You can feel free to disagree with my arguments in this post. I’ve seen only maybe a third of Gautham’s movies so there could be something I am missing. But this is how it appears to me right now, with my imperfect knowledge. Also, WHY ARE GAUTHAM MENON’S MOVIES IMPOSSIBLE TO STREAM???? They just disappear off the face of the earth as soon as they leave theaters so far as I can tell.
Gautham Menon does movies about men. Men who are lonely, scared, angry, lustful, sad, happy, hopeful, frustrated, all the emotions. But what makes them heroes is that they do not give in to those emotions. His films are not about angry anti-heroes on a rampage, or selfish men who put their needs above all others. His films are about men who feel all of these things, and set them aside. That’s part of being a Man, growing up and learning that your pain is not the only pain, your needs are not the only needs.
When I first started watching Gautham Menon films, I was frustrated by how perfect his heroes were. They always knew the right thing to do, they always got the girl, they always defeated the bad guy. But as I kept watching them, I realized it isn’t about the hero getting everything he wants, its about the hero changing what he wants as he grows up and understands what is possible, what it is just for him to receive.
Even Gautham’s first break out hit, Rehna Hai Tera Dil Mein/Minnale has this lesson a little bit. Our hero is shallow and selfish and out for a good time. He has a dream of a perfect romance. But that dream hits reality as cars run out of gas, restaurants are closed, and everything goes wrong. And then everything goes right. It’s a romance film, and what it says is that you have to let go of the plans and the fantasies and just accept what you are and what the world is and see if love will come anyway.
Vaaranam Aayiram is Gautham’s great coming of age story, his hero who goes through the most as time goes on and gets everything he wants. Except, not quite. He falls in love at first sight, but he can’t pursue her right away because of his family responsibilities. He finally woos and wins her, only for her to die suddenly. He becomes a hero soldier, only after suffering through depression and drug addiction after her death. He gets a second chance at love handed to him, but can’t feel able to accept it until years later. His happy ending comes, but it comes hard, and it comes by accepting what he can and cannot change. No matter how great a hero he is, no matter how many things he can do, sometimes you have to bow to a higher power.
My favorite part of Vaaranam Aayiram is when our hero is sunk in depression and misery, traveling India the way depressed heroes always do, and he hears that the young son of an old acquaintance has just been kidnapped. That is what snaps him out of his depression, the need to help someone else, the awareness of a pain greater than his own. That’s the thing with Gautham’s heroes, they may feel things, but ultimately they understand other people feel things too, and they have to help others before they can help themselves. More than that, the can help themselves BY helping others.
If you look at the basic story of a Gautham Menon film, it often appears to be the usual savior hero plot. Achcham Yenbadhu Madamaiyada/Sahasam Swasaga Sagipo is about a young man who falls in love with a young woman and invites her to join him on a cross country motorcycle trip. Along the way they fall in love, and then she is attacked. She turns out to be caught up in a vast conspiracy, our hero must bravely save her again and again. Your standard damsel in distress and heroic hero kind of plot. But, it’s not really. Our hero articulates in voice over how strange it is to suddenly be asked to do these violent things, how he is focused on protecting her and his heart is forcing him to take this leap into darkness, how he is just an average boy who a day ago would have been scared by what is happening around him. Most of all, the goal through out the film is protection. The heroine is not a Macguffin tossed between the hero and villain, not an object for them to fight over. She is a person, and we can feel the horror of what is happening around her. It is the villain who sees her as merely an object, and that is where the hero’s terror and anger comes from, that for the villain this violence has no consequence, while for him it is affecting people, actual people with bodies and hearts and souls.
Possibly Gautham’s most famous film is Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa. It was the first film of his I watched, and I didn’t like it. It’s a brilliant portrait of an immature young man and the love story that drives him. My problem was that I just didn’t like our hero at all. He was pushing the heroine hard even when she was clearly showing she wasn’t interested, he was angry with her, and then with himself, and then with his parents, and then with the world. He was also ecstatically happy, intensely focused, and (often) just plain lustful. He was exhausting, and I was exhausted by him, and the film, and I didn’t want to see anything more by this director. But then, somehow, I did. And seeing his other films suddenly I understood what Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa was saying. The hero is SUPPOSED to be immature! He is showing us what “first love” really looks like. It’s magic and powerful and wonderful when you are on the inside of it, but to those around you, and to yourself when you look back, it wasn’t perfect at all and you weren’t perfect in it. The heroine is an enigma in the film because she was an enigma to the hero, not a person he fully understood as someone separate from himself, he sees her the way young men see the women they love/lust after. And we, the audience, see her that way too. His family is oddly in the background, complaining and talking and not really heard, because that is how young men see their family. And as time goes on, while his romance is still there, his career ambitions begin to take up more and more of his time and focus and the romance moves oddly into the background. While for her, it remains in the foreground.
It is this last part that is most interesting when I think about it. Gautham is making a movie from the male perspective, and for men, romance is a lot simpler. You woo the girl, you win the girl, you are done. For our heroine, it’s harder than that. She has family pressure over who she is marrying, even just to get married. The hero keeps casually telling her to just wait a bit, wait for him, and she keeps trying to explain that, as a woman, she doesn’t have the luxury of waiting, her family will not let her remain unmarried indefinitely. And it is that which drives them apart. Watching it, I was angry with our hero for not understanding her problems. And that is how Gautham wanted us to feel, angry at the hero just as the hero, finally almost at the end, began to be angry with himself.
There is a difference between a story told from the perspective of a male character, and a movie told in a world that does not acknowledge women. Gautham Menon’s films are deeply personal character studies. We are locked in the mind of the lead character. But that does not mean that this world does not include other people who matter. Our lead character, the one who we are trapped inside, he himself feels for other people. The question is, will he be strong enough to overcome his own pain and focus on other’s instead?
In the true Gautham “hero” movies, his action films, the answer is yes. Our hero is a Hero-with-a-capital-H because he puts other people above himself. Truly puts them above himself, not just when their view of the world overlaps with his own. In Yennai Arindhaal, our macho cop hero is an encounter specialist. He is staking out a train station to catch and kill a serial rapist and murderer. This isn’t a bad goal, and it’s not a small petty thing to care about. And then a pregnant woman asks him for a ride to the hospital because she is in labor. A different hero would have explained to her that he was doing something more important, that in fact she should agree with his world view because he is trying to save other women from rape. Or a different hero would have somehow miraculously managed to achieve both goals. But this hero, he set aside his goals and let them go, accepted that the woman was right and her needs had to be above his own just now.
That’s what the Gautham Menon heroes do over and over again. They sacrifice their own needs for the needs of others that are more pressing. The heroism isn’t in winning, it is in losing, it is in what they are willing to give up in order to help other people.