|A still form Dr. Biju's debut film "Saira."|
Since then he has made two more Malayalam movies.
“Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal / Birds With Large Wings” which is based on the Kasargod Enviornmental Disaster caused by the use of endosulfan pesticide in Kerala's 50,000 villages between 1976 to 2000 which killed men, women, children, fishes, frogs, cattle and left its deadly side effects forever. It released in 2015. This as well won the National Award for Best Film on Environment Conservation/Preservation. It was also given the World Humanitarian Award in Jakarta in 2015.
Now his next film “Kaadu Pookkunna Neram / When the Woods Bloom” is complete and getting ready for a release. I last talked with Dr. Biju before his film “Perariyathavar” released across Kerala in August this year. Back then it was only released in PVRs. He is a wonderful and patient man.
Here is the entire conversation:
Tell me something about your next project.
I have completed the shooting and post production. The Malayalam title is “Kaadu Pookkunna Neram” which means “When the Woods Bloom”. It is about the UAP Act (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act). Under this act anybody can be arrested as a Maoist and anti-national, there is no evidence needed and there is no certain time of getting bail. Many people have been the victims of this act.
The synopsis is something like this:
A special battalion of police is deployed by the government to do away with Maoist menace in a tribal village adjacent to the forest; the police forcibly occupy two rooms out of four for their camp in a primary school with bare minimum facilities, meant for tribal children. One day, the police are on lookout for some people who were found in the forest near the school at night. A policeman follows a person deep into the forest and nabs him. The person arrested happens to be a woman. He tries to come out of the forest with her. But he loses his way in the wild but the woman knows the way out. She is not willing to show him the way. Thus, both the hunter and the hunted are stranded in the thick forest. The wilderness and solitude of the forest mentally upset them. The equations of power, people, man, woman, the hunter and the hunted change totally. The film is based on the fact that the Government has been arresting activists who dare to speak against its fascist and undemocratic activities. They are arrested by misusing the UAP Act (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) or SUA Act a law aimed at effective prevention of unlawful activities associations in India.
|A still from "When the Woods Bloom".|
In Kerala also, many people have been branded as Maoists.
When did you write this story?
Who are the lead actors?
Indrajith Sukumaran and Rima Kallingal.
Indrajith has acted in your previous films as well.
Yeah, in "The Way Home" (2010) and "Color of Sky" (2012).
What is the very first cinema memory you have?
I am from a very rural side of Kerala. In my childhood my father took me to a cinema. I think it was a ghost movie. I don't remember it exactly. But my clear memory is of "Gandhi". I was in school and we went for it. After that I saw commercial Malayalam movies as well but I don't remember them now. I remember this movie - "Gandhi".
By Richard Attenborough?
Yeah, by Attenborough. I remember the film because at that time the chairs in the theatre were only for the upper caste. So we sat on the floor and saw it.
What kind of a boy you were when you were little? What sort of storytelling was available near you?
I have a good habit of reading. So, from the childhood, I guess from the 4th standard I took the membership of my nearby library. I used to take one book daily. I developed a good habit of reading. There were many contemporary master writers in Malayalam. I would read short stories, novels and such other literature written by them. It continued till 12th class. It was a small library and within six months I'd read all the books available there. Then I changed it and started going to another library in a nearby village. I took a membership over there as well. During that time I had the membership of six libraries around the villages. So I think this was the way I knew the world around me. Books had a significant impact on me.
At what time you had the full exposure to movies from around the world?
Regarding the movies, actually until the college level I only saw these commercial Malayalam films. No other movies had I seen. Later, I moved to the capital Trivandrum for higher studies. At that time The Kerala International Film Festival was happening. So, I happened to see movies there. First I saw some Iranian movies and some Turkish movies but then I realized that in this world there are lots of movies other than Malayalam which are political, poetic and social. When I watched my first Iranian movie I was deeply affected by it.
What memories do you have of your parents?
My father was a government employee. It was a clerical job. He lived all his life in a small village, a very calm village, very calm people. He had acted in some dramas, though at a very small level, in our village. He also had a habit of reading and I was attracted to it. He was a very sincere person, very down to earth person, always helping people in the family and around. He was the only member in our whole family having a government job. We were not rich. We come from a very poor family but even with his small earning he'd take all along. He was concerned about all the other living things. My childhood, school and life was like of any ordinary child. Financially, we were a below average family and that made me care for other people and be compassionate. My parents did not have any relationship with cinema yet they supported me in making movies. They did not know the future in filmmaking but they never discouraged me. They supported me a lot.
And your mother..?
She's a loveable person. She's a housewife. I have very much affection for my grandfather. My father died even before I came into films.
Your parents saw your first movie?
My mother only, she's still alive. She lives with me. But my father never saw my movies. He died before that.
How bad a feeling it was that he's not there to see your dream come true?
It was hugely bad. He died when I was struggling. I was making small-small documentaries at that time. Economically we were in a very bad shape. I had not got any job. My father was retired then and we were living on his pension. At that time he died. Three years after that I made my first film. It is sad that he didn't get to see my film.
You were in college or what?
I'd just completed my studies and I'd started homeopathy practice but it was not doing well. I didn't have any other job and I was occasionally making small documentaries. And then my marriage happened. My father was bedridden and he was in last stage. He wanted to see me married so I got married. After one year he died.
Most of the commercial filmmakers in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Bollywood or Hollywood hardly know as to how they should portray equality in their movies. Your movies are really satisfying in this sense. Like in your first movie there is a good female journalist, then the propaganda of terrorism, minority and the power of state against its own people. How do you get all these notions right? And also, What made you the person you are today?
Yeah! Ultimately it is because of three things. One is my reading habit, second is that I travel a lot. Due to traveling I see and meet so many people, many marginalized people. And the third is my ideology. I always feel that there are so many people who are living on streets but we are making a 300-crore movie. I didn't understand as to how this could happen! People are always suffering and living without any support. No government support is there. The mainstream media does not handle these kinds of issues. They think all this stuff is rubbish. I feel that an artist should always stand with society. His primary duty should be to focus on the social injustices. That is my ideology actually.
At what time in your life you got interested in filmmaking? While you were a practicing doctor of homeopathy or even before that?
No, first I became a doctor. Later during my higher studies I happened to come into the field of cinema. I believe the profession of filmmaking is not for income generation. It is a passion. Once I think it is for moneymaking then I instantly lose my ideology and my social commitment. Then I'll only scout to make entertainment and money. But, since I have another profession, another income I'm satisfied with that income and I don't want to make money through films. Now I can choose any subject and any issue. I think that is the freedom of my filmmaking.
You have a permanent government job which requires daily presence. When do you get time for filmmaking?
I write simultaneously with my government job. I write at my home. Naturally it takes six to seven months for a script. Whenever I get free time then only I write, it's not a continuous process. During the shooting and post production I take leave. For about four or five months I take leave. So I can manage. Nowadays it is a little difficult because I have to do a lot of traveling for film festivals or to be part of a jury or to do a film presentation. I have to travel a lot.
When were you exposed to world cinema?
During the last five-six years I have seen much such cinema. Every year I go to around 10 film festivals or so with my movies or as part of the jury. In each festival I at least watch 10 movies. So in a year I see around 100 movies from around the world. That’s where I developed good relations with filmmakers around the world.
Which movies have influenced or shaken you a lot?
I can't remember films right now but I am a huge fan of many filmmakers and I can name them. One of them is Kim Ki-duk, the South Korean filmmaker. He's a favorite. I like Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Roman Polanski and Iñárritu (Alejandro González) as well. I have a friendly relation with Kim and Iñárritu.
Kim is a very bold filmmaker and it is an irony that he's watched world over but in his own country he's not respected that much.
Yeah, true! But that is also true with Kerala. My movies are not seen that much in Kerala. It has happened with every such filmmaker in every country.
When people locally don't see your movies and don't motivate you then what's the way?
In Kerala, not many people have seen my movies. Even a lot of critics at the film festivals here don't talk about my movies. The State of Kerala has not acknowledged my movies. But I've had good reception all around the world. Many festivals have screened my movies and they've got good response. Outside Kerala there are many critics whether Hindi, Bengali or Marathi critics, they are watching these movies and appreciating. Outside Kerala there are many festivals that screen my films. So I get good inspiration from outside Kerala people, in India and from all around the world. That motivates me enough to make my next movie.
Isn’t it weird that you're films have won National awards and your state is not giving you proper recognition?
I've made six movies and got National and international film awards, but in my state I didn't. (His films have only got Kerala State awards in technical categories but never in main categories, no award for direction. His last film "Perariyathavar" won in Russia, Iran and two NAs in India but not a single one in Kerala.)
But, Kerala with more than 93 per cent rate is the most literate state in India and it is perceived that the governments have been socially committed?
Well it is a false notion. The Kerala government and theaters here don't want to show such movies (the recent case being director Jayan Cherian's ‘Ka Bodyscapes’ which has been refused certification by the regional CBFC office). In our state we have a festival called Kerala International film festival, never has any of my movies been selected in the competition section there.
I think all of my six movies have gone to the best film festivals around the world. They entered in international competitions. But in Kerala International Film Fest they are just sidelining my movies. They never let it into the competition section.They just screen it in the New Malayalam Cinema category along with many other films. It is not a competition section.
Where did you learn the craft? Did you go to any film school?
No, no! I didn't go to any film school and also didn't assist anyone. I learnt by myself. By watching and feeling movies. I have a clear vision about my movies. I didn't have any academic training. Actually the first time I saw a movie camera was at the shoot of my first film. I'd never seen a movie camera before.
It was during the shoot of “Saira”?
Yeah! “Saira”. Before that I'd only seen video cameras when I was making documentaries.
|A still from "Saira."|
Actually I wrote the script of “Saira” in 2000. Then I was trying to make it for a long time. And it happened after five years, in 2005.
What about the budget? If you are a new filmmaker and you don't have any support, how do you make your first film?
For the first movie it was very difficult to find a producer. I looked for producers who were from non-film backgrounds. I met around 60 producers. All of them refused. In 2004 I got a government job as a doctor. Then I took a personal bank loan by surrendering my salary certificate and started the first film.
What was the amount of loan?
It was Rs. 1 Lakh. With that I collected Rs. 3 Lakhs. Some of my funds helped. My wife gave me her ornaments. However we managed 6 Lakhs. Then we started the movie. But when the 6 Lakhs finished the film stopped. At that time one of my friends asked my cameraman about the status of the film. He said, it seems pretty good but due to cash problem we have stopped. Then he approached me and said, Ok! we can start again and I'll manage rest of the money. He added Rs. 10 Lakhs and the movie got completed.
Was he a professional producer?
No, he was more of a friend. It was his first film. He'd made some television content earlier.
So in around Rs. 16 Lakhs you made the entire movie?
Yeah, that's right.
Did the actors charge big fees?
Actually my technicians helped me. They did not take money because they understood this movie and that I was struggling to make it. We only had to bear expenses for camera rent, lab charges and such things.
What about Nedumudi Venu who was a prominent actor?
When I wrote the movie in 2000, I gave the script to him. After reading he said that a film like this would be very difficult to make for a person like you because of the financial aspect, but it is a good film and I'll do it. Once we started the film he did not take any fees. He even gave his car to run in shooting locations. So he was very supportive to me.
He's such a senior actor.
Yes. Later in an interview he stated that while reading the script he found a spark in it.
He's been part of most of your films.
What was the learning from “Saira”? Like Christopher Nolan says that you learn the most while making your first movie, after that you don't.
At that time we had very much confidence. I learnt that if we are focused and confident about our script and if we are confident that we will make a different movie then we can do it, no problem. Even if we have to wait so long but ultimately we'll make it.
In your third movie “Veettilekkulla Vazhi” (The Way Home), your son Govardhan has acted?
|A still from "The Way Home."|
I planned those movies like travelogues, like traveling in different parts of India. After my first film I thought I should focus on major parts of India, its beauty and landscapes. Like Rajasthan and Ladakh. Both are different climates and entirely different locations. For this contradiction I chose those locations.
You use many cultures in your movies - in the backgrounds, in visuals and in songs & music as well. Your first movie “Saira” had Hindi ghazals and aalap. Then “Veettilekkulla Vazhi” had Marvadi, Ladakhi and Punjabi songs.
Right, right. I always love to share these folk songs. It is the real music.
The Punjabi song you chose in the truck sequence was sung by a known folk singer (Avtar Singh Kang’s “Gidhian di rani”) of Punjab which is rare for a film in other language.
Yeah. Before that I used a Manganiar song in the film.
At what point did you decide the subject matter of your last film “Birds with Large Wings” or “Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal” which released in 2015? Did you have the story in your mind for a long time?
Yeah, it was. It is based on a real event (the Kasargod Endosulfan-disaster and the after effects) which took place in Kerala. It has been happening for last 30 years. We have been reading the reports on the after effects of the pesticides. We have been seeing photographs. Many documentaries have been made on the issue. Books have been written on it. Discussions have taken place. People's movements took place. Strikes happened. But after all these years, it was surprising for me to see that no feature film was made on this issue. So I was interested. I planned the film five years back. But making a feature film in itself was a challenging task. We needed to have a storyline and some feature film elements. So I waited for the storyline to develop. Once it was done I started the pre-production and later shooting.
|Poster of the movie.|
More than 10,000 people have been affected but the government claims that the number is near 500. Though there are strikes going on against it.
The spray had been happening for 24 years. What was the reaction of the civil society at that time? What were social activists doing?
Actually, at the beginning nobody knew what was happening. The government said that this is medical spraying and it is for the growth of cashew crops. People also believed. They didn't know that this is a pesticide. And gradually, after seeing some major diseases in the area, some doctors and medical people thought that may be this is due to the spray. They started to enquire. Small organizations stood in protest. Then a lady who was working in the agriculture department filed a case in the High Court and the court prohibited the spray.
When we read about the Kasargod Endosulfan-disaster there are also some articles that argue that Endosulfan is harmless?
Most of such reports are made by the plantation corporations itself. These plantation corporations are owned by the government. They hired some agencies and with the help of corporations they prepared the reports. Most of the studies are biased. Some individual agencies are also there who are unbiased. But the studies done by the pesticides owners and plantation corporations are in favor of Endosulfan. The problem is that correct scientific studies have not been done in Kasargod and this is the duty of the government to do so.
You haven't experimented much in the film cinematically and there is not much drama in the acting department. What was your approach towards the visuals and acting?
When I started working on this movie, from the very beginning I decided that I'm not going to have melodrama in it or I am not going to dramatize this situation because we are dealing with real people and real victims. I wanted to do it in the most realistic way. I plainly presented the incident, the history and all the situations which were there. Mostly, I wanted to tell the story. I never wanted to make this movie as that kind of cinema. That was my approach. I had already talked to my actors that you have to do it in a normal way and not in a melodramatic one, that we were shooting with the real victims. When we were shooting we totally allowed the actors to interact with the victims. They were reacting back and smiling and talking. We were shooting as our characters went to the victims and talked to them. Whatever they said according to that our actors had to reply. The cameras simply followed them.
|Dr. Biju (center), on the sets of BWLW.|
“Birds with Large Wings” won the National Award for Best Film on Environment Conservation/Preservation in May this year? What's been the feedback like?
This film did a lot of things to the victims also. It was screened in the Indian Panorama. The show took place in Siri Fort Auditorim in Delhi where an authority from the Human Rights Commission was present. After seeing it he got the clear picture of the issue and said that now he believes the situation in much more grave. After seeing the movie the Central Human Rights Commission sent a letter to the state government of Kerala and asked that why the government is not fulfilling the promises made to the Kasragod community. The state government then again started talking to the people and agreed to rehabilitate them and wipe out the bank burdens such as loans.
What do you think of Salim Ahamed's “Pathemari” which won the National award for Best Feature Film in Malayalam?
Yeah, I've seen. It is about the people who go to Gulf Countries for work, particularly the Malayalese.
The 63rd National Film Awards this year have been controversial since most of the awards went to Bollywood and that killed the purpose of these awards which were started to promote and recognize regional cinema?
This is a valid argument. Like the main award for Best Feature Film went to “Baahubali: The Beginning” which is obviously a commercial movie and there is no criterion that it fulfills. It kills the credibility of National Film Awards. Even though many regional movies have been awarded this year from Malayalam to Kannada but the main award for “Baahubali” is not accepted. This problem begins when you choose a wrong jury chairman. For National Awards the jury chairman should be someone who is credible and objective, otherwise this will keep on happening.
Ramesh Sippy was this year's jury chairmen.
He's a commercial filmmaker.
He made “Sholay” (1975) and many such films. He is a family friend to Amitabh Bachchan who won the Best Actor award for “Piku.”
Although I saw “Piku” and Amitabh Bachchan was different from his earlier movies.
But weren’t there better actors from regional cinema?
When did you become so passionate about filmmaking?
It was after I saw foreign films at international film festivals. I loved the way they were made and the way the stories were told, especially the Iranian and Turkish movies. At that time I was writing poetry and short stories. Writing is also my passion. Then I happened to see world cinema. On the second year of the experience I was inclined to make such movies.
What is the role of films and filmmakers in a society? Today the commercial filmmakers and producers have defined the filmmaking in a different way. Even the audiences don't expect anything out of that definition.
I think films have a significant role in a society. Especially now when we are made to think that films are just for the entertainment. A film runs in a theatre for 4-5 days or 100 days. But actually as an art form a film is made forever. A film is made for the future also. When there is a socially committed movie today, a movie with so many social elements, it will be discussed in future. We make movies for the future. The problems, the politics, the issues in a movie will remain for all times.
What is the state of freedom of expression in today's time? Like the case of Tamil author Perumal Murugan and the opinions of many other intellectuals.
Politics and communal forces are in the way and it's got very difficult to express freely. At the present political scenario it is very difficult. But we need to fight against it. We need to speak our mind and in our own way. We must stand together all over India. Whenever there is an issue like Anantamurthy's or Murugan's then we must support it. We must fight these communal elements together. We always say that this is an independent and a democratic country but it seems that the artists don't have the democratic rights like freedom of expression.
You have had similar situation with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC)?
It is an interesting thing that earlier also the CBFC did not pass political films or censored the content. Two of my films had undergone many cuts. I argued. Many Malayalam movies undergo censorship because of their political stand. But now the present board is not passing such films and the tribunal has to come in. Actually censorship should be redefined. And also, the criterion and credibility of the members of CBFC should be redefined. Especially in Kerala the members of Censor board do not have basic qualification. They don't have a basic idea of films in art form. The members are a wife of someone or a daughter of some politician. They are nominated because of political reasons. Now what is happening is that the board is not passing the films and the tribunal is giving the permission. Anyhow we must think about the censorship whether it is needed or not?
Even if we don't have it, there is no problem?
In Kerala there are a lot of TV shows which are crap. They leave wrong impressions. They are so violent. And there is no censorship for TV serials, not at all for such content. Only the films are curbed in the name of censorship. Why must we not redefine the CBFC? Like many countries, if we have a major issue with some film then CBFC can mediate, otherwise no involvement of it is needed. And also, the members of such boards should fill the basic criteria. They must have some sort of connection with film media or the art. It is very funny to have a daughter of some politician as a member of censor board.
The new censor board team was selected after the resignation of the earlier board members and the film responsible for their resignations was “MSG: The Messenger (Of God)”..
Yeah, after the controversy I saw the trailer and it's a crap movie actually, a comedy. I think we should see it to have fun. A very crap movie actually.
Should the release of this movie have been allowed? Should people not be the judge ultimately?
There are some communal elements in the movie. It degrades many other communities. If any such movie purposefully degrades some other communities then we should censor it.
In some states of America, marijuana is legal. Prostitution is legal. You can buy weapons. Many countries give utmost priority to the human rights. What level of liberty or human rights do you endorse in society? What if we give away censorship or criminalization of many things? Should there be any filter in a grown up society?
This is actually a very difficult thing to do. Someone is right and someone is wrong. A filmmaker has the liberty to make a film and viewers have the choice to watch or not watch it. If the movie has something which is not harmonious or objectionable then we can boycott it. But the movie should not be banned. That is the freedom of a filmmaker. We should do it in a more democratic manner. If we are bound by the state, like the filmmakers are by the censor board then that is not a true democracy.
The subject of your first three movies was terrorism. Why this issue was so important to you?
The first movie “Saira” (2005) was based on a real incident. There was a woman in Kerala who was attacked by some community on the suspicion of being connected to terrorists. It was about the state terror. A government brands any of its citizens as terrorists. I took the element from there and started the movie. After completing it when I was thinking about my second movie (Raman, 2008) the Iraq war was going on. I realized that America is also doing a different kind of terrorism. A country brands another country as terrorist nation and attacks it. For my third film I was looking for story and I couldn't find it. Then I came to know that one terrorist organization was recruiting from India, especially from Kerala. From a particular district of Kerala many people were recruited. Here I chose this subject for my next “The Way Back Home” (2010). It was not purposefully done. These three subjects happened to me.
The recruitment thing was for real in Kerala?
Yes, it was happening. There was an intelligence report stating that a lot of people from the state were attracted to a terrorist organization. It was in the news as well. And I used it with the story of a child and a man.
But you haven't elaborated much on the terror issue in “The Way Back Home”. It's just mentioned twice or thrice?
Right, I just mentioned.
Was it intentional or you just couldn't do it?
It was intentional because along with this recruitment news other things were happening too. Some people were arrested by the police, alleging that they are terrorists. My point with this movie was that a lot of people are being trapped in the name of terrorism. So I quite liked this angle. I went more after the human angle.
Then you chose “Color of Sky” (Akasathinte Niram, 2012), an entirely different subject. Whereas the first three films were concrete, this one was more abstract. Why?
It was a purposeful deviation. I think after the “Terror Trilogy” I needed some change. I had to prove that I can take on such an abstract theme as well. I always think that there should not be common elements in all my movies. That's why I chose an entirely different matter.
|The poster of "Color of Sky."|
Initially I thought of a different subject. Subsequently I had a thought that what if a bad guy lives with people who are all so good. Then he will automatically change. There is no option before him but to change. From there on I elaborated the story.
Have you seen V. Shantaram’s “Do Aankhen Barah Haath”? Back in 1957, it also said that the ‘Bad’ can be changed by the ‘good’. This concept is missing from our films today. In Tamil, Telugu and Bollywood movies when the hero sees bad guys he just kills them in the most stylish ways. And they think that they are doing some good for the society. And also, they feel this is the only way to correct the society or to make it good, by killing all the bad people.
Yeah, they are killing the sensibility of the viewers. Most of the Malayalam movies do the same thing.
But your movies are the opposite.
We've got to have a different way to treat people. The day to day commercial cinema preaches that we must kill all the bad guys and the good will prevail. But other than killing there are ways too.
Most of the “mainstream” filmmakers don’t like such criticism. Like, the films of director Rohit Shetty. He made “Singham” in 2012 and its sequel “Singham Returns” in 2014 starring Bollywood action hero Ajay Devgn. The film series was a remake of 2010 Tamil film “Singam” starring Suriya. In this story there is a cop who just kills the goons in very glamorized way. Shetty’s movies earn a lot. Rs. 200 and 300 crores are expected figures. The section of media that criticizes it is not liked by them. Same with director and choreographer Farah Khan, who is known for making “Om Shanti Om” and “Happy New Year”. In an interview last year she said that film reviewers who criticize her and her brother Sajid Khan's movies (recent being Saif Ali Khan starrer "Humshakals") don't actually know film business. According to her if a film earns Rs. 100 crore or more, the film is good. She said that there is a type of critics who like to watch slow and dark movies; they people should be banned from writing. The slow and dark cinema is crap? Something like this was said by Akshay Kumar. What do you say?
(Laughs) There are many who say that a good movie is judged by the amount of money it makes. Also because these films are watched by more people and the other type of films are not watched by many. They don't even get proper releases. But I think the basic element to calculate the good or the bad in cinema is not the box office collection, it is the common sense.
The new and the established commercial filmmakers give this logic that filmmaking in itself is a very technical and costly medium and a film must recover the producer's money back. And in doing so what happens is that the terms are dictated by the producer. He may say, I need four songs, I need these angles and I need my hero to do so and so action. So, as a filmmaker what is your model of film production or making?
What I think is that I am making the movie for myself. While doing so if it feels bad then I should not make it. First of all we satisfy ourselves. It should be a socially committed movie and it should really give me the mental satisfaction after I am done. My process is such that I choose a theme, a subject first and work out the script and then finally I think of the budget. I discuss that with my technicians and assistants. Once the budget is finalized, I search for a producer. I have a strong rule that the producer must not interfere with the script. He will give me the total freedom. I meet a producer. I give him a budget such as Rs. 50 lakhs or Rs. 1 crore or Rs. 1.5 crores. And then the producer puts his 100 per cent faith in me. He agrees that you can do the movie, I won't interfere, all the artistic freedom is yours. Then we decide to work together. Now many producers want to make movies with me. Many are approaching me. But the basic thing is that I need to choose the producer, because that producer must have the same wavelength as mine. He has to have a social commitment. Otherwise he won't be able to make such movie. If he only needs entertainment and the money back then we can’t work together. This is how I do it. For the first two or three movie I had difficulties in finding proper producers but now it has got easy because now they want to make movies with me. But they must have socially and artistically committed minds.
What does your wife say about this model of yours? Doesn't she say that make a few commercial films so that life becomes more comfortable?
As I said films are my passion. I have another profession. The salary I get from it is enough for me. We don't have many demands. I have a wife, a mother and a child. We are living a simple life in a village. We don't have much expense. I get Rs. 20,000 every month and that is more than enough. I can manage my family's needs in this amount. I don't need any other money. If I am approaching a movie from a money making perspective then I may have to make compromises. I am a doctor by profession. So I have to decide for what purpose I am making a movie. Is it for glamour or for some money? That's not right. I have a social commitment, I have some ideology and I need to express something. My family is happy about it.
That support is very important.
True. They are happy. I have a simple household and a family. My writing happens at my home in a small village in Kerala. All the planning for films happens there. My assistants come and we discuss here only.
Don't you need to live in a big city? There are many technical facilities like editing and post production which are only available in cities.
You are right. I go to Mumbai for sound mixing. Lab work is done in Chennai. I travel for all these things. It is all about planning and discussion. Everything is done then.
If you have an outdoor shoot, what is the proportion of months that you travel and then stay home?
The most time consuming process is location scouting. That is one of the most important parts of movie making. It can take many months. It's a continuous process. In a month I travel for a week or 10 days for this thing. If I don't find a good location then I do the same next month. For shooting I take around 30 days for outdoor shooting. Then I come back.
And then for post-production, sound mixing, dubbing?
After the shoot I have some time. We spend around 20 days on editing and then take a break. After a few days we reassemble and do the final edit work. After finishing this I travel to Mumbai and stay there for around 10 days. The post-production altogether takes 2 to 3 months.
Generally it takes 8-9 months or a year to make a film but you do it in a little time and keep the quality good. How?
We make a good planning. Keep our schedule well. So we don't need much time for shooting. If we are planning a 25 days shoot then we'll finish it in 25 days. We plan very early and strictly follow our schedule. Everybody knows his or her job.
Do you organize workshops before the shoot?
Not, actually. I think it affects badly. During the shoot I describe the scenes to the actors so that natural acting comes out, not the method acting. I always tell my actors, please don't act! Behave as if the role is really part of your life. I only tell them to focus on their behavior. But, we sit with the technicians many times before the shoot begins whether it is with the DoP, the art director or the makeup and sound section.
You have these meetings at your village?
We meet in a city for one or two days. That would be Trivandrum.
Where is your village?
It is near a small town called Adoor.
Adoor, as in Adoor Gopalakrishnan?
Yeah! He lives in Trivandrum.
What is your take on his movies?
It's an interesting thing because four years back I wrote an article in a Malayalam Weekly. I criticized Adoor Gopalakrishnan, especially his latest movie. My piece was in response to another article where a critic compared Adoor with Satyajit Ray and praised him even more. I wrote that you can’t compare him with Ray. It got very controversial here in Kerala. Many critics pointed their guns at me, including Adoor sir.
What did he say about the article?
He told some things to some other people. He even called the editor of the media house and scolded him for publishing the article. After that we met many times but he acted as if he did not know me. But I have good relations with Shaji N. Karun, T. V. Chandran (both stalwarts of Malyalam cinema) and many other filmmakers.
What was the content of your article that made him so angry?
I admire him as a filmmaker. His earlier movies were so good. Definitely he is the master of Malyalam cinema. But that's not the point. His last 3-4 movies were too bad. We don't expect such movies from a master filmmaker like him. That was my first argument. And then, he won many National Film Awards but his movies did not travel in many major international film festivals. They've travelled in some less known fests like in UK and elsewhere. Only one movie went to Cannes and only one won. But Satyajit Ray's many movies travelled to many top film festivals.
Being an ace filmmaker and the legend of Malayalam cinema, Adoor has a duty to address new filmmakers, to watch their films and give his opinion whether they are bad or good. But he never watches any movie of any new filmmaker. And he openly says that all new filmmakers in Kerala are bad. How can he say that without seeing their movies? Instead he should address and guide the new directors to make good films.
Also there was this issue with his last two movies. He took some (8) stories of the legendary Malayali novelist Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai to adapt into a film. After the shoot finished he found out that the film has gotten too long. So he parted it into two movies – “Naalu Pennungal” (Four Women, Malayalam, 2007) and “Oru Pennum Randaanum” (A Woman and Two Men, 2008). He released them year after year so that he could apply for National film awards, twice. These are the same subjects but two different movies. It was never expected of such a huge filmmaker like him or from any filmmaker for that matter.
Have you seen Chaitanya Tamhane's “Court”?
I've heard of it but I haven't seen it. Perhaps it was screened at the Mumbai film festival but I went there a day later.
Both of you have many similarities. Like you both did not go to any film school, you both have not assisted anyone and the subjects you choose are very strong yet naturally presented. “Court” is about a dalit poet in Maharashtra and the Indian judicial system, whereas your movie “Perariyathavar” is about the police killing of adivasis and the ‘lesser’ people of our society. Even your first film “Saira” was quite angry and on your face. It was the truth of our society – the police atrocities, the politics, media, communalism and terrorism.
I met Chaitanya at MAMI but I couldn't see his movie. But I would love to.
“Perariyathavar” which recently released in Kerala is such an interesting subject – “Names Unknown”, the people we don't know, the faces we come across everyday but we don't acknowledge them and the people who do small little things in our lives. We the human beings today give importance to the greatest of things and not the simplest of things. It was a film on environment and also on the ones we don't make movies at all. Your lead actor Suraj is known for his comedy and mimicry but here he does a very serious role superbly. How did this film happen? What was the motivation?
The main incident in the movie actually was a true one which happened in Kerala. It was more than a decade ago perhaps. Some tribal people were protesting peacefully for their rights and two were killed by the authorities, and also the strike of scavengers and garbage collectors took place. In Kerala, the garbage collectors are working at many places and they are protesting. When I travel, I see many nameless people on the streets. There are lots of people who have no place to live. They sleep at the stations, on the footpaths. It is a very tragic view. Also, the sweepers, early in the morning every day they start their cleaning work but nobody cares about them. I discussed this with one of my friends. He lives in a flat. There are a total of 72 flats in his building. There is a lady who comes every morning to pick up the garbage from those 72 flats. She's doing this job for the last 14 years. For the last 14 years those families in those 72 flats see her face every day. But when I asked them in a meeting as to how many of them know her name? It was just shocking that only 5 knew her name. All other people referred to her as the garbage collecting lady or as aunty. Remember during those 14 years every day she went to their houses but no one knew her family or her living conditions!! There are innumerable people like her and we never mind and neglect them. They are living a very poor life. So, all these thoughts and subjects made me make this movie.
|Poster of the film.|
What was the tribal incident you are talking about?
On February19, 2003, in Muthanga village of Wayanad district in Kerala, some Adivasis had gathered to protest the Kerala Government's delay in allotting them land. It was contracted in October 2001. During the protest, the Police fired 18 rounds which killed five people. It was a very big political and social issue in last 10 years. And still these tribal people have not got their land. They are still on strike after so many years. And ironically there is no movie in Malayalam, covering the issue and the strike.
It is a regular phenomenon in India that whoever is fighting for his land or similar rights he is labeled an anti-national, a Naxalite or a terrorist. It's tragic that many educated people think this way.
In 2014, many tribal people protested in the state by keeping a ‘Standing Strike’. They stood in front of the Kerala secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram. They stood there peacefully for more than 130 days for land, water and other basic rights. No minister went to them and heard what they had to say. After 130 days and due to media coverage the chief minister talked to them and gave some assurance that they'll give them land. Then this massive agitation stopped. But I doubt anything has been done.
Which are your favorite movies that you'll recommend to all?
1. “The Pianist” (2002) by Roman Polanski.
2. “Spring Summer Fall Winter… Spring” (2003) by Kim ki-Duk.
3. “Children of Heaven” (1997) by Majid Majidi.
4. “The Apu Trilogy” (1955-59) by Satyajit Ray.
The directors you like most in Malayalam cinema?
1. G. Aravindan
2. Shaji N. Karun
3. T. V. Chandran
What about the contemporary filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap?
I liked “Fandry” a lot by Nagraj Manjule. There are some good movies in Marathi. There was one other film called “Gandha” (Sachin Kundalkar). I like some of the movies by Anurag but I didn't like “Ugly”. I saw it. It was a very well-made film, a thriller.
And “Gangs of Wasseypur”?
Same with that also, it was a well-made thriller. But there is a lack of sincerity, lack of artistic sincerity.
What about “Ship of Theseus” by Anand Gandhi?
I forgot to mention I liked it very much. I liked a movie called “Shahid” (by Hansal Mehta) very much. An outstanding movie it was.
Some favorite books – which aspiring filmmakers or people in general should read?
Actually, I do not read many books on cinema. I mostly read fiction. Paulo Coelho and Gabriel García Márquez are my favorite writers.
What subjects attract you the most as a filmmaker?
The ones which affect the lives of people, but are not taken up by the media or the politicians; the incidents and happenings that are making people suffer and some real issues that have real political and social connection.
Is “Saira” your most angry film till date?
Definitely, it is my most angry film.
India has just competed 25 years of economic liberalization which all began in July 1991. Do you think we've come too far on this path that this whole process is now irreversible? We are making movies to make people aware, we are writing blog journals, writing in newspapers but this country seems to have taken a path and the country is not going to come back in the same position and it is going to change forever. Why bother thinking or trying when a kind of America we've become?
It is absolute that we cannot go back. Everything has changed. Every country in this world has changed. Now as a filmmaker we can show our movies anywhere. We can take the opportunities. We can show the people around the world as to what we are thinking or dreaming. Otherwise things are irreversible. But we have to keep doing what is required.
You live in a village. What change do you see in your village since 1991?
Earlier, every house was open. Every person knew each other. Now we don't know our neighbors. We are limited to our own families. We don't have any connection with the communities and social issues. This is very dangerous.
What does your son say about his future? Will he live in your village or move to Mumbai or Thiruvananthapuram?
I'll prefer that he stays in the village. But I always make sure that he can do whatever he wants. He's free. For what I've seen is that he interacts with people and he has passion for them. I think that he'll live in the village.
When you are frustrated or demotivated in life what do you do, read or watch? Where do you get your energy from?
Reading. Yeah! If I am very much frustrated or bored then I pick up some book and read. I still have the membership of the library in my village, and I have written some books as well.
It's very unlikely that filmmakers still go to any library. The successful ones have it in their own houses and they are totally cut off from public libraries.
Even though I have a library in my house as well and I buy many books regularly, but it is a nostalgic thing that we go to libraries and select books. I actually like it so I do it.
Your films are recognized world over, what do your villagers say about it? Do they recognize your achievements or know what kind of a person you are?
No, no, no. They don't. I think many of them even don't know that I am a filmmaker. They only know the popular filmmakers, the popular actors, not anyone else. I don't make the glamorous ones you see. Only some of them know.
My childhood was very different. It was a below average family. I come from a dalit atmosphere. I am a member of a backward community. It is very relevant in Kerala because for a person coming from a backward community there are many social problems. Many-many social things are there. Later, I became a doctor and a filmmaker. What I have learnt so far is that there is no thing in our life that is permanent. And when we get some facilities in life then we need to realize that there are a lot of people who don’t have these things. There is a great number of people who don't have a life as such. So when we become something we must do something for them. That's what I think.
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