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September 7, 1998


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'I don't like my film liked by an illiterate'

Shobha Warrier

P N Menon. Click for bigger pic!
Five decades in any industry is a long time. And better when, for most of the time, you've been a name to reckon with. And that's just what P N Menon was in the Malayalam film industry.

In January, a retrospective of his films was held at the International Film Festival in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, a fitting tribute to one who single-handedly took Malayalam films outdoors, away from the stuffy, artificial interiors of the studio.

At seventy, P N Menon is a treasure house of memories, some pleasant, some not. Many of those memories have eroded, at least from conscious memory; but others are indelible.

It was determination, perseverance and courage that buoyed up Narayanankutty, who gained fame as P N Menon, through many an adversity.

Born in a poor family in a small town called Vadakkancherry in Kerala, the young Menon found pleasure in visionary sketches. Sometimes his dreams took the form of verse too. But all those dreams were rooted in the tents that often found their way into the open village grounds, where films were shown.

The locals were always wonder-struck to see people walking, talking and living out exciting lives on the dimly-lit screen. They were in Tamil and came just once a year, but the locals didn't mind.

"People today can't understand our feelings then. Inside the temporary tents, they used a dynamo to run the movies. It took more than three hours for a movie to get over. I was 10 or 12 then. Films were a wonder to me. I could only look at them with awe and amazement. All the villagers were stunned to see the moving pictures but I was more curious..."

And that prompted him to want to be involved in their creation. So, 50 years ago, at the age of 20, he climbed into the only train, the Madras Mail, that went from Kerala to Madras. He didn't know what he could do in films, where the films were made, even the language spoken in Madras. All he knew was that he wanted to be where the films were being made.

And his dreams were shattered when he wasn't even allowed inside the two studios in Madras, Newton and Gemini. For five months he tries but the gates still wouldn't open to him. Finally, all he wanted was a job.

And then, one day, a letter landed up at his door, arriving after countless 'redirections'. He didn't know what it was till he remembered he'd applied once to the Modern Studios at Salem when he was in the ninth standard.

A still from Menon's work. Click for bigger pic!
"From where could I get money to buy a train ticket when I could not even eat anything? I travelled to Salem as a ticketless traveller. Luckily, nobody caught me and I reached Salem, hoping that my worst days were over..."

But they weren't. He couldn't find Modern Studios since studios then were run from small houses. So he took up a job as a production boy in another studio. He had to do all the work, including cooking, drawing water from the well, washing clothes, cleaning the house and running errands for everyone. He remained there only because they gave him food.

But his spirit wasn't squished. For he could see people actually shooting films; he could hear the whirr of cameras, could smell the grease and watch plastered ladylike heroes and prettified ladies go through the motions. A dying dream was stoked alive again. But, after two-and-a-half years, the studio was shut down and went back to Madras.

"To tell you the truth, I don't want to be reminded of all those miserable days. I lived a wretched life. It was like being caught in a whirlpool. My life had reached such a nadir that it could not go down any further. The only bright lining about those days was I learnt a lot about films. At one time I'd even stopped thinking about movies altogether. I wanted only two things, then-- food and shelter. I was desperate.

He got back to sketches, then painting, moving up to doing magazine covers. One assignment led to another, then more. One of his designing assignments was for one of producer B Nagi Reddy's magazines.

The production house was so impressed with his talent that when they bought Vahini studio in 1951, Nagi Reddy's son appointed him as an apprentice in the painting department. That was P N Menon's first paid job in the film world. But the drudgery of painting sets began getting to him again.

The turning point in his life came when he got a job as an art director in an English play produced by the daughter of the then Andhra chief minister. They had three performances in Delhi, one for the then vice-president Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, another for prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the third for army chief Field Marshal K M Cariappa.

But Menon had 'creative' problems with an engineer from Crompton Greaves who worked on the lights with them. Though they couldn't reconcile their differences, when the engineer, Raju, decided to produce a Tamil film, he asked Menon to be the art director. That was his break.

Click for bigger pic!
One of the first Mayalayam films, Ninamaninja Kalppadukal, was being made in Madras at the time. Naturally Menon, the Malayali on Tamil terrain, was picked to be the art director. He was confident he could do full justice to a Malayalam film, since he understood the milieu, the characters, even the feelings. Thereafter, almost every Malayalam movie then had Menon as the art director. But an art director then didn't contribute much to films, Menon says now.

"Yes, I worked as an art director, but films were no different from dramas then... It didn't satisfy me at all. In fact, I was learning all about films then, while working as an art director. In those days, I used to see at least one international film a day. That was my education; those films were my books and I learnt a lot. I also read many books.

"The desire to create a movie myself intensified with each passing day, and my greatest ambition was to transplant movies from the interiors of the studios to the vast outdoors, where you don't need artificial light or colour. It wasn't because I saw many international movies that I wanted to make realistic movies but because I felt films should be closer to life. Films made in Madras then were far from realistic. Actually, in those days, I even felt my idea about movies were wrong."

What gave him confidence was the movies made by Vittorio De Sica, the famed Italian master of neo-realism and director of classics like Bicycle Thieves.

"I saw a lot of his films not once, but several times. Those films had a simple village background; they lacked glamour, the frills... I longed for the day when I could make a film on my own, a simple realistic film."

Inspired by Woman of the River, Menon finally made Rosie, most of which was shot outdoors. The performers didn't wear make-up and the sound was also dubbed. All these were unheard of till then in Malayalam films. That was the first time a Malayalam film was made outside a studio, sans artificial lights and sets.

The film failed. But Menon wasn't perturbed: It wasn't commercial success he was seeking.

"I made a good movie but it didn't make any money. So nobody came forward to give me more films. It didn't sadden me. I never felt like compromising on what I wanted, to see my films accepted by more people. What was more important to me was satisfaction. Rosie made me content.

"I'd never ever thought of making money through films. I don't consider it a way to make money. To me, films are creative. And I feel pure creative work can never be appreciated by all. If you look at the history of any creative art, you will understand that. So, I actually feel contemptuous if films are big commercial hits.

Click for bigger pic!
"If a film of mine is a hit, then I know it is not a good creative work. I feel ashamed if a film of mine runs for 100 days. I can't even think about that. Personally, I'd feel disappointed if a film of mine is a commercial success. I don't like my film liked by an illiterate. I like it only when my film is appreciated by an intellectual, someone who has a good idea about films..."

In the case of Malayalam films, the seventies were one of the most active periods. It produced some really outstanding films and also several less reputable films. It was both the best and the as well as the worst periods. Adoor Gopalakrishnan entered the scene with Swayamvaram, I V Sasi started a new trend with Avalude Ravukal (Her Nights).

But P N Menon's Olavum Theeravum based on M T Vasudevan Nair's script and released in 1970, still holds as one of the most realistic and sensitive films ever in Malayalam. Menon didn't resort to melodrama or sentimentality, just narrated the tale of some characters plucked from real life. All that, very realistically.

"I'm proud to say we didn't compromise at all. All of us worked in unison and it was the creative effort... We didn't use a single light. There were no actors in it. We camped on the banks of Aluva river and the whole film was shot in a small hut. But we enjoyed the process. We did win some awards, including the Best Film award from the Kerala state. But even if we hadn't won any awards, we wouldn't have been disappointed; it was one film all of us enjoyed making.

"People still respect me for that film. Even though I had made some mistakes, it gave me a wonderful feeling, a feeling of satisfaction."

Menon's boldest film is Kuttiyedathi (Eldest Sister), again based on a short story by M T Vasudevan Nair. Kuttiyedathi was about a girl who goes through hell just because she isn't attractive. Menon was courageous enough to cast a heroine who wasn't really good-looking in the title role. And that made it a poignant film.

But then, Menon learnt to compromise, and quite a few of his films, made in the mid- and late seventies were disappointing.

Click for bigger pic!
"Yes, I know those films were below the standard set by me earlier. I didn't do it intentionally. When somebody offers to produce a film for you, you're forced to accept it. I'm part of an industry where I have lots of friends and well-wishers. I was not in a position to say no to many. For example, I don't like songs in my films.

"But Vayalar (Rama Varma) was a very good friend of mine and I liked his poems. So, when he said, your films should have my poems, I couldn't say no. Another thing is, when you read a script, you feel it will turn out into a great visual product. Yes, I admit it -- I made some compromises in those films. But even when I made those films, I never thought of the commercial angle... Even now, I don't think of that aspect. I don't direct movies to make money. I make films only for myself, not even for the producer."

Menon the painter and Menon the film-maker always work in unison. Film, according to him, is a visual medium. Where several paintings or visual images joint together, a film is created, he says.

"I don't like to tell stories in films. Stories strangle me. I like to take an incident and develop on it through images. I feel that is true cinema. Films should not be used to narrate stories. We have several other media to tell stories.

"Have you seen the film Rope ? It is life portrayed within a short period of time. Do we have to make films with stories like the Ramayana or the Mahabharata? Do we have to take the help of dialogues so much? Cinema is a visual medium."

How important were dialogues in a visual medium like cinema, we asked.

"You cannot make films without dialogues because not all emotions can be expressed through craft, facial expressions or situations alone. If we can achieve that without the help of dialogues, that would be great. Dialogues are necessary but they shouldn't be used to tell stories. They should be a part of life, a part of the whole film. The story should evolve from dialogues and not otherwise. If you see the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishanan, Shaji N Karun, Aravindan, Girish Karnad, etc, you will understand the difference.

It is amazing to see the way they make maximum use of the visual possibilities of the medium. Language shouldn't be an obstacle between you and the film. Bergman said, 'Remove the literature and make the cinema.'

Click for bigger pic!
Menon's films like Gayathriand Malamukalile Daivam have won national awards too but awards somehow never excited him.

"I've not given much importance to awards. The quality of the awards depends on the quality of the people who sit in the committee. Yes, you get some money and prestige along with the awards. But I don't think the quality of the film changes with the awards.

"Whether you win an award or not, the quality of your film remains intact. Nobody can change that. I'm the person who gives awards to my films. Whether you win an award or not, good films will remain forever. If a film can withstand time, then it is a good film. Does anyone ask how many awards Pather Panchali has won? No. Pather Panchali is still liked and enjoyed by people because it is a good film. A film-maker should not be a slave of the awards committee."

Now Menon cannot rest until he creates a film that he himself can certify a good film. After each film, he wants to rectify the mistakes he made earlier.

Now, without making any compromises, without any frills, he wants to make a great film with the script based on a short story by C V Sreeraman. It will be called Akale.

"If I were to say something about Akale, I can only project some negatives points. Like, it is not a film about youngsters. It is not a film about love. There is no melodrama. There is no drama in the film...

"I'm trying to portray a few simple incidents in the life of an old man. My script itself is very visual, not dialogue- or story-oriented. It took me five years to complete the script. I don't how it will turn out. But I'll narrate the film in such an unconventional way that no viewer will feel that it is telling him a story."

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