Urvashi’s Kannamma, aka Appatha, runs a pickle manufacturing business in the village of Kaayilanpatti, while her only son is settled in the city. When his son requests her to stay in the city for a few days, she happily agrees. But it turns out that her son and his family are going on a vacation, and want Kannamma to take care of their dog. This is the plot of Priyadarshan's Appatha (streaming on Jio Cinema), a comedy-drama that follows the adventures of Kannamma who is scared of dogs. In a conversation with Film Companion, the director talks about working with Urvashi after 30 years, why he made Appatha as a Tamil film and more.
Edited excerpts below
I watched Appatha just yesterday and I thought it played out more like a live-action cartoon, along the lines of a warm Pixar movie. Of course, one can only imagine the effort that goes into creating real comedic chemistry between an actress like Urvashi and a dog…
A live-action cartoon. That’s how I would describe Appatha as well. The idea of the film was brought to me by a North Indian writer but I wanted the context to be Tamil. Of course you have an actress like Urvashi who is as fluent in Tamil as she in Malayalam, my mother tongue. That was why we were able to pull off the comedy scenes with so much ease. The scenes involving the dog too was helped by her ability to handle comedy. I wouldn’t have made this movie if not for Urvashi.
Even earlier, you’ve spoken about Urvashi’s calibre in handling comedy. For instance her performance in Michael Madana Kama Rajan (1990), in which she matches the performance of Kamal Haasan, has known to be one of your favourite. Yet you’ve only cast her once before this in Mithunam (1993). Why was that?
That’s true. I generally do not believe in writing a movie around the casting because then it becomes a project more than cinema. Even when I wanted to work with Urvashi back in the 90s, we didn’t get the chance to work it out because I too had gotten busy with my Hindi films for seven to eight years. But I’m so happy to be working with her again now for a film like Appatha.
There are many funny slapstick sequences that are set in one apartment. Now there are technologies like spot editing that might help you shoot such scenes to see if they’re working out or not. But how did you manage to create so many comedy sequences that involved so many shots back when there was nothing?
I do not use a spot editor even today. Call it 40 years of experience but my movies are constantly being edited in my head. That’s how I’m able to plan sequences like the ones between the dog and a senior actor like Urvashi with reasonable ease. When you’re able to see the film in your head, you become very economical in your shoots and you do not end up with hours and hours of unusable footage.
One of the things I found really interesting was how you were able to create so many jokes in Appatha that revolve around wordplay. You’ve been living in Chennai for many years but that kind of humour I’m sure is still very difficult to write.
That’s true. After we locked on the plot points, I wrote Appatha in Malayalam even though we wanted to make the film in Tamil. We had writers who then took my dialogues and scenes from Malayalam to Tamil. But in many instances, it was Urvashi who managed to find the perfect phrases or words to convert my ideas from Malayalam to Tamil. It would be a small change here or there but that would finally make the difference.
But you could have made the same film in Malayalam right, that too with the same lead? Or did you choose to make it in Tamil because the script demands a major shift from a village to a big city, which may not work out that well in the Kerala context?
More than that shift from a place like Pollachi to Chennai, the reason why I work in Tamil is because I work more freely here. In Malayalam there is the pressure of expectations. Then there are these demands for me to work with a certain set of actors. In Tamil, I get to make the kind of films I really want to. More than those big-budget films with many actors, the movies that I absolutely love to make are smaller films like Mukunthetta Sumitra Vilikkunnu (1988) or Vellanakkalude Naadu (1988). It’s the same reason I also made films like Sometimes (2016) and Kanchivaram (2008) in Tamil.