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The beat of a different drummer: ‘Sarvam Thaala Mayam’

  • The film explores issues of caste and identity in the Chennai classical music scene
  • It marks the return of Rajiv Menon as director after a long hiatus

G.V. Prakash Kumar in ‘Sarvam Thaala Mayam’.
G.V. Prakash Kumar in ‘Sarvam Thaala Mayam’.

Rajiv Menon’s last film as director was Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000), a sparkling Tamil adaptation of Sense And Sensibility. Since then, he has worked as a cinematographer (notably on Guru and Kadal, shot for Mani Ratnam, with whom his association stretches back to 1995’s Bombay), but his own feature projects have stalled. This week, he finally has a new film in theatres.

Peter Johnson (G.V. Prakash Kumar), the only son of a Chennai mridangam-maker, decides to learn the percussion instrument himself after he hears Vembu Iyer (Nedumudi Venu) in concert. Like many others who make mridangams, Peter is Dalit, an often insurmountable barrier to entry into the upper-caste classical music circles of Chennai. Sarvam Thaala Mayam is a vivid look at his journey to discovering his own sound. We spoke to Menon about the real-life inspiration for the film, casting actors who would look convincing as classical musicians, and why he insisted on live sound. Edited excerpts:

What sparked the idea for this film?

I was making a documentary called Overtone, on the mridangam legend Umayalpuram Sivaraman. I knew about classical music but I didn’t know much about the mridangam. I had gone to Thanjavur to shoot when he was performing. I met him in the hotel, and he was talking about someone named Johnson, who then walked in with some tools in a bag. I thought he might be an electrician. In the concert, I saw him sitting on the stage.

I come to the city, and I find him hanging around Sivaraman’s house. I asked him, what does Johnson do? He said, “He repairs and makes my mridangam." But how can a Johnson make a mridangam? I went to his workshop and found he was part of eight generations of mrindangam makers who were Dalits from Thanjavur. The mridangam requires cow’s skin, goat’s skin and buffalo’s skin, all of it from the female after she has delivered and the skin is stretched—that’s how you get the beautiful tone. The skin has to be changed once every few months. The Dalits who make the mridangams get into a symbiotic relationship with the Brahmins who play it.

When I interviewed Johnson, he said, my son is trying to learn, and I hope one day he will play in the Music Academy. I realized it was an unsaid desire of these mridangam-makers to play, but they don’t have the self-belief or society isn’t letting them. So that was the seed of the film.

Kumar being trained by Umayalpuram Sivaraman
Kumar being trained by Umayalpuram Sivaraman

How much did your documentary inform the film?

I’ve taken Johnson’s words and put them in. The church we have shot in is the same parish he goes to. The workshop is his cousin’s, the house is his house. So we have tried to mirror it as close to the experience I found in the documentary.

While making the documentary, I used to shoot in Umayalpuram’s house. He would be teaching his students, playing at three times speed—all of which I put in the film. Ten or 20 people playing together, the sound was so awesome that you cannot create that in the studio. So I wanted the film to have live songs.

In fact, I tried to get Umayalpuram to act, but he didn’t remember lines. Every time he would tell me a different line. You can’t change someone who is 80 years old.

Were you looking at musicians who could act or actors who could play?

To get that live feeling, I needed someone who could really play. So I looked at musicians who like to act. You can’t fake the mridangam—the hands are visible, and there are completely different movements on the two. It’s difficult to play the instrument if you don’t have any skill—it’ll take you three to five years to get your hands moving separately.

Nedumudi Venu (who plays Vembu Iyer) could play the mridangam, so I waited a year for him. Sumesh, who plays Nandu, is an actual A-grade concert mridangist. Sikkil Gurucharan and Bombay Jayashri, who perform in the film, are leading Carnatic singers. So most of the music is being performed by real musicians.

How did G.V. Prakash Kumar train?

It took GV a year of training with Umayalpuram Sivaraman. He’s a trained piano player and has been composing music for films. Because of piano, he had the experience of playing different things with each hand. He had to learn the fingering technique, but within a month and a half, the guru told me, this guy has a sense of rhythm, of beat.

Sometimes the guru would call me and say, he hasn’t come to class. I’d tell GV , go go, don’t bullshit a Padma Vibhushan, I want you there in the next 20 minutes. Like a father dragging the child to tuition, I had to literally take him there.

In the film, Vembu Iyer is a gatekeeper to the world of classical music—it’s up to him to “accept" Peter or not. He’s shown as a fairly open-minded person. Would you say this is a slightly wishful representation of the classical scene, where caste still holds sway?

I would just make an observation that Vembu is the boss and Mani (his student in the film, who thwarts Peter’s progress) is the gatekeeper. So God is ambivalent as to who comes in and the gatekeeper controls who the devotee is and who isn’t.

If you hear the last song, which Bombay Jayashri sings, I’ve put the lyric “All the world is a stage and God is the one who is conducting the play". I do feel it is an imagined world and not the real world. It is a hopeful world where I believe meritocracy will prevail.

Rajiv Menon on set. 
Rajiv Menon on set. 

How did you and A.R. Rahman approach the soundtrack?

I showed Rahman the documentary; he was very excited. We knew the film would have mridangam and percussion and pure classical music. We had to figure what other kinds of music we could bring—and instruments that give it an edge. On Maya Maya, for instance, it’s all retro guitars. AR got an old player, Sunil Milner, who used to play rock a long time back.

For the title song, we had a basic track and we knew we were going to shoot musicians from all over India. AR said, why don’t you record them there? We had to carry the track, play it to them, and GV would make sure they were in tempo. We brought that back to AR and he put in the track. We were going to geographies to seek folk musicians and their style, to see how the same drum pattern changes slightly in Mizoram, in Meghalaya, in Kashmir.

You composed one track yourself, ‘Varalaama’.

It’s the one when he stands by the gate. It is symbolic of a scene from Nandan Charithram, an opera written in the 1800s by Gopalakrishna Bharati, where a Dalit is waiting outside the temple. A big Nandi sculpture is blocking his way. And he tells Shiva, it’s your Nandi, won’t this bull move a little bit? If you look at the scene in the film, you’ll see Nandi in the foreground. Nandanar waiting for Shiva becomes Peter waiting for Vembu Iyer.

Sarvam Thaala Mayam released with English subtitles in select theatres on 1 February.

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