Smriti Kiran: Geetu Mohandas has worked in over 30 films across multiple languages as an actor. She began as early as 1986. She was only five. She made her first film as writer and director in 2009 called Kelkkunnundo (Are You Listening?). The widespread acclaim the film got paved the way for her first feature, Liar’s Dice, which she had written even before the short film.
If there is a shining example of what film festivals can do for creators walking a path less travelled, then Geetu’s career is a testament to that. Her latest film, Moothon, world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was the opening film of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in 2019.
Geetu is working on her fourth film as director. We decided to steal her away for some time to weigh in on how to handle actors. Actors are the vessels that carry a director’s vision and working with them is an art and a skillset in itself.
Geetu, before I speak about handling actors, I want to talk about a time when you were a working actor. Your father had a corporate job. Mom is an artist and interior designer. What prompted you to become an actor?
Geetu Mohandas: Well, actually, it was by default. I was a child artist. The first film that I’ve ever done is called Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare. It’s a very beautiful film. It’s one of the classics in Malayalam cinema. I was the protagonist in that and won the Kerala State Film Award for Best Child Actor.
After that, I did around four or five films as a child artist, and then I went abroad to study. When I came back, one of the directors whom I’ve worked with, Fazil, introduced me back again as an actor. It just started like that. It was not something which was planned. I think it’s destiny.
Smriti Kiran: You’ve extensively worked in films as an actor. You’ve worked with directors like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Fazil, Kamal, and actors like Mohanlal, Mammooty, Revathi, Prithviraj, and Innocent. What were your early observations about the industry and the creative process?
Geetu Mohandas: As a child, you mimic what is told. I don’t think I had a mind of my own. I don’t think there was a process in me as an actor that I was practising. It was more being very comfortable on a set, where the director would tell you, ‘Do this,’ ‘Make this face.’ I was way too young – about four or four-and-a-half when I did my first film. I do remember the moments, but it’s not something from which I can take back something.
Years later, when I came back into the film industry as an actor, it was not such a great period for Malayalam cinema. This is the early 2000s. The type of films that were being screened and filmed at that time, were not exactly on par with the standards or the quality of what Malayalam cinema represents and stands for today. It was certainly not the golden age or the golden period. So, I was very confused.
“I was acting in these films, but I was not really engaged with them, no matter how much I loved working with the filmmakers. My heart and my mind and my soul were not in it.”
Firstly, I studied in Toronto. So, when I came back, I had a very heavy accent at that time. I was trying to fit in – trying to normalise my language, to learn the language, speak and behave in a way that was accepted. I remember when I came down, people told me, ‘Don’t speak so much Malayalam. You need to make people comfortable.’ It was a lot of pressure for my young mind.
Of course, there are films that I did enjoy working on, maybe because of my co-actors and the set and the unit, the fun and laughter, but by and large, it was a job for me. It was not something I enjoyed. I was never passionate about it. I was terrible as an actor. I have that judgment now. I’m so glad that is something in the past. It’s something I reflected upon over time.
I used to also write constantly. I met my husband, Rajeev Ravi, at a very formative age, between shoots. I was 19. He was working as a DOP. He came back after shooting Chandni Bar and did a film called Sesham with me, where I was the lead actor. We met, we became friends, and then we fell in love, then we worked together for the longest time. That’s when he encouraged me because I used to write a lot. He’d tell me to read this book or watch this movie. He broadened my horizon in terms of cinema, and I completely owe it to him to hone my skills in this area.
I remember him taking me to FTII, where I used to watch movies with the students there. It was such a different world, which I loved. In the meantime, I was acting in these films, but I was not really engaged with them, no matter how much I loved working with the filmmakers. I won some awards along the way, so that kept me going. But apart from that, my heart and my mind and my soul were not in it. It was not something like, ‘Oh, this is my calling.’
Smriti Kiran: You always felt that you could do more, or apply yourself differently.
Geetu Mohandas: What I wanted to do was tell stories. That’s my forte. I wanted to tell stories, and I wanted to tell it the way I wanted to tell it. I was very clear about that from the start. I didn’t know which direction to take. I didn’t have a definite plan. When I wrote the story one day, I said, ‘I want to make it. So, whom do I assist?’ I remember Rajeev telling me, ‘Why do you want to assist anyone? You make your films and learn. You practice it. If you’re going to go on set, you’re going to be on the lowest rung of any department. You’re not going to learn much. You’re not going to observe the director in close quarters and learn. What you need to do is train yourself.’
There was also the fact that I’d been a part of cinema for so long – it wasn’t like I was new to a film set. So, this is something I took upon myself, and that’s when I decided to go ahead and write a short film, even though the screenplay for Liar’s Dice was ready. I decided to do a short, and learn the technicalities of how to tell a story. It’s not just about writing a great screenplay. It’s also about adapting it, how to communicate it visually. That is something that I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved every bit of it – right from working on it from the start to actor management to editing. And in that, I knew that this was it.
The last movie I did was in 2007 with Adoor Gopalakrishnan. I was so excited. ‘This is it. This is my last film. I’m not going to act anymore.’ It was a firm decision that I took, and I’m so glad that I took that step. There are fun memories. I can laugh thinking about them. I’m not saying that I’m not proud of it. It was a phase of my life. There were some quite interesting movies, which I enjoyed being a part of as well.
Smriti Kiran: What are the methods or techniques that worked for you as an actor, that made you respond better, and the ones that made it hard for you to perform?
Geetu Mohandas: The clarity that I have today as a filmmaker is because I was an actor and I know what not to do. I can tell them, ‘Let’s not do that. We’ve been there.’
Today, cinema has really advanced. There are so many different types of narratives happening that even actors are more well-informed. They have this hunger to learn; to try out a more realistic style or some method in how they approach a character. When you work with some actors, I’ve understood that there are certain preconceived notions that they carry, also known as meter. It’s conditioned. It comes from collective memory. ‘If there is a situation like this, this is my expression and this is how I will respond.’ It’s calculated. For an actor, to break away from that is challenging. That can only be broken when you work with different types of filmmakers who don’t want that from you, who don’t expect that from you and who rattle you up and say, ‘You know what, let’s not try that,’. When I close my eyes and imagine certain situations, there are some actors who come into my mind. I know how they’ll perform because I’ve seen that in so many other films, where they’ve done similar roles.
“Acting workshops are not about teaching acting. It’s for actors to get to know me and for me to get to know them. It’s to create trust and a bond.”
What I tell my actors is, you need to have presence of mind. It’s very important so that you don’t hurt anybody and you don’t completely go out of your way to do whatever you want to do physically. You should know your boundaries. You should know who you are, where you are, where you’re standing. You have to be safe as well.
At the same time, what I encourage actors to do is, to try and find that character in them. That’s not a very easy process. I have done that with a few of my actors, and I feel they have managed to do that. That’s because of the unbelievable trust that the actor shares with me. What I generally do is, I do a lot of workshops before the film starts. Acting workshops are not about teaching them acting. It’s for them to get to know me and for me to get to know them. It’s to create that trust and that bond.
In Kelkkunnundo, the little girl is actually blind from birth. I spent around two-three months with her. She was studying at a blind school near my house. I visited her every day. I used to try to get to know her world. That’s how the script evolved because the film was about globalization seen through the eyes of a blind child. For me, it was very important to cast a girl who was actually blind so that I can understand her, what she sees, how she touches, what she feels. That was very important for me.
During our first meeting, she said, ‘I want to tell you a story.’ I said, ‘I’m all yours. Let’s hear it.’ She started talking about this cat and this fly. I just took out my phone and started recording her voice, which became the opening of my film. I thought about doing an animation with that, so we did an animation with her voiceover, which was recorded later in the studio. It’s magic. Such things will evolve when you are going about things organically with the actors, spending time with them.
Even during Liar’s Dice, with Geetanjali Thapa and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, we had so many workshops. We were just 21 people on the mountain. We travelled from Chitkul, the last village in Himachal, bordering Tibet and China. We drove down all the way to old Delhi, and along the way, we filmed the entire film. We did it in less than 18 or 19 days. We had two tempo travellers. We had a little cart in which we put the goat and the mother. We would stop, look at a location, and say, ‘Let’s shoot it here.’ So, I needed the actors to be very spontaneous. I knew the track of how the film would be going, but the dialogues were very organic, and because I had such brilliant actors in hand, I took the liberty to say, ‘Let’s try this. How do you think you’ll react?’ because by then they were already the characters. I worked with them so much that they knew exactly where they were coming from and the plight of their travel and the end result.
Smriti Kiran: Moothon was the first time that you were working with such a huge star. Nivin Pauly is not playing a hero in the traditional sense. His character is gay. How did you convince him to do the film? What kind of work did you do with Roshan (Mathew) and him to create that heart-breaking, tender chemistry that we see?
Geetu Mohandas: It just happened. Nivin is my neighbour. We used to keep bumping in the hallway, and he’d say, ‘If something cool comes, let me know. We should work together.’ It was nice to work with him. His unbelievable trust in me to work on a project like this, to play a homosexual, was brave. He has a fan following, and he was not concerned or worried about anything because he believed in the politics of what the film was talking about. He wanted to tell that story. This is what we all wanted to achieve from Moothon. People should watch the film and feel the love, not the gender. That was where we were heading.
“I spoke to Nivin for a few seconds when the first shot was set up and I knew that he’d found Akbar in himself. I saw him bloom.”
With Roshan and Nivin I wanted to do a workshop. Nivin had no idea since he’d only been part of commercially successful films. He’s very comfortable in his space and how he performs. He said that he wanted to do something different. I took him to Bombay with the entire team where he met different kinds of actors. Roshan was not there in the first schedule. He met Shashank Arora, Sobhita (Dhulipala), Sujith Shankar – a very different cast of actors had come together from different backgrounds and experiences. Putting him in such a group itself was overwhelming for him. Then, we did a workshop with Atul Mongia.
We got comfortable in Atul Mongia’s workshop – we did crazy things which were outside our comfort zones. It was just having fun with it. I don’t think all the actors realised what I was getting at, but it was not about teaching acting or learning acting. It was about having fun, building that camaraderie, getting to know each other. There were sessions where it was very intimate, where the actor opens up and talks about their life, and so do I. It was a closed group, but all of us were together. We could understand each other, where we came from, and feel each other’s energy. That was the whole point of the workshop. Then we got to the next point where it was more about the scenes.
Nivin had to train in the dialect. That was going on alongside. Initially, Nivin was a fish out of water. He was holding my hand really tight, metaphorically. The moment he came on set and the moment the first shot was set up, with the entire team waiting to know how he speaks Hindi and what we were coming up with – it was a moment of truth. I spoke to him for a few seconds and I knew that he’d found Akbar in himself. I saw him bloom.
After a point, they all just took off with my script. They were doing their own thing, they’d argue about how their characters would react, which was great. I’d created these monsters in actors to tell me that we shouldn’t be doing something because by then they’re feeling the characters. It was beautiful to go on and on with it.
When Roshan came to the set for the first time, I wanted both him and Nivin to have a sense of camaraderie. They met for the first time, and I said, ‘Hug each other!’ I was ordering. So, they hugged each other quickly and broke away. I thought, ‘Is this how people hug? Is this how men hug?’ I said, ‘Give a tight hug!’ And they did. Then I said, ‘Now I’ll tell you when to let go.’ I was waiting for all the oxytocin to get out. After that, they were just so comfortable. There was beautiful chemistry between them, and I saw them bloom.
I normally don’t argue with actors at all. There was a scene where Moosa comes and slaps Roshan. I remember Roshan telling me, ‘There’s no way that my character is going to be hit and be quiet. He’s going to fight back.’ I said, ‘No. I think he’s going to be so weak and affected by that hit that I don’t think he’d fight back.’ Roshan said, ‘No. He’ll fight back.’ I conceded. I said, ‘Chalo, let’s go for a rehearsal.’
We had to track it back from the start. It was a handheld shot. I told Dileesh (Pothan), the actor who played Moosa, ‘Take.’ Everybody knew it was a take except for Roshan Mathew.
Roshan turned, and there was one whack. He was completely disoriented. And after that, he fought. He fought so vigorously. But Dileesh is a big guy. He pinned him down and did his dialogue. I still remember that the last shot where Roshan had to turn around and charge towards the camera and had to abuse in sign language, he picked up a stone and threw it. He was mad. He was livid. It was so evident on his face. That was perfect. That was exactly what I wanted. After I called cut, Roshan just walked off the set. He didn’t even look at me or talk to me. So, I just let him be. I thought that I got what I wanted, and he also did what he believed in. He came back by evening and said, ‘It actually turned out well.’
There are some silent manipulations that one tends to do. But it’s nice to work with each and every one of them because all of them are so different.
With workshops, you understand their temperaments, you understand what clicks and what doesn’t, what flies and what doesn’t – you understand their personality. So, the way I would handle Nivin is not the way I would handle Sanjana (Dipu), who played the little girl in Moothon, or Sobhita or Roshan or Shashank. They are all very different actors because they are all very different personalities. It’s very important to understand how to work with them.
Smriti Kiran: How do you sometimes reconcile between an actor’s personal vanity and the character that they’re supposed to play?
Geetu Mohandas: I’ve not had that experience so far, so I don’t know how I would handle it if it happens. For me, these things arise only when there’s no friendship, there is no trust. All of the people whom I’ve worked with so far have invariably become great friends or were already friends with whom I was making films. There was already a certain boundary that we knew we had to respect with each other. I don’t take the liberty of crossing any of these boundaries. If they are in the caravan resting, if they have their whole paraphernalia, if it was a tough scene, I don’t mind any of it at all. I don’t have a problem with them being stars.
“You understand their temperaments and you understand what clicks and what doesn’t. They are all very different actors because they are all very different personalities.”
Ideally, once a scene starts, I would like them to be on the set with me. I would like them to interact with the crew members. That’s very important to me. Also, a very strict no-no for me is the use of mobile phones on set, and that’s something which nobody does on my set. I feel that it’s very unfair and very distracting for the crew members, because they’re all sweating it out, they’re just waiting to finish. If you’re on the phone in between and you’re cutting away from the presence and that character, that’s just something which doesn’t work well for me. So, this is something I tell them from the beginning and all of them respect that space and boundary.
If anybody was difficult, I would say they had to be the various departments. I had more issues with departments who would say, ‘No, this take wasn’t fine!’ So, I had to do it again.
Actors were always on point all the time. So, I’ve never had to deal with that issue. If at all such a circumstance were to arise, I would certainly address it with them in a very mature way. We don’t want to hurt their egos at all, and I don’t intend to pamper them either. It’s a very thin line. Making them comfortable at the end of the day is the whole idea. But there haven’t been tantrums.
Smriti Kiran: What if an actor freezes, or is not getting the sur of the character? How do you handle that?
Geetu Mohandas: When I write the characters, I have certain ideas about how the characters would talk, walk, behave, approach a certain scene. I have these ideas in my head, but I don’t impose. I don’t even give narrations. I do discussions. I believe that if I took eight months to write a screenplay, you can take out two hours and read it. I want to know how they have envisioned the characters. I want to know how they see the story. I want to know what their take is because that’s so crucial and important. It’s really not about imposing. It’s about collaboration. It’s about them coming on board and finding that character in them.
“With actors, it has to be very organic. The process is very simple. I see what they give me first, and then slowly I spill out what I’m intending.”
There is a process to it. It’s not just about the workshop. It’s about talking to them. It’s about understanding their childhood, their upbringing, their fears, their anxiety, their insecurities, and arriving at certain things – kind of playing shrink between people and them talking to me; telling them about my life. Once that kind of a bond and trust is there, then we ask, ‘What do you see about this character in you?’ ‘How do you define it?’ That’s how the process starts. It’s a very intense and a very slow process, but once they are hooked on it, it’s their field day. Then I watch what they give me. I watch how they find the character in them because if I feel that the character walks in a certain way, and if I see that the actor is performing in a different way, and if that’s more exciting and challenging, I go on that trip. That’s a discovery. That’s the magic of working with actors on set.
It’s not just the director, by the way. It’s the DOP. The sound designer. The editor. It’s everybody who is on my set. All of them have a say. We discuss at the end of the day. We sit and we say, ‘This is interesting. The progression is happening well.’ We are in it together. It’s always a collaboration between everyone. Even with my art designer, I give a palette, and I discuss with Rajeev and I say, ‘These are the colours. These are combinations. This is what we like.’ Then we see what references they give. So, it’s a give and take in any department you work with.
With actors, it has to be very organic. The process is very simple. I see what they give me first, and then slowly I spill out what I’m intending. Only then it’ll be like a beautiful marriage.
Smriti Kiran: What is your working relationship with Rajeev? You have a production company together called Unplugged. He’s worked with you as a DOP. He has shot you as an actor.
Geetu Mohandas: He is my hand in glove. He’s my eye. That’s what I keep saying. What I love about Rajeev is the fact that – from my first film onwards I’ve been working with him – he let me make my mistakes. That was my biggest learning curve. Later on, when I’d be in the edit saying, ‘Rajeev, why didn’t you tell me?’ He’d say, ‘It’s your film. You made a mistake. Now you try and fix it in the edit.’ I learned from the best.
He understands that it is a director’s medium. He understands that it is the vision of the filmmaker and how they want to tell the story. It’s very difficult that way because he is also a filmmaker himself. So, for him to put his vision aside, not just as a DOP but also as a filmmaker, and understand my process and to give me what I want is a challenge he handles beautifully. His films and my films are quite different. For somebody to support another person in this way, to understand their vision, takes a person who is so unbelievably brilliant and secure about themselves. So, that is the best part of working with Rajeev.
Smriti Kiran: How does a newcomer keep it cool but also explain their vision to collaborators that they might be intimidated by?
Geetu Mohandas: It’s really not about the skill of selling yourself or impressing people. It’s none of that. It’s just a vision. It’s a very personal journey. It’s a very personal vision, and it’s a very private confidence. Now that the medium has switched to the digital format for the past 10-odd years, it’s easy for people to make films. People even make films on iPhones. There is so much progression. There is no excuse to say that we don’t have funds to make a film. That’s number one. You can do it. Anyone can make films. Get your team together, make short films and learn from it.
“They saw this really young girl who came from Kerala, a South Indian, a woman director, and an actress. They thought, ‘How is she going to make a film?’“
There are so many grants which are available around the world. I got the Hubert Bals Fund, which is given twice a year to eight to 10 scripts. I got around seven and a half lakh rupees (10,000 euros). This was around 10 years back. That’s when we put the money together and slowly went for the recce with the team. The journey was not at all easy for me. It took me around six-seven years to find financing for Liar’s Dice. The doors were so easy for me to meet people because of the contacts I had. I met every producer in Bollywood for Liar’s Dice, and all of them were like, ‘There’s a child, a woman, a man, and a goat in the mountain. How are we going to sell it?’ I had no answers to them because I was making my own personal film. I realised that I had to be as honest as possible in my first film, and hopefully, it would continue with every film I’d do. But I was very clear that my film, Liar’s Dice, would be as mundane and boring as possible. The music was so repetitive, for instance.
I did that on purpose. When I travelled the whole stretch, nothing happened. There were no robbers on the road. There were no threats. There was nothing. It was just a beautiful journey. So, I thought, ‘Let’s just do a normal journey. Why should anything happen?’ That was my idea and my whole concept, and I stuck to that. I was very clear about how I wanted to make it, but clearly, I didn’t have the necessary skills to impress people with my stories or how I would do it. They saw this really young girl who came from Kerala, a South Indian, a woman director, and an actress. They thought, ‘How is she going to make a film?’ Everything was a tick in the box, including the goat. Hence, my journey was so long.
Smriti Kiran: Malayalam cinema is now thriving. It’s setting benchmarks every day. Have you ever thought about going back to acting?
Geetu Mohandas: I don’t think anybody wants me to come back to acting. That’s not happening. I honestly did not enjoy acting at all. It happened, and that was that. I’m in a much more exciting space in my life as a filmmaker. I want to tell stories. I want to give orders and not take orders.
Smriti Kiran: Can you tell us about your next film?
Geetu Mohandas: Let’s just say that it’s a gangster film with a female gaze.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Sanju Kadu: Could you please talk about working with non-actors, especially children, and how to train them?
Geetu Mohandas: They are the best. I always have children in my films. All my films are about children.
My first short film, Kelkkunundo, had a little girl as the protagonist, who was four and half years old and blind from birth. She’s the one who taught me acting and how to work with actors. I had a couple of theatre actors around her, and I was bringing her into their space thinking that she would get comfortable and get to know how to emote, and I could slowly teach her stuff. She taught them what acting is because she was just behaving. She didn’t know anything. She didn’t know the concept of where the camera is, where to go or where to look. She was just in her space, telling her stories. Her smile was genuine. Whatever she did, whatever she felt, I felt it. I felt it to be so genuine that everyone else, all the trained actors, were standing out – they were looking like proper actors; they were not looking like the characters. She was so real. For me, it was so difficult after that. I was like, ‘Now what do I do? Do I get all non-actors to come on board?’ because it was not matching for me. This child was so real and so genuine that that’s when I understood that how she behaves is just all heart. It’s from the heart.
Sanjana in Moothon is somebody whom I prepped the least. I was focusing more on every other actor and not on her. By the way, this little girl is 18. She’s somebody who picked up some techniques and stuff from the acting workshop, where we’d say, ‘What is the subtext?’ ‘What is the character feeling at this point when you’re saying this dialogue?’ She would learn all these technical words, and while on set, she’d be ready with her dialogue, and everybody else’s dialogue. In between, she would roam around me like a buzzing bee wanting to know more. But I didn’t want to touch her because I knew she’d gotten it and she was doing it. I would be like, ‘Yeah, Sanjana, you do what you have to.’ And she would sit and ask, ‘What is my subtext?’ She is so smart. She was not bothered. She just wanted something from me. So, I would go and tell her, ‘Sanjana, you’re fine. Just do it. It’s fine.’ She knew everything. When others would make mistakes, she’d even point it out. She would say, ‘Oh, that dialogue has gone wrong.’
The thing about child actors is, all you’ve got to do is love them. It’s not about trust, it’s about unconditional love. They are going away from their family and coming to this little space. Either I or Rajeev would carry the little girl from my short film everywhere so she could feel our touch and feel that warmth. Whenever we’d place her down, we’d make sure that she was comfortable. I would take care of her. In between, I would go feed her. I was like a mother. I was there throughout; where she felt, ‘She’s with me. I’m fine.’ There were times when she would tell her mother to go and that she was fine. It’s very important. It’s about loving them and being there, and giving them the confidence. Don’t ever break their confidence. You can’t even do this with actors regarding whom you feel that their confidence needs to be broken.
But there are actors whose confidence you need to break. Shashank Arora, for one, was an actor whose confidence I had to break. I met him at Sundance when I was there for the Global Filmmakers’ Award. He was there for Brahman Naman. I found him outside and I said, ‘I really liked you in the film. Can I shake your hand because I want you for my next film?’ We shook our hands. Cut to: Moothon’s set.
When he came on set, he was loud and excited, and he would do his own thing. Sunny’s somebody who’s got a wall around him. It’s not that you can break that wall and you can understand what he’s saying. He’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ve understood what you’re saying,’ and the moment I’d say action, he’d do its complete opposite, which is fabulous, which is also why I love him, but there were times when I needed to know exactly what he’d be doing to know the positioning or the flow of how we wanted to take it forward. So, there were times when I had to take him to the side and say, ‘Sunny, this is not working.’
Usually, whenever I’d say this to actors, I remember they’d go down. I would think that that wasn’t the technique to be used with that actor. But with Sunny, every time I would say that it wasn’t working, he’d say, ‘Okay. Then tell me how I should go about this.’ So, I’d be like, ‘I think we should tone it down; do it like this, and maybe it’ll work.’ He would tone it down, and still do whatever the hell he wanted to. So, it was nice to see how different actors worked and how they evolved.
There are some people who are absolutely adamant. They would just believe that they are following your cues and that they are doing exactly what you wanted, especially some of the actors who are friends of Bhai (Nivin Pauly’s character). They were so enthusiastic about the screen space that they’d be sharing with these actors that they’d go all out, and so we had to tone them down – take them to the side and explain to them what we required. So, you also have to keep handling different people in between.
Vaibhav Jadhav: What kind of directions do you give to a non-professional actor who is not a child?
Geetu Mohandas: Normally there is a series of auditions that happen. Every character in a film is auditioned. It’s not that we go on a film set and grab somebody; although, I must say, such organic casting turns out to be the best. It’s never like after you audition, you put them on the set. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out, and you might have to even send them off and get somebody from the street with an interesting look, who is bang on once you put them on the spot.
Working with actors and working with non-actors is a very similar process. To be honest, it depends on how grey the character is, and how much time you have to invest in them and spend with them in order for them to understand, because if they’re coming in for a supporting or a passing shot, or delivering a few lines, you don’t need to invest so much in them, but then you need to tell them what happens before, what happens after, how to approach the character.
The thing I keep telling them is, just behave. Just do what you do normally. I don’t give them too much instruction unless it’s something specific that they need to be doing in that scene. I just tell them to do it, and then we watch. I don’t do too many rehearsals either. We immediately go for takes. So, when we go for a take, I understand that this person knows what they’re doing. If they’re doing well, I tell them that that’s perfect and to go ahead with it. Don’t make them too contrived, because they’re coming in so pure, they’re coming in without any ideas, any rules, any conditions, nothing. They are the best to work – the best to mould.
Anna M. M. Vetticad: Because you’ve been an actor, initially, did you find yourself having to control a tendency to maybe impose your own view of how a scene should be played out on the actor?
Geetu Mohandas: Because I have such low esteem as an actor and opinion about myself, I had no such confusions. So, no, I did not.
Even as a filmmaker, I always give the onus to them. I would always expect them to show me the way, and I nudge them, support them in it. I want to be there to inspire them and get inspired as well. So, I never impose on my actors. I always wait to see what more I can get. I’m like a hungry director. So, I wait for them to bloom, and I watch them bloom. Then, I kind of show them the way. ‘Okay, let’s do it this way. Let’s do it that way. This is the track. This is the arc of the character.’ I do that, but it’s them all the way.
Aksh Calvan: During the initial days of shoot, what is your process of bringing your actors into the spirit of the shoot, so to speak?
Geetu Mohandas: There’s no amount of prep which can prepare anybody for collaboration. You have to let those two-three days pass. Those days are crucial where it’s an entire team that is coming in, not just the actors. I’m not bothered about only the actors on the set, but everybody because the energy is very important. I believe that the camaraderie, the energy, everybody being on the same page and in sync is important. It will take a couple of days for everybody to have that sense of we-are-doing-this-together, and that is completely depending on the director, how the person brings the team together, inspires them, and allows them to inspire themselves in return. You just need to let it pass.
Don’t focus too much on the actors. I do that while they’re performing and working, but they are not my focal point at all on a set. I request them to not move away after finishing their shot. Especially in the initial days, I tell them, ‘Be with us. So, then everyone can just get to know each other,’ because if there are big stars on the set, there will be people who might not feel that they are very approachable. I keep holding their hands and say, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ After two-three days, they don’t want to go. Then, I’ll be like, ‘Can you go sit in your van, please? I’ll call you for your shot.’ They’ll come and do masti, instead.
It’s nice to have them feel wanted, and that’s basic human nature. It’s not just about the actors. It’s about everyone who works with you on your team. You make them feel wanted, and they will give you the world.
Avtansh Dubey: Is it good for a director to learn the basics of acting?
Geetu Mohandas: Even if you try, you can’t learn the basics of acting. What is acting? I honestly believe that casting is very important. When I decide on a film, I believe that if the casting is perfect, then 50% of your job is done. By casting, I mean the body, the shape, the personality that comes with it, the attitude, the costumes – if you’re bang on, the rest will take care of itself.
Does a director need to be an actor? Absolutely not. All that is not required. You need to communicate well. You need to communicate your vision, your thoughts, your expression well, in whichever way that you can communicate in. It’s not important that you need to know their craft. You need to know your craft.
Prosari Chanda: Both your directorial features revolve around the characters undertaking a journey in search of a loved one. What makes you gravitate towards such kinds of stories?
Geetu Mohandas: : Aren’t we all searching for something? It’s my personal expression. It’s something that happened completely by default. When you write something, you cannot define its theme. It just happens to you. The stories are vastly different, but in the end, the soul remains the same, which is the search. Now that you’re telling me this, I feel that my next film has this element as well – somewhere there is a search. It’s not done on purpose. It’s more to do with the person that I am and what excites me. For me, journeys are exciting; the sense of impending doom is exciting. There’s a lot of beauty in that.
Anagha Sukumaran: What’s your writing process like? Do you write with an abstract in your mind, or does it all come to you spontaneously?
Geetu Mohandas: While writing, I have no idea where I’m going. It can get crazy if you have more than one person who is collaborating with you on a script because they will just throw stones and walk away. My process is quite erratic, and I arrive at it later. I don’t arrive at it right away. It’s not something that I know fully: that this is the beginning, this is the middle and this is the end, this is the story, this is the structure and this is the arc, now let’s write.
I have to feel it. It has to evolve slowly. I don’t know where the character is heading. Then they head somewhere. ‘Oh, this is interesting.’ ‘Oh, then in this space and in this setting new characters will arise.’ ‘Let’s try this. Let’s try that.’ It’s an evolving process.
All the scripts I have written are by myself. For my next film, I have had a writers’ room and I have writers on board with me. They’ve all left the writers room and they’ve given up on me because I’m not arriving at it.
This is also the reason why I don’t do any narration. I remember once when I’d given my script to a couple of actors, who’d read it fully, and I was sitting and chatting with them, they asked, ‘What did you mean by this?’ And I started narrating it. I saw that they were looking at me funny because I was narrating some other story. I’d just taken off. They were like, ‘Which script are you telling us? This is not in the film.’
You have to evolve. I get bored otherwise. I write something, I shoot something else, I edit something else, and then the film is out. Only then I’m happy. I never stick to the script, even while filming, even for my next film. I’m meeting with producers now, so when I’m talking to them, one thing that I keep telling them is, ‘You’re not going to get what you’re reading.’ They’re like, ‘I don’t think it’s good for a director to be saying that.’ But I know myself, I know my team, I know how we work. While we are at it, while the process is going on, and something else excites us, we take that trip. This is something which we keep doing.
Cinema has to evolve. Nothing is written in stone. There is no bound script. You make your story along the way.
Anaya Mazumdar: There are multiple layers and themes in Moothon, all of which have been well thought out and brilliantly executed in their totality. How did you manage to give every theme its required space and make them flow seamlessly and evenly?
Geetu Mohandas: When I see the film, I only see problems and mistakes. I don’t necessarily feel that I have evened out everything. What worked in Moothon is the love story. There are a lot of areas where the film still doesn’t work for me.
I know what I had to go through to fix things in the edit because we had a lot of production hassles. We had a lot of shooting dates hassle. We had actors leaving the project. We had to cast new members. A lot of things were going wrong. It was not like the screenplay. One of the main actors was not there for another schedule. So, I had to rewrite an entire section of the film. There were a lot of issues that happened before it finally culminated into what you have seen.
If I had my way, I would go back and I would rework a lot of areas, especially the Mumbai underbelly. I could have brought in so many new things and told it in a different way because I didn’t feel that it was as nuanced as I expected it to be. But, for me, the love story most certainly did work. I think that is what stayed with the audience.
Aswin Surya S.: You said in an interview, ‘Writing has to be an organic process. The creative space that we share with ourselves while writing becomes the character. The space starts telling you how your story should move forward. I just stay true to the space and the life and the character.’ Both Moothon and Liar’s Dice are stories that deal with social injustice. Are you more driven to these kinds of stories because you allow your space to tell you what you have to write and to lead in that direction?
Geetu Mohandas: No, not necessarily. When I’m telling a story, it’s very important for me to tell it in the most honest way possible – to approach it with a lot of honesty. If you’re dealing with certain issues in the film, or if you’re dealing with a certain space and a certain community, there is a responsibility. The responsibility is grave, and it comes with any film you make. I believe that you’re responsible for how you tell it, how it’s projected. It’s all your medium.
When I decide that this is a story that I want to tell and this is the space that I want to tell it in, I sit in my house in Kerala, in a building, and I write. Then I decide that since the basic thing is done, I need to travel – I need to go to these places, meet the people, sit amongst them and do it. What invariably happens is, when I land in these places, when I’m amongst these people, I realise that what I have written is ridiculous, that I can’t make this – it’s not true to the space or the people. Then, the rewrite happens amongst them, with them.
There’s an incident that happened during Liar’s Dice. There’s a certain sense of honour in the community to which the protagonists belong to, with respect to women working. They love the fact that women work. But there is certain work that they do and there is certain work that they don’t do. What was written in the script earlier and what was shot was not something that the community had accepted. When we were taking the first shot of the film, the members of the community came and disrupted the shoot. They said, ‘Our women don’t work like this. They don’t do this.’ There was a mixed bag of people: some people telling me, ‘If you listen to them now, then they will dictate everything. You cannot listen to them.’ There were some people saying, ‘Let’s go to another location.’ I stood there and said, ‘Tell me what they do.’
They took me to the most interior places and showed me what was done. The whole community started acting in the film. It became exactly what I wanted. It was so beautiful. So, it’s very important that you respect the space; you respect the people; you respect the community.
Even in Kamathipura, when we shot Moothon, we shot with a small body camera so that we didn’t disturb anybody and bring in too many eyes on us. We cut down the crew to a bare minimum of around 11 people, which included only the DOP, HODs and the actors. We’d prepped accordingly. We’d decided that we wouldn’t make any noise; go there, do our bit and come out. Everything was done silently, with utter respect to the place. Because of which, if you see Moothon, all the passing shots of people are real; they were just going about their normal days and routine. We just kept the camera there. Whenever we’d need them to do something, we’d be like, ‘Once more, please!’ They’d comply, and say, ‘No problem.’ They’d also ask, ‘When is the movie releasing? Let me see myself on the screen.’ So, that evokes a sense of trust in that space.
Siddharth Menon: From your formative years onwards, you’ve been exposed to multiple cultures. Your films, too, are proof of your intermingling with cultures that are quite removed from you, yet your films carry a distinctly local flavour in them. How do you manage to incorporate that into your films?
Geetu Mohandas: I’m discovering myself as a filmmaker. I’m discovering my expression, my voice, and how to go about telling the stories. It’s a continuous journey. You keep improving yourself in your mind; you keep having disappointments; you keep reaching towards where you think you want to go and how you want to tell a story.
My biggest weakness is the fact that I have no roots. I was not brought up in Kerala. So I cannot make a Kammatipaadam like Rajeev. I cannot make other beautiful films like Kumbalangi Nights (by Madhu C. Narayanan), for example. I can’t make that. I know that I can’t, because there is a certain aesthetic and flavour that it requires, and you need to have roots in order to understand the solid setting here in order to go forward and tell it. I know that. I don’t have the strength of Malayalam literature either. I have the strength of the translated works. I can read Malayalam, but not enough to read novels and be updated with the latest writing. I honestly believe that that is a big minus in me. So, I try to update myself in different ways.
When I came back from Canada, I was so different from everyone else because I spoke differently, more English than Malayalam, due to which people thought I was arrogant. There were so many issues. I remember my father, telling me at that time, ‘You don’t have to try and be anyone. Your difference will be your strength,’ and I kept that in my head, in my heart always. That’s something which I tell myself now. I can’t do that, so let me tell it the way I want to tell it.
That is why I’m trying to find my own voice in telling the stories that I want to tell. I have not done a proper full-on feature film in Malayalam – one was in Lakshadweep and Bombay, and the other one was in the village of Chitkul in the North.
I’m also not worried about that. I will find my audience eventually. I will find the people who are waiting to watch my films. I believe in that. There will be a section of people who will want to come and watch my films. I’m waiting for that crowd and for that time, in the meantime, I will continue to tell my stories. I’m not going to ape anybody. I’m not going to try and be somebody. I’m not going to try and tell the story in order to cater to a certain audience or a certain fan base. I’m not going to do that because I know I will fail miserably if I try it. I’m going to tell my own language, my own style.
When I wrote Moothon, I went to Lakshadweep, met the people there, and re-wrote the entire thing. The dialect is always done by the local community, the people there. We incorporate that as part of the screenplay, the dialogue and the script. Then we go forward. Only so much is done in research beforehand. It’s only when you’re in that space, amongst those people, that your script will come alive.
Andrea Tanvi Sunil: As humans, we tend to think in a particular language and emote in another. In Moothon, the dialect of Malayalam spoken on the island is starkly different from the one spoken in cities. How was it working on a set where there were so many different languages? Also, how was the experience of creating a remote world on an island in Lakshadweep?
Geetu Mohandas: This is coming back to writing. I didn’t know Akbar was a homosexual when I started writing it. It just happened. I was shocked. It was an ‘Aha!’ moment for me. I gasped, and then I went back and wrote.
Language is not a barrier for cinema because cinema is so universal. Even silence can be communicated. You don’t even need a language. You have two people, and you have them on an island, which is so gorgeous, and you’re telling a very simple, basic human emotion. I knew that the simpler it is, the harder it is to narrate. It’s not easy to narrate a simple film.
On top of that, Ameer, played by Roshan, is deaf and dumb in the film. People saw it as a disadvantage, but for me, it was an advantage. A lot of people who read the script were like, ‘Why don’t you get them to communicate? It would be easier for you.’ To which I said, ‘Even the silence can be communicated.’ I said that I didn’t want dialogue there.
For such a story being told in Malayalam, you need to make people comfortable and ready to see such a tale. My idea is not to provoke the audience or to question them. I want them to feel. That’s all. I thought that I should do it in the most aesthetic way possible, in the most beautiful way, where everybody feels comfortable, even people who are homophobic. I’ve had people who have come to me saying that they have changed their views because they realised that their politics was so wrong and that they were able to clearly see it after watching the film. I thought that if a movie could do that, then I did do something right. That’s what I felt.
There is no written lipi in Lakshadweep. It’s a dialect, which changes as you move from island to island. I can follow them. It’s quite similar to Malayalam. I didn’t have a problem understanding them. Of course, there were some words which were different. We also had a dialect coach. And apart from sign language, we had local boys from there who helped us write dialogues. There aren’t too many dialogues in that space, anyway.
Krishna Rangani: When you begin writing, what’s the thing that you hold onto and move forward?
Geetu Mohandas: It’s certainly not the characters, because they have to evolve. You cannot fixate on that. It’s the thread that comes to me first. Then I ask myself, ‘Why do I want to tell this story?’ I keep asking myself such pertinent questions. I never ask, ‘Who wants to watch this story?’. If I’m convinced with the answer I receive for why I want to do this story, then I go to the next step i.e. writing the story. Here I ask myself, ‘What am I trying to tell from the story?’ The theme, rather. That’s something which evolves over time, and then once you fix it, you move to the next step.
Just how little storybooks begin with ‘Once upon a time….’ I, too, tell my story like that in my mind. That really works for me. If it’s exciting in my head for more than a few days, then I know that it has to go on paper. Once it goes on paper, it has a life of its own. Then you start going forward.
I write at least eight-nine drafts of the screenplay. Since all of them would eventually be thrown away before I start filming, the max I can do is write different versions, so that I have all the stories and I can have a field day filmmaking.
I tend to venture into thinking which space would be most suitable for this story while writing the stories. You don’t define the space first. Let the story come alive, and then you define the space accordingly. That way I’m not looking for stories which are rooted in my culture or my state. Whatever erupts, I go there. If I have to make a film in a different state, I will go there and make a film. So, for me, the process is very simple. I just stay true to how I want to tell it.
I was mentored by the Sundance Lab for Moothon. They mentored me for well over a year. My mentors were Paul Federbush and Matthew Takata. Something they taught me is, when you write, don’t write as a director, don’t write as an editor, don’t write as a producer, just write as a writer. You want your character to just go off the balcony and fly and become a dinosaur? Write it. Don’t think about anything. The moment they said that my mind opened up, and it took away so many preconditions that I had. ‘Oh, you know, let’s make it restricted here.’ ‘You have to make it small.’ We don’t understand how many conditions we have in our subconscious mind – constant resistance before we attempt to write. All that was knocked off in that process. Then I wrote whatever I wanted to. Finally, Rajeev read it and said, ‘Who’s going to shoot all of this? You want me to jump from a building?’
Swaratmika Mishra: There’s a saying that goes, ‘A film is made once when you write it, once when you shoot it, and once when you edit it.’ Have you ever had to go back and fundamentally alter the tone of the dialogues while editing the film?
Geetu Mohandas: That always happens. I’ve done all my films in sync sound. No matter how well-equipped we are and how great the sound designer and recordist is, there are so many factors while filming which are beyond our control. Actors are with their separate lapels on, which feeds into separate tracks. There are issues like background noise, cut-offs that we have to face. Still, there have been moments where I’ve felt that the dialogue wasn’t audible, so let’s do it again.
But I have never dubbed an actor because they were not good enough. And I’ll tell you the reason why. I strongly believe that if it’s there in your voice, it’s there on your face. This is something which I keep telling my actors as well. Sometimes, they tease me by talking nasally. But by and large, when they’re performing, and they’re actually there in that moment when they are giving, and they’re feeling it, if it’s there in their voice, it’s there on their face, then you don’t need to dub it again ever. Of course, with a lot of external factors, there are times that we have to get back to the studio and do things.
Vamshi Krishna: Can you walk us through your collaboration with Anurag Kashyap?
Geetu Mohandas: I keep telling him that he’s my moothon, which means elder brother.
Anurag has worked with my husband, Rajeev, for 20 years. They’ve done so many films together. He’s somebody whom I had given the script of Liar’s Dice to read. I don’t know if he read it, but Anurag, at that point, knew me only as Rajeev’s girlfriend. He just said, ‘Why don’t you get this person to produce?’ He was very casual about it. I came back and I told Rajeev. I said, ‘Rajeev, Anurag was suggesting this and this person to produce.’ Then, Rajeev said, ‘He doesn’t know you like that. He doesn’t know you’re good at what you do. He’s doing you a favour, so you should not take that. I will not allow it. It’s through me that you know him. It’s not possible.’ Then my six-seven years of trying to find a producer started. But I had it in me, in my heart that I wanted Anurag to read my script for me, not as Rajeev’s wife. I’d resolved to want to work with him.
Over a period of years, I got to know him better. It was still just an acquaintance. After Liar’s Dice did pretty well, I gave him Moothon’s script. This time he read it, and he came on board as my dialogue writer. After watching the first cut, he said that he was going to come on board as my producer. Today, I can proudly say that my relationship with Anurag is between me and him. It’s not because I’m Rajeev’s wife.
It’s amazing to work with him . I remember when we were doing the dialogues, we were sitting together until very late at night, and he told me, ‘You go sleep. I’ll be done by morning.’ I was feeling so guilty that I was going to sleep and he was going to be working. But since I was feeling very sleepy, I went and slept. When I got up in the morning, the dialogues were all done. Then we sat and we went through the entire thing, made the changes, and it turned out to be fabulous. It was so amazing to just see his process and to work with him. He’s such a torchbearer for filmmakers and to take their films to global platforms.
Aiswarya Jenson: How did you prepare yourself to be a filmmaker? What were some challenges that you faced during your initial days as a filmmaker?
Geetu Mohandas: There’s nothing that can prepare you to become a filmmaker like being on the set and having the practical knowledge of the space. Being an actor and being a part of so many film sets and observing them has certainly helped me, subconsciously. It has helped me get to know the space and to deal and interact with people.
Apart from that, gaining practical experience through making my short film – learning from it and making mistakes, being on set – is what actually helped me. That’s how I learned. That’s the only way you can learn. If you haven’t been part of a set, then it’s good to go and observe to have a better understanding of it. But the best thing to do is to just start making your films. Then you will learn. You will have to learn.
Swapna Gandhi: What was the moment when you really transitioned from being an actor to a director?
Geetu Mohandas: It wasn’t exactly a moment. It was realising what I wasn’t good at and what I thought I could excel in over the years. It’s that self-realisation. Over time, when I saw that acting was only a job to me, that’s when it slowly started dawning on me.
I wish I had half the passion of the actors I work with. It’s so exciting to see that process with them – seeing them engage, helping them bring it out. I always thought, ‘How come I never felt that?’ I did work with some really cool filmmakers, but I never felt it. That was simply because it wasn’t my calling. Then, you start realising your strengths, your weakness, and what you think you’d be good at.
I knew I liked to tell stories. When you do things you like, it comes out pretty decently. That’s what I always feel. So, I always encourage my child and all my friends’ kids to do what makes them happy. My father went one step higher in this regard. He’d say, ‘You want to be a cook? Make sure you’re the best cook in town.’ He was on a different tangent, but he’s right there.
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