Acclaimed filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellissery has been in the headlines for his first collaboration with actor Mohanlal in the fantasy epic Malaikottai Vaaliban. The director, who is known for Ee.Ma.Yau (2018) and Churuli (2021), has carried forward his legacy of experimental films despite collaborating with the bigger stars. In 2023, he made the acclaimed Nanpakkal Nerathu Mayakkam with Mammootty, which fetched the latter the Best Actor award at the Kerala State Film Awards.
Pellissery’s Malaikottai Vaaliban, however, was not welcomed with open arms upon release. Although positioned as an action saga of a warrior in the past, the film seemed to enter into fantasy territory and had an episodic structure that travelled with Mohanlal’s Vaaliban across his various bouts with other warriors. Besides the fable-like structure, Pellissery’s signature pacing also drew criticism.
While a sequel was teased in the film, the director had previously mentioned that it would be tough to begin the work on a sequel if the audiences did not receive the film well. Having seen multiple failures in his career, Lijo Jose Pellissery sits down with Vishal Menon to discuss the process behind making the epic film and how he has come to deal with failure and criticisms over the years.
Edited excerpts below.
Malaikottai Vaaliban is a usual story that's been brewing in your head in some form or the other for 20-30 years. How does it work, when without thinking about the budget and scale, you concentrate only on the innocence of these ideas?
It’s born out of the desire to make something nice and fresh, without worrying about whether something like this would work or not. So many things are derived that way. Malaikottai Vaaliban was derived into whatever shape it is today by gathering a lot of fragments and small things, which I have gathered from my childhood. Be it a film, a book, or a fable my grandmother once told me. So it's a total of all those stories I have heard from across the globe. I was exposed to those kinds of stories and images in my mind right from my childhood. Say a story like “Amar Chitra Katha”, or like the myth of “Thacholy Odayanan” which you read through pictures gives you an idea about a hero who is larger than life and is a saviour for his people. Back in the day, these kinds of figures used to be a central part of comics and all those are part of the world of Maiaikottai Vaaliban.
During the making of Angamaly Diaries (2017) and Ee.Ma.Yau, you always talked about the organic ease of making things up. But when you are making such a big film, where almost every frame ends up looking like a painting, is there a space for you to try things out on the go?
I don't know if I will be able to explain it well, but we shot Vaaliban also like that. Along with my cinematographer, we added ideas and came up with colour palettes on the go. The character stylings and the way they moved were all done on the spot. So the organic process still remains the same. It's not to say that I don't have a preconceived plan as to how to shoot scenes and stage moments but all that could change when we are on the actual sets.
It all depends on what we have to communicate in that particular scene. All the technicians and actors will add their suggestions and inputs to the scenes. So I feel that the director is just a vision designer, It's the design that we create and everyone else comes in and contributes to that vision. So we added a lot of stuff to the existing vision.
In Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam and Malaikottai Vaaliban, you have tried to stage it like a play consciously. But for me, it's fascinating to think about your childhood. You got your immense love for films from your grandfather and your love for theatre and rehearsals from your father. But was there a stage when you went to the path of cinema instead of theatre?
Nothing like that. I used to be obsessed with both mediums back in the day. But in my college days, I used to be more inclined towards drama and theatre. I picked cinema because I wanted to tell larger stories and see my ideas on the bigger screen. Cinema as a medium combines all these art forms. We can bring our drama to the audience, and we can bring in the musical aspect. We can bring every single aspect of an art piece to cinema and make it look like a painting. Most of the time, it’s about experimenting with the idea of how to portray things on screen rather than what I am going to do next.
When you commit to a concept that takes two or three years of your life, does that feel hard?
No, I don't think that I am someone who strains too much to make films. My process is not that. I already have many films I want to make and stories I want to tell. That is why when someone approaches me to pitch a story, I usually don't encourage it that much. I am someone who is genuinely aspiring to tell those stories and it’s my passion. So I have not felt that it's too much of an exhausting task. After completing one film, I try to move on to my next film. This is what I do and this is what I like. So I am only thinking about that and nothing else.
What is your relationship with the audience? Earlier you had mentioned that there is a welcoming change in their patience to take in the work on its own terms.
For me, it's not primarily about creating a relationship with the audience but I feel that post-COVID-19 and floods, people were nice to each other. We started smiling at each other and treating others well. We started sharing things. But suddenly we got back into such a phase where people are fueled by a sense of hatred. It's back to a pure sense of hatred where people are hurling insults at each other now. It's almost like watching the climax scenes of Jallikattu (2019) when I see the way Vaaliban is being discussed among the viewers for the last few days. I sincerely don't know what to make of all this.
I don't think directors are supposed to be people who live up to certain expectations. I think it should be our major concern to enhance and better the visual sensibility of each audience member through our films. So I will club different forms of visual narratives. According to me, this is a balancing act between the regular audience's expectations and seeing cinema as a piece of art. That element is explicitly present in Vaaliban. It's not something made for a one-week discourse, right? It's for prosperity. So that’s what I believe in. Let it brew and let people come up with their own takes as time passes. I believe that it will work over a period of time.
Was it the level of viciousness in the reviews bothering you?
When we make a film, it's all by design. How the story is being told and how the characters will guide the plot and all those elements come under the vision of the director, so the responsibility comes to me. When we are creating something for the people, I am making my version of the film that I saw in my head. But when viewers come in and say things like, “That should not have happened like that in the screenplay,” or “That character should not have spoken like that,” you are commenting on the version of the film in your head. That’s not my version of Vaaliban. That is not my film, that is the film you are talking about.
So when you start considering your disagreements or differences of opinion with the film as a binding truth, it is not the right way to go about things. That is your opinion. If you had made that film, that would be the kind of film that would have turned out, but when I make this film, this is how it will be. I saw people discussing that this might just be the worst film ever made in the history of Malayalam cinema, which was being welcomed by a section of the viewers to my surprise. My thing is it's not that big a deal. People need not get so worked up about these things. It's okay, just relax. We have strived to give you a good film.
And finally, after 20 years when you look back at Vaaliban (about which I have already changed my opinion since the second watch), irrespective of whether it becomes a classic or gets forgotten, what will be your relation with the film?
I tend to not bother too much with the past or think too much about the future. Let me be in the present. This is what I am seeing in the theatres now and I am watching the reactions closely.