Stephy Zaviour Interview
Stephy Zaviour Interview

I Don’t Want My gender To Be A Discussion Associated With My Film: Stephy Zaviour

Ahead of the release of her film, Madhura Manohara Moham, the debutant discusses her jump from costume designing to direction and why she hopes the audience doesn't guess that it's a film made a by female director

Stephy Zaviour was 23 when she began her journey with films as a costume designer for Lord Livingstone 7000 Kandi in 2015. Over the past 8 years, she worked on around 80 films including Ezra, Angamali Diaries, and Guppy, which won her the Kerala state award for the best costume designer in 2017. Observing the filmmaking process from close drew her towards direction, despite being told by many around her that it's a risky bet. With Madura Manohara Moham, which is releasing this Friday, the costume designer is set to debut as a director. 

Stephy categorises Madhura Manohara Moham as a unique family drama made with the sole intention of cracking people up. In this interview, she talks about the nuances of costume designing, tackling nay-sayers and the future that she forsees for the women in Malayalam filmmaking. 

Edited excerpts below:

How did the switch from costume designing to direction happen?

When I came into films, I never dreamt of direction. But as they say, everything around you influences, teaches, and inspires you. I was always surrounded by people trying to tell stories, seeing the process of a story being transformed into a film. As a costume designer, you are involved in the process from the early stages of pre-production up until the end of shoot. So it is from the sets that I started feeling that I want to tell a story too.

A still from Madhura Manohara Moham
A still from Madhura Manohara Moham

How did Madhura Manohara Moham take shape?

So once the decision to direct was cemented, I started writing a story with Gautham Surya, but then Covid happened and paused the process. One fine day, my friends Jay Vishnu and Mahesh Gopal gave me a story they had written, to read and offer suggestions for the lead actress. I loved the script but I wasn’t yet planning on directing it. I just told them Rejisha would be a great fit. I told them to call her up and she immediately committed. After three days, I decided to direct it.

What attracted you to this script?

From its promotional material, Madhuraa Manohara Moham might be categorised as a family drama, but it has a unique plot set around a family and is very unlike the conventional feel-good films. It is something we have not seen in a long time, and that is what made me say yes to it. I hope people feel the freshness when they watch it. 

There are four important women in the film. Do you think your being the director has had any impact on the way these women are shown on the screen?

Honestly, I sincerely hope the audience won't be able to tell that it was a film made by a female director. I do not want my gender to be a discussion associated with my film. I have tried to be as neutral as possible but there might be small things that might have been reflected, which I can’t really see but only the audience can.

Rajisha Vijayan in Madhura Manohara Moham
Rajisha Vijayan in Madhura Manohara Moham

What was your vision for Madura Manohara Moham’s costumes?

In old Malayalam films like Thenmavin Kombathu, there are a lot of vibrant warm colours like green, red, yellow, maroon, etc. So I had discussed with my art, costume and camera department that I wanted a warm colour palette throughout that is associated with a certain nostalgia for old Malayalam films. We have avoided the Western colour palettes as much as possible and stuck to very rooted Kerala colours.

As a costumier-turned-director, did you feel any pressure of setting a standard? 

I don’t think there is an ideal way to get into filmmaking. I believe anyone who wants to tell a story can do it if they have a supportive crew. Direction isn’t an impossible task as people make it out to be. People came up to me and said “You are doing well as a costume designer, why get into directing a film now? It could be a flop and you might end up having nothing.”  Many people in the industry have a sort of hierarchy where direction comes at the top and everything below it, which I don’t buy into at all. I have seen many people even inside the industry who want to get into filmmaking but this fear holds them back. To be honest, when I first dreamt of filmmaking in 2018, I took a whole year just to tell it to my best friend. But now I strongly believe it is not a craft that only certain people can do. It is not something we can completely study, write an exam and then start as a lot of learning happens on set. We have to start somewhere and it is the same for everyone. So really, no one can tell you aren’t ready.

Bindu Panicker in Madhura Manohara Moham
Bindu Panicker in Madhura Manohara Moham

You have worked with a lot of directors as a costume designer. What do you think are the key elements that create a good director–costume designer relationship?

The most important thing is trust and providing that creative space for the designer to bring in their own ideas. Sometimes it gets really tiring when people keep sending references from Google and Pinterest which blocks my vision. Sometimes they send pictures of clothes on western models, which don’t work well with our kind of body structures. You really don’t need a costume designer if you just want them to buy the exact things in your references. So, when you hire a costume designer you should be able to trust them and enable them by giving them freedom to do their best.

Anjali Menon has said in an interview that film crews sometimes have a hard time accepting a woman as the captain. Did you feel this at anytime?

Since many of the technicians I’ve worked with on this film have been seeing me since I started as a young girl, I was naturally worried whether they would accept me in a commanding position. But my crew really surprised me with so much respect. More than respect, they were excited as if someone in their family was making the film and supported me throughout. Maybe it is because they have seen me grow, they were just genuinely happy for me. In Kerala, if the shooting goes beyond 9:30 PM, the hourly wages are higher for the crew. At times when the shoot extends for 15-20 minutes beyond the standard call sheet, I would worry, but my crew would come and tell me it’s okay and that would ensure we complete the work before packing up. They were so understanding.

A still from Madhura Manohara Moham
A still from Madhura Manohara Moham

There aren't many female directors in Kerala. Do you feel its impact on the industry?

I really don’t like this distinction based on gender. Many people assume female directors are beacons of art film who can never do action or comedy, which really irritates me. Even when I said I was making a film, many people just assumed it was going to be about female empowerment, which is really not my cup of tea. There is really no one stopping women from directing films, but I agree there are a lot of people around who are conditioned to question the ability of only women. I think women should step up boldly and break the norms that have been there for so long. 

Ratheena made Puzhu, which was headlined by a super star, Sharanya made B32 Muthal 44 Vare, the Kerala government is producing 5 female-directed films every year and a lot of girls around me are working as ADs. I see the changes happening and we are going to see the impact of it soon. There are going to be only more women in filmmaking in the coming years. But that being said, one problem I clearly see in films is that it takes some time to reach a certain level — this might be harder for a woman due to family pressure to settle down. That is something people need to understand. The issue is not just with the industry, it is also about families being supportive and understanding of their daughter’s goals.

Related Stories

No stories found.