Scriptwriters of Malayalam film 'Priyan Ottathilaanu' talk about entry into field of cinema
Priyan Ottathilaanu screenwriters Abhayakumar and Anil Kurian on their beginnings, successful foray into cinema, and working with actors Sharafudheen and Nyla Usha
The official writing credits of Abhayakumar and Anil Kurian, whose new film 'Priyan Ottathilaanu' is running in theatres, did not appear on screen until after 2012; however, their contributions, albeit in a smaller capacity, had started seeping out much earlier. Having commenced their career with Ranjith Sankar—with whom Abhayakumar worked at a software company—the two provided inspirations for the filmmaker in the form of little ideas which the latter developed into full-length screenplays such as Passenger (Abhayakumar) and Molly Aunty Rocks! (Anil). They were okay with not having credits for these, and both had their reasons. For Anil, he wasn’t in a position to tell folks at his office that he was seriously considering a career in movies. Abhayakumar, too, wasn’t quite ready yet. He was only—in his words—“helping out a friend.”
The two remember taking screenwriting seriously after seeing their ideas realised successfully on the screen. “It was so encouraging and exciting at once,” says Abhayakumar, who, like Anil, was egged on by Ranjith Sankar. The three found an opportunity to work together in Jayasurya-starrer Punyalan Agarbattis. After the duo went independent, they started working on a horror thriller, Chathurmukham, which marked the directorial debut of writers Ranjeet Kamala Sankar and Salil V, who had penned Kohinoor (2015).
The writers emphasise the importance of having a healthy working relationship with the collaborating filmmaker at any given time. “We shared a good rapport with Ranjith Sankar, and later, when we worked on Chathurmukham, we became thick friends with Salil and Ranjeet,” says Abhayakumar, who chuckles as he remembers Manju Warrier collectively calling the four buddies chathurmukham on the sets. “She used to say, ‘Here comes the chathurmukham.”
Interestingly, Abhayakumar honed his writing skills as a blogger whose pieces got noticed by Ranjith Sankar, while the then U.S-based Anil wrote movie reviews in forums. They eventually quit their full-time IT careers to devote more time to screenwriting. Anil, however, is currently engaged in freelance IT consulting work. “I still like IT,” says the latter. “I just happen to be a technical person obsessed with cinema.” Abhayakumar concurs. “Anil watches a lot of movies. He is a cinema database: that guy who watches around four movies a day. Whenever I stumble upon a unique story idea, I used to bounce it off him, and I would find that our thoughts on the same match.”
The duo found the transition from IT to filmmaking quite challenging at first. “The thing with IT is you follow a disciplined routine. There is proper planning, teamwork, and all that, whereas, in the film industry, things don’t function in an organised manner. Adherence to punctuality is a rarity. It took us a while to adapt. But we have managed to bring that systematic approach to our current line of work, which also involves production-related duties. We are learning the ropes of all other filmmaking departments. Since it is a passion, we don’t see it as taxing,” shares Abhayakumar.
Coming to Priyan Ottathilaanu, the idea first took seed in 2015. “It’s a very personal subject, inspired by similar, relatable people around us. And it took a while for us to find a backer and the right cast,” says Anil. They finally found a director in Antony Sony and the main lead in Sharafudheen. Interestingly, the latter wasn’t their initial choice, but they later realised the Aarkariyaam-actor was perfect for the part.
“It’s a funny story. Our first meeting with Sharafudheen was for a role in Chathurmukham, and throughout the narration, we observed that he was a bit hyperactive—he couldn’t sit in one place. On the way back, I told Abhay, ‘Why don’t we pitch him the Priyan character?’ Sharaf read the entire script, liked it, and told us that our observations about him were on target. He recounted hilarious stories where people used to ‘lock him up’ to stop him from running away, including one instance on Premam when Alphonse Puthren did the same,” he laughs.
As for the film’s integral female character, Priscilla, the writers managed to pitch it to Nyla, with whom they had worked in Punyalan Aggarbattis. “We had slight difficulty while narrating the character to others because it’s not a role that would immediately appeal to everyone,” says Anil. “Two or three names we first approached had concerns. Later, during a zoom interaction with Nyla, she listened attentively to the script. She got all the little nuances right. She would later recall them exactly as she had heard before. Nobody got the character as she did. She was quite emotional towards the end, and we first assumed she was bored.
Usually, actors would take about 2-3 days to reflect, but when Nyla confirmed on the spot, it was a major goosebump moment. She told us it’s the story she liked the most; she was strongly involved. Nyla not only got the character right but also treated the film as her own. She used to put in extra effort for a schedule that needed only 15-16 days, but she stayed for around a month. She also fervently promoted the film on social media, and that’s very humbling and rewarding for writers like us. She was one of our pillars.”