Actor Salim Kumar once said about Sathyan Anthikad films— "His films are like that local bus that only travels in one route." But then it's that familiarity that has been his biggest trump card. One of the most influential Malayalam filmmakers, with a career spanning over three decades, Anthikad along with writer Sreenivasan, was instrumental in upholding the golden period of Malayalam cinema. Films that were rooted, original, witty and compellingly ordinary. In fact, much before Dileesh Pothan made waves with his rustic classics, it was Anthikad who made films that resonated with the ordinary man. His characters, dwelling in villages, spoke without artifice and the humour was deliciously organic. True, in the last few years, despite churning films at regular intervals, he has struggled to replicate the quality and originality of his earlier films. But he has stayed relevant, compared to his contemporaries, with young actors (Dulquer Salmaan, Fahadh Faasil and Nivin Pauly) still eager to be part of his films. After the dismal Jomonte Suvisheshangal in 2016, he returned late last year with Njan Prakashan. The film also saw him collaborate with Sreenivasan after a long gap. With the film still running successfully, here's edited experts from an interview:
You teamed up with Sreenivasan after Yathrakarude Sradhakku which released 16 years ago…
Teaming up with Sreenivasan was the high point this time. We have this unusual sync; our tastes and thoughts are alike. Honestly, we didn't expect the gap to stretch this long. Earlier, whenever we discussed our protagonist, it would always be Mohanlal. This time we had a story about a typical Malayali who studied nursing but didn't want to take it up…someone who hates to see others do well. Today, the actor best suited for such a role is Fahadh Faasil. So that's another point of excitement—Mohanlal then, Fahadh now. Fahadh is also a fan of our Mohanlal films.
He is often called the next Mohanlal…
I think that's being said out of love for Mohanlal. They are two different actors. The similarity is only in the way they both approach a role. Mohanlal's transformation is a sight to behold. Be it the unemployed Gopalakrishna Panicker or TP Balagopalan, we are convinced about their money crunches and frustrations. Fahadh is Fazil's son, educated in Ooty and abroad and he speaks English without an accent. But Prakashan is very ordinary. He struggles with English and when he transforms into that character we are reminded of Mohanlal. The credibility with which they become a character is what makes them alike.
What's the challenge of making a film in this social media age?
Such factors don't bother me. I just make the film I want to. If I become too conscious I might never be able to make a film. Social media cannot really make or break a film. Probably it can delay the watching of a film by a day or two but otherwise, if the film is good, and if it has a destiny, it will run.
The marketing of Odiyan and its aftermaths…do you think there is a limit to how much one can sell a film?
I don't think there is a limit. Here they tried a strategy and it reaped benefits for its producer. The publicity and wide release created a buzz and they got a great initial run. But I guess the problem started post that, when they started responding to the hate campaign. You are giving fodder to those who are expecting it. Odiyan is one of the most hyped films of recent times. When a film is given such hype, it invariably becomes a liability.
We didn't make any great promises about Njan Prakashan. If I had claimed that it is a world class film or that Fahadh will win an Oscar, people would have laughed. You must be careful with your claims. Keep a boundary in marketing. I am only concerned about online piracy. There is a world beyond Facebook and Twitter, inhabited by a lot of sensible people. Take cues from Sreenivasan who self-trolls—like he says in Vadakkunokkiyanthram—I am dark, short and ugly. And we think hey, he isn't that bad to look at. That's the trick.
Debates are still on about the recall value of today's films…
For that, we need to wait for a few years. Any piece of art when it travels beyond time can be called a classic. Appunni, Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu or Sandesham were ordinary films during the time of its release, but today they are celebrated. Those with difference, substance or individuality will stand out. There is no connection between box office success and great cinema. When films have a connection to life, they are remembered. But yes, such movies are rare now.
Maybe a Maheshinte Prathikaram will fit that bill?
Yes. Or a Sudani from Nigeria or Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. They will be remembered for a really long time.
Your supporting characters have been unforgettable. So were the actors who breathed life into them. Oduvil, Sankaradi, Kuthiravattam Pappu…Do you miss having them around?
They are irreplaceable. During the 100-day celebrations of Thalayanamanthram, Padmarajan told me— "Sathyan you brought the people on the fringes to the mainstream." The characters Oduvil, Philomena, Mammukkoya or Sankaradi did—the incredibly ordinary people—the karyasthan, milk man, barber, tea shop owner etc were memorable. Philomena maintained her own style of acting. During Sasneham, I remember the rousing applause she got when she entered the scene. In the black and white era, Sankaradi acted better than the leading heroes. We didn't realise it then but now we do. Casting now is more tedious.
I am sure Oduvil, Sankaradi or a Philomena didn't require much briefing…
Yes, there was such bonhomie on the sets. They just need a narration.
What's the difference in approach then and now?
I don't feel a difference since I am coming up with films at regular intervals. And I don't usually like to work with selfish, insecure actors. Character is as important as talent to me. Innocent and Sreenivasan, along with having fine talent, are lovely people. I don't see a difference in sincerity then and now.
Is there a genre you still want to experiment with?
It's more the story that fascinates me. It's either that or someone has to bring a story to me. That's why my films follow a pattern. Even the ones I made that can be called action/suspense/thrillers—Kalikkalam, Pingami, Artham, they weren't the kind of films Joshiy would make. They were my versions of that genre because the family, humour and relationships would still run parallel in the story.
Which were the recent films you liked?
Piku, October, 96…
Do you keep watching your films?
I don't, because I keep finding faults in them. Nadodikkattu is one film I might watch when it comes on TV. Or Sandesham.
Women in cinema are an active point of discussion everywhere. Do you follow those debates?
Discussions are fine, but I think a lot of these media trials only make it worse. Nothing fruitful comes out of. I suggest we use such discussions creatively to bring newer ideas and theories into cinema.