His debut got caught in a storm, even before its release. Days before Ramaleela (2017) hit the screens, its hero, Dileep, had been arrested allegedly for abducting and molesting a fellow actor. Finally, the film released to both positive and negative uproar on social media, with the media playing vigilante and advocate. The film, a tautly-packaged political thriller, turned out to be the biggest hit of the year.
Two years later, Arun Gopy is back with a breezy love story starring Pranav Mohanlal. We chat about his leading man, his earlier days and the beauty of short films. Excerpts:
Why did you choose to work with Pranav Mohanlal?
He automatically brings a lot of interest to the film. It's a name that will help me tell a story without compromises. He plays a surfer, and naturally, he has the flexibility and flair to pull it off as we saw in his debut film.
Was it easier to convince him?
Reaching him was far more difficult than to convince him. It took a really long time to get him to sit down for a narration. Once he heard it, it was fine. He has his own lifestyle and pace and he isn't the kind of actor who gets excited about a director approaching him with a story. If I called him for a trip to the Himalayas he would have agreed immediately. But once he commits, he is very dedicated. Now I think he is enjoying the process of acting. He went to Bali to learn surfing. He loves swimming and the sea brings a special energy to him.
What's his process?
He doesn't have any conditions. He likes to leave it all to the director, including voice modulation. I think he has talent…it's just difficult to convince him to get onboard.
I saw some Mohanlal references in the trailer. How did he react to that?
There was a 'Mone Dinesha' bit in a scene…but he didn't say it for the life of him. We took retakes after retakes but the minute it comes to the punch-line, he would walk away. I don't think he is convinced about such lines and mass dialogues. His constant question is "will we say such dialogues in real life?".
There was a broad Joshiy influence in your first film…
Probably because Ramaleela is a political thriller and not seen much in today's cinema. The natural choices when it comes to political thrillers would be T Damodaran, Joshiy and Shaji Kailas.
You began as an AD to K Madhu…
Yes, with Nerariyan CBI. I was petrified. Assistant directors are the most harassed lot. Probably monetarily they get a better deal today. I remember my only ambition was to hear K Madhu sir call my name during the shoot. Now it's a different ball game—there is no hierarchy and ADs are consulted during the storyboarding, making and post-production. Madhu sir was more old school. He taught me about shot selection and a more organised style of filmmaking. After finishing my studies, I re-joined Madhu sir in Nadiya Kollappetta Rathri.
Usually, before the release day, directors worry about crowds coming in, acceptance etc. But here I was praying that no one would bomb the theatres.
Has it become less of a struggle to turn filmmaker today?
Yes, it's easier now. Recently, I went to a school and they were hosting a short film festival, and the school was providing students with every equipment and facility. Today only talent is needed. Back then, luck was also needed. Now the avenues are so many and there is such a huge democratic platform like Facebook which, if used wisely, is the biggest marketing tool for a filmmaker. We can promote our films and share our political/social thoughts without the danger of it getting adulterated.
Are short films helpful before taking the big step?
I think it's like going to film school. You learn to make a film through trial and error and within a budget. You are also watching a whole lot of young aspiring filmmakers gaining focus. Film aspirants are less frustrated now as it isn't necessary that he must pass through certain hurdles to make a film. Earlier, you will get a FEFKA membership only if you assisted in three films. After that, you have to work as an associate director and finally, you turn director. The bigger revolution in cinema, bigger than HD even, is the monitor—earlier we only saw it through a cameraman's eyes. Now we can see it with more clarity. That's the advantage and disadvantage. Earlier actors will only give dates to experienced associate directors, now it is considered a liability. That's old school, they say.
Was the path towards Ramaleela difficult?
Everyone has a survival story. Every underworld don has the same story. Compared to a lot of others, I think I had it easy. I know those who have been preparing for eons to enter the world of cinema.
When you look back, how do you see the events that unfolded before and after Ramaleela's release?
I think it was like being in a war zone. When the film started, I was deemed the luckiest, but the minute the issues started I was branded the unluckiest director. But I think if your cinema is genuine and honest, the results will be there for all to see. That has been my biggest takeaway. Usually, before the release day, directors worry about crowds coming in, acceptance etc. But here I was praying that no one would bomb the theatres. I must be the first director who was on live TV from the moment I stepped out to reach the theatre. And channels were debating whether to watch the film or not.
Mohanlal's Irupatham Noottandu and his son's Irupathonnam Noottandu. Was it that connect?
It's the story of this century. That film happened in that century. It's also a hat tip to K Madhu sir's and Mohanlal's cinema.
Who are the filmmakers that influenced you?
KG George, Lohithadas as scriptwriters. I recently watched Ratchasan, Ee Ma Yau and Maheshinte Prathikaram. I read a lot of biographies and watch a lot of films. It helps a lot because I don't have rich life experiences like some of our older directors.
My next film and it's with Mohanlal sir.