Edited excerpts from an interview between Nithin Renji Panicker and Vishal Menon, a week before Kaaval, starring Suresh Gopi and the director’s father Renji Panicker.
Kaaval, led by an action star like Suresh Gopi, is what you’d describe as a ‘pucca’ theatre film. Given that our theatres have just opened up, that too with the success of Kurup, is there a certain amount of relief?
Definitely. To see people returning to theatres itself is a relief. We were unsure if theatres would even open, but to see that Kurup has released to a big opening is indeed a positive sign for a film like ours.
Suresh Gopi’s last release was Varane Avashyamundu, which was an ensemble film. But Kaaval is more a callback to his hits of the 90’s. Is it a bigger responsibility to be handling a star’s comeback vehicle?
When I’m planning to make a film, I try not to think about external factors. If a face comes to mind for a character, I stick to it. If I get a producer, I just go ahead and make it the way I see it.
Because Suresh Gopi is someone you grew up watching, was it easy to write a character with him in mind?
Even before Kaaval, I was supposed to work on Lelam 2 with him. But it didn’t take off and I spent two years to make it happen. But I still wanted to work with Suresh Gopi no matter what…
Why was that?
I think it’s because I grew up watching actors like Suresh Gopi, Mammootty and Mohanlal. When you watch their films as a child, it leaves an impression that has grown with me. And for both my films, I needed senior actors to play characters that were above 50. So when I was thinking of a subject for a Suresh Gopi film, I wanted something that could bring vintage Suresh Gopi back in a film that spoke today’s language. You see the films of Clint Eastwood, right? We love The Good, The Bad and The Ugly but you also love his recent films like Gran Torino, Unforgiven or Mule. These are films that combine both vintage and present Eastwood. I wanted to do that.
But how exactly do you arrive at that balance?
For now, that balance can only be left to my judgement. It will be for the audience to tell once the movie is out. But when I was developing it, this balance was always on my mind. When you write, I think it has to subconsciously reflect in the script too. It has to have a certain percentage of action and I myself am a huge fan of that.
He’s an actor you know from when you were a child, right? Is it awkward to direct an actor like that?
Actually not because I made my first film with Mammukka, with whom I did not have that kind of a rapport with. If I could direct a senior actor like him, it gave me the confidence that I could direct other senior actors too. Mammukka gives a director a certain amount of respect and that’s what you need when you’re starting out. It was the same with Kaaval.
What was it like to grow up as Renji Panicker’s son? Was the influence of his films overwhelming?
I grew up watching his films obsessively. See I’m very aware that his films are not the classiest and I know that a lot of people look down on them. But commercial cinema IS the backbone of any film industry. I was around 15 when I started thinking about cinema as a career. He gave me two pieces of advice then: he told me that I have to learn to write my own scripts. He didn’t want me to depend on a writer. He also said that I would always have the baggage of being his son. He wanted me to be prepared for those comparisons as well.
And you’ve not consciously forced yourself to avoid his style either, have you?
I haven’t. I’ve only written what comes naturally to me. It’s not like my style is like his anyway just because Kasaba was about a police officer. His films are set in an urban terrain and Kaaval too is not like that.
As a director making big commercial films today, are you someone who has always had an instinct for it? Like the skills to judge a great intro scene or an interval block…
I started watching films seriously when I was 15. I think I was influenced after my visit to the sets of Praja around 2001. I opened up to films across genres and languages. But I remember sensing even then that there is a common graph for all commercial films being made in India. It’s only variations of this graph. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of mass films.
How would you describe your films?
I don’t know, actually. I don’t want my films to be too loud or too unrealistic. I try to make films that walk the fine line between mass and class. That’s what I try anyway.
Can you give me a memory of yourself as a Renji Panicker fan? I, for instance, remember watching The King like it was yesterday.
I also remember the first show of The King clearly. I watched it in Kottayam because a wide release was limited to just 15 theatres. I think Kottayam was our nearest releasing station. Achan was not there but the theatre staff took me, my brother and my mom to the box before the first show. I could see the main gate through a window behind me and I remember the massive crowd that had gathered outside. They grew so impatient that they broke open the gates and someone even got hurt in the stampede. It’s an image that left a huge impact on me. The other was Lelam. I watched it in Haripad and it’s a film I’ve rewatched several times after.
As someone who grew up in that house, do you feel Renji Panicker’s characters sound like him when you see his movies?
Definitely. There are a lot of similarities between Achan and his characters. The first time I noticed it was with Narendra Prasad’s characters in Sthalathe Pradhana Payyans and Thalasthanam.
But those are both villain roles…
I know. I think it’s because he was always present in the sets of the films he was writing. Maybe it’s his direct influence. I could even see a lot of Achan in the way Mammukka behaves in that famous Kuthiravattom Pappu scene in The King. That kind of generosity is a part of him. There are a lot of his mannerisms in Chackochi and Eepachan (Lelam) too.
What about when you’re writing? Do you find yourself writing dialogues in his signature pattern or when you’re thinking up stories?
In Achan’s films, I have noticed a pattern: the beginning will grip you, it will then have a huge interval block, there’s a take off right after and of course, the climax will be even bigger. I think if you get these three points right you will have a solid film. Even if the whole film doesn’t work, the film will have good word of mouth if the climax leaves an impact. These are some techniques I’ve picked up along the way.
What about his style of dialogues?
I love listening to his dialogues and I’d love my characters to speak like his, but I don’t think I can pull it off. I don’t have the vocabulary and I generally stick to smaller lines that are to the point.
What is your favourite film of his? And is there a film you felt was underrated?
Lelam is my favourite. I would call Pathram a tad underrated.
But Pathram was a huge hit too.
I know, but generally when one speaks of his films, they limit it to Commissioner, The King or Lelam. I think probably because it was a more serious film. Dubai too is a film I like a lot even though it did not do too well. The Dubai you see in our films are either the glamorous side or the other extreme showing the labour camps. But Dubai was a film that bridged both worlds. I also love Ravi Mammen as a character.
I too find his brand of lead characters fascinating. They are at one end extremely macho and strong. But they also get scenes where they are weak and vulnerable.
I agree and it’s something I’ve tried to use for my character in Kaaval. The vulnerability was needed for the audience to feel his age and to draw us into his mindset.
As an outsider, I’ve felt that Renji Panicker’s dialogues are best suited to actors like Suresh Gopi and Mammootty, more than Mohanlal (for whom Ranjith’s dialogues work better). Who are some of the actors you’ve felt did complete justice to his dialogues?
There are many. Narendra Prasad, Ratheesh, Murali, NF Varghese, Rajan P Dev, Cochin Haneefa, Vijayaraghavan…these are all actors who do justice to his dialogues. Among heroes, I think Suresh Gopi. By this I don’t mean Mammukka is bad. It’s just that Suresh uncle has done so many films with him. A part of it, I think, is because both of them have a lot of similarities. I see my dad in his performances and I feel the impact when he speaks Achan’s lines.
I don’t want this interview to be too much about him but how is Renji Panicker at home? Is he intense like his protagonists?
He’s a very cool father. Very well read and grounded. He lets us be. Our relationship with him is a lot like Eepachan and Chackochi in Lelam. Eepachan knows everything his son is up to but that’s why he never crosses the line. There’s a scene where Eepachan gives his son a carton of cigarettes. My dad is like that. When Achan used to smoke, he would bump one from me or my brother. My first drink was with him and we still drink together.
Is there a character of his that comes close to how he is at home?
Maybe Jacobinte Swargarajyam. Even Godha. Although he is being celebrated as a great father figure, he is even better in reality.
Finally, what was going through your mind during the Kasaba controversy? Was it something that disturbed you a lot?
To be very honest, it did not affect me at all. I feel the sequence in question was being misinterpreted. Either it was misjudged or it could have been my mistake in communicating the scene but I do not feel like there’s anything wrong with it. I don’t think Kasaba is anti feminist. I see it as a needless controversy. If I know that I have not intended any malaise, then I should not let it affect me. If it was a mistake, I would have apologised for it.
But have you reconsidered your writing choices to make it attuned to political correctness?
If you ask me to make Kasaba again, it would still be the same film. Maybe it’s making would change because I have grown as a maker. In terms of the script, I wouldn’t make any changes, especially with the sequence in question. My only regret is the way Mammukka was dragged into it.