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From Kerala to Michigan – A Rainbow of Talent
Exclusive Star Interviews of Rahman, Shweta Menon, Vineeth Sreenivasan and Shaan Rahman
Interviewed and Written by: Anu Gopalakrishnan / Rockin’ Raaga (WCXI 1160 AM – Saturdays 1:00p.m.)

Picture this - Lush greenery with rows of coconut trees, running streams, backwaters, beeches, tropical greenery, and a state that boasts of 100 percent literacy. Politics, Arts, Industry, the region is thriving. This is the heavenly abode of Kerala where medical (Ayurvedic) tourism is at its peak. A galaxy of celebrities from Kerala who are on a whirlwind US tour descended in Michigan to celebrate the triumphant victory of life and happiness. A great stress reliever for a Friday evening (May 16th), the energy was pulsating, the singers sparkled, the dancers mesmerized and the actors left the audience spellbound. Never a dull moment, one of the very few shows in Michigan that was crisply edited and presented - Ullasa Thiramala (Happy Rain of Film stars) it was!

Presented by one of the community’s vibrant organizations Detroit Malayalee Association, sensational Star Rahman along with his entourage of the beautiful Shweta Menon, the multi-talented Vineeth Sreenivasan, the riveting Shaan Rahman, the super singers Sachin Warrier and Sayanora, the energetic Manikuttan and the dancing belles Vishnu Priya and Rachana along with a host of other prominent Malayalam artists rocked the Millenium Centre in Southfield.

Special Thanks to:
Sunil Paingol – President, Detroit Malayalee Association (DMA)
Rajesh Kutty – Secretary (DMA)
Matthew Cheruvil – Executive Member

Anu Gopalakrishnan, interviewed multiple celebrities on the day of Ullasa Thiramala, presented by Detroit Malayalee Association.

Rashin Rahman – A heartbreaker, as several women during his hey days, fell for his magnetism, style and charisma. Every work of his spells excellence. One of Malayalam cinema’s fittest and smartest actors, his repertoire of work with some great names are super hits. Apart from being the co-brother of the Music Mozart A R Rahman, Rashin Rahman breaks rules and provides soulful performances. Whether it is his debut Malayalam film Koodevide or Ithiri Poove Chuvanna Poove, Tamil film Puthu Puthu Arthangal or Billa (2007), Rahman stole the screen. An introvert and a very humble being who has seen the ups and downs by being in the film industry, here are some excerpts.

Several blockbusters in 1980’s and then you moved to Tamil and Telugu cinema in 1990’s. You disappeared and then resurfaced in 2004- what happened?
A king can be a king of only one country. Every actor goes through ups and downs. Additional to that, I had little to none PR skills. Working in Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu, I realized, I was neither here nor there. Its ironical, I am here for a stage show, but I am not a stage person at all. I am an introvert and I am not very good with a crowd. I can’t promote myself. I entered the film industry when I was 18, lost my teen years in films. I wanted to take some “me” time to chill out and enjoy life. With no mentor, I floated along with the wind by not building a wall around my rising stature. An actor’s life is like a graph, like a heartbeat. It goes up and down. Even the greatest of stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth, Kamal Hassan, Mammooty have seen flops and a down time.

Since your career spans across several languages, did the working styles differ?
The only difference is budget. All industries produce quality films. In the film industry, money definitely talks. In the Malayalam industry, budget allocated for movies is far less compared to Bollywood or the Telugu/Tamil industry. If a movie takes 100 days to complete in those industries, in Malayalam it is usually 200 days. We cannot shoot that long, so we make movies that do not require huge budgets.
Compared to discipline, the way of making films, all industries are pretty much similar.

You were welcomed by the Tamil industry…
K. Balachander is a legend by himself. As an outsider, this film picked my two legs and put me on a pedestal. This Tamil film till today is one of my personal favorites and it showed me the maximum potential I had as an actor. The Tamil industry welcomes me with open arms.

What matters to you as an actor- is it the script, the cast, the director, music?
Some people are good story tellers. It works both ways. Honestly speaking, discussions, listening to scripts are all a myth. 90% of the actors say they went through a script. It does not happen that way. The clout of a director, his experience, his success sells. I believe in Mani Ratnam or K balachander, I agree to do the film with confidence that I have on them. If it is newcomers and unheard directors, I look at the story and if I am touched with a part of the story. I accept the film.

Was acting by chance or by choice?
In my beginning years, I was never serious about acting or cinema. I used to have fun, be laid back. I was a loner since the age of 27, until I got married. Once that happened, things became a little tighter, pressure mounted and that was when I took my life seriously. Dad always said “when one door closes, the other door opens”. I didn’t believe it until K. Balachander called and my life picked up again. I thanked my dad profusely. As I said, nothing is planned. I wanted to be an engineer in the US, I never knew opportunity would knock in the form of director Padmarajan during my school days at Ooty. That’s the Malayalam film Koodevide. Padmarajan sir groomed me completely and I became known as his protégé. I never knocked on doors for offers. They all came to me. At one time, I was even hoping that my shooting would be cancelled so that I could enjoy my life. My wife played a very integral part to my career. The balanced support she provided has made me a different person. I am so blessed. When I was home without any films, she never made me feel useless. She always provided that silent support and respect which kind of lifted me up.

Tell us your personal experience about being AR Rahman’s co brother? What excites or amuses you?
It is a great feeling to be one family. Outside of a family relationship, it doesn’t really matter. ARR has his own films and I do mine. I get several offers on a daily basis and what amuses me is that most of them don’t materialize because they want ARR as the music director. There are so many times when I loved the subject, the theme of the film, but I lost out because of obvious reasons. I do get calls where the directors or managers would love to see what ARR’s call sheet look like. It is amusing, nevertheless as we are two different professionals in this industry.

Any challenges in your career path?
Plenty. Firstly, acting was accidental to me. I was studying when my principal mentioned about a role that I need to do. As a new comer, I never knew the rules. Things like how to behave, what to say, when to keep quiet etc. Senior actors like Prem Nazir, Sukumari always wished for my well-being. I am a very lucky actor as I am one of the very few who has acted with generations of actors. This allowed me to observe a lot. Today, it is different. Youngsters look at competition, overnight success and they come with high maintenance. I n those days, as an artist, I used to travel long hours on road, with no cushions. Also, I was once thrown out of train for traveling without tickets. So challenges abound in this industry, how you overcome it and live every day with a smile is what is important.

Any words for your Michigan fan club?
Well, I came to Michigan in 2011. This is my second visit. I always loved Michigan for its positive energy. Whenever I come, I get invited with a lot of smiles and adulation. I love the people and the energy that goes with them.

Shweta Menon – When she won the third runner-up in the much acclaimed 1994 Miss India pageant, where Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai claimed their respective universe and world titles, the very confident and attractive Shweta Menon dazzled the crowd with her poise and amazing talent. Her work boasts of some glamorous roles and item numbers. Slowly, substance took over and her evolution as an actress with the Malayalam film Paradesi took the industry by storm. Shweta is a respected and well received actress, presenting the bold and the enigmatic actress of the Kerala film industry.

Born in Chandigarh and as a top model and an actress, it certainly is a long journey- what made you look at Malayalam cinema to further your career path?
As the only child, my life was much protected. I never thought of being an actress. I always thought I might end up being a singer or a dancer as I also learned classical dance and completed my arangetram. I learned music and played instruments and so there were little snippets of arts infused in my life since birth. Since I was growing up in air force umbrella, I also thought of being a pilot or an air hostess. Acting was never a dream. But one thing was etched in my mind. Whatever profession I wanted to pursue, travel was back of my mind. I am happy as my present profession as an actress allows me to travel everywhere and get paid for it. I think what we think and what we end up doing has a lot of do with destiny. I was never serious when I did Hindi films. I did not have a goal in my mind to be somebody. I just went with the flow. Since I did not take acting seriously, I ended up doing item songs, glamorous roles as I believed at that time, I was not prepared to take the stress of carrying an entire film on my shoulders. Well, I learned how interesting it would be to do meaningful roles only when I woke up one day, sometime in 2007 and decided that I would get serious with my career.

And who was instrumental for that change?
Well, for four years, I did not work, did shows but not films. It was in 2006 when I was working with Madhur Bhandarkar for Corporate, a serious chat pursued. He mentioned “look back and tell me what you have achieved as an actress?” - I was dumb founded and I felt that I had nothing to talk about. He asked me if I was happy and that I should start watching films starring Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon. He mentioned that I could mold myself in that league. And then the Malayalam film Paradesi and the role of Ameena, a very deglamorized look happened and since then I have not looked back. Somehow, the character took over me, I had to put weight, when I wore the garb of Ameena, and I was just transformed. Something inside me felt complete. I think that was my Oscar performance.

You rocked Miss India 1994 as the runner-up. Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen were successful in getting far more superior media bytes. What happened?
Kerala did not have much glamor written about it in 1994. We did not have much of beauty pageants. This was perfectly OK with me. There’s a sense of rawness amongst the Malayalees. This created a mystery and it became a part of my personality. After the Malayalam film Paradesi, I realized an actress inside me. Think about Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Tabu. I can’t do anything remotely close to their work but appreciation followed. I was at this press meet, all dressed up glamorously and one of the older gentleman came to me and said, are you part of the Paradesi film? What role did you play? I told him the role of Ameena and he was shocked. He told me that I lived the role. That compliment will be the best ever. I am used to receiving glam comments like “you are hot”, “you are sexy and beautiful” etc. But here I was after Paradesi, receiving all the adulation and compliments like “your character moved me”, “you transformed me”. These comments where I realized I was making some difference to the viewer changed my attitude towards films. So, winning the Miss India Runner-up in 1994 and being a part of quality cinema for sixteen years is a success by itself according to me. I did not even take a sabbatical when I was pregnant. So, I feel good and complete.

What do you think are the challenges of being a bold actress in a traditionally male dominated industry- especially Kerala?
My personality was never part of the roles I played. I think the Malayalam movies gave women much stronger characters to perform on screen. I think Bollywood is where the whole male-female role sharing issues happen. For several years, Malayalam cinema always had women centric roles. Nonetheless, the industry is male dominated. Somewhere down the line, society wants to keep the man as a breadwinner. We are the reflection of our society. I don’t think equality is ever going to happen unless there is a shift in perception. I admit, Malayalam industry has accepted me and loved me and the past sixteen years has been phenomenal for me on and off screen. I have loads to learn and miles to go before I sleep.

Shaan Rahman – what can we say about a man who is rocking every film and album without any education in music. Armed with his keyboard, Shaan Rahman is a sensational music director and singer who believes in presenting music for soulful listeners. Whether it is Malarvaadi Arts Club, the brilliant Thattathin Marayathu, the soothing and nostalgic album Coffee @ MG Road or the latest chartbuster of a movie Om Shanthi Oshaana, his orchestration and the pulsating rhythms charms the ears. Shaan Rahman also dabbled with Kannada in Nam Duniya Nam Style and is also the man behind the Telugu remake of the successful Thattathin Marayathu called Saheba Subramanyam. Explore his passion through some of the excerpts…

With Malarvadi Arts club, Coffee at MG road, a colossal hit like Thattathin Marayathu, has Shaan Rahman arrived?
I think I am fortunate to get such good friends and projects. It is my passion towards music. I attended only four keyboard classes. I did not learn music. I moved to India from UAE and was unable to pursue any professional music education. The small keyboard I carried went everywhere with me. The keyboard and my radio is what educated me about music. I worked in a company as a sound engineer and I was asked to compose a jingle for a Malayalam advertisement. So my friend suggested that since I do a good job of a 30 sec commercial, I should compose a 4 min song. Then, I began introspecting and I figured there were no boy bands in Kerala and Desi Noise was born. We launched an album called Revolution. When we were called to perform at a concert in Dubai for the Gulf Malayalam Music Awards, I met Vineeth Sreenivasan in the airport. We hit it off instantly. There was a musical connection.

Your music spells youth, fun, excitement, romance? Does the music you offer relate to your personality?
Well, it is a little bit of both. Personality and the film I am offered. When the director narrates the film, success of the music lies in the explanation of the subject. Right from the start of the movie, a music director should be a part and parcel of the process. It helps in composing as you are familiar with the characters, the story line, how the characters flow within the script, everything counts. I create music for the characters in the movie, not for the audience. When you create music for the subject, audience will naturally feel the story. Malayalam audience love melodies. It has been this way since 1970’s. So any kind of international influence without affecting the melody quotient would sell.

And what about the Bollywood influence on music?
I think every music director interprets music differently. I will be lying if I say I don’t dream of Bollywood. I do. But I would like to take things slowly. I am already working on four Malayalam projects, one Tamil film. The Malayalam film Motorcycle Diaries is a huge project, produced by Sugeeth. I am very excited about it. As for Bollywood influence, we have to understand that our audience is no longer regional. They listen to all kinds of music across the world. Sometimes, when I meet young fans, they ask me about a certain musician whom I don’t know and it is quite amusing. Such is our audience knowledge and people are embracing this change as music evolves and takes many dimensions.

Tell us a little about your friend Vineeth Sreenivasan?
There are no limits for Vineeth. All his three successful films are based on relationships. With Thira, we dealt with a totally different subject and the serious theme was so excellently handled by Vineeth. It was very international. Budget is his only constraint.

And you have been mentored by Deepak Dev?
Yes. Deepak Dev and I share a great chemistry. I met Deepak even before my first album. I idolized him a lot and I was literally shivering when I along with my friend Arjun went to meet him. I mentioned to him about my interest in music. He started offering technical guidance instantly. That’s what I loved about him. Here I was a newcomer and he a successful musician. He was so grounded and offered me a lot of clarity and direction. I recorded the music for Thattathin Marayathu in his studio called D Major in Chennai. And the interesting part was that I named it. In fact, I won the contest in which he asked people to suggest a name.

Vineeth Sreenivasan – What a bundle of talent at such a young age of 28? Actor, Director, Playback Singer and Screenplay Writer – the man who wears many hats does complete justice to all of them.

A stream of screaming fans, his realistic portrayal of characters on screen, his ear for melody and a great acting lineage to back him up through his dad Sreenivasan, a celebrity actor in Kerala. The film industry is a familiar territory for Vineeth as every instance of his childhood is among the arch lights. His singing prowess has made him a celebrity among several fans worldwide and his mellowed and mature performances have left the audience baffled. Sound, Light, Action – here’s to Vineeth Sreenivasan.

Multiple hats -Singer, director, actor, scriptwriter- which role do you love the most?
I enjoy doing all of them. But, filmmaking is much more interesting than anything. The whole process of conceiving a story, creating and living in that story world with countless imaginative sequences is all very intriguing. Living in that space is a privilege that I have got and I enjoy every moment of it. When I was in my high school, I grew up listening to Yesudas, never thought I would be a play back singer. I always wanted to be a filmmaker. It’s a pleasant surprise that people enjoy my songs.

Tell us about your relationship with dad? How did he influence you as a child?
I did my schooling in Thalassery, Kerala as my dad was very busy with film schedules that hardly gave him a couple of days every month to spend time with family. Whenever he visits, he sites with a group of friends, discusses all his on-going projects, stories he has in mind and I naturally grew up listening to all of them. Also, my uncle M. Mohanan was very keen to do films. So it was pretty obvious that I got influenced by all the film talk that happened inside our home. Of course, I moved to Chennai and I sang my first song at a cultural meet at KCG College of Engineering, Chennai. The songs were in Malayalam.

Do you hope to spread your wings to other regional languages apart from Malayalam?
On the music front, I am happy singing in Malayalam. As for film making, I have spent considerable amount of time in Kerala and Chennai. So, I aspire to direct a Tamil film some day in the future. After Thattathin Marayathu, I was called to remake the film in various languages but I don’t think I love remakes. The basic essence is lost. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the story world I live in, cannot be repeated again. The freshness, the novelty is lost. I received my feedback, I want to move on and create another film. This is what adds to experience. Not reinventing the same thing over and over again.

Do you see Malayalam films going global?
Every industry will have its fair share of influences. Malayalam cinema is always known for its earthiness, ethnic quality. Remember the 80’s and the 90’s, the landscape was very native. We did get influenced by Hindi and the Tamil industries but I can honestly say that till date, Malayalam films takes the audience back to its roots. Substance will always overshadow style. We did have greats like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Lohithadas, Shaji N. Karun, and G. Aravindan who produced some out of the world movies.

What do you think limits the Malayalam industry from getting recognized- though you boast of original scripts, compositions etc.
Where we lack is marketing. We do not have aggressive tools to market our films. Also, when it comes to music, due to iTunes taking most of the market, we haven’t adapted to the global iTunes sales structure. The structure we have currently does not help anybody. The audio launch for a Malayalam movie happens two weeks prior to move release. It takes time to make a sale to iTunes. Before that happens, the movie is ready to see the light of the day. We will produce music albums only when the time to scrutinize digital music content is minimized by app stores.

Tell me some names of directors you admire?
Every stage, there is a film maker who inspires me. Farhan Akthar, Raj Kumar Hirani, Venkat Prabhu, Imtiaz Ali… Their films have been exceptional.

And why don’t we see Vineeth more often on the screen?
My volume of work is very less. I cannot do a movie in less than six months. I need at least a year to complete a film. I spend more time to tighten my screenplay.

Interviewed and written by: Anu Gopalakrishnan
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