When the film Mukundan Unni Associates is close to its intermission point, we see Mukundan Unni tailing his archnemesis’ car, the ominous background score indicating what’s about to come. But when the car rolls down the hill, our hero smiles in victory and the score immediately turns into a soothing slow number. And Unni thinks, “Wow, kavithai polae, nyaan vichaarichadanaikaal manoharam!” (It is more poetic and marvellous than I thought).
This scene pretty much sums up the viewing experience of Mukundan Unni Associates, which has a deliciously dark protagonist in Unni. The twisted satire was a result of ample research and many conscious decisions, says director Abhinav Sunder Nayak. But there was one thing he was sure of: “Mukundan Unni has no morality, I wanted to just expose it as it is. So that's the reason I wanted no censorship on whatever he does. When Vimal (co-writer of Mukundan Unni Associates) used to write some scenes, I would always try to make it 10x more cruel because I wanted people to see him do the most bizarre and psychopathic acts and still get away with it.”
So how did he get into the warped brain of Unni? What went into the staging of scenes? Did producers and actors ask him to change anything? Abhinav answers all such questions and more as we take a deep dive into the worldbuilding of the film.
When you were making a film like Mukundan Unni Associates as your debut, were you ever sceptical of how it would be received?
No. That’s exactly the reason why I wanted to make a very personal film. Even though this may not feel like a personal or emotional film, the subject matter is personal to me. If I don't make an honest film the first time, I don’t think I'll be establishing myself as a director. When you strongly believe and are excited about a story or an idea, you don’t think about how it will be received because you have the conviction. Only when I began editing, I started thinking about how the audience would perceive every scene and I edited accordingly.
Why the anti-hero narrative?
The basic idea was about success and how there is no karmic justice. It is something I realised in my life and I wanted to convey it. I wanted to break the romanticised notion of success because not everything is as simple and straightforward as it is in biopics. There are a lot of nuances and layers to success. I wanted to expose these kinds of people. In every profession, there are Mukundan Unnis who are at the top of their game. I think more than an emotional presentation of this topic, what the world needs right now is exposing such people and their thoughts. That is why I wanted to tell the film through Unni’s point of view.
We don’t see any glimpse of violence, blood, or sentiment, even though the whole film is set against the hospital backdrop. How important was this choice?
I don’t believe in showing gore on screen. I don’t think we should show violence on screen unless there is an absolute necessity. My priority here was to follow this character. There is implied violence and you can understand how that is. Besides, Mukundan Unni doesn’t have empathy or remorse. While shooting, we had a couple of scenes that involved the crying of other people. But we wanted to remove all the violence and the reaction to violence so that people don’t get affected by it because Mukundan Unni doesn’t get affected by it. So, it was a deliberate choice.
You have kept the whole world of Mukundan at a safe distance. So, when we see him even cause fatal accidents, we know it is wrong but we don’t necessarily empathise with the people he is harming. But do you think it was a risk when he does that to his friend Robin because viewers have also travelled with his friend all along?
Definitely, people will feel badly about Robin. But we have tried our best to shoot that scene in a way that doesn't bring emotion to the scene and people feel very less empathy for him. We wanted to show his friend being killed because that’s when people understand that there is no going back for Unni. He has now killed his closest confidant. It was an important scene that we cannot go without.
Besides Unni, most characters in the film are grey or dark. Was it a conscious portrayal?
Yes, everyone needs to have a grey shade in them, they need to be shrewd, if not it will not be relatable to people. He is in a world of crooks, and he is the biggest crook. That helped the film.
While the voiceover elevates the comedy, something that stood out for me was the background score. The music was rather soothing in places where it would normally be thrilling. Tell us about the film’s music choices.
We wanted to travel with Unni’s mind and he is very calm. So the background score reflects his mind. The film was more of a silent and atmospheric film initially, so we did it without too much music. It is only while editing the film that I started thinking about how it will reach the audience. That’s when I added the voiceover. So, when the voiceovers were added, the scope for dark humour increased and that’s when the entire pattern of the background score changed.
Was the climax fixed when you wrote the first draft?
The first thing I told Vimal was the climax. I told him I wanted to tell the journey of such a character and the film should end like this. We had another profession in mind but when I told Vimal the climax, he was of the opinion that the climax was really good and we could make that person a lawyer.
Did anyone want you to change the climax?
Some producers who came on board wanted to change the climax but I didn’t want to. The climax was the most important part of the film.
So was there difficulty in finding producers and casting actors?
It wasn’t difficult for me to find producers because I have been an editor for some time. The producers trusted me. But casting an actor has always been an issue because I don’t socialise much and I don’t have many actor friends. I am more of an introverted guy, so I didn’t have a wide network. And networking is important when you are casting. I couldn’t get people to trust me as they didn’t know me personally. And that is when I went back to Vineeth Sreenivasan.
You had a brilliant strategy for online marketing by creating social media accounts for the character. But you have also said that the film’s offline marketing was bad. How important is offline marketing for a film?
Offline marketing is definitely necessary because everyone does not have the time for social media. Of course, there are people on social media who will watch the film, but we should also target the general crowd. If the general crowd needs to know a film’s existence, you need to make sure that they see the film through posters, hoardings, ads, notices, television spots, and radio spots. But in our case, many people came to know the existence of a film called Mukundan Unni Associates only one week after its release and by that time, it was already late.
What went wrong with offline marketing and distribution?
The distributors were new and they didn’t know how to go about the entire marketing of the film. Their lack of experience brought in the issue.
You requested on Twitter that though the film is available in all languages, the real effect will be better if watched in Malayalam with subtitles. What do you think is gained and lost in translation?
That is just how I prefer people to watch the film. But that is only my creative indulgence. I am sure people have enjoyed the film even in other languages. What I think is that the humour is conveyed as it is in Malayalam with English subtitles. Maybe some of the parts are not equally conveyed when you watch it in some other language. I am talking in terms of the voiceovers and that is something I feel will not be communicated exactly in other languages.
What are your plans for the sequel? Do you already have a story in mind?
I have an idea, and Vimal and I have discussed it. He is working on another film with someone else. Once he is back, we will start writing sometime by the end of this year. Hopefully, the shoot will begin by the end of 2024. I am hoping to make another film in the meantime.