematography. The ease, with which one can capture a shot in any light and any background, has made aspiring cinematographers take their job less seriously. “Lighting has a huge impact on the emotion. The lighting used to denote the emotion of loneliness, is different from that used to emote suspense; even if both shots are at night. Light is not for just illumination. It is for recognising the prevalent emotion that is coming through in the dialogue, or the unsaid emotion that is binding two scenes. The kind of progression one gets with colour, light, composition and movement gives a sense of completion in the story-telling process. Everything can not be too beautiful,” shared Menon.
Cinematography, according to Menon, is not about lighting a shot. That is still photography. Cinematography is the weaving together of a story, building up continuity and using various amplifying factors to garnish and add value to the final outcome.
Menon’s office was flanked by still photography shots of ferocious tigers in the forest. The shots were as real as life. When asked about the same, Menon noted, “I find myself learning and evolving my skills every day. When I’m not shooting, I take out my jeep and still camera and go to the forests to capture nature. One touches the very core of cinematography when one is alone in the forest, without anyone at one’s beck and call, and purely looking through that lens!” exclaimed Menon. In a studio, when the cinematographer wants a tree, the crew arranges for a tree in frame. Everything is under the cinematographer’s command. But when out in the wilderness, one gets to observe. “Cinematography is a bit of both – creating and observing. I think the observational aspect of cinematography has its origins in documentaries and photo journalism. For example, you’ve got to be academic enough to think about Varanasi’s history when going on a shoot to Varanasi,” enlightened Menon.
Menon very meticulously explained that the backdrop of a city plays a key role in understanding the emotion of a place.
The horizon, for instance, in Istanbul, would have domes and minarets, while that in India, would be trees and greenery. The structural ideas of composition and the vision needed, is what every aspiring professional should imbibe.
“Lot of people don’t read anymore. Because they do not read, they do not know how stories are made. You’ve got
to be a story-teller, with a unique vision, style and team leading skills. The ability to tap into the best talent and associating with yourself with people better than you; are the qualities required to be a successful director. Having the knowledge about all possibilities like sound, effects, actors and developing syntax of one’s own is the need of the hour. There’s no recipe for success. Things that are relevant today might not be in trend tomorrow. The ability to keep pace with ever-changing technologies and fads is especially essential in honing one’s skills. You have to know the difference between the colours – wine and purple,” explained Menon.
BEHIND EVERY SUCCESSFUL MAN, THERE’S A LOVING MOTHER
On being asked about his legendary journey, Menon coyly said, “When you ask me this, I feel like ‘Oh God, I have been here for quite some time,’ but I feel like I’m very fresh and always learning. I’ve been in the industry for quite some time, but I still need to figure out a few things. Even now, on the first day of shooting for any new film, I have butterflies in my stomach. The day one loses that excitement, inquisitiveness, competitiveness and winning streak, is the day one should stop shooting.” Just as he loves the sound of an old car engine revving up, which is barely heard in modern times, he stresses on always being in touch with the rawness and essence of cinematography. “Just like there’s a charm in writing love letters, there is always something special about the basic conventional way of doing things,” smiled Menon.
On asked about how he keeps so fit, so much that he could pass for a 35 year-old, he said he believes in walking and exercising. Another person who plays a pivotal role in his life, is his beloved mother, veteran singer Kalyani Menon. “I’m eternally grateful to my mother for not having emotionally blackmailed me into doing something I didn’t want to. She’s a great friend, but besides that she is an optimist. She is 76 years old, recently had a fall and hurt herself. But she just finished singing for a new film set to release. She was so excited about the fact that her song is trending and got 2 million views on Youtube! A woman who is 76, who can barely walk is looking forward to her next song. She always encourages me to do what I truly want to, and this kind of positivity has really rubbed off on me!” exclaimed Menon.
Like mother, like son!