With the release of Sunny this Thursday on Amazon Prime Video, the director-actor duo of Ranjith Sankar and Jayasurya complete their seventh film, which even includes two successful franchises (Punyalan Agarbathies and Pretham). Such a long and prolific collaboration may have been common in the seventies and eighties, but chances are that we might not see another duo make as many films with the consistency of these two. Days before Sunny, a single-person, single-location film hits our small screens, the two of them talk about their telepathic connection, their favourite films and their mutual evolution through association. Edited Excerpts…
I’ve just watched the trailer of Sunny but it is very different from the more musical, romantic cut we have witnessed in the teaser. What’s the philosophy behind these two drastic edits and which of these two come closer to the film?
Ranjith Sankar: Sunny is a difficult film to fit into a genre. There are feel-good moments to it but it is not entirely feel-good. Also, if you ask if it is a thriller, there are thrilling elements but it isn’t a thriller either. That’s the reason why the teaser and trailer appear so different. You can expect all of that in the film and I assure you that you will feel happy if you are watching it with an open mind.
This is your seventh film with Jayasurya. Has it reached a point where his face flashes automatically when you sit to write a screenplay?
Ranjith: Actually not. The only film where that kept happening was when I was writing Njan Marykutty. I thought only he could do that film. The other films, I didn’t write with any specific actor in mind but he ended up doing it. Sunny, though, was very different from these films. In the beginning, I was not sure if I could make the initial idea into a movie. Usually, if we have an idea, we discuss it with the actor and then we collaborate on dates and go for a shoot. This movie could not be shot like that and if we had, it would have been a problem.
So for six months I just wrote the script until I was confident that I could shoot it. I did not think about Jayasurya in those six months and I also did not think about other actors. I thought if I don’t write it properly, I could publish it as a screenplay but when the sixth or seventh draft got over, it was good enough to be made into a movie. It was only later that I thought about casting an actor.
I met Jayan [Jayasurya] then and we were discussing a lot of ideas. When I saw him then, he had put on a lot of weight and he was growing a beard too. That’s when he started looking like Sunny to me. He was excited when I pitched it to him but he wasn’t fully convinced when we sat on it for the first time. We thought we would not make it but then we got back to it later and the film happened.
Given that both of you have worked so often, has it reached a point where you understand how a scene is going to play out or how it is going to be shot without any confusion?
Jayasurya: Oh yes! See when we’re shooting, I have to only think about my character in the script. But the writer has to think about the other 10 characters in the script as well. This gives me the chance to go deep into my character and suggest “oh this character might not say this dialogue here”. And the thing with Ranjith is that he does not have an ego. It is easy to discuss and share opinions with him and we share the same wavelength.
Even during Marykutty, on the third day, I told him that I am not able to connect to the soul of my character. We decided to pack up — but at that moment a scene worked out. That’s when something clicked inside me. We then re-worked all the initial scenes and it happens like that at times. At first sitting, I was not convinced with Sunny. But after four or five days, I called him up and asked if we could meet. At that time, I felt as though this man Sunny was haunting me. He was with me right through that period and he hadn’t left me since the narration. And then we met and I was excited about all the layers of his character and we went ahead with it. Everything should fall into place like that.
In an old interview with director Siddique, he mentioned that actor Jayasurya kept asking questions when they worked on a film together. Is he the same now? Does this help you as a director in some way?
Ranjith: If a scene has to come out well, the actor should be fully convinced. Jayasurya refers to himself as a tool to the director but I don’t believe in the fact that an actor is just a tool. An actor is a human with soul, flesh and intelligence. This is Jayan’s 100th film and only my 13th. He has ten times more experience than I do: so am I not a fool if I don’t use it? When we shoot a scene and if I feel it’s not working out, we should not go ahead. We should think about an alternative scene to be shot and think about this one later. There is no meaning in going ahead when it is not working out.
When I was shooting for Varsham, Mamta Mohandas came to me and said that there was no way her character would say a line I had written. I was happy that she said that to me. As a director, I may have dedicated my focus to Mammookka [Mammootty] but she was able to catch it. So an actor asking questions is really good quality. I like to be with people who point out the issue in the script, let it be assistant or technicians. Anyone can say the script is good, but when someone finds out the flaw, we can work on a solution or else the audience will find out.
What is your reaction when Jayasurya continues to surprise you during a shot or a scene?
Ranjith: Actually, I never set expectations when I write. I laugh or I cry based on how a scene turns out. A scene has to convey an emotion and I have to feel that for the scene to be okayed. In this film, there is a scene where Sunny breaks down. We took one shot but there was a technical error with that. It was a very well acted shot and I felt really bad for Jayan but he took it sportively. Some actors will not do it but Jayan was like, “I think it should be even better, that’s why this shot didn’t work out.” He did again and we got an even better scene. That’s how he works.
Sunny, I presume, is a film with only you as an actor covering a majority of the scenes. How tough is it to navigate such a film without the support of other actors?
Jayasurya: Actually the number of artists was not something I was thinking about. Whoever the other actors, the emotions have to be expressed by me — it is Sunny’s emotions. So there’s no point thinking that there’s no supporting actor. The shot that Ranjith spoke about, where I had to cry, there was a problem while tracking it or something and Madhu wanted to do one more. I always believe that obstacles come our way only when we’re trying to do something wholeheartedly. When there is struggle, there is magic.
What changed in that period after you had first decided to pass on Sunny?
Jayasurya: Because the character refused to leave me. I listen to a lot of narrations but not every story haunts me. Sunny kept disturbing me. I realised I should do it and then called Ranjith.
As an outsider, I see Jayasurya as a method actor who gets deep into a character and stays there as he is performing. How do you see his evolution as an actor from your first film?
Ranjith: See, just because an actor acts in 100 movies, he needn’t become a great actor. He may remain a mechanical actor even after many years in the job. To become a great actor, you should keep evolving. Once, Jagathi sir told me that when he listens to a character brief, ten faces flashes before him. If he hears a brief about an advocate, ten advocates flash before him. That’s when he starts the process of designing the performance around what the director says. Actors get to meet a lot of people and this is how they utilise that experience and evolve. That’s what makes you a great actor.
When a director writes a tough character, an actor should be mentally ready to accept it and perform. Coming to Jayan, when we finished shooting for Punyalan, I saw him remove the character’s chain and he was praying with tears in his eyes. It was so honest and pure. It has been eight years since that day and I got to know him closer and he evolved so much as a person. The books he reads, the movies he watches…all that helps you become a great actor. So it is not just the questions he asks. His understanding of cinema and love for cinema is evolving everyday. We shot Sunny in sync sound because he insisted on it. I did not think about it due to the restrictions but he insisted and that shows his involvement and dedication.
Ranjith mentioned a memory from the last day of Punyalan as the moment his connection and respect for you developed. Is there one such moment when you think about Ranjith?
Jayasurya: For me, I think it must have happened naturally. When the first film happened — who knows — the actor in me must have shown his attitude and the director his. But as we travel together, we get to see each other’s sincere hard work. I have seen Ranjith wrap up a shoot at 12 PM sometimes and he’s ready to shoot again at 4 AM. I joke that he can take up the job of the security guard too during shoots because he’s awake all the time anyway.
But I think the secret behind our relationship is that we have never allowed each other’s effort to ever come down. If we start to take each other for granted, maybe then we will stop working together. But even our friendship has grown because we are both evolving together through our work. I have become a better actor and I hope he is becoming a better director. It is teamwork and the second one of us starts taking individual credit for our success, it will all get ruined.
Which film or performance is your favourite among the other person’s works?
Ranjith: For me, I think Jayan’s best performance in Sunny. I might change this answer if the film flops but Sunny is a great performance from him. Usually, when he acts in my films, he has the crutch of either an accent (Punyalan), a profession (Pretham) or gender (Njan Marykutty). But he had none of that in this film. Here, he is just a simple guy and that simplicity is what makes him so complex.
Jayasurya: I feel, a writer is the best actor. But the only issue is that the writer’s performances get stuck inside their room. In every other movie I got characters that came with a support. But it was very different in Sunny. It was difficult and we did it. The rest is in God’s hands.