On Saturday evening, before screening the Telugu version of his new film Sarvam Thaala Mayam to a select audience, cinematographer-turned-director Rajiv Menon tells us, “Some films survive long in theatres, and some stay longer in people’s minds.” He couldn’t have worded it better. His previous film Kandukondain Kandukondain (Priyuralu Pilichindi in Telugu) was in 2000. The film continues to be revisited by film aficionados for its strong characters, deft storytelling, the seamless weaving in of literature into a contemporary musical, and consummate performances from its ensemble cast.
It has taken Rajiv Menon 19 years to make his next film. This one is a musical too, and he joins forces with A R Rahman again. But Sarvam Thaala Mayam is in a different cinematic space from Kandukondain… or his directorial debut Minsara Kanavu (Sapnay in Hindi).
Those of you who’ve watched the Tamil version would know its story. It’s a journey of a youngster aspiring to succeed in music. Caste and class issues need to be bridged when he meets a guru and strives for excellence.
G V Prakash is cast as Peter Johnson, son of a mridangam maker. The story stemmed from Rajiv’s observations while filming the documentary Over Tone on the life of percussionist Umayalpuram K Sivaraman. For the documentary, Rajiv was shooting a portion with mridangam maker Thanjavur Johnson. Rajiv asked Johnson if he ever thought of playing the mridangam: “Johnson told me with tears that he hoped to see his son play mridangam at Madras Music Academy someday.” For Johnson, being a musician remained a distant dream. And Rajiv learnt that Johnson’s son was keen to become a cop. “I thought of a possibility where his fictional son Peter would want to be a mridangam player and the story of Sarvam Thaala Mayam was born.”
For the feature film, Rajiv retained the documentary’s tone of heightened realism. “Sarvam… has no gloss that you associate with my earlier work,” he asserts. “We shot in Thanjavur Johnson’s house. We also filmed in mridangam shops that were 8×6 or 12×6 rooms with no windows. That ruled out any dramatic lighting. We fit in two cameras with difficulty and there would be just a clap person inside. With more people, there wouldn’t be enough oxygen.”
To further maintain the realistic tone, musicians were roped in and three live concerts were used for the film. “We’ve retained the live sound for the Telugu version, and only replaced the dialogues,” he adds.
Before casting composer-actor G V Prakash, Rajiv auditioned youngsters from the community and mridangam players. “But they couldn’t act. Then G V Prakash came in. He being a composer helped and he spent a year learning mridangam. Being on mridangam beat itself is tough. He looks like an everyday man and fit the part. I cast Kumaravel as Johnson; he and Prakash look like father and son on screen.”
Malayalam actor Nedumudi Venu plays a reputed mridangam vidwan. Aparna Balamurali, Vineeth and Sumesh Narayanan appear in pivotal roles.
After watching the Tamil version, a student of Rajiv told him something that made the 19-year break from feature films seem insignificant: “He said that when a director moves away for three to four years, the next film is incoherent and the director struggles to cope with the change in people and the medium. He felt I had gone and made something completely different from the norm, which made it special.”