Smriti Kiran: Jio MAMI is an Indian international film festival. For the last 21 years, we have programmed films and featured artists from all languages across India and the best of world cinema. When we reimagined the festival six years ago, India became the focus for us.
For the second session of the Jio MAMI Industry Programme – Redefining Regional: The Malayalam Edition, we have some of the most incredible creators working in the Malayalam industry who have steadily gained national clout or deserve to have their work recognised beyond borders, filmmakers Aashiq Abu, Anjali Menon, Sanu John Varughese, Geetu Mohandas, Mahesh Narayanan, Jeo Baby, Don Palathara, and actors Parvathy Thiruvothu, Rima Kallingal, Darshana Rajendran, Anna Ben, Joju George, and Roshan Mathew. Bejoy Nambiar is the co-host. Over the last few years, Bejoy has helped us find talent and films from the South.
If there is one industry that has been in overdrive during the pandemic it is them. Out of the projects released during the pandemic in the theatres or OTT in the Malayalam industry, some of you here have also collaborated on these.
- Aanum Pennum – the anthology in which Aashiq directed a chapter with Darshana Rajendran and Roshan Mathew. Other chapters in the anthology have Parvathy and Joju George.
- Aarkkariyam – Sanu it took a pandemic for you to get down to writing and directing your first film. Parvathy headlined the cast, Aashiq produced it and Mahesh Narayanan edited the film.
- Halal Love Story – produced by Aashiq Abu with Joju George and Parvathy.
- C U Soon – directed by Mahesh Narayanan with Darshana Rajendran and Roshan Mathew headlining the cast.
- Nayattu – with Joju George, edited by Mahesh Narayanan.
- Varthamanam – with Parvathy and Roshan Mathew.
- Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam – Don Palathara’s film with Rima Kallingal at the centre of it.
- Aashiq, you finished shooting your next feature, Naaradan, with Anna Ben and co-produced by Rima.
- Anjali, your film Rasa was in the co-production market at Film Bazaar.
- Geetu, you have been busy mounting and casting for your next film.
- Mahesh Narayanan’s Malik was filmed during the pandemic. Sanu Varughese has shot it. Joju George is part of the cast.
- And with The Great Indian Kitchen, Jeo Baby, you have single-handedly earned lifetime brownie points with every woman.
There is truly no rest for the wicked.
Bejoy Nambiar: What were your influences growing up? Which are the filmmakers that influenced you growing up and shaped you as an actor or filmmaker?
Darshana Rajendran: When I was a child, my uncle was a documentary filmmaker, and he used to collect films from all over the world. I remember watching Children of Heaven when I was a child and I think that still stays with me. As a child, my sister and I used to watch a lot of Bollywood, so there was a lot of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol. These were the things I grew up on.
Roshan Mathew: When I was a child, I just watched the films that my family would watch, obviously – there was only one TV. These were popular Malayalam films or popular Hollywood films. But out of those the ones I still re-watch would be movies like Spadikam, Moonnam Pakkam, The Godfather, Sound of Music – all of these were favourites then and are still favourites now.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: I grew up in a household where it was considered a luxury to go to a theatre and watch films. It was when I joined the film industry that going to a theatre became a regular thing. But for me, it was that Sunday afternoon 4 pm show on Doordarshan when I could watch all Malayalam films that used to come. Our family got together to watch a film.
I actually did not watch a lot of Malayalam films until I became an actor. I was watching a lot more Hindi films, having studied in Kendriya Vidyalaya, and a lot of my friends were from the North. So I watched Mohra and Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! I grew up on that. The idea of wanting to be an actress was all the glam and the gorgeousness around it. But once I joined the film industry and after I did Notebook I started studying what the history of Malayalam cinema was like. Bobby and Sanjay, the writers of Notebook, were like this treasure trove of all films possible. I used to take CDs and DVDs from them and sit and watch. So, I think it’s that point when a shift happened for me in terms of influence as an actor. Adaminte Vaariyellu, a K.G. George film, shifted my perspective – it made me sit back and really take a moment. That would be my first influence in terms of an actor.
Bejoy Nambiar: You mentioned Doordarshan. I remember that for us Bombay people, we used to have to rent out VHS tapes of new Malayalam movies to watch them, but on Doordarshan, they used to show only “award films”. We used to not get to watch commercial Malayalam films when we were growing up.
Sanu John Varughese: I grew up in the ‘80s. A lot of the movies in Malayalam in the ‘80s came from both sides of the stream: middle-of-the-road cinema, where there was Arjun Gopal Krishnan on one side, Aravind on one side and K G. George on the other side; then Sreenivasan, Sathyan Anthikad and Priyadarshan – a very vibrant period. I grew up on all those movies. So many writers like Padmarajan, whom I read as much as I watched. All of them have had a huge influence.
Aashiq Abu: I think it’s Padmarajan. His Innale was wonderful. I was also in wonder watching Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey. I think both these filmmakers, with their particular kind of filmmaking, influenced me a lot.
Mahesh Narayanan: I grew up in Trivandrum, so it was more like watching films through some kind of film festival. I remember watching Peruvazhiyambalam on the big screen – that was a big opportunity. It was a festival by Chalchitra. I didn’t understand much but then later on when I read the book, I realised that this guy was a legend. Now I am reading all his screenplays. I think he is the greatest ever visual narrator that Malayalam cinema has ever witnessed. We are still learning from Padmarajan. The way he writes, apart from the way he writes fiction, his language shifts from fiction to screenplay, which was the biggest advantage he had.
Then apparently when we all move into film schools, this shifting happens. All of a sudden it’s The Bicycle Thieves, Costa-Gavras… I realised that this man is in another league. He is my hero now.
Joju George: It is like everyone said, Lalettan (Mohanlal) and Kamal Haasan sir’s films are what I used to watch. Then K.G. George sir’s films and Priyadarshan…
Bejoy Nambiar: Was there any particular actor who you watched and thought that I also want to be an actor?
Joju George: I am someone who walks around with a lot of big dreams. I grew up watching all the big star in Malayalam cinema and they have somehow become a part of my life and being. So when I see them onscreen or meet them in real life, it’s a totally different mood. I grew up watching only commercial films initially and discovered other kinds of cinema later. Where I grew up, all the films that played on 16mm were Sasi sir’s films. A big crowd would sit and watch and you could sit and watch on both sides of the screen as it was an open-air screening. We used to jump and dance and that’s how we grew up watching films. It’s the same now. I recently rewatched Nayakan with Kamal Haasan directed by Mani Ratnam.
Don Palathara: When I grew up as a child, there was not a filmmaker that inspired me. At that time cinema meant all actors, I grew up watching Mohanlal and Mammootty like any other child of my age. But later when I started seriously thinking about films, the concept of film itself had changed a lot and I had started looking at other filmmakers all over the world, what they were doing differently and how they were doing things differently. There were a handful of filmmakers that I really respected and whose styles I admired – they keep on changing. Some constants are there, however, like (Robert) Bresson, whose work I can never stop admiring.
Rima Kallingal: My dad was a huge Kamal Haasan fan, so he made it a point for me to watch all his films when I was really young. Apart from that, I am a dancer, so I was fascinated by Shobana and her roles. But later on, I discovered Urvashi and I was stuck there for the longest time (and I still am) – I am a huge fan.
For me, as Don was saying, it was all about actors, until I came into the industry and understood the process. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t even know what a director did on set or that they called the shots. It was quite a surprise for me once I got into the industry and understood the process and what happens behind the camera. So, today I am a changed person, an artist, but back then it was just about the actors that you saw on the big screen, and I think Urvashi left a lasting impression on me.
Anjali Menon: I grew up abroad, and for us, Malayalam cinema was a big connection to our culture. Typically, we used to wait for the VHS with Arabic subtitles. Any film that came out at that time was a celebration. For me, Padmarajan sir remains the eternal inspiration – I adore his cinema; and of course, Mani (Ratnam) sir. There are many filmmakers who we have grown up watching, but the stories are what has connected me to cinema.
Geetu Mohandas: I grew up abroad – most of my formative years were spent in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I don’t know about influence but the idea, the concept of binge-watching, enjoying cinema, understanding the flavour, feeling good while watching came from the ‘80s Tamil films that were available in Malaysia.
I still remember actors Ramachandran, Vadivelu and Senthil, who have all greatly influenced me. I don’t know how to say this but this is my oldest memory of binge-watching at three-four years. I remember every time I would come back from school there was an afternoon slot from 2-4 pm when these films would be played. It was a big hook for me. It’s not that I followed Tamil at that time but I picked up Tamil while watching it. They were hilarious. They had stories, sub-plots, characters and drama. My mom just didn’t understand. She was like, ‘Why are you watching Tamil films?’ We used to drive every weekend very far away to pick up these VHS cassettes for Malayalam films. At that time, I used to insist on watching actor Ramachandran’s other films that I couldn’t see on television. Even now, sometimes I go to YouTube and check him out, what he looks like, and all the other actors, too. That’s my first love.
I came into Malayalam films as an actor during the worst period, which was the 2000s and then you are exposed to a lot of different types of cinema, and slowly you learn, you watch. I think K.G. George sir has been a huge influence. He is my favourite. I love his earlier films like Yavanika, Mela, Adaminte Vaariyellu, and Mattoral. I love these films. Also, Panchavadi Palam. Those are the films that influenced me.
After a point, you are exposed to world cinema and you want to watch more and more. Of course, apart from the usual classics, I like Jiří Menzel. The reason I like him is because he doesn’t have a fixed style. He did Capricious Summer, which is a slapstick kind of a comedy, at the same time as Closely Guarded Trains, which is by far the finest cinema that I have seen. He is like a mixed bag and he is so experimental with what he does. I love his characters and how they are etched.
But then these names keep developing. I get a lot of inspiration from the filmmakers now. When I see some cool work, I get excited. But my heart belongs to Senthil, Vadivel and the actor Ramachandran. I think my roots are that.
Anna Ben: I have this very vivid memory of watching Kuttichathan and being mind blown by it. I was so surprised to watch something so unfamiliar but still so many connect to it. Growing up I had inspiration right at home – my dad is a writer. I used to go with him to the set and see what was happening behind it. I had no clue what I was seeing; I couldn’t understand most of the part but I remember being so spellbound by the process of it. I always wanted to know more about it. I used to sit with my dad when he wrote, he used to always shush me off, but I used to keep asking him questions like why he was writing like this, 100-200 pages of scripts and everything else.
Going to sets was my favourite part growing up. I used to literally wait, take a leave from school to just go to the sets. From Kalyanaraman to Chanthupottu. I was very small but I remember the loudness of the sets, how lively people were and even the dance sequences that you see in films and how they rehearse it. It was magical for me growing up.
More than my dad, my mother is a big film buff; she watches everything – from Malayalam to Marathi to Tamil to English. So, growing up I have seen her watching English films. She won’t understand everything but she used to enjoy it so much. So, I think that’s the power of film. You connect to it in a way and that has always inspired me so much.
Jeo Baby: My father showed me Pather Panchali when I was in the 8th standard and said it’s a masterpiece but I couldn’t figure out what was so great about it. 3-4 years later I saw it while I was studying for my pre-degree and my mind was blown. That became a turning point and I started watching different kinds of films like Elippathayam.
Smriti Kiran: We talk about pan-India, we use terms like ‘regional,’ what do these terms mean to you and what is the ambition? When you start to work in a certain industry, can it be assumed that you would like to work across industries? Do you work in Malayalam cinema and wish that you were working in other industries as well and have that kind of reach? I would like to understand that because frankly, I feel Hindi is regional as well if it’s language-oriented. So what is ‘regional’ based on?
Aashiq Abu: I think the criteria of regional cinema is the language. Nowadays, with subtitles, we are communicating with so many other people. Over time it will get better. Every film will be subtitled for sure and not only in English. We have a tradition of doing subtitles in Arabic when films are released overseas. So, it’s already there. I think every production company will be serious from now at least to make sure that a film is subtitled.
All our releases are already subtitled. The issue comes when we go to theatres outside Kerala. The subtitle files and the video files are playing separately, so sometimes the theatres don’t play the subtitle file. There is a technical issue there. Otherwise, I think now everyone is doing subtitles.
Bejoy Nambiar: The newer releases are doing that, Smriti. I think you are talking about the earlier titles that are not getting subtitled, right?
Smriti Kiran: Yes, like the Padmarajan films. It’s got nothing to do with insularity, but does it speak to what ambition is, like making that kind of thing accessible across the board. Is there a politics of language that exists within the landscape as well?
Aashiq Abu: Yes, for sure. For me, language is a big barrier. Because I understand Malayalam the most, I am very comfortable with Malayalam and my local surroundings. It’s my personal opinion. I don’t know how I will fit into another industry where people are from different work cultures. So, yes, there is a problem, especially from the South. Again, we have a tradition, we are coming from a smaller industry. But now since the scenario has changed, I think filmmakers will take chances to try.
Anjali Menon: I have a slightly diverse view on that. For me, Malayalam is not the most comfortable language to work in but I have always looked at it as something that I have always wanted to learn and want to get better at. So, it was a choice to want to make a Malayalam film. It would have been much easier to do a film in Hindi or English. Making a film in Malayalam offers you an opportunity to make a rooted narrative, something which is rooted to a specific culture and more than anything, it gives you access to an audience with a very great sensibility.
When we talk about a certain industry, it’s not just about the language, it is also about the sensibility of the audience. If you speak to a cross-section of the audience, possibly you will come across the same names as well. The International Film Festival of Kerala is very different from many other festivals because of the audience, and it’s that audience that I am very keen to connect with. Therefore, I think that is a wonderful thing to do.
What I have a slight problem with is, when people assume that making a film in a regional language is the first step and everybody wants to move on to another step, which is mainstream Hindi films. I am so sorry but I don’t see that as a step-up. It is a completely different world, it’s a different ecosystem. People who want to should and people who don’t want to should not, because it’s two completely different worlds. I have a problem with that kind of thought. Frankly speaking, I think the whole OTT wave has become a great leveller because people are responding to content, people are responding to characters.
Sanu John Varughese: I absolutely agree with Anjali on the privilege to be able to talk to the Malayali audience. It’s really big. Bejoy has always known this. The stories I want to tell are things that can be told only in Malayalam because there is an audience there which is receptive a lot more and it has a tradition of nicer, more interesting movies over the years. That’s a privilege. I completely agree with what you said.
Anjali Menon: Frankly, the South and the East of our country don’t speak Hindi like everybody else does but still a lot of people are used to watching Hindi cinema because that is the one which has the maximum reach for all regions.
It is a huge challenge to make those films because you are taking a story and you are trying to make it relevant to a much wider audience, which means you have to give it to them in an accessible form, and that is not an easy thing to do. So, to just jump from a very culturally rooted narrative to be able to just and access a much wider audience is a huge challenge in itself. It is important to take cognizance of that.
But when you are making a film for a particular language, for a particular culture, this culture is not limited to Kasaragod to Trivandrum. Given that we are Malayalis and given that we love to travel – they say you will find a Malayali on a moon also – so these films and stories also travel. Like Geetu was talking about, being in Malaysia and watching Tamil cinema. If you are in other parts of the world, you will be watching Malayalam cinema. So, there are so many people who are of different cultures also who have been watching this. I am so glad that the people who have not been able to see Malayalam cinema in India are finally getting to see it now. Making that a level playing field was much needed and I think we have got it. That’s wonderful as far as I am concerned. The opportunity to make a film in Malayalam is a wonderful opportunity for me.
Geetu Mohandas: I want to continue on that note because this is my biggest fear. I had done my first fiction short film in Malayalam called Kelkkunnundo. After that, I have not done a proper Malayalam film. I kept asking myself why can’t I find a story, why can’t I arrive at something to do here. That is when the actual reality hit me. It’s because I don’t have roots here, I didn’t grow up here. I’ve only read translated works. My Malayalam literature knowledge is so poor that it scares me as a filmmaker. When I am sitting in conversations and people talk about these books, I go and search for these books, but so much is lost in translation that while trying to understand the poet or the author, I feel so handicapped.
Malayalam films are so beautiful and so rooted, when I watch them I feel like I need to find my own storytelling style because I can never do that. I enjoy these films, but I am also learning, it’s my process of discovering my expression. I realised that this is like a big weakness, so I am playing on my strengths to just tell stories the way I want to tell them and find my audience in there.
Coming back to this idea of a pan-India cinema, I feel it’s a misconception, where people think about it in terms of scale. Cinema is just crossing borders now. It’s all very liquid between us. People are aware of all types of cinema, especially with the emergence of OTT. People are watching good content. Mahesh’s film C U Soon, which has come out or the recent Joji, are huge successes and they are pan-India. It’s not just the Baahubalis that’s pan-India. These movies, which people are speaking about all over India, are pan-India. You’re talking about cinema which is travelling all over. And language is never a barrier because cinema is what grips people.
Mahesh Narayanan: Whenever I get a script from Hindi, I feel very uncomfortable working there. Malayalam is the only place where we get immense freedom while working on the content, because there are no studio producers working here, there are no focus groups, not too many people giving feedback and reviews and saying, ‘Okay, this is not working here.’ It is not like that. This works purely on trust.
When we tried to attempt C U Soon, I only had to convince Fahadh. That’s it. He is a friend. Later, when some of the buyers came, such as the streaming platforms, they wanted to see the entire film. We said, ‘You can’t watch the film and all. You can take it or leave it. We will show you a trailer. That’s it.’ During the initial discussions in that period, I felt that they were considering Malayalam cinema as an industry where they were giving statistics. They were saying things like only 8% of India’s total streaming population are seeing Malayalam cinema. Then everything got broken with Jeo’s film. The server of Neestream crashed six or seven times. It had a bandwidth of almost 1-1.5 lakh. That is pan-India. That is the real thing.
Now we are getting a good kind of freedom in terms of content. There are no kinds of restrictions here. At any point in my production stage, I can go and ask any of my friends to come and help make this film, or my actor friends, or my technical friends, or the regular or studio distributors. I am comfortable making films in Malayalam, and I am so happy that I belong to this industry.
Smriti Kiran: How do the actors feel? Roshan is working in the industry in the North, and Parvathy has worked there. How has your experience been? How is it different from what you experienced in the Malayalam industry?
Roshan Mathew: I worked with AK (Anurag Kashyap) there and it wasn’t all that different from a Malayalam film set-up. I don’t think it’s a conventional Bollywood set-up either. So, I might not be the best judge of this. I might not be in a great position to answer this.
When I first started acting, I was doing theatre in Chennai, then I moved to Mumbai to do theatre. I was also doing ads and music videos and whatever on the side, then I came to Kerala for some work. So, somewhere jumping in between these places, for me, these boundaries were never formed at all. I just wanted to work as an actor and find work from wherever I could fit in. I knew Malayalam, I knew a little bit of Tamil, I knew Hindi, and wherever there was a character for me to play, which was offered to me, I would jump at it. So, these boundaries weren’t defined as much.
I have also realised that the more specific you get, the more universal your film or your play becomes. I have had experiences where, say, I am watching an Iranian film at that point in my life without having any awareness about the political context of Iran and I am learning from the film. I am watching a Malayalam film and I am learning something about my homeland from that film, be it political or cultural.
In a way, whatever these films chronicle, when you think about it later, it puts a lot of responsibility on you also as to what you make and put out there.
For me, I was willing to accept anything a film was putting across to me genuinely and if it was detailed well enough and communicated effectively and convincingly. I am learning about that particular context, culture and that part of the world through the film, and as long as I can emotionally connect to the film, I am perfectly okay going on that journey. So, these boundaries don’t exist as much as you think they did.
After I started working in Malayalam films – not when I did all of my schooling here – and getting the opportunity to work with people whose work I really respected and started having great experience in making films is when I felt that this place was home – this is where I want to be. This is the audience I want to tell my stories to, so that’s the feeling that rooted me here. I didn’t get any of that when we started the prep for Darlings. It’s felt so different from anything I have done in Malayalam so far. It is an entirely different feeling. Now, COVID has happened, so all of that planning has just imploded and now we are pretty much working the way a Malayalam film works. So, it’s a mix-match of everything right now. Until that experience is done, I don’t know what I’ll be able to tell you about it.
Rima Kallingal: As a performer and creator, I look at it very differently. As a performer, if you are going to ask me to do a character from any part of India, I would want to work on it, figure out where she comes from, what her history is, what is that place like, what’s the culture there, what’s their history, why do they think the way they do, what kind of a government is there, how do they live, what is their milieu. As a performer, we are dealing with basic human emotions. If you take Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam done by Don, it’s set inside a car; anybody who has been in love and has been in a relationship will relate to what’s happening inside that car. But then not all films are like that, they’ll have another background, they will be set in another milieu. For a performer, it’s very interesting for us to dig into it and perform.
As a creator, it’s very different. You want to talk about where you come from, what your experiences are, so your stories are definitely going to be closer to who you are and what kind of stories you want to tell, and those stories are mostly going to be related to your life and what you think needs to be told. Again, looking at it as a producer, when Virus released on an OTT platform, I think three months into the OTT platform release, COVID-19 struck. I remember people from all over India reaching out and talking about the film and how it has helped and informed them. It feels good when people from all over are suddenly watching it, going through the film, watching the subtitles and understanding the film. It was set in Calicut. They asked questions about what really happened, so they did connect about something that happened here. From a producer’s perspective, it feels great when people from all overwatch your film and when you know that there is a huge audience for what you have created, it feels great.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: I agree with Roshan and Rima. It’s easier for me when there is a single voice to follow. Most of the time it’s the directors and if the director is the writer also, then well and good. If the writer and director are both speaking to me, then I put my blinders on.
My experience in working on Qarib Qarib Singlle was a little different. I was told a lot of things about how it would be. The entire structure of making a film on set is very different, the timings and logistics of things are very different than in Malayalam cinema. More often than not it’s because of how much budget we have as compared to the budget Hindi cinema has.
Apart from that, what I found a little uncomfortable was the discussion between the producers and directors and actors, who were all put in a room together. The perception of the character was discussed in much detail. I don’t know what the other actors felt like, but I wished there was less noise from that side; I wished I could just focus on the performance without wondering and worrying because that’s not my job at all. If it can be streamlined directly to me through the director, after whatever discussion needs to be done through the focus group discussion and all of that, it would have been easier for me. Otherwise, I don’t know at what level my thinking and processing get affected, the perception of the audience or how this character needs to be perceived. That’s a form of very unhealthy control for me.
The same thing happened in Maryan as well, the Tamil film that I had done. It was Bharat Bala, Dhanush and A.R Rahman, these stalwarts coming together and making a film. For me, it was all about just sort of zoning out every other noise and focusing on what we can create together. All I kept seeing was the script being changed over and over simply to inject comedy into it. I think I saw 10 different drafts after I said yes to the film. The project was being cut up and I constantly saw my directors having to choose. This trust that Mahesh was talking about, I felt like that kept bobbing up and down. They were struggling with that and I could see that. One day we had a focus group discussion and so the scene got affected. The audience will take what they have to take but at the end of the day, it leaves a bad taste in terms of the fact that we at times lost the integrity, the dignity of what we started with and the trust and vision with which we started. So, I was very much affected as an artist during those projects. It was easier for me after I communicated with my directors to let me focus on just one voice.
I also feel like there is a way that we work here. There is a trust with which we work here. There is a lot of planning and reach that can be integrated into how we work instead of completely disrupting what is so normal and usual for us. I think that is achievable. But the intimidation of numbers and reach cannot disrupt the vision and place that we started with.
Smriti Kiran: Slotting is a big issue in the North. You do one film and you are probably slotted for the next 10 years of your life. In Malayalam films, a lot of actors go from character roles to centre roles and then segue back into whatever is needed or whatever excites them. How does this work?
Anna Ben: What kind of role you want to do is a conscious decision that you make, I think some of the actors have the blessing to choose, some may not have that many options, so that is when the director or the whole set of casting people decide whether they can do it or not. Also, I think it’s half of everything: it’s either a director deciding or an actor deciding whether they want to do it, or the audience willing to accept both sides of the decisions of the actor and the director. Most of my colleagues have this discussion about being fixed on doing just the lead or doing supporting characters. When you’re beginning, you have a lot of doubts, and there’s only so much people can advise you on. ‘If you take this, this will be the next 3 years for you,’ or something like that. So, we have to make a conscious decision whether we want to do that and see ahead of what would be next, and it’s a gamble.
Everything boils down to the fact that we love cinema and we want to create something that can give us an experience to see a bigger side of cinema, grow into different characters and meet new directors and artists. For me, I love the idea of working with senior artists because there is so much to learn and I don’t mind being in a small corner of the screen as long as I can see how they are working, and it’s always been amazing for me like that. Kumbalangi Nights was something that amazed me because I saw brilliant actors in front of me doing brilliant things and that’s been a masterclass for me. I think, from there itself I decided that I cannot restrict myself into being just the leading character.
Darshana Rajendran: When I started exploring acting it was through theatre. With theatre, it has always been a space where I don’t think it has ever crossed my mind that I am playing the lead or on stage for two scenes; it’s not something that has ever crossed, and that’s continuing. It has never been about screen time. In the beginning, when I was starting out, there was a lot of concern, people would tell me, ‘You shouldn’t be taking up such small things because then you won’t be able to find your space or a slightly larger, prominent space.’ But I think that’s great in a space like the Malayalam film industry. I think it’s really cool. It is still hero-heroine centric but there is writing that helps these (supporting) characters to be in prominence.
A film like Virus, for example. Everyone is on screen for five minutes. You’re coming for five minutes but you know what this girl or boy’s whole story or life is. And, for me, it’s mostly been that when I am coming for those two scenes, am I excited about it? Do I have enough work to do for those two scenes? I’ve not thought so much about how big or what my character is. For me, it all looks the same. The work I do looks the same.
Bejoy Nambiar: Throughout the last three-four decades of Malayalam cinema, the kind of bank of actors that were there, even in the smaller parts, some actors used to leave such a strong impact. When we used to search or look for movies, it’s not like we used to look for only star-driven films. All those actors used to leave a solid impact. I’m talking about Oduvil Unnikrishnan, K. P. A. C. Lalitha. These are actors that we used to look up to and love so much, and they were not the leads, they were all playing character parts. In some films, they had much more prominent parts and in some smaller parts. They all left a solid impact, that’s been there in the grain of Malayalam films anyway.
Anjali Menon: We’ve had a very strong ensemble culture. The idea that all of these tiny characters are also real people. I still miss watching Sankaradi and Jagathy Sreekumar on screen. These people did 100s of films, tiny roles, but nobody has replaced them.
Bejoy Nambiar: I know so many films where Oduvil Unnikrishnan came for one or two scenes but it used to leave such a strong impact, right? You remember those scenes.
Anjali Menon: Also, the trust. When Darshana said that they don’t mind if it’s a smaller role, that is the trust they have in the writer and the director to be able to glean what is best and also because it is in the indie space, there’s a flexibility for the writer or director to make it a little more or less according to how the actor is responding to it. All of that is a very beautiful organic process.
Joju George: I just want to enjoy working under great directors. When I worked with Rajeev Ravi, I did a character that I was not familiar with at all. But the way he directed me made me realise that there is a lot out there that I don’t know. I am not fixated on languages at all. I enjoy all languages. So, as they say, when in Tamil Nadu, you eat Murugan idli, when in Hyderabad, you eat Paradise’s biryani and when in Mumbai, you eat pav bhaji. I am enjoying all of it and not overthinking it.
Bejoy Nambiar: I chatted with Vijay Sethupathi once because he was doing this big ensemble film, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, with Mani sir for the first time. We were all surprised that he was taking on a role like that. He was not the main lead, he was playing one of the smaller character parts. When I chatted with him, he told me, ‘I took on this role because later on in life when I’m doing a film and thinking of a scene I’ll have access to remembering what Mani sir thought of a scene when he was directing it because I would have had a ringside view of what he did and I can use that later on in my own films. That’s the reason I’m doing this film, not because the character is big or small. I am doing it because I’d be able to get a ringside view of how this guy planned and directed a scene, and I can use that for my films later.’ That was his motivation for wanting to do a small character part in an ensemble.
Smriti Kiran: When I look at the credits of the Malayalam films, I love the fact that there are big directors editing for their friends or just because they want to be a part of that film. Sanu has shot Malik. Mahesh has edited Nayattu. I just want to know how it works. Everyone is collaborating at this level with everybody in the industry. It’s a very film school kind of engagement, not only from the acting aspect but also the filmmaking of it.
Mahesh Narayanan: I can give you an example right now. We are doing a film called Malayankunju, which I am writing. Sanu was supposed to shoot the film, but he couldn’t come, so right now I am shooting the film. That is the situation. Sanu told me that he was not free, that he will be available only after his Telugu film. ‘You can do it. You do the film. No problem.’ It’s that kind of a vibe that is happening right now.
After the pandemic what happened is, we had to minimize the number of crew members. We had to multitask. That is something I learnt from Sanu. He told me that this is the future. If there is an assistant cinematographer, he has to handle the boom and if the boom man is slightly taller, he is fit enough to put a black tape on the ceiling because he doesn’t require a ladder. So, it is more like a multitasking thing. C U Soon was such an exercise. There was only a 15-member crew. I was watching on a monitor and pulling focus also because there was no focus puller on the location. So, this is the kind of vibe that is the need of the hour. We need to do multitasking.
Smriti Kiran: OTT platforms have helped you find new audiences. But what are the challenges?
Anjali Menon: Frankly, I don’t have enough OTT experience but I did see a report today which says that 2021 is going to be more challenging than 2020 for cinema because all the acquisitions of films that were made did not get the views that were anticipated. So, the OTT guys are also being very choosy in what they are picking up. And from the experience of friends in the industry, I am noticing that they are again going in the way of satellite channels, where it becomes very star-centric and certain filmmakers and all of that. That does pose challenges. Also, this is a climate where you don’t have much access to theatres. There is an issue there. So, yes, this year is definitely going to be challenging. But I think in the end, with content, that is a big strength that this industry has. With all of them, the content has been consistent and fabulous. So, I am not very worried. Eventually, that is what will come on top.
Smriti Kiran: Now that OTT platforms have begun to commission original work from different regions, would you like to comment on the work that you have seen that they have commissioned and has come out? It’s very important when you are delving into the storytelling of a different language to get the milieu right because this is going to be consumed by people across the world, and OTT’s have made film-watching language agnostic. What needs to be changed, altered or can become better when platforms are commissioning work in other languages?
Aashiq Abu: Every company works on a certain kind of strategy. So, they will be having some kind of plans. In my experience, I think Amazon Prime is doing pretty good work. They are trusting few production houses and only certain filmmakers. They are trusting some people so that they have decent content – for example, Joji. I think it depends on the strategy. Personally, I am not bothered about the strategy right now. I am not trying to make films for them and their strategy. We are continuing the work that we have been doing over the years. If we continue doing that we can survive.
Mahesh Narayanan: The pandemic is triggering things a lot. At one stage our cinema halls are going to be on streaming platforms. The DCPs (Digital Cinema Projectors), which we are seeing right now, are going to be replaced with giant LED walls. There is going to be a big corporation who is going to take up this sector, saying that we are going to stream films from now on your screens. So, then there will be a monopoly. As Aashiq mentioned, we are not making films for any providers right now. We are making films for our own requirements and whatever story we need to tell. But there will be a point in the future where that will be a possibility and that is the fear that I have. This is because of the 5G spectrum which is going to come in India. With that, everything is going to be super speed. With the bandwidth that India is going to achieve, one big corporation house will be saying that we need only Baahubalis in theatres and smaller films can be thrown on digital networks. Specifically, for phones – the vertical format is going to be the next revolution. That’s what I am thinking about, more interactive kinds of films. Theatres will still be there, but there will be a problem: a lot of other content players will decide how the entertainment industry has to function. That is my biggest fear.
Aashiq Abu: Don’t consider this a counterargument. I think that the day everyone gets vaccinated, people will head back to the theatres. The reason OTT platforms started taking the Malayalam film industry seriously is because theatres in Kerala helped us build an audience. People went to theatres and so some films became a hit. My first film, Salt N’ Pepper, released on only 18 screens. When the theatres reopen, I think things will reverse. Many corporations like Reliance have tried to penetrate these markets earlier as well, but content cannot be created keeping in mind corporate rulebooks.
The trust that Mahesh spoke about earlier is what works. There is no studio culture here. So, I think people will come back to theatres after vaccinations are done. Corporates can maybe make one or two films but they will not control the majority of production here. I don’t think the audience will allow that because this is Kerala. Our audience demands a more independent kind of content. The reason our industry is diverse is because of our audience. They give us strength. We have confidence in them. So, they will save us.
Bejoy Nambiar: Going forward, are you looking at OTT as a different avenue to explore further to make films or continue making the films that you want to make? Are you looking at it as a very tangible opportunity?
Sanu John Varughese: I’m hopeful in some areas. I’ve had a strange existence – I’m totally local. I’ve been here for 22 years – eating, breathing, reading, watching only Malayalam. Then I have 26 years spent in metros and across countries. There are people who are in this kind of reality, people who understand this kind of reality, with urbanization going up there is also a culture of people who are used to other voices. I’m saying, probably there are other avenues emerging and probably OTT platforms will help bring that kind of space back into storytelling. I’m looking at it as a possibility that could work out well.
Smriti Kiran: How can film festivals across India be useful? Do you even find those places of value? You love the audience that you have, you make the cinema that you want to make, you’ve preserved the cinema and the independence that you have in making that cinema; but do you find taking it to different film festivals, or platforms that exist has any value and can they aid and abet this in any way?
Don Palathara: I haven’t released any of my films in the theatre. I have made five films and I’ve only had festival runs – three of my films have been in A-list festivals. For me, they are an opening to the world.
Also, the audience shouldn’t be limited to a particular region, or time, in my opinion. Cinema is there to stay forever. I’m definitely not making films for any platform as such. What I’m trying to do is, keep on making films and hoping they will reach the right audience in due time. If you don’t put an expiry date on your film, there’s always a hope that at some point in time people will find it out and it will be talked about; which happened with my first film. The first talk about that film happened three years after making the film. So, there’s always hope for my future films too as long as I can stay honest about what I’m trying to make and as long as the stories are true to the culture, life and my experiences.
Smriti Kiran: Except for Anna, who decided when she was auditioning for the film not to reveal who her father was, everybody else here is, what in Bollywood we call an outsider, someone with no connection to the industry at all. How do you break into the Malayalam film industry?
Parvathy Thiruvothu: I did have a connection – director Ranjit is a distant relative of mine – but that was not a route to get into the industry. It was my mother who was extremely excited to send me for beauty pageants and stuff. So, she’s the one who sent my pictures for auditions and that’s how Notebook happened. For me, the natural route was to go for an audition, get the role and then I fell in love with cinema.
Those were fun times. That was 15 years ago, and now I see a major shift. It’s helping the writing a lot in terms of the diverse quality that new actors are bringing in, especially what Darshana is bringing in, what Anna is bringing in. There was a golden era and hopefully, still continuing. I mean, we look at it in hindsight and then realise this was also another golden era – but there was a time when it got fixed in between, especially for women. There’d be a few actresses to go around and you couldn’t go into the supporting actors space, so you had to be very careful with your strategy.
There are elements in the industry who constantly tell you, ‘Go do a Telugu film, make money and come to Malayalam to do realistic characters,’ or there are techniques to get across to a particular director. It’s probably not the most straightforward way to come into the industry but I feel that because of social media’s boom and the kind of access that has opened up, all those curtains have been lifted off. So, talent is entirely welcome. Especially with the kind of writing and direction that’s happening in Malayalam cinema, there are no token characters that are just aiding the main characters. Every character is given a full arc. That’s the trust that I feel actors who are coming in can place in directors. For me, it was not easy to ask for a full script, especially if I’m playing a character role. I think that culture has completely changed. So, you go in for the audition, you ask what your character is without being gaslit for it. I guess it’s a very straight way forward, but for me, 15 years ago, that wasn’t an easy route at all.
Anna Ben: For me, it was not a conscious decision to not reveal my father’s name. I just did not find it very necessary because it was an audition. To be honest, it was more of me fearing my father not wanting me to get into something like that, just from a father’s perspective. So, I just wanted to try this out so bad.
There has been a shift, so I’ve never identified with that small gap of films that happened where the heroine does the dance, looking glamorous. I could never identify with that. I could never see myself doing that. But the shift later on where there were so many inspiring female characters made me very curious to try something like that.
Also, if you don’t deliver, I don’t think there’s much space for you whether you’re from the industry or outside of it. You have to deliver, you have to have a passion and you have to connect to the audience. The audience doesn’t care where you’re coming from. They see you on screen and they fall in love with you, and that’s when you go forward with different movies. So, my experience throughout the auditions was wonderful. I think that was the best way that I could find independently of getting into films.
Darshana Rajendran: I’ve had a lot of conversations on it with someone like Kani Kusruti, who’s a brilliant actor, about how it was so different for an actor, specifically women, in this industry to find work or find work that they connect to and resonate with. She started at the time which was very different from when I started exploring the space. Today, if I’m able to think of five directors I want to work with, there is a way for me to audition for them, there is a way for me to reach them in some way. I auditioned for Aashiq sir’s Mayanadhi, where I met him for the first time. It’s a lot more reachable. it’s a lot more accessible. Geetu probably first saw me in Anjali ma’am’s Koode. I was playing a small part in it and that’s when she asked me to audition for Rajeev Ravi’s Thuramukham.
It doesn’t feel like such a faraway thing. Today, I’m able to be here and look at all of these brilliant directors and want and hope that I could work with these people. It hasn’t been easy but I know that it’s not impossible in the space that actors are in today.
Roshan Mathew: I did my first Malayalam film in 2015. At that point, I think there was already a little bit of an audition culture starting off, sprouting in different places. A few years before that, I had disconnected from Malayalam films for a while when I was in Chennai, and all of my friends from school, everyone here, were all talking about New Generation films. That’s the time when Parvathy, Rima and all came in. That’s when I first watched them. I caught their films much later, though.
So, suddenly, there were so many more actors, so many more filmmakers. At that point, you sort of recognise the actors more; you’re not even looking at the names of directors. Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about getting into films, I didn’t think it was practical. I didn’t think it would happen. But when these actors came in, it sort of gave one the idea that there is no particular mould anymore, or that the brackets are pretty wide – a lot of people can fit into the space.
In 2015, I happened to be here in Kochi. At that point, all I did was Google film production houses in Kochi and whatever showed up on the map, I’d try going to them. It could be a dead-end or it could be a small makeshift office, which eventually led me to Friday Film House. I walked in with printed pictures of myself from plays I was in, and I said, ‘I’m an actor, and I want to audition for anything that you’re casting for,’ and that worked. I auditioned for two films for them, and I got a small part in one.
Around the same time, another senior director, A.K. Sajan sir, called me in for a very informal audition. It happened at his house, but it felt very much like an audition for me. So, there was a way. I’m sure there’s a lot more structure to this right now. Everyone I speak to, all of their stories of how it began is so different that I never know how to tell what this one way is to get into the industry if you’re an outsider. When I first started working here, I kept all of my stuff in Bombay. I rented my room out to someone else. But I didn’t shift here until two and a half years later when I felt like, ‘Okay, maybe now it’s okay to make the move.’ I kept telling everyone in Bombay that I still lived in Bombay and to please call me for work, and I kept telling everyone here that I lived in Kochi and to please call me for work. But somewhere in those first few years, if you try really hard and do your job you can get in. The process of getting in takes a few years. If you’re really lucky, then it’s one film and you’re sorted, but for a lot of us, it takes a few films, and you also have to be patient and somehow see it through, because there are multiple points when you will feel like it was never going to work out. Like when Anjali ma’am called me… I called her, multiple times, to audition for Koode. When that eventually worked out, I really felt like, ‘Okay, this is a sign that maybe it will work.’
Rima Kallingal: I was a professional contemporary dancer. I was working in Bangalore in a dance company and then I was doing this reality show. I never really thought of movies as an option, just like Roshan was saying- I didn’t even think it was practical. But I was a performer, I wanted to be on stage, but I didn’t pursue it as well. After the show, I was going back to Bangalore with my parents but a friend suggested that Miss Kerala was happening the very next week or something, and I was like, ‘Okay, Miss Kerala sounds fun. I have some clothes, so let’s go.’ I was the first runner up and I was going back to Bangalore but suddenly Shyamaprasad sir called me for auditions because I was on a magazine cover.
I was roaming around with a suitcase from Trivandrum to Cochin, and my parents were in Bangalore, so I was like, ‘Okay, my audition is done, I’ll go back.’ Shyam sir was like, ‘No, I want you to sign a contract.’ I was like, ‘Really?!’ So, I do my first film but I have an unconventional face, I have an unconventional voice – I didn’t even know if I fit in here. I was quite shocked when Shyam sir asked me to dub for my role because I thought that I didn’t have a heroine’s voice. I finished my first film and I was all ready to go back when Lal Jose sir called. I was getting back-to-back films at that point.
Quite frankly, I was quite surprised because I had no training. I didn’t know if I could do this, but I have to thank Shyamaprasad sir for initiating me into this whole movie world and how he handheld me through this. In that respect, he’s my guru. He made me comfortable in front of the camera. He gave me acting work. In fact, it was a crew of newcomers. Every single actor in that movie was a first-time actor. So, that took off a lot of pressure. We were given acting workshops, the cinematographer Shamdat came and stayed with us for a week before we started training. He told us how we should behave.
There is this whole culture in cinema where first-time actors are ragged on set – I don’t know if it’s still there. They’ll ask you to give focus for the camera and a first-time actor wouldn’t know what to do. They’d go like, ‘Look at the camera,’ ‘Look into the lens,’ and all of that. This soft ragging happens. But then, you know, we were ready. I was ready as ever for the first shot that I gave in my life as if I was born to do this. Then there was no looking back. So, for me, at least, it was a cakewalk because it was Shyamaprasad.
Smriti Kiran: Now that there is a new audience that has been found, do you think that that alters your ambition because you’ve seen what happens when your cinema is received by a completely different audience? Does that also motivate you to take measures to let it reach out to more people, make it more accessible? And what is it that OTTs can do to not only preserve but while preserving also pushing the kind of work that you do?
Anjali Menon: I believe that at the end of the day we’re here to tell stories. And be it an OTT platform, be it a filmmaker, be it actors of us would like to reach the widest audience. It redeems our journey. It’s wonderful. But we need to work together for that. When you’re dealing with industries that do not have a studio culture, to suddenly expect them to shapeshift and fit into a studio culture form is maybe not the best way to approach it. I think it’s important for us to recognise that today in the OTT space everyone we speak to, actually 90% of them, are people who have come from the mainstream Hindi film industry, who are used to a very studio oriented system. And when it’s the same people dealing with the rest of the country in this kind of content generation it cannot work in that same way. Just as when we go to a new land, we try to learn a new language and the culture of that place, similarly, when you’re dealing with people who work in a certain way I think it’s important for us to mutually understand, recognise and learn how to work together. It would be very helpful if a certain cultural representation would be achieved at the OTT level as well, where people understand what this language is about, where are they coming from, why are they making their films like this, what is a film of a certain region, because that will inform them to deal with those filmmakers and with that kind of cinema better. A lot of the pressures we face as filmmakers working in a different system can be brought down and you’d simply get better content made for a larger number of people. So that kind of input from the OTT platforms will help.
Secondly, from my limited understanding, they haven’t opened up to all languages. I think they’re still looking at it from a very market-oriented point of view, where Tamil, Telugu are definitely prioritised much higher than many of the other industries. What that indicates is, they’re referring to a template that already exists, which is the film industry’s template: Which are the biggest markets? Where are the biggest budgets going?
Wouldn’t it be better to look at which films are being watched? Wouldn’t it be better if these OTT channels would look at their own data and see that if a certain kind of cinema is being watched more then try and invest there more and retain the authenticity of the content? When we are asked to make everything in Hindi, it need not translate well. We may not be motivated to make that story in Hindi. It’s so important that when you’re talking to OTT platform on an international level that they actually come back and say, ‘Do it in the authentic language.’ In India, everybody speaks multiple languages. That is our authenticity. It’s high time that is recognised and that is brought into the frame.
Mahesh Narayanan: I’m considering the filmmaker’s perspective. Whenever you’re writing for a digital platform, the entire screenplay structure has to be changed. It is not the regular structure that we write for the theatrical viewing, because I’m finding that the audiences are directly in interaction with the filmmaker because they have this new device called the remote. The remote is the biggest tool for them. I used to make these statistics. In earlier days, when there was only YouTube for streaming things, the fast forward button was kept for 10 seconds and later it was increased to 15 seconds, now, it’s 20 seconds. You can skip very easily now. They’re testing the patience level of people, the viewers. How much do you want to see? How much do you want to perceive this entire scene? If you don’t want to see this particular sequence, you can skip it. There is a Siegfried structure when they say that, ‘Okay, the first 10th minute, you will have to make your audience right away into the film.’ Now, it’s not like that. Now I am feeling that it’s more like in the first minute itself that you have to make your audience more immersed into that film, otherwise you’re gone.
Sanu and I had a big discussion while editing Aarkkariyam. It is a slow burn kind of a film that he has made. I’ve been telling Sanu that there is a possibility where people will try to skip this when something like this is going to be put on a streaming platform. But Sanu has his own points. He said, ‘Okay, that is not the case where a film like Mank, it’s an Oscar contender, has its own values.’ There is a constant battle that is going to be played where the filmmaker’s main enemy is his viewer itself. ‘Stay for the scene!’ ‘Stay for the scene!’ ‘At least stay for this! Watch this particular shot, and then go; then you skip it.’
Right now, I’m in this dilemma regarding how to take it forward, how to write it in terms of the content, and how I need to pitch it to the next generation of people. I’m in the learning process. I’m doing a little bit of R&D and all.
Sanu John Varughese: I think that it’s the changing nature of the viewing itself. I’ve been shooting a lot of commercials. When you shoot a commercial, you’re very aware that this might be viewed on TV in the middle of a kid screaming, doorbell ringing, pizza coming in – it’s in the middle of all that that you watch. That’s the way that viewing happens. Theatre is the one place where you had the captive audience, whom you could take to the edge of boredom because he has paid money, he’d go through it. You need to catch people by the throat very early now with new media coming in. Your writing needs to step up to communicate to a different generation, which is already very accustomed to a lot of reality stuff in terms of what is there on YouTube and social media. You need to start communicating to the attention spans which are changing. You need to address that. I think it’s just going to be a constant learning because the changes are too much for us to be sticking to a place. You have to kind of start swimming within this. We really don’t know how these things are going to change. The medium is the message. It will decide the content at some stage.
Mahesh Narayanan: I remember during the beginning of the pandemic, Sanu was asked to shoot commercials from his house in a vertical format.
Sanu John Varughese: You need to relearn cinema for that. How do you cut? How do the cuts happen? I have no idea.
Geetu Mohandas: I did my short film in 2009. So I think from the late 1990s to 2000s, the digital format boom has happened. I think it’s at the start of 2000 that it hit us as well. The period in which they were talking about the New Generation cinema influx of films that were coming in for different narrators and stuff, I think there is a lot that has translated with a visual medium, the visual narrative of it, because when you see the grains of what how you can shoot on a film and the feel of that, from moving to digital, visually itself it was different. So, all that did add to that revolution of the so-called New Generation that you’re talking about.
This is really scary. I’m hearing Mahesh talk and Sanu talk about how you need to step up with the script and the sensibilities of people and how it’s a learning. It actually dawned on me this second that I’m in big trouble because maybe that’s the reason why my films are coming few and far between. The reason being that I want to tell it the way I want to tell it. I don’t think I ever cater to a particular audience. The way I want to function is, I want to tell you the story in the way my beats work and how I want to tell it. You sit back and relax. That is the discovery of me as a filmmaker that I have made so far. They make absolute sense. It’s not that it is what we want to do, it is something which we are kind of forced to think about – that thought scared me, because if I have to do that, then I don’t know if I’ll be able to make my next film. Just to sort of understand how these beats work and to just to make sure that the audience is present. ‘Hang on! Five minutes. Come on, the next scene! We promise you.’ that’s scary.
Sanu John Varughese: While I say that, I’m also aware that ultimately you’re dealing with a medium that is all about emotions. Beyond a point, searching inward and telling it the way you feel it will probably connect to a lot more people than trying to fit into templates of how communication happens because it’s an artistic medium. So, ultimately, everybody needs to do what you’re talking about, tell stories the way they want to say and be connected so that you are part of a real moving world, which you end up connecting to anyway because you’re coming from there probably. Looking inward is what it is. But these are fears.
Aashiq Abu: I am very happy that Sanu and Mahesh are scared, and I am too. Geetu also said that she is scared. I think that fear is what takes us forward. All filmmakers are equally scared right now. You should be ready for heartbreak when you’re going to make a film. It’s a very painful process to make a film, to write a film. So, you should be ready for heartbreak. Yes, the fear will be there. That is for sure.
I think the festivals, like MAMI, are showcasing curated content from Indian cinema, which is a very good thing because after the recent festival that you guys did, and with Film Companion, Anupama Chopra and all those film enthusiasts and journalists coming in, they just took our cinema to another level and another audience. Thanks to you guys.
From what I understand, it’s a clash of methods. We do cinema in a democratic method, and they come up with their corporate method. These methods won’t work together. So, we share a very, very chilled out, friendly relationship, and we also have a culture of cooperative societies in Kerala. Indian Coffee House is a cooperative society from Kerala and they have recently opened a five-star hotel in Kannur. So, we have that kind of camaraderie between us, between actors, between writers. Sanu and Mahesh are friends. We are all friends. We don’t have that kind of corporate culture in us. So it’s easier to work in a more democratic way, which we are very familiar with.
See, it’s the audience who are making the difference, that’s what I believe. They choose cinema. They go to the theatre for certain cinemas and they make that film successful, and then these corporations notice that cinema. So the audiences are far more educated, visually educated, than us, so we should be scared of them.
Parvathy Thiruvothu: Rima and I are moving into direction and I was scared but after you said heartbreak, I’m not worried anymore. Well versed with that.
This is less of an opinion and more of like, in a manner of speaking, a mental health check with my fellow actors. I think there is another wave of rewiring that’s happening with me – where I am and where you all are in your mind in terms of ambition and what OTT and what theatrical releases do. I keep sort of like a pendulum going back and forth between extreme optimism to borderline cynicism. It’s been happening a lot, especially because of the pandemic. But I also think that it adds to our challenge as performers. When it was only theatrical releases and majority theatrical releases, there was still a little bit of – no matter how prolific we are with our work or not – a spaced out way – that we could put our work in front of the audience as performers, as different characters that we embody.
What OTT is doing is taking away those gaps in time. We get the opportunity to do a lot more diverse roles a lot more often than before, but it also makes us not be complacent. We cannot afford to be complacent. We will get diverse roles, and that’s amazing. Hopefully, we will get a lot more opportunities, for all of us, but that also means that we’ve got to keep stepping up our game or take different routes in constantly checking in with where we stand with our craft. I think that’s been a challenge for me because I keep wanting to look back and say, ‘Wait a second. Did you become redundant in that? Or did you go complacent with that work?’ Because we’ve kind of been on autopilot for a while, and I know with content and creators and makers, there are a lot more departments to work with, but for me it’s important to check in as an actor while moving into this sphere of creation that is still continuing, and I’m listening, I’m more of an observer at this point. I would love to hear from my fellow actors here how they are feeling with this boom of OTT in how they wish to rewire or probably stay chill.
Darshana Rajendran: For me, it’s been really great. I come from a finance background, and I have a whole world that when I started doing films knows today that I’ve shifted into another space but hasn’t seen anything. They just know that she’s doing something else. It was around C U Soon when they were like, ‘Oh, you’re doing this. This is actually a thing you’re professionally doing.’
Being on these platforms is a lot more out there and that comes with its good and bad. I’ve been getting a lot of hate as well. That’s a very new thing. I’m not used to it. It was right after a film that came out. I was confused. Because we’re all out there, with OTT platforms and the audiences it’s reaching, we have no control over it. Along with the good, there’s a lot of not so nice things that I’m also figuring my way around. It’s going to take time. I don’t know how you’ve been doing this for so long because it’s like two days of hate messages and suddenly I’m like, ‘What did I do?’ I don’t understand what this is. It’s part of the deal. I just have to accept the bad along with the good.
Roshan Mathew: I’m trying this tactic of not thinking about it. So far, it hasn’t changed the way I turn up for shoots, or changed the way I do anything that I do there. The only change that I have noticed is that a couple of weeks ago somebody sent me a script and I read it, and this question popped up, which I asked this person also, about whether he was intending it for an OTT platform or for a theatre. When you read something now, somehow that has subconsciously gotten into you – does this belong here or does it belong there? So, that’s the only distance that I’ve felt between the two.
I haven’t shot in the last month, but until the last time that I was shooting it didn’t change how I was working. I’m hoping that can stay and that it works also. I hope I don’t get thrown out because I’m not altering my ways. We don’t even have enough information to be the judge of what would work where. For me, Mahesh is doing R&D as of now, so we’ll wait.
Anna Ben: I completely resonate with what Roshan said because now when scripts come in or when directors talk, they say that this is for OTT or that is for theatre, which is completely confusing because then I can’t figure how I can divide it into two – when you read it, you read as a viewer and then as an artist; you connect with the story and connect with the character, and that’s it. I don’t know how I can divide it into an OTT platform film and a theatrical film. I think this is unknown territory that we are getting into, so we just have to explore and see how it goes. Like Roshan said, I’m not going to take the burden. The makers will have more on that. The makers will understand how we might work, how we might not. I think the artists need to trust the makers on how they’re going to take the film forward into whichever platform they want to take it to.
Darshana Rajendran: When C U Soon happened, and when Fahadh and Mahesh reached out to us, they said, ‘We don’t know where this is going to be. It could be on a YouTube channel for all you know. If you’re excited by this idea of uncertainty and us figuring it out, come along,’ and I was immediately on it. So, I don’t think those are things that have started playing as much role in the work that we are doing. It’s changing in terms of presence and being online and all of that, but in terms of work, it’s pretty much the same.
Rima Kallingal: I think we’re in a good space. There was a time when we only had theatres, and today we have OTT platforms, satellites, and all of that happening. We have so much more space. But as it is with anything new, we have new challenges, new experiences. We’re figuring it out. We will be good. All we have to worry about is the COVID ‘21 version, the second wave, not hitting as badly. I think we’re good.
Smriti Kiran: Thank you so much for giving us this kind of time. It was lovely listening to you, and I just hope that we continue to keep seeing great cinema coming out of the Malayalam industry.