George Kora has been a part of the Malayalam film industry since his acting debut as George in Premam, five years ago. His latest outing Thirike, which streams on Neestream of The Great Indian Kitchen, re-introduces him as an actor. There's a lot of buzz about the film, and George too. Which is good, because the most common question George has faced in the last five years is, "Evideyo kanditundalo" (I have seen you somewhere).
His latest outing Thirike is a story of brotherhood and TikTok star Gopi Krishnan, who has Down's Syndrome, plays the elder brother. Thirike releases on Neestream on February 26. Excerpts from a conversation between Meera Venugopal and the actor, who has also written and co-directed the film with Sam Xavier.
Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela, Last Day of Summer and now Thirike… What motivates you to tell real stories?
It is the sense of wanting to make very honest films. I always gravitate towards films that you can keep in a small video library in your homes, and the ones that you feel like revisiting every now and then. Those are the kinds of films that I aspire to make as well.
Njandukalude and Thirike could have been hard-hitting films considering their theme, but you chose to narrate them in a feel-good way…
I am somebody who tries to see the sunshine in sad situations, or say, the humour in the tragedy. It's just a coincidence that both Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela and Thirike deal with sensitive topics, and that they are my first two films.
We are very used to seeing actors play differently-abled characters. How did Gopi's casting come about?
I had written a story about four years ago. Like everyone else, I wanted to make a film with big superstars. But things didn't work out, and the industry had other plans for me. I then decided to do something smaller and more personal, which we could crowdfund. Thirike is like a manifestation of how it would be had I had a brother.
When I started searching for an actor to play Ismu's character, I got in touch with a lot of mentors, doctors and support groups, and I finally contacted Dr Shaji of Baby Memorial Hospital, Kozhikode, who is one of the authoritative voices for Down's Syndrome in South India. I narrated the story and he loved it. However, he told me that of the ten thousand kids he was mentoring, he only had one face in mind. He told me to not ask for a second option.
'Ente jeevan poyi (I was half dead) because I was like, do I just have one option for this?' He soon sent Gopi's TikTok videos and I was instantly floored because he had a spark, and I knew that he was born for this. In a couple of weeks, his parents came to Kochi with him, and we immediately bonded. I tweaked the script a bit to match his personality and pattern of speech. There's this line that I wrote at the beginning, which says, "Let's not sympathise, let's celebrate" and that is the lens with which we approached the film. Usually, if there is a special person around us, we tend to look at them from a distance, sympathise and feel that we are the bigger person. But the truth is that if we make a little effort and get to know and spend time with them, we begin to realise that they are far greater human beings than us. They are pure souls who don't hide anything nor do they have any ill feelings towards anybody. It is that state we all, at least in theory, wish to be in. The whole film has been a very big learning experience for us, and we felt that we were very small by the end of this process.
You've mentioned your dream of being a lead actor. How has the time from Premam till now, been for you as an actor?
(laughs) It was non-existent. You are here and you grab at every opportunity you get. The opportunity that came to me was a writing gig for Njandugalude. And that ended up taking three years. We went on that journey, and later I was in a space where I wanted to make a little something on my own,, and Thirike is an amalgam of everything I wanted to do.
George the actor, writer or director… What do you think is your biggest strength?
As of now, purely out of having more opportunities and and experiences, it has to be a writer.
As a writer, do you feel that moving forward, you'll be writing more scripts keeping the OTT-theatre demarcation in mind?
No, I don't think I'll write keeping that in mind. We made Thirike wanting to release it in a theatre, and we were very sure that when it hits theatres, families will watch and enjoy it. But then, the situation changed completely post-Covid, and we had to release on OTT.
Did you make any changes in the edit, to suit an OTT format?
Neestream watched our first cut that was much longer, and they were very happy with it. But on the personal front, we showed it around to a few industry colleagues and friends, and we trimmed it ourselves.
OTT releases for big stars are a given, but being a first-time director and lead actor, how difficult was it for you to pitch a story?
It is hard to get a film made here, in general. Especially if you do not have a familiar face, from production to distribution, it is hard. We pitched Thirike to all major OTT platforms but unless you're one of the three or four superstars of Malayalam, they are not really even watching the films. It's the same thing that happened to The Great Indian Kitchen before us. It was a good film but they did not give it a chance. I think this is a watershed period for regional OTT players and Neestream was that platform for us.
They were the first OTT platform to watch Thirike. They loved the film and wanted to get us on board. Neestream has been great so far, and they are here to stay. There are almost 60-70 Malayalam films that were made around last year, and there are extremely good films that do not have a home yet because the big OTT players are not picking them up. I think 2021 will be the year of regional OTT players.
Do you feel, going forward, this scenario will change, and that it will be easier for newcomers to get their films accepted?
If we, as film-viewing people start to put our money behind these new OTTs, yes, for sure. I know for a fact that platforms such as Neestream are not looking to make a profit right now, but they are looking to fund and invest in good films and build their libraries. Like in a theatre, if we spend money to watch three to four films on their platforms every month, it is a win-win for everybody.