It was a liberating experience to direct Queen
When Gautham Menon decided to step into the video-streaming space with Queen, he knew he could get wider reach and creative freedom to tell stories without compromises. “Everything has moved online. Today, an established filmmaker has an avenue to push boundaries and come up with something that may not necessarily be a three-hour content piece. The idea of putting up a series is quite creatively focussed,” he says. The first season of Queen has 11 episodes, also co-directed by Prasath Murugesan of Kidaari-fame.
Gautham Menon, whose latest theatrical release was Enai Noki Paayum Thota, talks about Queen, the web series, streaming on MX Player. Throughout the chat, the filmmaker insists the series has nothing to do with the former Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa. Deepa Jayakumar, the niece of Jayalalithaa, had sought a stay on the upcoming biopics of the late leader, and the Madras High Court rejected her plea recently. Ramya Krishnan quietly witnesses the conversation and answers the questions directed to her.
How did Queen materialise?
Gautham Menon: Team MX Player bought the rights to the book, The Queen (written by Anita Sivakumaran) and approached us. Eventually, Reshma Ghatala (Neethane En Ponvasantham writer) adapted it into a screenplay. Without her, there’s no Queen. It’s an inspiring story of Shakti Seshadri, who is forced to quit education and thrown into the film industry. She also enters politics later. Initially, I wasn’t sure if Ramya Krishnan would accept the offer, because this isn’t a film, but web series. I am glad she did. The story narration happened for a couple of hours. I guess she was convinced by the writing. I am confident that Queen will resonate with the audience.
Did you read the book?
Gautham Menon: I didn’t. You read something; you are inspired by it and take moments from the story and build things from there. Reshma Ghatala decided that she was going to write the script and she took it forward. I wanted to support her vision.
Why web series, and not a film?
Gautham Menon: I don’t think the story of Queen could be told in two hours. The first season of the series will trace her life from 12 to 44.
Queen has a lot of resemblance to J Jayalalithaa’s life.
Gautham Menon: This isn’t a biography, but largely a fictional work. We haven’t tarnished anybody’s name. We took some inspiration from the book (Queen) and developed a story. If you watch the series, you’d know how most of the portions are interpretations. Still, if you find the resemblance, it’s not my fault. (Laughs) I could only think of Ramya when I read the story. We were keen that her character be herself with no prosthetics and heavy make-up. We didn’t do anything extra to make Ramya transform into someone else. While shooting, she was moved by situations, and that’s what happens when the writing hits you. Sometimes, she was in awe. Sometimes, she was surprised. I could see she was affected by the dialogues.
Ramya Krishnan: I’d not say there is no resemblance to the political leader. But, Queen is not her story. Though I hadn’t met her, I’m a huge fan of hers. Gautham asked me to be myself and I did what was required of me for the scenes. I feel honored when people think I can reprise her role. I wasn’t apprehensive about signing Queen because web series is the future. I knew Gautham would give me a powerful role to play.
What drew you towards Queen?
Ramya Krishnan: Shakti’s life is full of hurdles. Queen is about her journey, how she deals with hardships and becomes a stronger person.
When two directors collaborate on a project, it’s not easy to maintain the tone. How did you keep it consistent?
Gautham Menon: So much work has gone into it. If you watch the first season, you can see how a similar tone has been maintained. I am a reluctant writer, but I always believe in collaborations. I didn’t want Queen to be a GVM-product. I just gave the series the visual imagery it required. In fact, Prasath and I used to shoot simultaneously in different studios. For instance, there were days when Indrajith Sukumaran (who plays the role of GMR) would shoot with Prasath in the morning and would join my sets in the evening.
Since Reshma had written the script in English, I needed someone like Prasath, who’s strong with the Tamil political angle. We discussed a lot before Queen went on floors. Prasath and I exchanged notes, too. I couldn’t spend time on directing all the episodes, so he stepped in. I’d like to continue associating with him in future. It’s nice to work on something where other writers are involved.
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What do you think about other Jayalalithaa biopics that are in the making?
Gautham Menon: I wish them the very best.
Did you romanticise Shakti’s character for the web series?
Gautham Menon: Had I written this, my sensibilities would have come into the play, but Reshma’s script doesn’t romanticise Shakti’s character. I know I do it with my films. (Smiles) The web series talks about Shakti’s highs and lows. She is powerful, emotional, vulnerable and sometimes selfish. Anikha Surendran plays Shakti as a child. She looks a lot like Ramya Krishnan. Anjana Jayaprakash plays Shakti as a teenager and Ramya comes into the picture at around 8th episode. Reshma was going through an emotional phase while writing the script. Truth be told, I felt like we were protected by some energy. We started shooting on the first death anniversary of the political leader. The trailer was released on her second death anniversary. There was some strange connect.