Irony stands tall when you look closely at director Ranjith's career graph. Spanning three decades, Ranjith (often equated with Padmarajan) has written films in every conceivable genre, created intriguing women and men on screen, given Mohanlal and Mammootty some of their career-defining roles, and scripted powerful stories that have stood the test of time. Yet today, he is labelled the creator of the ultimate alpha male heroes (Neelakandan, Induchoodan, Madhavan Kutty, Sreehari, Jagannathan), characters that are glorified and eulogised for their machismo and misogyny.
But Ranjith, being as audacious and articulate as his on-screen heroes, typically brushes it aside, maintaining that they were all well-written characters that just happened to become widely popular. His next release Drama, starring Mohanlal, is a much-awaited film despite his recent failures (Puthan Panam, Loham). Excerpts from an interview:
What was the thought that led to Drama?
For that, I would probably have to reveal the entire story and I have no intention of doing that right now. All I can say is that it's a story set in London, which is about events that take place in a span of five days. You can call it a comedy family drama or a serious topic presented satirically.
When do you feel the need to make a film?
It always begins with a subject that inspires or intrigues me…or at times a production house approaches me. It can also be a combination of these two things.
Your association with Mohanlal dates back to Orkapurathu(1988), the first film you scripted for him. Has the equation changed over these years?
Not at all. We understand each other without having to say much. Lal has the same infectious energy and enthusiasm I saw in him on the sets of his first film. The dedicated actor in him has remained unchanged, despite his humongous popularity. He still approaches cinema like a newcomer.
Has social media made you more cautious as a director and writer, considering how every detail on screen is viewed through a microscope?
I cannot make a film fearing Facebook backlash. I have never worked that way. Sometimes, opinions change even from the noon show to the first show. I like to make a film in all its honesty and not worry about the results. Ideally, that's how every filmmaker should be.
Do you realise that social media reviews today have the power to make or break a film?
True, but we can't really stop anyone from writing what they think. And I don't even have a Facebook account, not that I take it as a credit. So I am not part of social media discussions. I usually ask my friends for their opinions and unless a film is unbearable, I try to watch most new releases. I am a viewer who likes to watch a film without any prejudice or pre-conceived notions.
Till date, I have never watched a film after reading reviews. I even beg my friends to not a narrate the story as it kills the experience. What the film communicates to me is how I decide whether I like it or not.
In Koode, there is a scene where the otherwise mellow Aloshy (Ranjith's character in the film) firmly orders Parvathy's brothers to stay out of the house. It seemed like a shout-out to all your alpha male heroes. Was it your suggestion?
That was Anjali's. I take my shot, ask her if it was ok and that's it. I am a reluctant actor and I don't really enjoy it. I only agree if I am comfortable with the director and if they know their stuff. I introspect and ask if I would cast myself in that role and 99% of the time, I realise I wouldn't. If I had been in Anjali's shoes, Aloshy would have been done by another actor for sure.
You started in 1988 (scripting Maymasapulariyil) and Drama is your 20th film as a director. What are the changes you see in Malayalam cinema today?
Earlier we had those who worked in cinema for years, biding their time to become directors. But anyone can make a film today and there are many youngsters who have proved this. Earlier, one had to cross several hurdles to make it in cinema. Now, you just need to discuss it with a few friends.There are production houses that are prepared to fund the kind of cinema you want to make.
But there are times when one wonders if they're just one-film wonders. Can they come up with better subjects and experiment with genres? I'm not too sure.
Do you think today's films don't have much recall value?
I can't comment on that, but what I see is a shift in conventions—be it in casting or music. Earlier, a production house would sign a director according to his track record. There was a preference for established actors, musicians, or technicians. Like an 'Amma' character would only be done by one or two actors. Today's cinema doesn't require conventional faces. Perhaps it's the same thought that made Anjali Menon cast me for Koode. This revolution really started in Tamil cinema.
When we talk about popular Malayalam cinema, why do we still pick films from the 80s and early 90s?
It's probably because today's youngsters might feel they missed out on watching those films in theatres. Don't we still revisit old movies by Clint Eastwood and David Lean? We look back at that era with awe, wondering how they produced such fine films with minimum fuss.
Even the concept of acting is being redefined today. It's about behaving rather than acting.
One reason is that today's filmmakers aren't creating complex, dramatic situations on screen. Earlier, relationships were more layered and intricate—there was a father, mother, grandparents, uncles and aunts in every story. Today's children have no communication beyond the immediate family—bonds aren't as complex or strong. They interact more with friends and those outside the family. The spaces they occupy are always outside the home. Even curfew timings have been extended. The young don't fear their family. They have created a lingo of their own, and it's all reflected in the cinema they make. Today's youngsters aren't influenced by literature as we were. They are only influenced by cinema.
Would you agree that the 80s was the golden age in Malayalam cinema?
We can't really sum it up that way. Everything depends on our socio-political milieu. Every generation has a different idea of a golden era in Malayalam cinema. Ultimately, it's a myth.
You never repeat genres. Is it a deliberate attempt?
It's about what fascinates or inspires me—Drama is the latest. I can't predict what I might do next. After Ravanaprabhu, I did Nandanam which was considered a big risk. We pooled in our money to make that film and people thought I was mad to make a film with new actors and a fictitious Guruvayurappan.
I bet you were constantly pressurised to repeat certain kind of films. Shaji Kailas wanted you to make another Narasimham…
True, but then I wouldn't be what I am today if I had done that.
Do you still stand by all the alpha male heroes you created, which are now being criticised for their glorification of misogyny?
I like all the characters I have created and I don't want to carry them forward. Let youngsters talk.
Can you name some of the characters that are close to your heart?
I am partial towards Kaiyoppu's Balachandran (Mammootty), Spirit's Raghunandanan (Mohanlal), and Indian Rupee's JP (Prithviraj).
How would you define a strong female character?
Devasuram's Bhanumati is the strongest female character I have ever created. Thirakatha's Malavika comes a close second.
Do you still improvise your scripts on the sets?
I have been improvising since I started directing. The thing is, after two or three days, once you've seen the way actors portray the characters, you feel like changing certain scenes. It's difficult to blindly follow the script. I need to keep changing and rewriting.
You have crafted some of the most popular and powerful roles for Mammootty and Mohanlal. Do you think they should slow down and be picky?
I wouldn't want them to restrict the number of films. But I feel they should be part of sensible cinema. They should pick a role only they can pull off…that's the best deal for them and the audience.
Are you a writer who prefers solitude while penning films?
Never! I can never do solo writing journeys. If a cinema forms in my mind, it isn't necessary that people around me listen to it. I can write sitting anywhere—even in the middle of a crowd and still be able to infuse 'life' into the script. But I might not be able to write a single word if I am thrown into an isolated space. Silence is death!
Are you emotionally attached to your characters?
Only till the film gets made. The only time I became emotional was during Mohanlal's character's death in Mayamayooram. That was a painful experience for me. Otherwise I am detached from everything.
How do you handle success and failures?
I have heard that one of the most difficult things in the world to handle is success. Failure is easier. Since I have encountered both, it doesn't matter. All that matters after a failure or success is how I make my next film.