Edited excerpts from an interview between Vishal Menon and the three leads of Bheemante Vazhi — Megha Thomas, Divya S Nair and Chinnu Chandni:
Vishal: One of the major discoveries for me while watching Bheemante Vazhi was the casting of you, Divya, as the councillor. We've all seen you in many films before, but never in such a role. Why did it take so long for you to finally find such a lovely character?
Divya: Actually, no one gave me such a character. When Chemban (Vinod Jose) narrated the role to me, I wasn't even sure I could do it because it's a very strong character. The councillor is someone who has to travel right through with Kunchacko (Boban) because they have the same aim — to build the road. But I didn't want to miss out on such a role. More than me, I feel Chemban had more confidence that I could pull it off. I did not know Ashraf (Hamsa), the director, but when I met him, I felt he was a paavam. That was another reason I was confident to take it up because I knew he wouldn't shout at me even if I make mistakes (laughs). More than my effort, I feel it's everyone's help that contributed to the completion of my character. It took me a couple of days to fall into the groove but then it all worked out. Another reason for this is how the crew managed to create the feeling that all of us are a part of a family, which is rare.
Why do you call it a family? Is it because of the time you guys spent together or the effort of the crew to create that level of comfort among actors?
Megha: I think I can chip in to answer that. Usually, in film sets we all return to our own respective rooms once our shots are completed. But our set was so jolly because every cast and crew member were all staying together. I mean the entire crew, starting from the production department to everyone, was staying at one resort. Even though we were working together, it felt as though we were all growing together. From the time we wake up every morning, we had that spirit that we were all making something together and it didn't feel like work.
In our chat, I noticed all three of you mentioning the script reads before you went to the location. I'm assuming that this means that all the actors met at one particular place to read the script together, almost like how it happens in sitcoms in the West. As actors, how did the script-read help you in your performance?
Divya: For a lot of us, the script-read was when we met a lot of co-actors for the first time. I had not met Megha and Chinnu before this. When we meet all the actors at the table, we get an idea of who is playing which character. When you're simply reading the script, it's hard to put a face to it especially when you're not aware of that actor. I have played small roles in several films where I wasn't even given the full script. Someone will call me, give me a small one-line narration and give me a rough idea of what my scenes are. I hardly get a context of where I'm placed and it all finally adds up only when I watch the final film. Script reads are a huge advantage for us as actors then. It's like we know how the film will play out and it's also like a solid ice breaking session. When we also stay together, there's even more clarity about the bigger picture because we're interacting with other actors even if we don't have a scene to shoot. We get to watch the monitor, we see how the director is thinking and all this leads to a lot of learning. That's why we have chemistry as a whole cast and not just between two or three actors. It helped me a lot to become my character.
I need to reuse the word chemistry because this is also a film about neighbours. It's not something that happens between five or six people. So even if your scene is with a small character, you still need to have a history because, at the end of the day, you both are neighbours. It needs to give us the feeling that everyone knows everyone else for many years. Did the script reads contribute to that?
Megha: Exactly. In another film, you're meeting your co-actors for a scene on that day. So it's only during lunch breaks that you get to speak to them. Because all of us met during the script reads, that level one of comfort had already been created. We know who we are going to work with and in which scenes. The first day I joined the sets was on the 31st of December and we started out with the new year's party. This made it very easy for me to fit in.
Chinnu: I think the best use of script-reads was how it was being read to us by its writer Chemban and director Ashraf together. As they read the script, they pause and give us elaborate back stories for each of these characters. When a director gives us a brief on the sets, he's only giving us our backstory and not anyone else's. But during the script read, we know everyone else's backstories as well. Kostheppu (Jinu George), the film's villain, was described to us as 'verum oola ayitulla oru manushyan' (the shadiest person there) (Laughs). The same way, Rita was described as a strong woman who will never back down from an argument. This helps us understand individual equations between characters. "Does my character like this neighbour", "What's my history with the doctor?" All these are questions that get answered on their own. We also stayed together, all of us started to pitch in to help a fellow actor if they got stuck. It makes the actor's life easy. Usually when we go past the five retakes, the whole crew and cast gets tired. But since we all know each other, it's like a team rather than an individual effort.
Did it help you too, Divya?
Divya: Adding onto what Chinnu was saying, we had that clarity in our performances because we knew each equation. For instance, in a scene with multiple characters, you might not know how to react or where to look when one particular person is talking. That's because we don't know who he or she is for my character. In other films, I've had to correct my director and remind him that my character is angry with a particular character at that point. As we spend more time together, we know if I need to be friendly, neutral or antagonistic to every character in the film. This contributes to the smallest of things like a look or the way one raises the eyebrows when someone else is speaking.
In a way, isn't it like an early rehearsal of the play you're going to be performing?
Divya: Of course but even then, the final outcome is still surprising to us when we see it. Edits keep changing and even the timelines criss-cross to produce different results. Some dialogues are muted out to be used in the song montage. In other places, I noticed how three or four scenes were shrunk to just one minimal montage to create the love story between characters.
Finally, what were some of the best reactions you got for the role you've done in this?
Divya: I've done 23 films before this, apart from web series, ads, serials and more. But I've never received the number of calls or messages as I have for this. They start with how much they liked the film and after that, it's all about how much they liked my character in it. That has not happened to me before this. It's like all my years of struggle have finally borne fruit. It's validation after so many years of working hard. No one has even said "you have done a good job" before this.