‘Most people want movies to behave like a circus now’: Filmmaker Mahesh Narayanan

In a candid conversation, filmmaker Mahesh Narayanan opens up about writing and shooting for Malayankunju, and releasing it at a time when the choices of audiences and OTT platforms have changed
Kamal Haasan, Mahesh Narayanan, Fahadh Faasil. (File Photo)
Kamal Haasan, Mahesh Narayanan, Fahadh Faasil. (File Photo)

In his book on filmmaker Martin Scorsese, Richard Schickel wrote that the latter was his “favourite talking head because his knowledge was so boundless and expressed with such riveting passion.” I’m inclined to say the same of Mahesh Narayanan. No one in contemporary Malayalam cinema speaks with the same excitement about movies as he does.

In a candid conversation, filmmaker Mahesh Narayanan opens up about writing and shooting director Sajimon’s Malayankunju and releasing it at a time when the choices of audiences and OTT platforms have drastically changed.

The last film of Mahesh that saw a theatrical release was Take Off, five years ago. When the pandemic hit and the theatrical release of his second directorial, Malik, got delayed, Mahesh made a never-before-done (in Malayalam cinema) experimental feature, CU Soon, which went straight to digital. When Malik encountered yet another delay, Mahesh prepared himself for the inevitable. “After Malik went to OTT, I got a lot of messages from people who asked me if I would release Malik on the big screen,” says Mahesh.

I ask him if he feels Malik’s theatrical release would’ve elevated Fahadh’s stardom. “Maybe it would’ve. I can’t say for sure. I don’t know if Fahadh and I can do a film like Malik again. Not that we don’t wish to, but back then, we didn’t have the strength to hold that film any longer. Lots of stakes involved, you see. The film belonged to a lot of people, including the investors. One had to take all those factors into account.” 

So it’s a thing of irony that another Fahadh Faasil film that Mahesh was involved in, but this time as a writer and cinematographer, got a theatrical release. 

Edited excerpts:
Mahesh, what have you observed about the current situation of the Malayalam film business?

What’s happening is people decide where they want to see the film after simply looking at the posters and trailers. You know, we did a trial with Malayankunju itself. When we released the trailer, our views were transparent. Then we compared that with the hype that accompanied the release of the Malik trailer.

We also compared two of Fahadh’s films Kumbalangi Nights and Joji and observed that people prefer to watch these fun and mass entertainers on the big screen compared to something dark. When we released the making video of Malayankunju, many were against it. My question was this: Shouldn’t we at least give a ‘visiting card’ saying this movie is coming out in theatres?

Recently, you made an excellent point about redefining the meaning of spectacle that it shouldn’t always be about action sequences or visual effects-laden moments.

I’m happy that films like KGF are doing extraordinarily well in theatres, but the bizarre level at which such films perform has become standardised in the audiences’ minds. It has reached the point where even a simple, silent moment has become intolerable for many. Post-Covid, people just want to jump from one plot point to another quickly. They want everything to function like a circus; if not, their attention suddenly shifts to their phone. 

I’m a huge fan of asghar Farhadi: Mahesh Narayanan

These days, one rarely sees characters revealed through behaviour without relying on exposition. I found the restaurant scene—dropping a curry bowl and asking for a new one—interesting.
That’s something I saw happen in real life, in Thiruvananthapuram. People with a strong upper caste spirit tend to do things like that. What I’ve done with Anikuttan is a collective representation of such folks. An attempt was also made to analyse the reasons for his behaviour. I don’t think Anikuttan was that way from birth. I don’t believe anyone is a certain way from their birth. It’s their circumstances that prompt them to look at someone’s colour or race in a certain way.

More than a survival story, I see it as a very personal humanistic story. It reaches a point where Anikuttan can’t live without the infant and vice versa. Also, many things were deliberately left unsaid. 
Many viewers, including myself, see Malayankunju more as a character study.

I agree with that assessment. It is one indeed. I wanted to do a pure character study for the longest time. My first draft of Take Off had the behaviour of one. It focussed more on journeying with Sameera (Parvathy Thiruvothu), while all the other elements like war and everything were only a very minor, peripheral part of it. But you can’t get funding when you pitch it like that: people tend to get apprehensive. 

Anyway, it couldn’t have been completed with a small budget because I wanted to recreate a hospital and everything. So that kind of budget demanded the addition of several other mainstream ingredients to justify it. I think I became completely confident about directing a full-fledged character study when it came time for me to write Ariyippu. It gave me more self-satisfaction than anything else I’ve done. Not that I wasn’t satisfied with whatever I did before, but I wanted to do a film devoid of mainstream cinema trappings. So when people criticise such an endeavour, I would gladly listen to it because it might teach me something, whereas, with the others, I am already aware of the flaws, because I know we didn’t create them unknowingly. (Laughs)

What factors compelled you to do a character study like Malayankunju?
I’ve been thinking of shaping a story from one man’s perspective for a while. And I always try to learn something new after every film I do. My other films jumped quickly from one plot point to another. I wanted to change that and write something that gives sufficient space for the characters, and I had the feeling that people can relate to it. And I was happy to see Sajimon (director) and Fahadh echoing my sentiments. How does an individual react to the changes in nature? How do they transform after a calamity? I wanted to convey those things.

Was there a reason why you wanted Anikuttan to be casteist and have his life impacted by a debilitating landslide? Did you imagine any other natural disaster before this?
I came across an old news piece about a dog that was with the disaster management team, and how it was barking non-stop for three days. When they realised why it was doing so, they decided to dig and found a child’s lifeless body. I asked myself: What if that child lived? That’s where it all started. I actually saw the ending of the story first and then wrote the rest later. In the beginning, Anikuttan wasn’t there; just the baby. And this whole idea about being affected by a baby’s cries... I’ve always been fascinated by how a baby’s sounds change over a month’s time. As a father myself, I’ve felt its strong, jarring effect. And when Anikuttan came into the picture, I thought of how a man’s surroundings had affected his personality.

I found it interesting that you employed static and graceful camera moves in spite of the character’s chaotic state of mind.
I’m not a trained cinematographer. I believe in doing just what the story demands. I believe that when you are telling a personal story, the camera should stay close to the character so the audience can get a clear sense of what they are. I don’t prefer going far away from them, which means not using long lenses much. 

I found inspiration in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) and the films of Robert Bresson. The lensing in Malayankunju and Ariyippu (upcoming) is different compared to all my other films. Even Sajimon, who is a Wayanad native, brought in his unique perspectives. During discussions, he came up with some ideas that maybe my own process wouldn’t have spawned.

How did you design the post-interval survival portions? Did you wait for the set to be built first before writing it?
First, we thought of what we could do within our limitations. We studied details of similar locations, the still-remaining debris and various ecological factors. Jotish Sankar (production designer) is very much rooted in those kinds of things. His work included taking measurements of each and everything and then creating miniatures to give Fahadh a sense of how things should progress. 

We also deliberately opted to not establish the geography in the beginning. There’s only one instance where Anikuttan walks through the trees. It’s only in the climax that we show, through an overhead shot, how the entire location looks. Our limitations dictated such choices. And Jothish was great at making everything seem natural. Take the rocks, for example. He makes sure that no two rocks should look alike—basically studying the original specimen thoroughly and recreating everything exactly as it is. It would’ve been difficult to shoot this film in a real location because the earth behaves differently every day.  It was a huge challenge.

You and Sanu John Varghese (Mahesh’s frequent cinematographer) seem to have similar lighting styles.

He has influenced me a lot. I met him first during Vishwaroopam. We think alike most of the time. In fact, I  first wanted him to shoot Malayankunju, but he was working on Shyam Singha Roy at the time. So I decided to do it myself because I’ve had experience operating the second-unit camera. I always visualise a scene the way Sanu chettan does.

By the way, that accident of Fahadh must’ve caused a major panic on sets...

It happened on the first day of shooting the survival sequences—when Fahadh’s bed fell down, as you saw in the film. He was placed at a considerably scary height. Fahadh even insisted on multiple takes, and I said I couldn’t. Also, he used to have multiple cuts on his legs every day on account of the roughness of the water-resistant fibre coating. Whenever Nazriya called, I used to worry that she would ask us to stop shooting.  (Laughs)

One of the interesting visuals has Fahadh curled up in a foetal position, the underground space resembling a womb. He also carried a toy when he crawled out of there.

That’s exactly how we imagined it too. As for the toy, it was an improvisation. It was not there at first. It was Jotish’s idea, which Fahadh loved. Once he started performing with it, he said it was a clever choice because he would’ve felt stuck otherwise. A lot of things evolved like that on set.

As an editor, you’ve worked on documentaries too. Have they influenced you a lot?

All my films have that influence to a certain extent. I happen to be a hardcore fan of Costa-Gavras. When Ariyippu was selected to screen at Locarno, I saw it as an advantage because that’s where he got his Lifetime Achievement award. I’m hoping I would get to meet him there. He is a huge inspiration. And so is Asghar Farhadi who is, for me, today’s Ingmar Bergman. Of the contemporary filmmakers, I’ve not seen anyone else create the kind of emotional impact he does. He is a master.

How did you light the set?

The main challenge there was that Fahadh had to give us the light we needed. So we brought a flashlight made in Ukraine, which has varying temperatures. It’s basically a cinema lamp used for weddings there. This light had to bounce and illuminate him. What’s also challenging is that Fahadh had to do all the makeup and costume changes by himself. Once he gets in, no one else could go in.

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