When the credits rolled down during a screening of Sam Mendes’ audaciously shot 1917 at PVR Cinemas in Lulu Mall, Kochi, Midhun Manuel Thomas’ excitement was palpable. The moment he spotted Mendes’ name, Midhun stood up and clapped. Next scrolled in Roger Deakins’ name, and another thunderous applause pierced through the theatre.
For Midhun, the director of Anjaam Pathiraa, this year’s Malayalam cinema’s biggest hit so far, such “wild applause is the pinnacle” for any artiste, especially a filmmaker. Incidentally, weeks earlier, in Kochi’s Padma theatre, during the first day, first show of Anjaam Pathiraa, the crowd was whooshing and clapping when the curtains came down. Of course, there are NO comparisons between the films, but for Midhun, it was a surreal experience, and that’s the moment he sensed the film could set the box office on fire.
“If the crowd stays back and claps, it’s a clear sign that the film has worked. As creator, there is no bigger happiness than seeing the crowd erupt in joy. I have seen people walking out in dejection for my own films. It’s heartbreaking. So, when they applauded at the end of the screening, I knew we had pulled it off. In fact, the whole crew, including the film’s lead actor Kunchacko Boban, was there at the theatre. Personally, I believe it’s the pinnacle every artiste or creator should strive for. I did clap for Amen, Mumbai Police, Drishyam, Maheshinte Prathikaram, Unda and Premam. For 1917, the applause in the theatre almost brought the roof down. It was such an incredible piece of filmmaking,” says Midhun, who has every reason to be elated. In five weeks, Anjaam Pathiraa has garnered over Rs 50 crore, and is still going steady at the box office.
For Midhun, success is not new, but recognition is. Known for the cult Aadu franchise, few expected him to deliver an edge-of-the-seat thriller. An auto-didact (he has not assisted anyone), Midhun always wanted to make a thriller though he largely dabbled with no-brainers or rom-coms, including Om Shanthi Oshana, for which he wrote the script.
A walk through the dark alleys and beyond with Midhun.
Anjaam Pathiraa took Kerala by storm, quite literally. Did you expect it to be such a big hit?
I knew it would be noticed and talked about, but not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine that it would turn out to be such a huge moneyspinner. Having said that, I realised that the film would work (may not be to this extent) the moment I managed to convince my technical crew, particularly Shyju Khalid, one of the best cinematographers in the country, to be part of the film. When it comes to picking films, Shyju is really choosy. Incidentally, he has not done a pucca thriller per se. So it was like a bit of validation.
The audience too did not expect a thriller from a man who makes the Aadu franchise. How tough was it to switch from comedy to the thriller genre?
Probably, that is one reason why the film exceeded all our expectations and turned out to be a blockbuster. When you give people what they don’t expect, they react differently. Yeah, the switch was tougher than what I thought and I was on my toes all the time. Shooting the Aadu franchise was real fun, but this time even the mood was rather sombre. There were instances on the sets where nobody in the crew uttered a word. It was certainly a first for me.
The industry too seemed to be surprised. How has the reaction been?
This is my seventh film (as a writer-director) and never have I received so many calls from the industry as I have now. From Mammootty to Anwar Rasheed, many called up and shared their thoughts. Some of them were really curious to know how I moved with such ease from comedy to a thriller. Prithviraj, in particular, was really excited and we had a great conversation, dissecting the film threadbare.
Interestingly, the film’s release outside of Kerala was delayed, apparently to ward off piracy threat, which was a risk, box-office-wise. How effective was the decision?
Usually, theatre/camera prints get uploaded when the film is released in what’s commercially called the Rest of India. And it’s a proven fact. When we restricted our film to Kerala territory, there was not a single case of camera or theatre prints surfacing online. But two-three days after our ROI release, prints started cropping up on several platforms. We all are aware that piracy takes place in big cities such as Mumbai, Bangalore or Chennai or their outskirts where there is no monitoring system in place. It’s humanly impossible to deploy our own people in every theatre to crack down on piracy. In Kerala, at least so far, there are no such incidents, and that’s why we delayed the release. Even bigger industries like Tamil struggle to tackle these threats.
Anjaam Pathiraa largely stayed real. Though some say it lacks the sophistication associated with thrillers, like a character says: “It’s not FBI, it’s Kerala police”…
Kerala is not accustomed to such ‘cinematic’ serial killers, at least in my memory, barring those incidents of ripper killers, but those episodes never had the State on the edge. Of course, they evoked fear and chaos, but never to the extent as in other parts of India or the world. Also, no killer used technology. So, when you present such a serial-killing subject to the Kerala audience, especially in a plot involving the Kerala Police, it has to stay rooted. Though the Kerala Police is top-notch, it has its own limitations, especially when it comes to technology. That’s why we made it as raw as possible. If there is a lack of sophistication, it was meant that way.
Why did you decide to tell such a story if it’s alien for the Kerala audience? And, from where did the thread come from?
This is fiction, and I am a huge fan of international series, especially dark thrillers where the cops are on a trail and psychopaths are on the loose. Those episodes and style of story-telling obviously left their footprints, but I drew inspiration from the books/writers I have read so far. I have always been a fan of the thriller genre. In fact, I wanted my first film to be a thriller, but it never happened. So when my previous film (Argentina Fans Kattoorkadavu) tanked, I wanted a total makeover. This forced me to go back to my roots and check out my old passion, thrillers.
You have featured some real incidents in Kerala in the script.
As a social being, real events always leave a mark. That’s how some incidents (like a son murdering his parents, a priest caught in a sex scandal and a Naxalite’s murder) became part of the narrative. I agree the film has some clichés of a typical thriller, but what made Anjaam Pathiraa different are the back-stories, the treatment and certain parts of the screenplay.
The casting made the film refreshingly different. Be it Chackochan, Unnimaya Prasad or Indrans.
I was very particular that we did not want the usual suspects or familiar faces. So we struck off the names that first sprang to our minds, and looked out for actors who looked and spoke like normal people. Thus walked in Kunchacko Boban and the rest.
Unnimaya Prasad was the real surprise package. What was her reaction when you offered her a DCP’s role? Was she a bit apprehensive?
Unnimaya is a friend and so is her husband Shyam Pushkaran (who wrote Kumbalangi Nights). In fact, it was Shyju Khalid who suggested Unnimaya for the role. She hit the gym, worked out hard and the results are there to be seen. In fact, the Kumbalangi Nights team was present here as well, and that should have made her comfortable.
In this age of social media explosion, is it not a bit risky to make thrillers? There’s the possibility of the plot getting leaked, and you compete with international series on OTT platforms and similar fare in every language.
That was always a worry. Even a family WhatsApp conversation could have revealed spoilers. But I am grateful to the audience, and even critics, for the collective responsibility displayed. Answering your second question, yes, convincing the millennial crowd, which gobbles up every kind of thriller made in the world, was a huge challenge. In Kerala, many passionately follow Korean and Spanish thrillers. Also, people love looking for loopholes in the plot and you need to outsmart and outguess everyone. Otherwise, you are doomed.
Despite the twists and turns, in the last few minutes, you managed to outguess the audience. Also, you left many answers open-ended…
As a creator, I had all my hopes pinned on the last few minutes, and I am glad that they really worked. I had my answers ready for every possible question in my initial three-hour-long draft. Later, we removed all the spoon-feeding scenes and brought it down to 2 hours 24 minutes. It’s up to the audience to interpret a movie.
What are your favourite thrillers in Malayalam?
Yavanika, EE Thanutha Veluppan Kalathu and Drishyam.
And, what’s brewing next on the writing front?
I have already started writing an action-thriller that should roll out this year. The third part of the Aadu franchise is also under consideration.
There are talks of Anjaam Pathiraa being remade in Hindi, Tamil and other languages…
There are, but it’s too early to talk. I would like to direct the Hindi version if everything falls in place. Even that could be my next project. With the scale and magnitude going up, I will try to fine-tune and make the film better.
Perhaps, a sophisticated version?
(Laughs) Obviously, in a bigger city, and a bigger canvas.