Revisiting Bangalore Days With Anjali Menon

Revisiting Bangalore Days With Anjali Menon

The director discusses the film’s legacy, the uniqueness of the bond of cousins and why the film has such a strong non-Malayali following

This week marks five years since the release of Anjali Menon's seminal Bangalore Days (2014), widely regarded as the definitive 'entry-point film' – the ideal first film through which to discover Malayalam cinema. A fact that Menon credits to content that connects beyond traditional audiences and effective subtitling which till then was a rarity.

Bangalore Days is celebrated as the film that got an entire generation of Malayalis to see themselves reflected onscreen. One that was in equal parts aspirational and entertaining as it was infinitely relatable in how it explored the struggles of tradition and restriction against modernization and freedom.

The tale of three cousins who arrive in Bangalore to follow their dreams, the film explored the unique bond of cousins strangely under-represented by Indian cinema, one which Menon calls a beautiful blend of friendship and family. As the title suggests, the film is an ode to the garden city of Bangalore which for Malayalis, Menon says, is like a city of dreams. A place of hope and freedom, distant enough from the traditions and limitations of Kerala but close enough to feel familiar and comfortable with the same South Indian values.

Despite being her second feature, for writer-director Menon, Bangalore Days was the film that put her on the map, as it went on to become one of the highest grossing Malayalam films of all time, with a glowing reception from critics and audiences alike. Among the film's most striking aspects is its stellar ensemble cast made up of a who's who of shining young stars from Malayalam cinema. From Dulquer Salmaan, Nivin Pauly, and Nazriya Nazim in lead roles to the likes of Parvathy, Fahadh Faasil, Isha Talwar and Nithya Menen in the wider cast. Looking back today, considering their body of work and how far they've all come since, that there was an ensemble film made with all of them in it is in itself pretty remarkable.

Over a phone conversation, Menon discusses the film's legacy, the uniqueness of the bond of cousins and why the film has such a strong non-Malayali following.

Edited excerpts:

It's been five years since the film released and Bangalore Days is not only your biggest hit, it's also your most beloved film. Do you feel the same? What's your relationship with the film?

(laughs) My general attitude to films is that once it's made and out there, then it's no longer mine. It's the audience's film. So, however small or big it is, it is what they have made of it. I have a very limited role to play after that.

There are films which are very well received when they release, and then there are those which find their audience over time and get appreciation later on. But for Bangalore Days it feels like both of those apply. Do you still get messages today from people who have discovered it for the first time?

Yes, yes, I still do. People who are not from Kerala, people from other countries, they see it for the first time, and they do respond. But what I find amazing is the number of times people have watched the film. It's quite crazy. On Asianet – which has the satellite rights – I believe it's been screened over 200 times. They've been showing it on one of their channels every week pretty much, for the longest time. That, for me, is a very special thing and I can't take credit for it. I don't think any of us can.

I have to ask how you pulled off that casting. You managed to get almost all of the most talented young stars of Malayalam cinema, all of whom have thriving careers today and you really can't imagine anyone else in those roles. How did that come about?

Frankly speaking, when we wrote the film, it was not supposed to be this 'film of stars'. I remember telling my producer that it's not a 'star-type' film. He asked who I had in mind and I told him and then he said, "frankly these are people who are going to become stars very soon." And the timing of the film was very fortunate because Nivin (Pauly) for example, had two huge blockbusters during the making of the film. When he joined he wasn't as big as he was by the end of the film. And after that, he followed it up with Premam (2015).

Dulquer (Salmaan) was the same. All of them were sort of, still turning that corner. I think, with Bangalore Days, many of us, including myself, turned a corner. And after that, the kind of projects we've done, the sort of scale has been different for all of the actors. I think it's really upped their game after that.

When I started to write it (Bangalore Days), I don't know how many drafts I'd done for that film. It's insane. I would have easily gone through 13-14 drafts. I was very unhappy with how things were shaping up, especially in the second half…I remember I had all my writing notes on my notice board and right in the middle, there was a note that said –'Where is the soul?'- I couldn't find the soul in the film.

Did you write it with them in mind?

When I wanted to make my next film after Manjadikuru, I was very clear it had to be a commercial film because I needed to make a good film, but it had to be something people would watch. As a filmmaker who has put their heart and soul into a film and not gotten it watched, I can't explain how heartbreaking that is. But this time, it was just very clear.

When I started to write it (Bangalore Days), I don't know how many drafts I'd done for that film. It's insane. I would have easily gone through 13-14 drafts. I was very unhappy with how things were shaping up, especially in the second half…I remember I had all my writing notes on my notice board and right in the middle, there was a note that said –'Where is the soul?'- I couldn't find the soul in the film.

We went ahead and we had very little resources to make a film of this scale, it was Anwar Rasheed's first film (as producer) as well so we had to gather all our resources to produce. The casting was done, everything was done and I was still not happy with the script. All of this was while caring for a two-year-old child.

And finally, our pre-production started, I was kind of given the time and space to work by myself. Till then, it was everything going on at the same time and somehow at that stage, I felt clarity about where the script should go. I turned to Anwar and my other HODs and said I think I want to do one more draft. Fortunately, they backed me up and I locked my script 14 days before we went to shoot.

What changes did you make?

The main changes were in the Aju-Sarah love story. Of course, every narrative changed. But in that final draft, everything came together much more. Till then, it was kind of standing apart. And simultaneously, I got this whole thing of wanting to put motocross in the film. And motocross racing is very rare in India and we don't see it anywhere. But there was no space to do it and there were not enough resources to stage the entire thing. Luckily we started shooting in December- and there was one motocross event in Pune in December. They gave us permission to shoot it and we went ahead and shot that race. A big part of the final race that you see in the film, is actually live.

What's unique about the film is it focuses on the bond of cousins, a dynamic rarely explored in Indian cinema. Why were you drawn to that relationship?

It's a beautiful relationship where you are kind of bound by blood but you're also friends. You understand each other's quirks. The genes you have may be very different but you are completely accepting of one another.

And what's interesting is you don't always meet your cousins. With a cousin, even if you don't call them for a while and then you pick up the phone and talk to them, it's okay, because, at the end of the day, you are family. With a friend, you have to be slightly more careful about dynamics and keeping in touch and all of that. I was actually amazed that there are no films exploring that area.

Another thing that really shines through is how comfortable all the actors appear to be around each other. I know that in Koode, to make the lead actors Prithviraj and Nazriya comfortable with each other, you made an iMessage Group. Did you do anything similar here for the cast of Bangalore Days?

The iMessage group is what gets talked about but besides that for every film I do, I have a workshop that involves all of the actors. For Bangalore Days we had it for a shorter term. For about 3 days we hung out together.

During the workshops, we discussed a lot of things that was personal to each actor that I brought into the script. I mean Nazriya is a girl who's grown up abroad, she's that typical gulf kid, so we brought that into Divya. Dulquer at some level has felt like a misfit in many ways and he's an automobile crazy guy so we brought that into his character. I can't imagine having those scenes with anybody else, because that level of passion is very difficult to find. Nivin actually has a background where he was a software engineer who was working in Infosys who chucked his job when his father died and came back to Kerala and became an actor.

Not only was it a massive hit among non-Malayali audience but for so many people, it's seen as the entry-point film for Malayalam cinema. The movie through which they discovered Malayalam cinema. Why do you think that is?

Firstly, I think it's something as simple as good English subtitles. I remember vouching to Anwar that subtitling will help the film reach non-Malayali audiences. At that point, some people had had them, but they were terribly done. But here, fortunately, we had content that was not purely Malayali and most people could relate to it. So the need is to just make it accessible to them. That happened through subtitles and through decent distribution outside of Kerala as well. When we released our trailer, that had subtitles also. Even our marketing pitch was 'bring your non-Malayali friends to watch this film'. We were very keen that our audience becomes our change agents, they became our amplifiers.

What I felt special about is when a whole lot of NRI parents called me and said "for the first time our children want to watch a Malayalam film because they feel they can connect to it.  My child, who refuses to be connected to any part of their culture, is taking their friends to the film to introduce their culture."

The film has got a lot of appreciation for its female characters but I was equally struck by the male characters – Shiva, Kuttan and Arjun, even Prithviraj in Koode are all so vulnerable and fragile. Zoya Akhtar once said she likes to write the kind of male characters she likes to see in the real world. Is that something you relate to?

These are the kind of men I think are there for real, as well. There are more men like this than the kind of alpha male you see on screen. I think it's high time that men got a fair portrayal. It's not just the women being wrongly portrayed, it's men as well. Because you're deifying a certain alpha male character which does not even exist. I mean, how many men do you see offscreen which are like those onscreen, and how many women do you see offscreen who are as limited? Most women are much tougher.

I think each of these characters, they have their flaws, they have their strengths, they have their vulnerabilities and I think each one is different. With Kuttan, he's vulnerable about his family and family home, but's sort of modelled on that new-age patriarch who holds everything together.

When Arjun is stressed about the race, a simple action of Kuttan just putting a toy there saying "we are with you", goes a long way. Kuttan is there when Nazriya leaves her husband and goes home, but there's no way in the world that he would know unless Arjun told him. Without even being there, Arjun is there.

One thing I struggled with when I watched it was the way Shiva treated Divya initially in their marriage. Was it a challenge to find the right level of resentful and morose while still keeping him sympathetic? 

Fahadh's is actually the most complex character. He is the character who knows everything about Shiva even while being Das, so all of the actions of Das are actually justified if you know Shiva's story. I think I give Fahadh a lot of credit for that because he's someone who's very tempered in his performances and he's a very instinctive performer. but you will hardly ever catch him overdoing it. So that was very important, to have an actor who does not overdo it. The biggest thing about Das is he's a very honourable guy. There's a nobility to him that was very important whether he was Shiva or Das and that nobility is something that I think Fahadh has exuded well in the character. He's somebody that once he gets that he really latches onto it and that makes it easy.

So much of the film for me is about perception. How people see you as vs what you are and nowhere is that more apparent than in Arjun's character – He starts out looking like he is the person everyone else has to take care of, but over the course of the film, it becomes clear that he is actually the strong one. Why is that? Is it because he doesn't have the shackles of pressure or expectations?

Arjun's background is that he is from a broken family. His parents are apart and he's definitely suffered because of that. So, for him, the family he chooses are Divya and Kuttan. They are his family, not anybody else. They are the ones who accept him completely, even when everybody else rejects him. And Arjun has always been misread in many ways, simply because of his nature. He isn't the most secure person, he is not the most vocal person. But his nicest side comes out with Kuttan and Divya.

Now, when he meets Sarah, he's very intrigued by her. In her, he finds the things that he desires; a certain kind of warmth, a certain kind of security, and that she is actually more sorted than he is. Which is why he is so drawn to her. Her energy is not a flippant, frivolous energy. It's a very grounded, earthed energy. And just like Divya and Kuttan have no biased lens to view him, he has no biased lens to view Sarah. He sees the beauty in her.

Is there any one memory from shooting the film that stands out? Is there one scene that you enjoyed shooting the most?

I think the part I really enjoyed most was shooting the wedding song Maangalyam.

Because we'd finished our shoot and this was towards the end of the schedule and everybody had taken a break and gone home. And all of us were missing the set so much, that when everyone came back on set for the song, they were all just dying to be those characters and jump back into those equations. So it was a real celebration. We were all meeting after 10-days maybe, but it just felt great to all be together once again. By the end of it, I was dancing with them on the set. It was wonderful.

The brief given to the actors was "please do not dance as if you know your steps. Keep it natural. Just be regular guys and girls". We didn't have too many rehearsals it was all done on the day and literally jumped into doing it and I think the spirit of it really carried through.