Kay Kay Menon on ‘Ponzi scheme’ films and corrupt critics

Rana Daggubati and Taapsee Pannu in a scene from “The Ghazi Attack.”

Kay Kay Menon’s performances in films like “Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (A Thousand Desires) and Gulaal (Red) are something Indian movie fans won’t forget easily. He has established himself as an actor of much versatility, but has also confounded his fans by acting in typical Bollywood fare, often essaying caricaturish villains.

Menon, who plays a naval commander in his latest film “The Ghazi Attack”, spoke to Reuters about his film choices, why he doesn’t get more single-hero roles, and why he thinks movie critics might be a corrupt lot.

You play a Sikh navy commander in “The Ghazi Attack”. Is this the first time such a role has come your way?

A: Yes. And complete respect to them (Sikhs), because that turban really hurts. Hurts in the sense you have to really get used to it. Also, there’s a certain sanctity to it, so I didn’t smoke when I was wearing it. I wanted to keep that respect. But of course, I play the person more than anything else.

My character is the commander of the submarine, and he is a guy who has certain principles, which needn’t be what the government or his superiors think. He believes that when he is on the field, it is his decision to take, and not the babus (Hindi slang for bureaucrats).

What is it like working with an ensemble cast as big as this?

A: I have worked on ensemble casts before this, but I was thrilled to be a part of a film which is the first of its kind in India. There have been films on the army, the navy and the police, but there has never been one on a submarine. So I got a kick out of that.

Are you also actively looking for single-hero films? I think the last one you did was “Rahasya” in 2015, which was such a lovely film.

A: I would love to…. (Pauses) See, our country has certain problems. Certain psychological problems. We are dynasty lovers. We love the fact that this guy comes from this family and we start giving them concessions.

We are a jingoistic nation – whether it is politics or films or whatever. We can posthumously shower praises and accolades on people, but when they are alive, we don’t bother about them. A classic case is Om Puri.

We needed the Oscars to give Satyajit Ray a lifetime achievement award before we realized what a great film-maker he was. So in that scenario, the question that you asked is an answer in itself. My surname is Menon. I have no connection with a film industry.

Doesn’t that make you bitter?

A: Doesn’t make me bitter. It makes me sad sometimes. We have a role to play and we’ll play that to the hilt. We are making films for posterity, not for a three-day business. That is not a film. It is a money-making business.

It is a hit-and-run case where you sell a Ponzi scheme to someone and run off with their money. It’s as bad as that. The only difference is that you won’t get arrested for it.

You create a package of sorts with five-six names, market it, and sell it for three days, because you know that on the fourth day, it will crash. You make your money and get out. People are experts at doing that, and it’s legitimate, so who are we to say anything.

Yes, the industry gets a lot of money, but it doesn’t do anything for cinema. We live in the hope that someday they will have an enlightenment of some sort where they feel: “If we make five Ponzi scheme films in a year, why don’t we sponsor three for cinema?” I am thankful to Karan (Johar) for taking on this film. It is because of Dharma that “The Ghazi Attack” is being presented in this way. If you have that kind of power, you should use it to do good things.

But you’ve been a part of what you call “Ponzi scheme” films at times.

A: Being a part of it and initiating it are two different things. Did I make 100 crores from it? No. If I bought a Ponzi scheme ticket, it doesn’t make me responsible for it. Sometimes, you have to stay in circulation. Sometimes, these films keep you afloat so that people at least don’t forget you. I would rather that we make only (good cinema), but it is not practical.

When your own personal cinema aesthetic is higher than the films you are acting in, what do you do?

A: I try to do something within those parameters that will satisfy (me). But sometimes the parameters are so limited, that you can’t even push that much because it cannot go with the language of the film. Then I would be considered to be dumb. I would have loved to live in a farmhouse, but I can manage well in a one-room flat. Parameters don’t matter.

A few things I do in that film, which people will never realize because the film is like that, I do it for me. I do it so I can experiment and see if it works, for me. But unfortunately, those kind of platitudes are not available as far as critics or the audience is concerned, because the intention of the audience is to bracket you into a slot.

When you do good cinema, they don’t recognize it, and when you are part of something that is not good cinema, they condemn you for it. Either way, it is their win and my loss.

Critics too are at fault. If you find one star doing one particular scene after 20 years of existence, they start lauding it like it’s an Oscar-winning piece and we do that kind of scene on a daily basis. You feel sad that even critics are either bought or corrupted in their minds.