As I wrote in the best films of the year list, Malayalam cinema had one of its best years in a long time, mostly due to the delightful number of small films that were released, both in theatres and in OTT. In this Malayalam directors round table, Senna Hegde (Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam), Rojin Thomas (#Home), Chidambaram (Jan-E-Man), Jude Anthany Joseph (Sara's), George Kora (Thirike) and Ranjith Sankar (Sunny) discuss rootedness of their films, filmgoing as a community experience and how they choose the films they watch in their free time.
Vishal: Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam is successful in bringing something new to the table. There are barely any films set in Kasargod. In terms of its context, its actors and the dialect of Malayalam they speak in, your film is the first of its kind. As someone who has both insider and outsider perspectives to the Malayalam film industry, why do you think it took so long for a film like yours to be made?
Senna: Leave films aside, I don't think we've been recognised as anything else also as part of the state. Films come last. We don't even have hospitals in the whole district and have to head to Mangalore for this. Especially now, in the times of Covid-19, there's been concern over how inaccessible treatment has been in the district. Considering all the other problems we face, recognition in the film industry has hardly been a priority.
Aside from that, Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam is getting a lot of appreciation largely because it's rooted in Kanhangad. We've made the film locally with an unfamiliar cast. But as far as talent is concerned, lots of people from Kasargod have made it big in the Malayalam film industry. Probably, they've not made a movie rooted in Kasargod.
We've always been the butt of all jokes in Malayalam films. Watch any old film and you'll see people getting transferred to Kasargod as a punishment. This happens even today. Just 3- years ago, I read about an incident that happened at a toll booth somewhere in Palakkad. A policeman manhandled a driver. The next thing I know this policeman gets transferred to Kasargod. It still happens!
We've only seen the district in this light, so with a film like Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam, a lot of the credit we're getting is due to our new perspective on the place and its people.
Regarding why I made a film in Kasargod, it's mostly about comfort. I'm quite lazy and I don't like going far away from home. Home has proven to be the perfect setting for my film and I found a producer who was willing to invest in it. We made it with a well-thought out plan and finished making the film within the allotted budget. It was a risky film to make but at some point we had to take a risk. Luckily, it worked out well for us and the film was a success.
People keep asking me where I found the actors for my film. They think these actors are newcomers I discovered and I get a lot of credit for their performance. But the truth is that while these actors might be new in front of the camera, they're all actors. All of them have a theatre background. All of them are fantastic actors in their own right. Our lead actor has a substantial theatre background. A lot of the younger actors have participated in state-level youth festivals and other events. In terms of talent, there's plenty of it. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and managed to explore the potential they already had in them.
George: I think the "Made in Kanhangad" tag is Senna sir's signature. Years ago, I came across a trailer on Facebook that blew my mind. Both the people in it and the world captured in the trailer was new to me. I did end up finding its director, Senna Hegde, on Facebook and messaging him. The trailer was for a film titled 0-41*. It's one of my most favourite trailers in Malayalam. But to this day, I haven't been able to see the film.
Vishal: You've made films both in Malayalam and Kannada. Which industry do you think provides an ecosystem that supports small-scale films better? Have you found any differences between the industries in terms of their contribution to making a film successful?
Senna: My primary interest has always been Malayalam. I grew up watching Malayalam films from the eighties and nineties. All my filmmaking has been influenced by it. It just so happens that my dad is from Kerala and my mom from Karnataka. I suck in both languages. I'm an outsider to both industries. I kind of knew Rakshit Shetty and so Katheyondu Shuruvagide came together in Kannada.
I think smaller films like mine are much more accepted in the Malayalam film industry. There's potential in this industry in that a small movie with a good story can do well here because of our film-going culture. Through word-of-mouth people arrive at the theatres to watch a new film. While the ritual of entire families heading to a movie theatre every week has started waning, a culture persists in the industry that supports small films and good content.
Vishal: I would call Jan.E.Man the most important Malayalam film to have released in 2021. There is a certain hope this film provides. When a film like Kurup is a box office hit, you know that stardom continues to reign. But when Jan.E.Man goes ahead and becomes such a big success, you feel good because the roots of cinema are still alive. In the tradition of Ramji Rao Speaking (1989), Jan.E.Man too has triumphed through word-of-mouth and the audience championing it. Once they've watched this film, people are determined to make others watch it. Looking back at its release on a packed Friday with three other films, how do you view Jan.E.Man's success?
Chidambaram: I'm still unsure how it all worked out. Theatre owners called me and said they were happy about the sound of children crying in theatres — which is a very lost thing these days. Word of mouth was good. Nearly everyone who has watched the film has taken the time to write a few words about it or asked their friends and family to go see it. I owe my film's success to this.
While the first two days after release weren't too good, the film was picked up by audiences in the coming week. It's just as new to me as it is to you. Maybe I'm just lucky or maybe the time was right. Maybe people really missed watching ordinary films in the theatres. Films that would make them laugh. Films they could watch without stress.
Vishal: How do you seek out films to watch? It is always hardcore dramas and psychological thrillers that you seek out or do also look out for films like Jan.E.Man that makes the audience happy? What are your film-viewing habits like?
Senna: I watch Die Hard 1, 2, 3 literally every week and it's my absolute favourite. That's my go-to film, while I'm having lunch or something. I like films that are simple and make me laugh.
Ranjith: Basically, I like to watch all types of films. There's no particular genre drawing me in. On OTT platforms, unfortunately, we always go by stars. The sad reality is that, if I were to look at a Marathi or Telugu film, even as a filmmaker, I only identify films by the stars in them. This is why they commission star films and we can't blame them. Even more than they seek out films by a specific director, people seek out the actor's films. This is particularly true of regional language films.
Sometimes, I try at least ten films a day. Not that I watch all of them. I try watching one film for half an hour. If it doesn't engage me, I move on to the next one. Even before the lockdowns and quarantines were imposed on us, I was very much a homebody. It is only when I make films that I'm engaged.
I too enjoyed Jan.E.Man, primarily because it was a theatre release and it gave so much confidence to the trade. It convinced filmmakers that you can make a small film and have it work with the audience. This is a big message for the industry going forward. For every filmmaker now, it is always an option to make a modest film that will win at the box office. This is the beauty of the Malayalam film industry and I like to believe it's a very good thing. I hope it continues that way.