Smriti Kiran: Writer, director, producer, entrepreneur, and founding member of the Women in Cinema Collective, also known as WCC, Anjali Menon grew up in Dubai in a business family. Her father, Mr T.M. Nair, moved to UAE in 1959 – one of the early Indians there – and steadfastly created a legacy of automobiles that is remembered even today.
Despite the distance, her parents kept her and her elder brothers connected with their culture. They spoke Malayalam at home, celebrated all festivals with fierce authenticity, and business was more about creating opportunity, community and giving back than about money. Anjali trained in Bharatanatyam for 14 years, and her natural pull towards stories and the stage blossomed in a house that kept the muscle for the arts flexed at all times.
She did a Master’s in Communication Studies from the University of Pune in 1997 and a Master’s in Art and Technique of Filmmaking from the London International Film School in 2002. This is where she made her first short film, Black Nor White. The executive producer on the film was Asif Kapadia, and it was screened on graduation night to rousing applause. It was also selected for the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
Anjali moved back to India in 2003. She completed her first feature, Manjadikuru, in December 2007, but the film was released five years later, in 2012. By then, her first short, Happy Journey, as part of the anthology called Kerala Cafe, had already come out. She met her dream collaborator, Anwar Rasheed, during Kerala Cafe, and started writing Ustad Hotel for him. By a quirk of fate, Ustad Hotel and Manjadikuru released within a month of each other in 2012, and the world woke up to Anjali Menon. She won several awards for both films. Bangalore Days followed in 2014. It became Anjali’s breakout film and, in the years that followed, has acquired cult status. I can go on and on because Anjali’s list of accomplishments is endless, and what she brings to the table cannot be articulated in a way that does full justice to her talent.
Anjali, you were very sure of the fact that you wanted to tell the story of Manjadikuru in Malayalam. The film was a journey for you, both as an artist and as a person. You’re a reverse migrant. It was an exploration into a culture that you experienced in a distant land, an attempt to read and write in a language that you spoke, and also to find your feet as an artist. How did this journey begin and when it began in 2003, what were those four very eventful years like?
Anjali Menon: Any film student worth their salt will have a feature script in their head. I was one of them. I started writing Manjadikuru when I was in film school; just hammering away, trying to do things. The feature format is very daunting when you’ve worked mainly in shorts. At that stage it was just something I loved doing – trying to put together those characters, trying to create that world which I was familiar with and missed, possibly. I had also chosen to come back to India and live here. The rest of my family does not. I’ve always wanted to. It gave me the opportunity for me to really look at my cultural bearings and learn so much.
Much like the content of Manjadikuru, the whole experience of it was very much like a homecoming: to be able to engage with my own language in a way that I hadn’t done before. All of that was very scary but very inviting as well, I have to say.
“It became like my go-to solution for anything else that I was doing. I wasn’t writing for anyone to read. I was just writing for myself.”
As soon as I came back, I had a flurry of developments in my personal life: I met my husband to be, we got engaged; I lost my father; I got married, and moved cities – all of that happened in about a year. I hadn’t really taken the time for myself to process much of it. I very quickly slipped into a shell for about three years from there. It took me a while to get out. During that time I just wrote. That’s all I did. Not only just Manjadikuru but multiple things.
At one stage I showed this particular script to a very well known, well-respected writer. He said, ‘Don’t make this as your first film.’ I was quite heartbroken. I thought, ‘Well, he should know what he’s talking about.’ So I put it away, and I started working on other stuff. I would keep going back to this one every time I felt down. It became like my go-to solution for anything else that I was doing. I wasn’t writing for anyone to read. I was just writing for myself. That in itself changed the process.
After that, I was very wary of showing it to anybody in the industry, afraid that they might also say what the writer had said. I really wanted to make this my first film. I wanted to, at the same time, get advice about the narrative structure, and Malayalam, the language itself, if not the industry. Then where do I go?
I reached out to this wonderful person, a great teacher, called Kavalam Narayana Panicker, who is a theatre guru. He’s so well known. He’s been the vice-chairman of the Sangeet Natak Akademi. He’s got the Padma Bhushan. He’s revered in many spheres, but more than anything for his complete dedication to our language and our arts. For him to even touch my script was a dream.
I tried to reach him. He was so forthcoming with his advice and so generous with his time. He even invited me into his home and into his work. I took the opportunity to document some of his work. We travelled with his troupe. He wrote lyrics for my films. All of this gave me an opportunity to see his directorial process. He’s a theatre director, writer, poet, lyricist, musicologist, and a whole lot of things. It really gave me a very up, close and personal exposure to what I thought was very distinct. It was through him that I realised that there were many latent things that I had never counted as strengths. He really infused the courage to say, ‘Go back, do your thing. You’ll know what you need. Don’t worry. Don’t be so nervous. You don’t have to take everybody else’s opinion. If you know what you want to do, just go in and do it.’ That is what powered my journey to make that film, frankly.
Smriti Kiran: Now that you have worked for 17 years since film school got over if you were to go back to that experience of someone telling you that maybe you shouldn’t make this film and it shouldn’t be your first film, how would you say you felt? How did you process that?
Anjali Menon: I don’t believe in this whole mystical writer image that you’re so away from everything real. It’s a very real thing. I wanted to make a film. I thought this was going to be my first film, and someone said, ‘This may not be a good idea.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay, well he knows better,’ so I put it aside. There is, of course, the heartbreak of the characters you’ve nursed and the images you had in your mind. You wonder if not now, then when you will get to do that. If it’s not this, do you have something else that compares? All of these questions come to you. I put it away because I thought that I couldn’t just continue to be in love with them. I wrote some other stuff, which, again, I found very engaging. But somehow you gravitate towards themes and material that you relate to. This choice of what is the subject of your first film is something that I discuss very often when I’m teaching, because a lot of people, when they’re setting out to make that first film, really need to ask themselves why they are making it. First and foremost, who are you making it for? How invested are you in the film? How long have you been working for it? You may be working all your life towards making that one film. That kind of self-questioning is very important. That helps orient oneself. At one stage, one has the conviction. The gentleman is someone I respect so much. If he questioned me, what I did next speaks of my conviction or the lack of it. If I had the conviction, I would never have put it aside.
It took me time to find the conviction and say that this is what I’m going to do. To be able to commit to that despite the advice that you may get, that’s a growth in itself.
Very often when you’re mentoring people, I’d rather you put the script aside and ask them why they are doing this. ‘What is it about this character?’ Sometimes you find very little of people’s world experiences in their films, and I would like to encourage people to build bridges, bring themselves into the film. That endows it with spirit.
Smriti Kiran: Anjali, you were moving back to India, you wanted to tell the story in a language that you spoke but didn’t read or write; you were entering a completely different ecosystem. You finished shooting Manjadikuru on the 1st of December, 2007 – that was when it all came together. In those four years, from raising the funds to pulling a crew together to starting your company, what are the first steps that you took to even enter the system seeing as everything was new to you?
Anjali Menon: I tried to reach out to people I knew within the industry. It was a strange time. I have sat outside producers’ offices waiting. I have sent my scripts and waited for months on end just to be told, ‘Oh really? You sent it? Could you send it again?’ I’ve written to filmmakers requesting to assist them. It didn’t work. There were very well-meaning producers who would come back and say, ‘Good script, but it’s not the time for this now.’ This was not just for Manjadikuru but also the different scripts that I had completed, which received a similar response.
I realised that there is really no way to break in. It’s really tough. I also wasn’t in the space where I was looking to assist. I initially did, but then I realised that it is really tough. At that point, we didn’t have any kind of a system. There was no social media. It was just a really difficult time.
“Everyone was telling me to move on. The very problem was that everybody else had moved on. If I had also moved on, then there’d have been nobody to take care of that film or those characters – all that work would have come to nothing.”
Then I said to myself, ‘Why am I waiting? I have done a fair amount of assisting abroad, and I have gained a certain amount of experience. I have the confidence that if all of these things come together, I might be able to put together some kind of a basic, decent narrative, and then the rest of it is a leap of faith. If I sit down with the right collaborators, then that would possibly help me.’ I started to find those people. It was just a very basic task of first finding that one person. You know what they say: the first follower is actually the one who transforms a mad nut into a leader.
I found that first follower in someone who came to me and said, ‘Can I assist?’ because he knew I was working on something. ‘Can I just learn with you?’ I said, ‘Great! Come on board. You and me, we are a team,’ and the two of us just got going. This was a young man, Arun Ashok Kumar. He was as green as I was. We sat across the table from each other and started our work.
We went around looking for locations. I started thinking of actors. All of this was after the script was done. I took about a year to do all of that. I’d found a lot of my places. I started finding people that I wanted to work with. Then it was about finding the money to put it together.
There was a certain amount of funds that I had secured, but even then I wrote to a lot of people. I Googled and found out that NFDC was giving out a co-production deal, a first of its kind at that time. I’d applied for it. There were about 100 projects, and ours was the only one that got selected. That was a big thing. That was the first big vote of confidence – that someone thought, other than the two of us, that it was a good idea. That was quite heartening. I remember getting the notes of the panel which judged it, and they didn’t know who wrote it or anything. The panel had Santhosh Sivan, P.K. Nair – really big names. It felt wonderful that those people had even read my script. That was fabulous. At that stage, all of that really mattered. That’s how it started off.
Smriti Kiran: Making a film is tough enough, but you didn’t know that the toughest battle that you will fight to get your voice out there would be once the film was done. You were blindsided by certain things that you didn’t see coming, almost gobsmacked by what happened. You completed the film in 2007 but only managed to get it released in 2012. What did this unsavoury experience teach you? How did you process this and move ahead?
Anjali Menon: That connection that I was speaking about is the one thing that one has to hold on to. That is what it really taught me. I realised that I am quite mulish that way. I would not have thought otherwise. There are areas in my life where I’ve had to be very stubborn and say, ‘This is what I will do, and I will hold on.’ But when something like this hits, which is so outside of your control, there are so many variables out there which can affect your decisions. We had to face such dire situations, like the issue that cropped up with the co-production, due to which I had to eventually buy the film back and then complete it.
Everyone was telling me to move on. People say that to you, ‘This is one, move on, do another thing.’ Half the people say that films are not for you. The very problem was that everybody else had moved on. If I had also moved on, then there’d have been nobody to take care of that film or those characters – all that work would have come to nothing. Then I’d have to start from a clean slate, where the person sitting opposite me would have had no idea that I had been through the cycle once. That was just not acceptable. That was not fair – not just for me, but also for everybody who put their heart and soul together.
My whole journey, my wait of four years may not make sense to anybody else, but it makes sense to me.”
On their behalf, I really had to just dig my heels, stand there and say, ‘No, I will finish this.’ I told myself that I’d not move on to another feature until I can bring this one out. There were certain opportunities, but I preferred to stick with the work I had already done. I remember my dad once told me that geniuses finish things. No matter what it took, I needed to finish that cycle. I’m a little crazy that way. If I take up a course or a movie – anything – I have to finish it. That’s important. I can’t walk away halfway from a movie theatre even if it’s a lousy film. I just can’t do it. That streak, I guess, played into this and it taught me a lot.
Destiny has certain plans as well. It was when I was sitting and waiting for things to shape up that the opportunity to do Kerala Cafe came to me. The reason I was very happy to jump on board was because this wasn’t another feature. It would not take me away from Manjadikuru. It was a short, which was a format that I was far more comfortable with at that stage. So I jumped into it very happily. It was a privilege, to be working with a lot of other established filmmakers and to get an opportunity like that.
It was my first taste with the audience. I went to sit in the theatre just to see how they responded. That was really special. It meant a lot to me because I had really yearned to watch my film in a theatre with an audience, and I hadn’t gotten that. It meant so much to be able to get that.
We bought Manjadikuru back when I was pregnant, and then I was advised bed rest; I wasn’t supposed to be travelling or working, yet again another year went by.
Smriti Kiran: What would you advise young filmmakers to safeguard considering your experience with Manjadikuru?
Anjali Menon: At the end of the day, anything can happen. I don’t think there are any safeguards you can permanently employ. I would have done it if I had known it. When you say “it’s my film”, that’s because you are taking the responsibility, not because you have created it just by yourself. You’re taking on the responsibility on behalf of these hundred people who have worked with you; you’re the custodian of it, you’re the safe keeper. For that, you have to hold it safe.
My whole journey, my wait of four years may not make sense to anybody else, but it makes sense to me. I can live with it. For me, I would only say do things that you can live with. I could not have lived with walking away from it. I know many others who would have just done that: the next year they would have made another project and moved on. Then you wouldn’t have to say that in so many years you’ve only made these many films. They would have made films every year.
There are people who have that journey, and there’s no right and wrong, to each their own. They might have seen that time as a waste. They might’ve seen differently from what I did. So, we should all do what we can live with. Those choices are based on that. Other than that, I would say that you come in very green and very naive as a filmmaker. You should always have your practical hat on, always consult legally, all of that you really have to put in place; you shouldn’t go with the trust that things are like film school, where people will be good and they will be fine and they will all care about the project as much as you do. That way it’s a journey that you have to be prepared to take up yourself. Even if no one else cares, you need to be the one to push things ahead.
Smriti Kiran: You did Kerala Cafe and met Anwar Rasheed, who was also making one of the films in the anthology, and that’s where the relationship began. It’s such an important collaboration in your life. How did the two of you connect and how did it lead to you writing Ustad Hotel?
Anjali Menon: I’d only heard of his name. I knew that he made these big blockbuster films. At that point, most filmmakers of that generation were older than me. They were not people I could be on a first-name basis with. Not at all. When Kerala Cafe was made, I was very surprised by the vibe because the industry in Kerala works on a very personal basis. It’s because it’s so much of an indie film space.
On the day that the producer, Ranjith, invited all of us into his home to come and pitch stories and discuss things, I wasn’t really ready for the pitch. I turned up thinking that we’d be briefed. Everybody was coming up with their stories one by one, and I just made something up and said it. Anwar was there — we were amongst the youngest of the lot — so we were introduced and kept in touch during the making of the film.
“For me, what looked easy was something that he patiently waited for four years. We connected at a beautiful time.”
Finally, when the film came out, my favourite short of that lot was Anwar’s short called Bridge. It really showcases his talent as a filmmaker. I was very impressed. I liked it a lot. Since then we got in touch and regularly inquired about what we were doing. At one point, we bounced off some stories. I mentioned a story to him about a grandfather and grandson on the seaside, and he suddenly became alert. He asked me if I could write it a little bit, just a small sketch. I agreed. Then he asked if he could come over — I was in Kerala then — and so he did, in about a week’s time. By then, I had put down some notes, which he read, gave me an advance, and that’s it – we started working on the film. It was as simple as that.
What I did not realise was that Anwar, till then, had directed three films and each of them was a huge blockbuster. All of them ran for 150 days in the theatre and he was working with really big stars. He had stopped doing that for about four years, then Kerala Cafe happened. I did not know that he had wanted to move on to a different kind of narrative. He was waiting for something like that to turn up. He didn’t go into reading different scripts and meeting different people. For me, what looked easy was something that he patiently waited for four years. We connected at a beautiful time.
I had a great time sitting at home in Kerala. I was pregnant; my mom was home. I had been advised to rest completely. I was pampered. I was in Calicut, which is a lovely place; the people are so warm and hospitable, especially for a pregnant woman you’re just surrounded by food. All of that came into the script.
I had my baby about a month earlier than expected. I had finished the first two acts and not the third. I remember telling my husband that I may be the one having the baby but Anwar is having the labour pain. ‘He must have been wondering what the hell is happening to his script.’
Then I went to the third act after my son was born; I went back to work on the seventh day. By the time he was 90 days old, I was supposed to do a traditional ritual, and on the 91st day, I flew to Chennai with him and my husband, where we pitched our tent. We were finishing the post-production on Manjadikuru, while Anwar was finishing the post-production on Ustad Hotel. It was happening parallelly. We released both within a month of each other in 2012. It was a great time.
Smriti Kiran: Anjali, you were very determined when Ustad Hotel and Manjadikuru came out. Manjadikuru got a lot of critical acclaim, but it did not do well at the box office. It had a profound impact on you because the journey was truncated.
You were very determined that the next film you made would be a film that reached out to the audience and received in a completely different way than Manjadikuru was. When you started working on Bangalore Days, what other things did you alter in your process?
Anjali Menon: When we decide the content of our films, we also need to take into consideration where we are at because we are also evolving as people, and assess what our needs are from this thing that we’re making.
For me, that little episode with Kerala Cafe was so important because it was the first time I got to sit in front of an audience that was applauding dialogue written by me. They were applauding the characters as they were going through the journey. Somehow it struck a chord. I really engaged with that thing and it felt great. It was something that gave me a high. I realised that I was liking it and that I’d like to work a little more in this space to be able to engage with them enough.
I had a wonderful actor in Kerala Cafe, Jagathy Sreekumar, who worked with me. We were at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and he sat next to me. In all his years of experience, it was his first film festival. While the film was going on, people started clapping at the end of our segment, and he turned around and told me —I’d won a few awards by then —‘The real award is not what you go on stage and collect; the real award is this applause that you get.’ That just really stayed with me. Unfortunately, soon after that, he had a nasty accident, and he’s not able to speak anymore. Those words that he said stayed with me. I really wanted that again.
When I wrote Ustad Hotel, the way we crafted it — and Anwar’s strengths are in that area — he was able to tell me that this would be good in this direction, and see if I wanted to work on that. That kind of exchange between us was helpful. Somewhere along the line, while I was writing Ustad Hotel, I had not seen his other work – I’d only seen the short film, which I loved. I happened to see something on television, which Anwar had done before, and it was this one masaledar movie. I got a little worried. I thought, ‘Is this what he’s expecting out of me?’ I quickly called him up and said, ‘Anwar, I just turned on the television and saw this movie. I think you made it. Is this the sort of writing that you want me to do?’ There was silence on the other end of the phone. He said, ‘Have you no other work? Don’t you have a script to write? Please go write that script. Why are you watching television? I don’t want you watching any of those films. I just want you to focus on the script that you’re writing, and that is it. Don’t think about anything else.’ Then I was in a better space. I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do, and he gave wonderful feedback, which really helped the film.
In the middle of this, he shared his Flickr account with me where he started collecting pictures, just for reference. I realised the explosion of colour in those pictures. It was amazing. That was another person’s interpretation of your material. That was a very interesting process for me to learn from as well. He was visualising it in a very different way, and it was definitely visualised in a far more powerful way than I was expecting. To be able to understand that even while I was writing really helped.
“After Ustad Hotel, everybody wanted me to write scripts for them. But they wanted my writing, not my direction. That’s a challenge thrown in your face.”
There’s a certain way the film starts, Ustad Hotel. There’s slight, sarcastic humour, a little witty space there. Anwar was a little worried about it. He was wondering if it would work and if we wanted to carry that kind of humour through the film. Till then I had been writing in English, and he was reading it in English. Then I wrote it in Malayalam. I used the accent used in Calicut, which is very fluid; it’s a very warm way of speaking, very casual. Once he saw that he was sorted. We were good to go then. The freedom to try those things was very empowering.
It’s a great ride when you’re getting to do this and somebody else is directing it because you’re safe in a way. You know the material is going to be dealt with carefully. That really empowered me to move on to Bangalore Days.
After the thing with Manjadikuru, I was in a space where I wanted the audience to watch my film. Nobody had seen it; it ran for 25 days. People wrote about it online, but it was not the kind of reception that I really wanted. I was really thirsty for material with which I could engage the audience. It was really funny. People would come to me during that entire time with open arms, the whole industry, there was so much welcoming after Ustad Hotel. Everybody wanted me to write scripts for them. So then I would ask them, ‘Who’s going to direct this?’ Some of them were pretty well-known directors, but some of them would be people who were completely new directors. Then I asked them, ‘Why them? I can direct it’. They would say, ‘No, you just write it. That will be great. We are not looking for Manjadikuru, we are looking for Ustad Hotel.’ It was all so clear. They wanted my writing, but not my direction. That’s a challenge thrown in your face. ‘What is it? Can I not deal with that kind of material myself? Is that it?’ It’s almost a dare. That kind of thing really energises me. ‘Great! Let’s try that,’ I decided
I was actually pitching the idea of Bangalore Days for a friend. I had also just had my baby, so it wasn’t a sensible time to direct a film. I was again bouncing off ideas with Anwar, and he turned around and said, ‘Are you giving this to someone else?’ I said, ‘Yes. I was thinking of doing this.’ He said, ‘No, you should direct this.’ I told him that it wasn’t practical. So, he said, ‘No. You direct it, I produce it. Let’s make this film.’ I was feeding my baby, for heaven’s sake; it’s not the time to think about these things; you can’t hold a single thought in your head for more than 40 seconds. I said, ‘I’m not really sure.’ He said, ‘You cannot give this to anybody else. You have to direct it, Anjali. This is your humour. This is your thing.’ I thought about it. I felt that this was an opportunity I was getting. Somebody who knows my work, knows me, has faith in me. He knows how I respond to stuff. There were times when I would be with my baby at dinner, with family and friends, and Anwar would call me up and tell me that things have changed, and could I rewrite that scene. I would go to the hostess and say, ‘Can I go to a room somewhere?’ She would say, ‘Oh, you want to feed the baby? Come.’ I’d be like, ‘No, I want to write a scene.’ I would write and send it back to him. We have that kind of rhythm between us. It just seemed very sensible to do this. We took the risk and jumped in.
He was very clear about one thing. It was a subject that he loved, and he said, ‘I’m very keen to make commercial films. That’s the way I’m looking at.’ And that was the way I saw it too. It was a good time to come together once again.
Smriti Kiran: You used to write very descriptive scripts. Everything was there, the vision was laid bare on the paper completely. Then, you stopped describing it as much as you did earlier. Anjali, how do you decide how much to describe on paper? At the end of the day, it is your vision so how do you take that call of holding back?
Anjali Menon: The thing is, descriptive writing is also about a sense of control. Even when I wrote for Anwar, that was when I became very conscious about it. When you’re writing for yourself, you’re just putting all your thoughts down. You just think of it like that. But when I was writing for somebody else, I started by writing exactly how I wanted to write, how I would do it for myself. Anwar was also faithful to what was written.
After a certain point, I realised that it wasn’t fair. He may have his own vision of how to do this, and I shouldn’t take away his space. I said that this is not okay. So, I stopped doing that. I started pulling back. I started leaving space.
Then I realised that even when I am directing, if I have so much described, my constant run and the run of everybody on the directorial team is to achieve what is written on paper. But if not enough is written, I may still have a vision in my head, I can speak to my production designer about what I have in mind, I can speak with my DOP, collaborate with them, and inquire about how they envision it and how they’d like to do it. But if I put everything down, where is the room for everybody else to collaborate? When I pull myself back and leave the tip of the iceberg there, then people can come in and plug in their creativity. It’s much more collaborative to work like that.
Smriti Kiran: You even storyboarded everything to the last T. If one were to look at the storyboard and the corresponding stills from the movie, one would see that they are completely identical. After Manjadikuru, you questioned your process and something shifted. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
Anjali Menon: Your first film is the one you prepare the most for. I had a complete film school approach, where you only prepare and prepare. The first two weeks, we were shooting with children. With children, the beautiful thing is that you set a frame for them and you allow them to move in it. They are very obedient that way. They do not cross those boundaries. It’s very much in the space that you have envisaged.
I shot for two weeks and I saw my footage. It was looking exactly like my storyboard. I was bored to tears because I thought something else would happen. Nothing was happening. I was like, ‘What am I doing? Something isn’t working.’ I called up a friend, Saket Chaudhary, who was my classmate, who had just made his first film, Pyaar Ke Side Effects. He had done a film before me. I didn’t know anyone in that space other than him.
I called him up and said, ‘Listen, something is going wrong here. I don’t know what it is.’ He asked me what the problem was. I told him that my frame is looking like my storyboard. I tried explaining to him that something was amiss, maybe the energy, but I just couldn’t figure out what it was. He asked me if I was controlling things too much, or leaving space for what was happening in the frame to surprise me. I was really surprised by that question. I realised that maybe that was the problem. Maybe I had planned everything to such an extent that I wasn’t allowing anything to surprise me. If there was any variable, I was pushing it out instead of utilising it within the frame.
The minute we had that conversation, I decided that we should move things around. It was there that the process started. I started pulling things out, which I had planned, just to surprise the actors, who’d rehearsed the scene and learned their lines. I took away one element and suddenly they were all over the place. Then they started responding to the energy that was created there. I felt that it gave us a lot more free-flowing energy in the frame, and then the rest of the film went through that process. I felt much happier with that because I thought it was taking things one step further from what you’d planned. That I thought was very rewarding for everybody concerned. It also gives room to technicians and people to collaborate. My DOP on the film was Pietro Zuercher, who is from Switzerland and trained at the AFI. He was also used to the storyboard, a very clean and clear process. He worked very well with that. In prep, we worked very closely with each other, but this slightly moving things around really helped everyone. That was a big learning for me.
“I had planned everything to such an extent that I wasn’t allowing anything to surprise me.”
When I worked with Kavalam sir, I realised that he too had a technique of doing this: of changing small things which would shift the rhythm of the scene. That infuses a fresh energy to it every time you perform it. You find a new interpretation, you find a new thing that a character can do, a new prop that can be engaged. So I tried to do more and more of that in my films.
By the time we got to Bangalore Days, what happened was that in my head there was a certain kind of film; I don’t think the production realised that they had brought into a vision that was beyond the budget. When we were doing it, a lot of people thought that I was completely cuckoo. There were too many things happening in one film. They kept saying that this wasn’t how it was done. I just kept saying that it’s okay, and we kept going with it. There, again, I learned, from my technicians, that my systematic way was not working out for everybody. They wanted to collaborate, but this was standing in the way. I used to have a black book with me which I would carry around with me all the time, which had little drawings and notes in it. After a point, I realised that it wasn’t working. I chucked it out. I would leave it at home. I would sit up at home doing my stuff, but not drag it to set. I knew what I had in my mind and gave everybody else room to do what they wanted to do also. That enriched the film.
Very often, we wanted to do things which we didn’t have permissions for, which we didn’t have access to, so we were really on the ball. I had to make the film, have a narrative in place, so it was about responding to whatever was going around on set, which keeps you alert in a very different way. I think it’s fabulous to have that, to be able to find opportunity in things to tell the story.
I remember telling you during our conversation about….
Smriti Kiran: Free hugs!
Anjali Menon: Yes! Actors really respond to that. When they really got into character, Dulquer (Salmaan) and Nivin (Pauly) and Nazriya (Nazim), they were really getting along; they really had that kind of vibe between them. They were on the road, driving the car, doing those mad things in the car. We were in another vehicle with walkie-talkies in both cars, shooting it in the most primitive way, from an Omni van. We couldn’t put a grip gear on those antique cars. There was no way to shoot it through any other system.
On the way, we saw these people standing with boards saying ‘Free hugs!’ So, I was just telling them on the walkie-talkie to stop the car and hug them and do what they wanted to. They did it, and we caught it on camera. It was a lot of on-the-go stuff, and all of that was matched with other stuff that was controlled. The film’s energy rose because of that. I am more and more tempted to attempt that kind of filmmaking actually.
Smriti Kiran: You’re one of those rare directors who give equal weightage to actors in terms of bringing a narrative alive. You said that there are three main collaborators to bring the story alive: the writer, the director and the actors. You also do workshops with them, then rehearsals. In those workshops, you get them to do scenes that are related to the film, that are related to their characters and narrative, but they’re not in the film. So, it has some sort of effect. You also believe in the philosophy of kathapathram. How did you develop your process as you went along as far as actors are concerned?
Anjali Menon: With actors, I’ve been really blessed. I’ve had wonderful actors to work with. Right from Manjadikuru, I’ve been received with trust by legendary actors like Thilakan and Murali sir, whose movies we have grown up watching. I have tremendous respect for their craft. It’s a blessing to have had the chance to work with then.
In that film, I realised that actors really respect directors who respect their process, who give them the space for their process, who cherish their process. That mutual respect is very, very important. That’s when they respond. When that awareness is there – that their process is respected and cared for – I find that they bloom. They surrender completely to the character. That is what we are seeking at the end of the day, right?
What I’m looking for is not that one perfect take. I don’t know my journey. My journey is not to get from point A to point B, knowing that my destination is point B. No. When you’re modelling a bit of clay, you don’t really know what you’ll make. In a way, you’re responding to whatever is happening and then you end up making something. In that way, I would just like to nudge them towards moments of honesty, which we catch on camera. Those moments of honesty are what will bring our world alive.
When it comes to actors, they read the script and they understand what it is about the character that they’re trying to convey, and so they fill it with their own subtext, which evolves beautifully. Each of them have such different processes. I don’t have one process – it changes according to the actor depending on how they feel comfortable, how they imbibe the material; some may like to talk a lot about it, some may not need any engagement, some people may like you to read through every scene, while some may like to simply read it themselves. It’s all very different. But at the end of the day, it’s just about empowering them with enough understanding of the script, of their characters and their backstories and allowing that to lead. That’s all my job is.
“When their process is respected and cared for – I find that they bloom. They surrender completely to the character.”
When it comes to workshops, it’s more about getting them comfortable in a space with a new group, because actors also tend to go from set to set, doing so much work, that they have no time to orient themselves. This is just about getting them comfortable about the cast and crew. My crew comes to these workshops as well. You could be sitting next to the art director or DOP and doing what we’d be doing. Everybody’s a part of it. It also helps the crew to develop a certain sense of respect for what is being done there. Acting is not an easy thing. People just assume that it’s the easiest thing to do. No, it’s not. You’re exposing your innermost self. For them to be able to get that confidence, we need to create that environment. So the workshop is about getting them into that space. That’s all.
About doing the scenes: I rewrite unnecessarily, so there are so many scenes lying around that any one of them can be used for rehearsals. There are often scenes which I write that I never put into the draft. It’s just for me to understand how the characters matter in the writing. During Bangalore Days, when we needed to get the chemistry of the cousins, we acted out scenes of the three of them interacting. These scenes were to give them collected memories so that they’d have a shared history, a shared memory of that rehearsal and of what we did together back then, that can be brought out during the shoot. That may needle them to open up with each other and fool around. You lose inhibition and all of those things which fetter you otherwise in between.
Nivin and Dulquer had never met. They met for the first time at our workshop. They were both wondering how it was going to be. But from the first minute itself, it was smooth sailing. Same thing for Prithviraj and Nazriya during Koode. They had to portray siblings. We had been interacting so much on the phone, and from day one, they joined forces and started pulling my leg. That’s the thing: just allowing them to get there. That’s all.
Smriti Kiran: Another very interesting thing that you do is that when you write, you never write with actors in mind. It’s only when you know that this is the person you’re going to cast in the film that you think about the character that way. Your casting process is also very unique, which is that you never cast anyone until you meet them and have a conversation with them or a series of conversations with them. Then once the decision has been made that this person is going to play this character, you actually go back and rewrite some of the materials taking little things from what the actor actually likes. For example, in Fahadh’s (Faasil) case, you found out that he’s a dog lover.
Anjali Menon: I have to say that in Fahadh’s case it didn’t happen like that. I wanted to give Das a certain tool to display affection, to externalise how sensitive he was within. To me, an animal lover is a very special kind of tool. That would have been great. So, I had this semblance of a scene in mind. I called him up one day and asked him whether he was comfortable around dogs. He just said, ‘You don’t know this about me?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘I take my dog to set.’ I had absolutely no idea. He turned out to be a complete dog lover. I was like, ‘Hey, now nothing is stopping us.’ Then I went about writing all of that.
With Fahadh, it was just a lucky coincidence that happened. Yes, it empowered me to write even more because I knew he would be comfortable doing all of that. That definitely worked. But, usually, with the actors, it’s not about what they might like, but it’s about giving them some identifiers, some little pegs that they can hold on when they’re becoming that character; because if there’s a seed of something that they feel within, then that will help them explore the rest of the characteristics.
It’s kathapathram. Patram means vessel and katha is story. Kathapathram is the character. When an actor is becoming that the story flows through them. They are the biggest tool. You can let go of everything else. You have a camera, you have an actor. That’s it. That’s all you need. That surrender is supreme.
Smriti Kiran: Anjali, I also wanted to talk about ‘Where is the soul?’ A month before Bangalore Days was supposed to go on floors, there was something that kept bothering you about the story and you kept on thinking that you needed to fix something. You started fixing it a month before the shoot, and the final draft was ready only a week before the shoot. Why did you give into this instinct? Firstly, what do you need to have on board to take a decision like this and what enables a decision like that considering that there’s a lot at stake? Secondly, what kind of prep do you need to do in order for you to put that into place and also make the deadline?
Anjali Menon: Frankly, you have to have a bunch of very patient and trusting collaborators. In this case, be it my actors, producers, my DOP, all went through it with me, which is why I could do that. Otherwise, if what is there is working for everybody, it’s good, and we are ready to go.
I remember I was writing this, and the second half was literally something that I really had trouble with writing. The second half kept changing completely with every draft. I think we were on draft seven when we were going into prep. I would have written some 12 kinds of second halves for this film.
“At the end of the day, prep has to take us to that one moment when we will fly. You cannot prep to fly. You can only surrender.”
We went into prep. Locations were locked, everything was done, and I was still twiddling my thumbs nervously. One thing, as a director, that I bring on board is my instinct. A lot of my work is around instinct. When the instinct is raising a red flag somewhere then I have to listen to it because all the rest of the work that follows is also going to be based on instincts. So if there’s something troubling you there, then it’s very difficult to build on that.
When I handed the script out to everyone, they had gone into prep. I think this was about three weeks before the shoot when I turned to my producers and said that something was not okay for me here.
When Anwar saw this board with this angry scrawl, he started laughing. I said, ‘Why are you laughing? I’m traumatised here.’ ‘You’re writing a feature film. You’re not going to find the kind of soul and connect you want like you did with Manjadikuru. You’re not going to find that here. This is a commercial film. This is it. This is how it is,’ he said. I was like, ‘Why does it have to be like that?’ I wasn’t feeling comfortable in my gut. He laughed at me, took a photograph, emailed it to me, and left. I was sitting there fretting.
Then, a few days later, I told him, ‘Can you please trust me? I want to change the script.’ I remember I said this and he sat down. I said, ‘This is not working for me, but I will not change the actors. I will not change the locations. I will work within all the production plans which have been made, but let me change the script. Let me just do that.’ Fortunately, he and my DOP came on board and they said, ‘It’s okay. Do your thing as long as these big things are not changing.’ They had faith in me.
Then, the actors. I remember telling Nivin the new second half, who was very carefully listening to me. He realised that it had changed completely. He took the paper and just said, ‘So, it’s just changed…completely?’ Then he said, ‘I love it. I really like what it has become.’ Thank God everybody responded like that! It was great.
That kind of faith is what it takes. But I think listening to your instincts is very important. There have been times that I haven’t and I have suffered for that. This is one of the positive examples. I think we all have instances where we haven’t listened, and it stayed with you. It stays with you even when you’re watching that film finally. So there are many, many examples of that. We should just keep learning as we go.
Smriti Kiran: You tinkered around — it’s a very light way of putting it — in Arjun and Sarah’s (played by Dulquer Salmaan and Parvathy Thiruvothu) track that also altered the things around the two of them. Then, while editing, Kuttan’s (played by Vijayaraghavan) entire voiceover was also altered. What did you change in the film?
Anjali Menon: There were a fair amount of things. I had actually written this whole track of Sarah in a wheelchair in an earlier draft. We put it aside. It wasn’t working for some reason. She was not in a wheelchair in the draft that we were working on. So, we changed that and brought this back.
Another very significant part that changed was about Kuttan and his father. The whole Goa aspect. Even in the Das-Divya (played by Fahadh Faasil and Nazriya Nazim) story. By the time all this came together, there was another fairly important character, and there was a story around Arjun’s life, where we were just not able to find the right location. I had to quickly take whatever the character was doing and distribute it among the cousins. That actually worked for the better, because it brought the cousins together, and their characters were enriched.
There’s a lot of luck involved as well, how things shape up, no matter what prep we do. I like to prep like a mad person. For me, if an AD really loves this film and loves me, they will prep. At the end of the day, it has to take us to that one moment when we will fly. You cannot prep to fly. You can only surrender and allow whatever it is to happen.
Even if things are beautifully choreographed, I have learnt that it is my responsibility to shuffle the energies, to know something else, to make these small adjustments, which change performances. Even during takes, be it eight takes or whatever, we tend to have a lot of okay takes. It’s not that I don’t like to decide to do it then and there. There are people who do the spot edits, where they decide and immediately put it together. I do not like to do that. That is a different process. You can reinvent the whole story in the edit. To be able to have these multiple things, each a little different from the other, that is the thing. When I’m making small adjustments, my take two will be very different from take eight, because I have gone and shared a new bit of information with the actor, so they are responding to it more than anything else. Maybe that is the one I will go for. Those things are very important to me. So, I try to prepare not just what is on paper and what everybody else can prepare, but I’m also trying to think about what little meddling I can do to unsettle everybody, which would make them have to be on the ball and make them respond then and there. It changes for every film.
For Koode, everybody had warned me about Prithviraj (Sukumaran). I’d worked with him before. He knows his lines completely; not only his lines, he knows the lines of everybody in that room. The idea of someone knowing their lines like that and reproducing it, how original can it be? At the end of the day, it’s a little limiting. I never gave him the script in Malayalam. I gave his lines in English. He knew what had to be said, he knew what everybody else was saying, but he had to make his own words and verbalise them. It would only be during rehearsal time that he would get something which he could refer to. That kept it light and spontaneous. That mattered. It changes performances.
Every actor, like I said, works very differently. Like Jagathy Sreekumar sir’s takes would be completely different from each other. He would do something completely different which would surprise you. Every actor brings a different thing to the table.
Smriti Kiran: You’re so deeply invested in the process of an actor, and you really, as a creator, aid and abet that. What is their process like? They talk about your process and they think you’re a really generous creator that allows them to really blossom.
Anjali Menon: The last time I checked, the adjectives go from ‘makes me feel completely safe’ to ‘liberates me’ to ‘excruciating to work with’.
Smriti Kiran: None of the people who have worked with you would think that you’re excruciating to work with…at least the ones I have talked to.
Anjali Menon: But I’m sure I am. I don’t want to take that away from them.
Each of them is very different and very special. I am so proud of their journeys. With Prithvi, his process changes fairly, depending on the level of trust that is there. He was very trusting in terms of what I wanted to shape the character into. He would really go with that. He would allow me in such areas. Not once he would come to the monitor and take a look, unless I said, ‘Can you come and take a look?’ It’s that level of trust. I really appreciate that because that’s not always how it is. In a film like Koode, it takes that. I think he responded to that. He’s someone that one really needs to gain the confidence of.
He does not rehearse or workshop, at all. He just comes there and does it. That’s how he functions. That works for him. It’s about finding those ways. It’s like when you’re mountaineering and you need to find those crevices where you can get your hands into.
With him, involving him in the pre-production, sharing what you’re doing with him and all that really makes him feel confident and it makes him be able to relate to this world that you’re in. I think that works with him.
Parvathy is a Nazi prepper. She will go all out. She invests so much in the prepping for her character. I trust her with even the smallest scene. I think it was in a review that she was described as someone who can turn one note into a Sinatra. It’s a good way of describing her. Even with a very little thing, she gives it a lot of depth because of the work that she puts in. With Parvathy, it’s a very specific process.
For Bangalore Days, she actually asked for a wheelchair way before the shoot. Production was wondering why she was even asking for it. We delivered it to her home, and she went around on it for two days just to know what it would be like and access everything by it. She goes into that dedicated work. That is her process. I ended up sharing pictures, poetry, writing, music with my actors. She revels in that. That’s how it works for her.
For Fahadh, discussions are the thing. The backstories work for him. He will not respond much. He’s a great listener. Finally, at the shoot, in the frame, through his performance you realise that he was listening. He’s like a sponge, he just absorbs completely. He’s somebody who gets into character and remains with the character when he is with you. He goes into a zone. That’s what enables him to do the kind of work that he is doing. It requires that. You can see that depth very clearly. There’s a certain space he gets into and remains there, which makes it easy to access. Once he is in there, you can tell him anything; he’ll also be that person.
I remember with Das, I had this thing that he was very honourable, very noble. There’s that about him. That would reflect in his body language. The way he conducted himself and how he dealt with all the characters. Between Das and Arjun there’s a certain chemistry. Arjun is more flippant with his energy, but Das always holds himself in a certain way. That doesn’t have to be briefed to Fahadh at that moment. He’s just in that space.
Nivin is someone who works on a minute to minute briefing. It’s crazy. He’s got a bubbly energy, and he has this thing where in the middle of the take or right before the take he finds something which amuses him and bursts into giggles. It may be a very serious scene, anything. I’ve had my DOP walk out of set to let him laugh. The person giggling after Nivin would be me.
There was this scene we had to do, where they play cards on the bed the night before the wedding, and I would stop, go to him and tell him to tweak something. He would say, ‘You know, you can talk to me during the take. It’s okay.’ I was like, ‘Okay…I’ll talk to you during the take.’ There’s the camera moving in a circular track, all the other actors are performing, I’m talking to him during the take, and he is doing it on the ball, he’s just going on. It’s so different from everybody else’s process.
He loves it when you give him these little things to say and think. He loves the last-minute adjustments. He loves responding to that. There are these things he would come and say, ‘Can I just do this?’ He’ll get really excited about adding little things.
Dulquer is very different. Dulquer is full of doubts. You just gather him and calm him, and tell him that it is fine. Then he’s like, ‘Is it fine?’ even after all of that. During the take, he’ll just give it his all. He’s not conscious or mindful about where the camera is, nothing. He will just give it his all, and then it’s up to you to do what you want with it. That’s his nature.
During his briefing for Bangalore Days, Dulquer was told that his character is a rough guy, unlike the others. He kept coming back and saying, ‘But he’s laughing all the time. Isn’t that weird? Why am I laughing so much if I am a rough kind of guy?’ I kept telling him that he was with his cousins, he isn’t like that with them. Finally, when he saw it, he got it; it was working in a certain way. That’s his process, his thing.
He also responds a lot to spontaneous energy. If you prep him to death, it’s not great. He can also really get into character. Dulquer is known to be a very gentleman kind of person. But on the sets of Bangalore Days, he was pulling pranks on everyone. He would steal the AD’s walkie-talkie, and issue instructions as if he was an AD, leading everyone to go in different directions. I was like, ‘Who is giving these instructions?’ He was really playing the part – he just became Arjun.
Smriti Kiran: Anjali, I feel that a) Koode had a lot of silence, b) Koode has the same empathy and tender moments that are present in all your films, the same authenticity; but I felt that some of the warm filters were out. There was some pushing of the envelope, some harder bits that came in. Is that a function of the story that you were telling? Or is it a certain evolution, or direction that your own journey as a filmmaker is going in?
Anjali Menon: I want to make films that don’t have a Minnie Mouse bow at the end of it. I should probably move on from there.
If you ask me, one of my favourite bits from Koode is the opening, where you see Joshua (played by Prithviraj Sukumaran) in his workplace in the Middle East. I remember working with the real workers in the oil rigs in those places. We did not work with extras. A lot of them, at five o’clock, were really going away from work, so we just decided to travel in the bus with them; we jumped in with the camera.
I remember one AD saying, ‘Okay, everybody. Get ready. Imagine that you’ve worked for the whole day and are going home.’ We all turned around to him and said, ‘They have worked the whole day, and they are going home. This is who they are.’
We had the camera move from face to face. Those are real faces, and they have stories to tell. Somewhere in there lies the kind of film I want to make. I don’t know where exactly I’m headed from here. It’s time to let things get a little more real. I want to try different things, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do things, but I’m keen to move onto other spaces.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching on YouTube
Andrea Tanvi: In a country where commercial cinema is usually deemed as brainless, Bangalore Days and Koode changed how I perceived it. As a creator, how do you personally define what commercial is, and how you would like to see it change in the future?
Anjali Menon: When it’s an artistic film, one makes it for their own artistic voice; whereas with commercial cinema, the intent is to communicate, to connect with an audience.
In a commercial film, for me, the process is different because you are actually focusing that film towards a certain audience, so your constant exploration is how I am connecting with that audience – on every level: be it a shot, the dialogue, or the writing. How I am connecting with the audience becomes a constant thought. In that, I respect my audience a lot.
People give very little credit to commercial cinema. It has great power to influence, and it has a great capacity to reach out and communicate. So the kind of stories, the kind of characters and the kind of values one can put across, there’s a whole lot of things that when delivered in commercial cinema, even if you smuggle it in certain ways, can reach a much wider audience. That potential deserves to be explored. So one can really work in one’s material and find ways to say everything they want to say.
Saying meaningful things doesn’t have to always be in a completely artistic way, without saying it in any commercial way. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can find an optimum mix somewhere. I will not claim this as great art, but it is definitely communication. It does definitely connect. For me, the connection determines the workings of my film. That is key for me.
Ajay Unnikrishnan: Today, we see almost all films being critiqued with a socio-political lens. How do you write scripts in this day and age where such critiquing is necessary?
Anjali Menon: There are different kinds of writers. I can tell you about my process. I work from a very instinctive place. It needs to ring true to my emotion. I prioritise that above all else. This is also because the socio-political circumstances evolve consistently. I don’t believe that a film is made for a particular year only. The film should ring true 10 or 20 years from now. That emotional level is something that does not shift too much, but there is a great significance of the socio-political situation that revolves around us.
Besides this, I am at present more and more tempted to look and reflect on all that. I do think that I will continue to work from an emotional point of view, but possibly integrate more of that. This is also for us a learning at the end of the day as filmmakers. These are the spaces where we can speak our minds also. It cannot always be that you shirk away from that and speak. There are areas, as I was saying, where you smuggle in ideas – people don’t realise it, but you put your perspective across. That’s also very important. It’s a process one keeps exploring and arrives at.
Avinash Madivada: After completing a draft, re-writing it might make you lose judgement. How do you cope up with that judgement factor on your drafts?
Anjali Menon: You definitely lose judgement after a certain point. That’s when I would like to show my script to somebody else who has not heard the story. They give you a fresh perspective. Sometimes taking time away also helps. Not working on it every day also improves your judgment. You start getting out of your stories and do other things, then you come back with a fresh perspective.
But, losing judgment is a very real problem, where others can help you. Someone once gave an example of a tortoise: if it is ever turned on its back, it needs the help of someone else to overturn it back onto its feet. You need somebody else to come and turn you over so that you can keep walking ahead. It’s that kind of a thing. We need some kind of an external factor that can give you a neutral point of view.
Siddharth Menon: How do you incorporate space for improvisation (primarily in terms of dialogues and screenplay) whilst scripting the film? Is improvisation, by and large, restricted to dialogue or are there other facets of filmmaking where improvisation comes into play?
Anjali Menon: I believe improvisation is a key; it’s not just what happens between action and cut, but also in terms of every department that functions.
You will give a certain brief to a department – that is what I’m anticipating, this is what I would like. Once you’ve empowered them with that understanding, they need to have the capacity to come back and surprise you with things which are not on paper. You may want to create something in a particular room that you’re putting together, because they know about the characters and they know about the story, they may find something which is great to put in but you have not told them that you want this particular thing. That is an improvisation from their end. Now, as a filmmaker, it’s up to me to utilise that.
There was something that my art department did which was unanticipated, but it was outside of the brief. When it gets incorporated within the frame, it becomes part of the storytelling. They become collaborators in telling that story. That kind of improvisation is also very important to me.
I don’t really refer to the script when I’m editing. There is a stage I have between making the film and the editing where I will sit with photographs and see what shots are there compared to my script. This is just for me to understand that all of these shots are there for me to talk about this scene. But when I’m sitting down on the editing, I’m not going to sit with my script. No, I’m just going to look at my material and tell a story from that because I don’t want to be bound by the script. Maybe the material will give me further opportunity to improvise. So, I should not blind myself by wearing the blinkers of the script at that stage.
I will not say that you should leave room for improvisation in the script because you should write the script to the best of your ability. I try to. But I don’t think we should see the script as the Holy Grail that cannot be messed around with. It’s clay. The script will only take you to the springboard. You have to jump off that springboard to make the film. If your film is going to look exactly like your script, then what is your contribution as a director? That is the question.
At every stage that improvisation needs to happen. An actor might come and say, ‘I don’t feel like doing this,’ Prithvi does that a lot. He may say that Joshua doesn’t do that, and I may respond by saying, ‘No, he will do it and you will do it.’ But that is not my way. I will never do that because once I’ve handed over the baton of the character to the actor, I have to trust the actor, I have to trust their instinct. He is more Joshua than I am at that stage. If he’s saying something I will listen carefully. What is he trying to say? Speak to him, find out what his thought is behind it, and try to catch that and then direct it another way. If that is how you feel, then maybe try this. Would you like to try this? Would you like to try that? I would always ask, ‘Would you like to try something?’ rather than saying, ‘Do this.’ I would only suggest. It’s only a nudge. They have to walk the talk. That kind of improvisation happens on every level, not just on dialogue. Sometimes they ended up questioning the motivation. Why am I doing it this way? Why can’t I say this? Then you have to be able to explain.
We had a workshop with Rajan Khosa once. He told the actors, ‘Okay, imagine there’s a butterfly going somewhere.’ Then this one actor said, ‘It’s a pink butterfly,’ and the rest of the narrative went with that pink butterfly because the actor said it. So, you have to trust the actor.
Similarly, you have to trust all your collaborators. If they are saying that this is what feels that, then listen to them and integrate that into your approach to storytelling. When a camera person sets a frame, they are setting it for a particular reason. Engage in that kind of understanding and then move into storytelling. I would do that.
Stanley Mathews: How was the experience of working with young actors as protagonists as compared to the more experienced actors like Thilakan, Rahman, Kaviyoor and Urvashi in Manjadikuru? How did you approach directing these young actors?
Anjali Menon: I like working with children. I really enjoy it actually, because they have fewer masks on. That shows up on screen. You don’t need to have them unlearn. That is helpful. Just to give you an example, while we were doing this, we would say, ‘Okay, let’s try this, let’s try that.’ Play a lot of games, play the fool, get the energy up. After the first few weeks, the actors came and they would perform. Each of them had their own style, which we would slowly break into and move it all into one particular space. I’d have these kids sit around me, they’d look into the monitor and say, ‘She isn’t doing too well, is she? Maybe you should do something about it.’
It was amazing to see how they were responding to one another. That also taught me a lot. With actors who are in the industry and constantly doing work, to get them out of their rhythm is a challenge. In 2007, we shot with sync sound in Manjadikuru. Actors were thrown because none of them had worked with sync sound. They had to really learn their lines and know it. There was no prompting. Everybody was edgy. Everybody was learning their lines like students, whereas the kids knew all their lines. They didn’t even have to refer to the paper. It was a very fresh contrast and we had a lovely combination of that, which has benefited the film a lot.
When it comes to children, the trust is very free-flowing. With the actors, a little more prep helps so that they can build that trust. But at the end of the day, a certain kind of love and a certain kind of care for the character can be sensed immediately. Sensitive actors pretty quickly get what kind of a director you are, and they respond to that. They very quickly adjust themselves. That is what you seek.
When I meet the actor, more than anything, I need to see how this person is responding to me, how I am responding to them. Do you have that vibe, that personal communication? It’s not important to have that with everyone, but do you have that? You need to understand that.
Ayodhyay Bharadwaj: Do you come up with years’ worth of backstories for each character or do you jump directly into the situation and later figure out the origin of the characters?
Anjali Menon: The characters in the story are very intertwined. The character is the vehicle through which you’re telling your story. The stages of development for the character, for me, may not begin often with writing the backstory. That doesn’t work. I will have a semblance of who the character is. I never make a character note before writing some scenes. I will put the scenes together. I have a tendency to write only a few scenes through which the characters then start to develop. Then you start fleshing it out a bit more. Actually, the stage at which I make character notes is when I communicate about the character to a third person. For me, a character is a person in themselves. Once the actor starts talking about the character, the character, after a point, starts telling you about themselves. They will start telling you that I will not do that, I will do this. You may come in the morning on set and decide that today you’d write this scene, but you find another character standing in the way saying that they won’t do that. You have to listen to them. That evolution is not entirely in our control. That will happen gradually. There is a process of it, and it will evolve.
A lot of the character notes and the backstory emerges in the writing of the screenplay itself. Giving it deeper thought only happens when I communicate about it with another person. It’s very difficult to take these two things away, and say that this happens here and this happens here. It may happen at different times for different scripts. For example, there’s so much of the character there and very little that happens around Joshua in Koode. There is so much of the world that is internal. There you have to work much more on the character than the rest of it. It can be the opposite as well.
It’s a very intricately placed thing. It just evolves. I don’t have a set process.
Anagha Sukumaran: I’ve heard that you take things from home, things that your mom uses, things you see while writing, things that you connect with, to your movie sets. You connect with the audience through little, motionless pieces like the KitKat wrapper in Manjadikuru. How do you create that magic?
Anjali Menon: These things are not really lifeless. They hold meaning for us. All these little things in our life, we connect with them; the smallest things, our little toy cars, we associate meaning with them. I am only teasing your memory. I’m just teasing you to remember the time when you were a child or when you were a college-going student sitting on a bike, flying through the streets of the city. I am just trying to tease those memories. When that happens, there’s a very strong identification one has with the character. So I end up hoping that you will like the character as much as we all do.
In those little things, which we consider lifeless, lies the texture of the characters, their world. When we are preparing a set, one of my favourite parts of it is preparing someone’s home. Then the actors come into that. They don’t just come during the shoot, they drop in before that. I love watching them loitering around or touching things. Then you notice what they pick up, what they are curious about, and slowly put that into the narrative because that’s their way of connecting. That’s their way of connecting with places.
I remember when we went through the Das-Divya house, Nazriya actually went and looked out of the window because she was eager to see what it looked like outside. So we put that into the film. That’s the first thing she does when she’s there.
Those little things, be it the windows, the little knick-knacks, the toys, drawings, any of these lifeless things, they all add up to make that world. They’re all tools for us. When I see a Sulaimani, we all know the bitter taste of it. That is what we have to recollect, what we need to hold on to. Those little things matter a lot to me, and I think they do to everybody, isn’t it? It’s just trying to bring about those little answers of magic to make something even more magical.
Shekhar Chelli: When you are writing a scene, you are aiming to be emotionally honest but being on set can be chaotic. How do you sustain that emotional honesty without being lost on the set?
Anjali Menon: That is the task, isn’t it? In my case, I tune out. I’m quite shy, actually. I’m not a person who can walk into any room and talk to anybody. On a film set you’re constantly surrounded by a hundred people, and so in my case tuning out happens and what stays at the centre of it is the emotion. There can be all kinds of hell breaking loose but your focus is only on that.
I remember during the making of Bangalore Days, we had a crazy amount of challenges. Every evening, Anwar would turn up on set and ask if everything was okay. I would turn to him and say, ‘Inside the frame, everything is fine.’ To me, that’s the only thing that matters, right? There’s so much naatak that happens outside. It’s not worth investing yourself so much in it. But what happens inside the frame is holy because that is what will go into the film. All of this madness outside, nothing will go in. It is not worth getting affected by that. It is going to be chaotic no matter what you do. All kinds of challenges will emerge. But are you getting what you want within the frame? That’s my only job: to keep my eye on that. Nobody else will be able to do that. I really need to keep my focus on that.
As a director, everybody has their own way. My way is this: everything recedes into the background. The frame and what’s in it is the biggest priority.
Prerna Tyagi: Ustad Hotel, Bangalore Days and Koode are known for portraying familial relationships in the most authentic way possible. Being a writer and a director, what is the process of bringing the characters and their relationships to life? Moreover, to what extent do personal experiences inspire the writing of a scene?
Anjali Menon: More than personal experiences, there are personal observations. Sometimes you witness something or hear of something, or you are interested in different characters, all of these things sit within you and they germinate. From that, an idea is usually born. With most of these stories, that is how it has been. You may see these things at one point in life, but you may write about it much later. Somewhere, the idea just stays in your head and evolves.
I find it interesting to write about families because that is a great point of identification that we have. Across cultures, it is also a language that one can speak. I like to say that families are the molecular unit of society. All the drama that you want is there. In that unit to see what dynamics exist, to see how relationships move, this is an area that I find very interesting. In India, particularly, we have this concept of nuclear families, big families, not just the traditional families, in the sense that a band or a football team, too, is a family, or a group of bikers. It’s this group of people and their dynamics that really interests me. We have so much room there to play around with things, and it’s a great point of identification and entry for the audience.
I’m very happy to tell family stories because there is much that needs to be said also from perspectives which haven’t been explored before.
Vishnu Vardhanan: You once said in an interview that you wanted to adapt Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. What aspect of the book attracted you to consider adapting it? Was the idea to do a faithful adaptation or were you thinking of taking the characters or central idea and tweaking it to your own version of the story?
Anjali Menon: I’d just like to explain the context in which that comment was made. Someone asked me, ‘Is there a book you’d like to adapt?’ and so I mentioned it. It’s a book which fills you with visuals when you read it. It’s written so beautifully. The wordplay is fabulous. I adore that book completely.
It’s important for me to be inspired that much. That’s what I got from the book. I haven’t really given much thought to how I would make it or anything. This was just one of those dreams. I’m sure it is for very good reasons that Arundhati Roy has said that the number of people who have bought the book have a movie running in their head, so she is not going to sell the rights. I think it’s the best reason to not sell the rights. I don’t have to think much about how that film will get made, but, yes, it’s one of those things that you can daydream because it’s beautifully inspiring material.
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Anjali Menon in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.
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