Long before the OTT boom, Ajayan Venugopalan, an NRI engineer-turned-filmmaker, made the Malayalam sitcom Akkara Kazhchakal (2008-10), which went on to become a YouTube sensation, following its telecast on television. He collaborated with his friend Abi Varghese to create the comedy, which chronicled the life of a middle-class Malayali family settled in the United States.
The duo then got together in 2019 to retell their famous sitcom with a Gujarati backdrop titled Metro Park. Ajayan, who is working on season three of Metro Park, is currently gearing up for the release of his first feature film Shiv Shastri Balboa starring Anupam Kher and Neena Gupta. And the filmmaker is back to narrate yet another story of Indians in America: What happens when two NRI senior citizens decide to get back to India but get entangled in a world of crime?
In this conversation, Ajayan tells us about the film’s making, the idea behind Akkara Kazhchakal and why he chose to tell Shiv Shastri Balboa in the form of a film.
How did the shift from an engineer to a filmmaker happen?
I have always wanted to be a lyricist. I composed my own songs and sold around five copies of the CD. Luckily, one of those CDs got stuck in the car of Mr Abi Varghese. It was his father’s car. The song was played every day, and eventually, he became curious about the music and who composed it. That’s how we initially met. We both wanted to do something in cinema and brainstormed ideas together. We wanted our ideas to be fresh, and we came up with the concept of Malayali NRIs. Then we made the sitcom Akkara Kazhchakal. It became one of the very first web series, at least among Indian content at the time. Then, I went on to work with Shyam Prasad (Director of English: An Autumn in London), and now I am here with this film.
Were you ever skeptical about making a sitcom at a time when a comedy like Akkara Kazhchakal was still very new in the Malayalam television space?
No, we were just having fun with it. Our plan was to do three episodes, and we were sure people would ask us to stop, and we would stop. Three became five, and we started getting congratulatory messages, and people told us they were waiting for the next episode. That’s when we realised that people were ready to watch our content.
Tell us about the origins of Akkara Kazhchakal
We both were doing our full-time jobs but managed to write 20 pages every week and churn out episodes at the time. We produced the sitcom ourselves. We needed only biryanis and tapes to record. I used to do the sound, and Abhi used to handle the camera and edits. So, it was practically a two-person unit. And all the actors were paid in biryanis (laughs). Looking back, I don’t know how we did this.
What was the casting process like if you paid them in biryanis?
What I have learned through the sitcom is that finding actors in the US is difficult. So, you cannot write the character and try to cast somebody for it. I started interacting with people and crafted the character around them. If you speak to the cast of Akkara Kazhchakal, you will realise that their real-life behaviour is very close to their reel characters. This helped us get the best out of them.
Be it Shiv Shastri Balboa or Akkara Kazhchakal, most of your stories are centred around NRIs and are replete with humour. Tell us about that...
My first love is writing. And as a writer, I would like to document this first-generation immigration experience. We only see the glitz and glamour of it from the outside, but it does come with a lot of struggle, sacrifice and tears. And as a group, Indians are the only immigrants who, deep down, long to go back and settle in India. There are very few writers from the US, so our stories are not being told. I want to tell these stories, especially in mainstream media.
Is that also why you are doing a feature film?
Yes. In a way, although there is some glamour about it, the mainstream media generally tries to ignore our stories. And it has been hard. Even with Shiv Shastri Balboa, it kind of gets labelled as an NRI film. But when you look at Akkara Kazhchakal or Metro Park, we are just looked at as Indians like everybody else. We have our own struggles, such as identity crises, which I somehow want to tell as mainstream content.
Tell us what draws you to humour as a narrative tool
Shiv Shastri Balboa talks about undocumented immigrants. It also tackles other issues like unemployment. But I always prefer to tell the story with humour because when you look at all these conflicts, unless somebody has died, there is always some amount of comedy associated with it. If there is conflict and confusion, there is always a chance for comedy, and I love to play with contrasts. So for me, the whole idea that two elderly Indians wearing a sari and a kurta are stuck somewhere in mid-Pennsylvania itself is funny. And the confusion and the cross-cultural issues that can come across make the whole premise very funny.
How important is the background score when you're making a film that depends on humour to alleviate the issues discussed?
I like to keep it very subtle. I like the acting, script and characters to bring out the comedy more than the music. If you watch the film, you might feel a lot of silence. And silence is also an essential tool to convey comedy. That being said, you can also see how music changes the film's mood. For example, one of my favourite music pieces in the film is when we introduce an undocumented worker doing a lot of chores in the house. The moment is sullen and conveys something powerful, but for the music, we have used Spanish guitar. So, the audience is constantly reminded, “Yeah, her life is tough, but there is nothing to cry about. Because she's enjoying the whole process.”
In the film, Anupam Kher’s character is from Madhya Pradesh, and Neena Gupta’s is from Hyderabad. Was it a conscious decision to make a north Indian and south Indian meet outside India?
There are a lot of subtle things I wanted to convey through this film. Neena Gupta plays a Christian character, and Anupam Kher a Shastri. There are boundaries of religion, caste, language, and everything else. In some sense, it is very superficial. And once you cross the physical boundary, that is India, you will look for somebody in a sari and feel comfortable. It doesn't matter whether she's from the south or north or other factors. For that matter, you feel elated when you see an Indian restaurant as well. So, after the third day in the US, the Indianess comes out. Those are the minor things I wanted to convey. Rather than noticing the differences, we always find a way to connect with each other.
As a filmmaker who rose to fame with a sitcom more than a decade ago, how do you look at the OTT boom today?
It looks like I am moving in the opposite direction. I have always wanted to experiment and explore. So far, I have done stories about immigrants set in the US. Now, I want to make films that are set in India. For me, it is about exploring the artist in me rather than going according to the trends.
So, are you planning to stay back in India?
Yeah, I will be spending a lot of time in India. We are doing Metro Park Season 3. I am also working on a couple of feature films, one of which is a psychological thriller. But writing is a very personal idea. I have my dog back at home in the US. Taking him for a walk and thinking of ideas to write is the best thing for me. I would definitely need that to recharge myself, but yes, I will be spending a lot of time in India.