Back in the day, the now multiple National Award-winner Jayaraj worked as an assistant director. It was on the set of a Bharathan movie that he first heard the Thakazhi Sivashankara Pillai story of a postman who brings bad news and soon transforms into an omen of death. Ever since he got the epic novel Kayar, the story of a postman and a village that sent its 650 sons to fight the world war stayed with him.
When he decided to make the sixth film in his Navarasa series after Karunam (2000), Santham (2001), Bheebatsa (2002), Albutham (2006) and Veeram (2017), the postman slowly trudged his way back into the director’s frame. Bhayanakam, a movie that was nurtured over the years, recently fetched him two National Awards – for direction and adapted screenplay.
Why did it take you almost two decades to come back to this story? What made you postpone Fear?
I was convinced that there was a film here, but the story required me to recreate the 1930s and back then, there were technical limitations. For instance, when I am shooting a scene in a paddy field, today it is very easy for me to erase an 11 kilowatt lamppost that sneaks into the frame. It is incredibly easy in the digital era to make a period film. I am happy that things didn’t work out when I first started work on this film in 2000 because of how the situation is right now. There’s unrest and fear everywhere.
In 2008, you made a short film Vellapokkathil or In the Deluge based on a short story of the same author. You keep returning to your favourite writers. What makes you go back to Thakazhi and Shakespeare?
Right since my school days I have been reading Thakazhi, whose writings are earthy and truthful. An ode to the blue collar worker’s struggle, his novels deal with casteism and the feudal systems prevalent then. Vellapokkathil explores the isolation a Dalit man faces due to his identity and his relationship with a dog. Pain and loneliness is universal and so is fear, which is tackled in Kayar and Bhayanakam. Even as the years pass, Thakazhi will always remain relevant and his characters will be resurrected. The same goes for Shakespeare, Chekov, Dostoveskoy – these writers traverse time.
I remember in 1984 when Thakazhi had just won the Jnanpith award, I had gone to meet him along with the late Bharathan because we wanted to adapt his novel Randu Idangazhi (Two Measures). I intend on returning to Thakazhi again soon as the time is now politically right for Randu Idangazhi, which narrates the evils of the feudal system that once prevailed in Kerala, in Kuttanad, to be specific.
Speaking of Kuttanad, you keep returning to its landscapes.
The landscape of Kerala is ever-changing, but Kuttanad continues to be the same. Man lives in harmony with the soil. The village of Kuttanad, home to several thousand farmers, its paddy fields and migratory birds will soon be all that remains of our state’s vintage beauty.
How did you decide to do the Navarasa series?
I wanted to capture the different facades of the rain. Rain is like an emotion enhancer, it can intensify any mood and I wanted to convey this through a series of films. That slowly evolved into the Navarasa series. Rain continues to be a character in all these films, even in Bhayanakam, where it helps amplify fear.
You are known for casting new faces. Was Renji Panicker your first choice to play the postman in Bhayanakam?
I always know what my character should look like. His height, built, appearance and features. If I spot someone who resembles the person I have in mind, I cast them even if he is a newcomer or a football star. In Bhayanakam, the postman is a wounded soldier, so I wanted someone with a good physique. At the same time, I wanted a rustic face that would convey trauma and despair. Tamil actor Vijay Sethupathy was the first person I thought of, but he wasn’t free. Renji Panicker, whom I approached next, was keen and turned out to be a perfect fit.
Do you think theatre actors and newcomers are finally getting their due in Malayalam cinema?
I don’t think it is about the theatre or new actors. I think Malayalam cinema has finally reached a point where the directors have started giving prominence to their characters, instead of just forcefully fitting in any popular actor. For example, there are real police acting in Thondi Mudhal Drikshashiyum, which gives the movie a natural feel. Veterans of Malayalam cinema have done this before. Aravindan’s Kachana Sita, Bharathan’s Thakara both had casts comprising solely of newcomers. I have made several movies with newcomers but the good thing is, these days, such occurrences aren’t one-off. Malayalam cinema is going through a transition.
We had the most experimental movies made in 70s and 80s. It was like our golden era, but then superstardom came and overpowered good filmmaking. We are slowly transitioning back, especially with the advent of digital platform and a new crop of directors who are tackling bold themes and showing real life and real characters. We are on the brink of another wonderful era in Malayalam cinema.
In this era, is the bridge between art and popular cinema diminishing?
Certainly. When I made Deshadanam in 1996, my aim was to make experimental cinema that was also commercially viable. It is hard to guess what will please the audience, but even a small budget film like Ottaal is now widely accepted. Our audience is evolving with each good movie and simplicity and truth often speaks to a diverse crowd. Ottaal had a short theatre run, but reached many viewers through Netflix.
Why do you think Malayalam films continue to perform well at the National Awards?
Not just Malayalam cinema, even regional cinema does very well at these awards because they portray real life and relatable emotions. Malayalam filmmakers love to experiment and tell down-to-earth stories. We were blessed with filmmakers like Adoor, Aravindan, Bharathan, Padmarajan, K.G George and John Abraham. We have learnt so much from them, most importantly to take risks and to experiment.