Rahul Riji Nair, who has previously directed films like Ottamuri Velicham and Kalla Nottam, speaks to Baradwaj Rangan about whether he thinks of himself as a mainstream filmmaker, the directors that influenced him, and about casting Rajisha Vijayan in Kho Kho. Excerpts…
You’re kind of an independent filmmaker with films like Ottamuri Velicham and Kalla Nottam, and now you’re doing a sports drama like Kho Kho…
Yeah, they’re two different films in two different zones. Actually my second film was a no-brainer comedy. I follow stories naturally. I go after those that I want to make films out of. It kind of happened that one film became an indie and the other a commercial one. There was no planning. It happened organically.
Usually people define themselves as independent or mainstream filmmakers. You’re saying you can split your brain?
It started from my early influences, probably. I used to watch films by Priyadarshan sir, Sathyan Anthikad sir, and Srinivasan sir. I grew up consuming those films. They’re very special to me, those Malayalam films from the 80s and 90s. It made me fall in love with cinema. Only at a later stage, I discovered that there was something called world cinema by going to film festivals.
Suddenly, I realized that there was another stream of cinema as well. It’s not something I grew up with but learnt when I started learning filmmaking and going to festivals like International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) which was a big opener for me.
That’s when I realized that there are Latin American films that I could fall in love with or Iranian films could make me cry. That’s something that slowly started in me. I probably got the best of both worlds, I guess.
The sports drama is one of the most exhausted genres in the world. Does your mind automatically switch modes to make you a commercial filmmaker?
Actually no. When I wanted to become a filmmaker, I wanted to be a mainstream filmmaker like everyone else. I pitched to actors and production houses and was getting rejected everyday. I realized that I must figure out what my first film is and then make it. That’s how Ottamuri Velicham happened.
It won the Kerala State award and went to film festivals. At that point, I started getting the opportunity to make the bigger scripts I had written before. I don’t think whether the film is commercial or for festivals. What excites me is the story idea that I want to narrate.
What changes between the two types of films (mainstream and indie) is the business. When you have a big star, you have the publicity and market according to that. Mainstream films have revenue opportunities that indie films don’t have. The difference in business is huge.
But as a filmmaker, I try to be sincere to the utmost to my story. I don’t really bother whether it’s mainstream or nor.
Did you cast Rajisha Vijayan in Kho Kho because you wanted a relatively known heroine?
Not really. I wrote the script over two years ago and the script was selected at Film Bazaar, which is more for indie films. Kho Kho’s budgets might have been bigger with a bigger star, but I think I would have made the same film.
As you said, sports dramas have a format. I won’t say I’ve broken it, but I kind of make sure that my mould is a little different. The exciting part of Kho Kho for me came from the student-teacher relationship. I’m not very genre-conscious and want to make as many different films as possible.