When Premam released five years ago, the saga of love swept the audience away. Its leads George (Nivin Pauly), Mary (Anupama), Malar (Sai Pallavi) and Celine (Madonna Sebastian), and the accompanying characters of Shambu, Koya, Vimal and Shivan Sir became part of everyone's lives. In a long conversation, director Alphonse Putharen revisits his ode to love.
Congratulations on '5 Years Of Premam'. Does it feel like a big thing or do you just not care about it?
Thank you. Once the mango is out of the tree, the tree can't worry much about it. If the seed grows into a tree, good. Similarly, Premam was a hit, and I am happy that people like it.
What are you making next? There are rumours about a Tamil film, one in Hindi and a musical…
I was to do a musical with Kalidas Jayaram. But, unfortunately, it took a lot of time and Kalidas didn't have dates because he had 10 films lined up. I suggested he proceed with those rather than wait for one film of mine. I then went to Dharma Productions to meet Karan Johar and Phantom Films to meet Anurag Kashyap. Karan wanted me to remake Premam with Varun Dhawan. But, I am from Kerala and the culture in Bombay is entirely different from the South. I don't relate to that, and to write Premam for a Hindi audience, this is important. It is just not about love but also about feelings of a person from that culture. So I dropped the plan. They have the rights and I don't know who is directing it. I later wanted to do a Tamil film with Mammootty and Arun Vijay, but because the budget was high, that didn't work out too. Right now, I am learning music from online sources. My next is a musical but I still haven't met an actor who wishes to be a musician as well.
You haven't spoken to the press after Premam…
Yes, that's true. After Premam, when an interviewer asked me if I had leaked the censor copy of the film, I shouted at him. Post that, no one has come to me. It could be because they think I am a rude guy.
What is the headspace of a person who delivers a massive blockbuster like Premam? You wouldn't have anticipated this kind of success when you wrote the film. Does it add pressure for your next to be bigger and better?
Yes. Every work should be better than the previous one. I wanted Premam to be better than Neram and I want my next to be better than Premam. I am learning a lot of aspects in films right now for my next film. I want my audience to be happy after seeing it.
Do you keep the audience in mind while writing a film or do you write what makes you happy?
When I write, I might end up writing only what appeals to me, but that might not make much sense. Those are the times when I seek the opinion of my friends or others who love to read scripts. When my wife likes the script, I know female audiences might like it too… that's how I go about it. Also during shoot, I give my actors the liberty to perform in their way.
I mean this very positively. In your films, the content of the scenes would seem ordinary but after the edit, it transforms into something beautiful. For example, the scene where Nivin Pauly gestures to Sai Pallavi to look up at her name written above in chalk….
The beauty of it is in the structure and location. If we weren't able to shoot the college portions at UC College in Aluva, we probably couldn't make the film. The college is very old and was built by foreigners. This scene was added on the spot. We later even got complaints for erasing what was already there and writing 'Malar.'
Do you remember what you had in the original song's screenplay?
It was Nivin passing by the staffroom and them looking at each other. But the structure of the college was such that the classroom was right opposite the staffroom. Hence, it was improvised on the set. The beauty comes with the location.
So the screenplay is a loose blueprint and you work with actors on the sets to improvise?
In Neram, I strictly stuck to the screenplay, but in Premam, it was like a butterfly.
How do you approach change?
(Laughs) It is like a software update. I have to grow to be in the business.
But what you said about your first film is entirely opposite to this. You said that you had nothing new to offer…
That was me being sarcastic. For my first film, I claimed that this is the first film in the world that has nothing new to offer. This is my kind of selling. If the audience watches and feels something special, I am happy. But I don't want to speak too much and disappoint them later.
Neram began with a Thank You note that said, "To all my ex-girlfriends, especially the last one." Can we take that something from your personal life is there in Neram and Premam?
(Laughs) I was angry at that point in time. But I am grateful and happy that they all left me, else I wouldn't have met my wife. My life would've been horrible, and I wouldn't have been a filmmaker.
Most films are about a man achieving his goal, or more often about his journey. Neram was very structured. Can you explain the process of writing Premam?
After writing Premam, I sent it to the producer and he asked me if I was in some old space, with the hero forgetting the heroine and all that. But after watching the film he told me that it worked and that he cried while watching those scenes. Like you said, it is in the making and presentation of the script. In films we have the liberty to make people act, there is music, sound, art direction and so much more. I wanted Premam to be like a poem.
My favourite cut away is that of an ant when they first see Anupama's character at the coolbar…
In the location, there are a lot of things. There was a wall with payal (water weed) and the wall was near the coolbar. We shot that as well and brought it all together in the edit.
Does this kind of approach increase the shooting time of a film?
No. If you're aware and attentive and want every bit to be covered, you are always shooting. Neram was bilingual and I finished shooting both the films in 52 days. For Premam, I took 70 days split into three schedules, including the time taken for the characters to lose weight, grow a moustache and all that.
When you had a story about a man going through three phases of his love life, were you concerned that it'd be compared to Cheran's Autograph?
Yes, I was very concerned and I didn't release the trailer. If I had, then comparisons would've been made with Autograph and people may not have come to theatres. So, I only released two songs and people enjoyed the film. Cheran sir called me after watching Premam and he was happy. Autograph was more about his way of telling an autobiography but Premam, like the title suggests, is about love.
This is probably the first time a Malayalam film had such a simple title for love, Premam…
(Laughs) During her auditions Madonna Sebastian asked me if I was going to name the film Premam. She said it sounded too simple. My producer felt this was the best title ever. When we went to register the name in the Producer's Council, the name had not been taken before. The same happened with Neram as well.
When you were writing the script, did you feel that Malar would be a big hit?
Not really. I expected Vinay Forrt and Soubin Shahir's characters to be the highlight. They are the ones who gave the entire buildup for Malar teacher, and that actually led to her popularity. It is a screenplay idea. If you take off these two characters, it becomes a dull love story.
Tell us about your tuning with Nivin. He's your longtime friend and is there in both your films…
Nivin was the producer of Neram's short film in 2009 but didn't act in it. He just wanted me to grow and become a filmmaker. I then worked with him in a short called Eli, which was shot in 2011 but released in 2016. Then came the album Nenjodu Cherthu with Nazriya, and later Neram happened. But he wasn't the first choice. For Tamil, it was Jai, but he was very busy and didn't pick my calls. Then we fixed Vaibhav, and that didn't work out as well. The producer then saw Nenjodu Cherthu and suggested I make the film with the same leads. In Premam, producer Anwar Rasheed and I wanted to cast Dulquar Salmaan. But because of my personal connect with Nivin, we went ahead with him.
You wear three hats: that of a writer, director and editor. Which of these comes best to you?
I am a bad writer and a better editor. I am not a good director too, but I guess I balance that with my editing skills.
The rhythm of Premam is very beautiful and so is the Ding-Dong trailer's (Super Deluxe) music. Are you strong in music?
I am just beginning to learn music. I am a good listener and since I know editing, that helps me.
While editing Premam, were you listening to some music?
I used to at most times. And Rajesh (music director) would send me some good music as well.
Is it necessary to be possessed by an idea to make a good film? Like for Premam, it'd have been 30% screenplay and then you trusted your instincts because you aren't following a strict screenplay…
You need to love your film, and that will save you.
In Neram, you've a very interesting character of a world cinema instructor. Are you heavily into world cinema?
Yes. They were the ones to start experimenting with films. I learned sincerity from world cinema.
I review Malayalam films from outside of Malayalam culture. I am a Tamilian. But when I praise Malayalam films, Malayalees say that new generation Malayalam filmmakers are not rooted in Kerala and, hence, outsiders enjoy their works. What is your take on this?
There is no actor to compare with Sivaji Ganesan and Kamal Haasan in the Tamil film industry today. The same is the case in Malayalam as well. Similarly, you cannot compare filmmakers from the past with ones today. I can not attempt what Sathyan Anthikad did and I am not as capable. But, in the future, I'll grow to be better than what I am today.
Give me five recent Malayalam films that you've enjoyed.
Kumbalangi Nights had many good characters. I liked Ayyapanum Koshiyum, Rakshadhikari Baiju, Driving License and Porinju Mariam Jose in Malayalam. In Tamil there was Thadam, Pettah and Viswasam. I am not a jury film fan. I am just like any normal audience.