Almost everyone in Kerala in their early 30s discovered Malayalam sitcoms on YouTube through Akkara Kazhchakal, created by Abi Varghese and Ajayan Venugopal. It went on to create waves in the digital space. Abi is an Indian-American writer, director and producer, who recently directed Eros Now’s Metro Park. This is a retelling of Akkara Kazhchakal, with a Gujarati backdrop.
Abi’s Brown Nation is currently streaming on Netflix. He’s also directed Monsoon Mangoes, starring Fahadh Faasil and Vijay Raaz. Excerpts from a conversation between Abi and Vishal Menon, where they discuss the then and the now, the need to stay rooted, and more.
Your show Akkara Kazhchakal is one of the reasons many discovered sitcoms on YouTube. What are your influences, and how did the idea of a sitcom in Malayalam come about?
Akkara Kazhchakal is still watched by a lot of people, and it all happened very accidentally. We started in 2008-2009 when YouTube was not even mainstream yet. Ajayan Venugopal and I had an idea of making a Malayalam film, and we met producers for a year, year-and-a-half. No one heard our story. We had a house, a camera and some actors on board, so we decided to do something on our own about the lives we live.
Ajayan and I were both working in a corporate environment and we got some ideas — What happens to Malayalees in America? What happens when it comes to going to church? What about the associations they form? If you live abroad, your mindset is a little different, you want to retain your culture while living in another world. No one was talking about this ‘balance’. That led to the show.
You mentioned it was difficult to find producers. You’ve lived in America pretty much all your life, so when you write Malayali characters in Kerala, do you second guess yourself? Do you feel you’re best suited to write an NRI character, or a show with an NRI setting?
I grew up in New York and New Jersey watching Malayalam films. That was my introduction to my culture and that’s how I really got into films. Every week, my dad used to go to the local Kerala store and get that one VHS cassette for one dollar. I grew up on that, and from that point on, I always wanted to make a film. Later, I realised that maybe I’m too detached to that world. I think I know what an average Malayalee’s life is from those movies. So, I just think that whatever character I do, it honestly goes back to what you believe in and what you lived through. In any films that I’ve done, there’s a little of me, an NRI in that character no matter where it’s situated.
Akkara Kazhchakal is culturally rooted. There are so many inside jokes, so many pop culture references. It also showcases a regular Malayalee’s sorrow. When you tried to remake that in Metro Park with a totally different cast and set of people, how difficult was it? Gujaratis are different from Malayalis and the storyline can still work, but how about culturally recreating all the nuances of Akkara Kazhchakal in the Gujarati context?
I think it’s a very difficult task, because jokes are subjective and specific to a culture and language, and I don’t think you can recreate them without knowing a little bit of the other culture and the innuendos in that world. In the beginning, we were thinking that the situations could be the same, because any expat faces the same cultural differences.
When I was talking to Ajayan about this, we wanted to go the Gujarati route, I married into a Gujarati family, so there were so many jokes between Mallus and Gujjus. Culturally, we’re very different. My marriage itself was interesting and funny, because the Gujarati family’s dancing when the Malayalees are sitting down. There were many many cultural barriers to explore, and that’s one of the reasons we got into Metro Park.
That’s how you enter the show, because you’re basically Omi’s character right? By having an autobiographical element through Omi?
Yeah, I think something like that, because no matter what we do, there’s something of us that’s in there. Ajayan used to work in IT and we used to crack many jokes about IT. Ajayan was a parent, so all that stuff comes into the character, and into Omi and Ranvir as well.
Could you tell me about the process? Because all-out Malayali audiences know pretty much every episode of Akkara Kazhchakal by rote.
I think one decision we made was to retain Josettan’s character as Ranvir’s — both dabble in insurance. Everything else besides that, like the format, is different because even though it talks about a family, the wives and kids are very different, even Kalpesh’s character owning a convenience store was very new to us. We never had Omi’s character at that time; it is a younger take on the modern family. It’s about the clash between a modern and an older family, so we tried to dwell on those things as well. Omi’s character is all about fitness and Keto diet, while Ranvir’s character is very traditional.
What episode from Akkara Kazhchakal did you think would be impossible to recreate in the Gujarati setting?
One of them was this one episode ‘Omana Onam’, where these Malayalee associations are fighting to decide who’s going to have their face on the paper. I don’t know if it transferred well to a Gujarati backdrop. There are also a bunch of things in Metro Park that we couldn’t have in Akkara Kazhchakal.
You’re all working in comfortable jobs, so what happens when you get bitten by the film or television bug and decide to switch careers? What is it about the air of America that makes you do that?
I think one always has the passion of filmmaking but it’s ingrained in us to be “safe” too. So you follow that path until you realise that the safety is never there. That happened to me five years into my career, that you do this now or regret it all your life.
So, when you started shooting Akkara Kazhchakal, was it more like a hobby or career?
I think it was always more than a career. We were still working then, and Ajayan and I would meet during lunch in the week and discuss ideas. He would write and we would shoot over the weekend. I would edit from Monday to Thursday. I think the corporate job was a side hustle for me, it was not the main thing. Filmmaking was the biggest thing we had, the job sustained us to build this. Because, at that time, YouTube was not doing revenue share and Kairali TV wasn’t paying us, so we had to do this thing by ourselves. We needed some sort of funding, and that came from our jobs.
So you both produced the whole thing with your salaries?
If you were doing that now, how would you have approached it? Now that you have Amazon and Netflix, do you think it’s easier?
I think it might be a little harder now, because there are a lot of things happening in that space, especially after the pandemic. I think people have been writing. Netflix and Amazon are inundated with so many scripts that they don’t know which one to choose. There’s so much content right now that it’s a little difficult to approach them and then get something green-lit.
Akkara Kazhchakal and Brown Nation were self-funded and we shot the whole thing and then looked for a buyer. It’s a very risky move, but it worked for us. We were probably lucky, or chose the right projects.
One of those who took up the model you guys created without the revenue share that YouTube is offering right now, is Karikku. This seems to work with harmless, light comedy. Why do you think it has not been used by dramas? There is no great Netflix or Amazon show in Malayalam. Have you tried to get something made in Malayalam in the OTT space?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I think you need a team like Karikku to do it. If there are more teams and if the content works, it would definitely work in Malayalam. I’m sure there are three or four equivalents to Karikku that you could do. This was something about expats so why not within Kerala? I’m sure this can work with families in villages too. Honestly, I don’t think OTT is financially viable yet for Malayalam. Telugu and Tamil are all still in the early stages, so I feel Malayalam will come around in the next year or so.
When the film bug bit people such as Sekhar Kammula and Kiran Reddy (Telugu directors), they travelled back to Hyderabad. Why did you decide to stay on? Do you think you can continue to work as an American- Malayalee filmmaker?
I think it honestly depends on the story. So, if you’re going to tell a story about expats, about something here, you’d definitely be here, because there are enough stories to be told. But, if you’re doing a film rooted in Kerala, you have to move, and that’s something we all want to pursue.
Is it something you’re planning to do sometime soon?
I definitely want to do it in the near future, and make a classic Malayalam film. There is something very satisfying about the thought of a Malayalam project, even though I can’t explain why.
When you started around 2008, Malayalam cinema was in a very different space compared to now. How do you compare the two decades?
I do agree that when we started Akkara Kazhchakal, the landscape was very different. It’s only because from 2011, you had really good directors, who were competing and also contributing to each other’s growth. I think that opens up a lot more spaces, and you could make a smaller film and make it work. It is not about the big stars anymore, it’s about the content, and that has taken on a whole new meaning in Malayalam.
To be in the industry now is beautiful. It’s a good time to create something and have your own space, even if it’s not a big space. Even if you make a small film, it could still work, and the fact that it can travel with Netflix and Amazon and all these OTT platforms means a small creation can have a worldwide audience.
You mentioned OTT has a lot of scripts. What was your lockdown like? Did you get any work produced?
We wrote a Malayalam and a Hindi feature. We also did a quarantine episode of Metro Park, we were supposed to shoot Metro Park Season 2 at that time, and because of Covid we were thinking what we could do, and we did the quarantine episode where we had all the actors sit in the house, record and send it to us so we could make it fluid, like it’s put together in one location. But I think the more constructive you are, the more creative you become and this is an example of that.
You are seen as the original indie filmmakers. You funded your scripts and we discovered it pretty quickly. How much has changed, technically?
The biggest thing that changed is the crew. When we shot Akkara Kazhchakal, I was handling the camera, Ajayan had written the script and was holding the boom mike. We were under five people, sometimes just three. Now, we have a crew of 20-25 people, still small compared to other shows. The discipline of making our first show and making things work in a limited budget has rubbed off on everything we do. We minimise takes, because we shoot over the weekends, we minimise locations, so that the story speaks more.
We know how easily budgets can get out of hand so even when we were writing the scripts, there was always that doubt if we could pull this off or scale it down so that the stories and jokes still get conveyed without using much resources.
Now, YouTube has tutorials for people interested in the technical aspects of cinema. What did you do? How did you pick up technology?
Fortunately or unfortunately, our learning happened during the shoot. Sometimes, when I watch the first three episodes, I’m like ‘Wow, what did we make?’ The camera angles are so bad and everything about it is just wrong. But what I loved about it is that we wrote for a week, edited it and put it on YouTube and got instant comments. If an episode was bad, the comments were ruthless. The comments section and viewership was the biggest education for us. If you go back to an episode that really worked well, you realise it is when we are authentic about our characters or story. I would say our biggest learning factor was YouTube itself. Now, I look out for other filmmakers too. There’s a lot of talent on YouTube and it’s incredible to see how a person with a camera captures so many people from their living rooms or their bedrooms.
How do you look at the differences when it comes to casting, then and now?
I think the biggest challenge for us was that we were casting from America. Of course, the talent pool was much smaller compared to casting in India. Here, our prospective cast was either in the corporate world or in nursing. However, we got lucky with our actors. Ajayan and I went to a theatre performance and picked out a couple of people, and it worked out for us, especially with Joseph and Gregory and the crew.
What about Metro Park?
I think Metro Park was a little different, because we were kind of established, with a couple of projects. We were sure we wanted actors from India so we approached Ranvir Shorey, and he said: ‘I’ll look at it and I like the premise of it, but I need the full script before I say yes.’ Ajayan and I went back and rewrote the episodes altogether and gave it to him and he was like ‘Wow!. This is the first time somebody actually sent 10 episodes’. Like Ranvir, we wanted some actors who could take our craft forward, because I feel that if you have the right cast, you can really start experimenting. You could write bigger things for the characters. So, we wanted to make sure we grow as writers and directors as well.
Drishyam was a huge hit, and the sequel is coming out on OTT. A film that came out on an obscure platform that we’ve never heard of is being spoken about everywhere in India. What do you think is the future?
I honestly feel there’s a bunch of talent that’s going to be explored. It’s not about the main four or five stars anymore. There’s a lot of IT guys coming into this field (laughs). They’re really figuring out that they can do this and make money, where they can make a good living on TikTok or YouTube revenue. What will not change, though, is the content. It still needs to have relevance, have a great story, characters and actors. Those fundamentals won’t change.
Maybe we’re not capable of doing an hour of sitcom, maybe it’s a five- or 10-minute sitcom, that’s where the world is going now. You need to make sure you get your joke and thoughts out without wasting people’s time.
How has the writing relationship with Ajayan been all these years? You both are a team and have been writing for so long. How does it really work when two people write and share ideas?
I think, early on, we sat down and thrashed out ideas. We decided the beginning, middle and end and he would write. I don’t interfere in that. Then, he comes back and I tell him this joke doesn’t work and there’s mutual respect and understanding, and we go back and forth. Now that we know each other so much, it’s become second nature to us where he writes to my liking, and I rework some things. We don’t even have to talk anymore — the communication is automatic.