Last week, Film Companion launched a new event called FC Blockbuster with an aim to screen quality non-Hindi films for Mumbai audiences. The series was kicked off with the Malayalam film Virus, a unique medical thriller on the recent Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala. Just as a concept, a film on Nipah virus sounds rather dry. The first thought that crosses your mind is 'this would have never been green-lit in Bollywood'. But director Aashiq Abu magically crafts a nail-biting mystery out of this real-life tragedy. He later told me that even the Kerala health minister K.K Shailaja told him, "Please don't make it like a documentary. It should be interesting."
Post the screening, a perplexed member of the audience asked Abu, "How are all of you (in Kerala) making much better films than Bollywood? What are you doing? What are your references? What do you read and what do you watch?" It's a valid question, and the truth is we were all thinking it.
I tried to get to the bottom of this when I met Abu the next day. The reticent director reluctantly agreed to give the interview, but eventually offered some lovely insights on the "very small" Kerala industry, why he can't stick to one genre and dealing with the failure of his film Gangster by making another version of it.
I'm sure you've realised that, today, Malayalam cinema is no longer confined just to Kerala. There are people here, too, who are watching your work. What does that mean to you as a filmmaker?
It's very exciting for me. It's because of the internet that you are talking to me, otherwise I don't know how many years it would take for me to come to this (in Mumbai) industry and make something. After Kumbalangi Nights released, immediately there were reviews on Film Companion. There's now a serious discussion on our films.
Because of this, our audience base is growing year on year which is very overwhelming for us. Thanks to Amazon Prime it is magical to us that people start writing again about our films after its digital release. It's almost like another release. I'm still getting reviews of Virus!
My sense is that the Malayalam film industry functions totally differently from Mumbai. I remember once meeting Lijo Jose Pellissery at a film festival a few weeks before the release of Ee.Ma.Yau and he had no promotion plan and was still cutting his trailer.
Lijo has a very decent track record so people know him and they are waiting for his films. They will definitely come to see what he's made. You don't have to push them.
It's amazing that you've come to a place where people trust your ability as artists and you don't need to push people to the theatres.
Again, it's the internet. The place became a little more democratic and transparent. Before that filmmaking was treated like it was rocket science. We felt that no one can enter this space and you'll be charged some dakshina for even looking into the eye piece of the camera. But after shifting to the digital format and the internet, making films became very much possible for people like me too.
Malayalis are very active online. They keep themselves updated on everything that's happening. In Kerala people are very curious about what's happening in the arts and you can't cheat them.
When I did my first movie Salt N' Pepper you could release a film like that only in 20 theatres in Kerala. The industry was so shut that you couldn't enter with a small film. You just wouldn't get theatres and we didn't have budgets for big flex boards and the big outdoor posters.
Luckily, that time Facebook was becoming popular. In fact, in the opening titles of Salt N' Pepper we put a 'Thanks for FB' card. So the internet crowd helped a lot in spreading the word on these kind of new filmmakers and now there are many more of us coming in.
But you also seem like you're uncomfortable with self promotion.
Yes. I don't think you need to push cinema to people. They know what's going on. We put out posters and after that we don't need to tell them more. You have to do your homework first and then rely on people to come. Cinema is the audience's need. They are the ones spending money and giving time from their lives.
When I was reading up on you, I saw that you and your peers are often referred to as the 'next-gen' or 'fresh breed' of filmmakers in Malayalam cinema. What change have you'll brought?
It's a cyclic process that every industry goes through. We have made a few movies that are kind of realistic and people are taking to it. But we didn't do anything deliberately. Me, Anwar Rasheed and Rajeev Ravi – we are all from the same college. I'd say all we did was follow our hearts. Take someone like Lijo too, he never assisted anyone. His father was an actor, so he also came from a different background. I met Syam Pushkaran at an event and then we started working together. All of this evolved gradually.
The failure of my film Gangster was a huge blow but I totally understand where it was coming from. People trusted me and I didn't deliver so they have every right to react like that.
Did you'll stand out because you'll came with no connections in the industry?
Yes, we were all local boys. We knew that at that time there were very lazy filmmakers making movies. I won't say that they are less talented. But the writers and actors were both lazy. They made films that made them comfortable.
Was there a film that changed the game?
Around 2010-2011 there was some kind of change that happened. It started with Salt N' Pepper and Chaappa Kurish. Soon similar kind of films started coming and now the frequency is very fast. Today you have different kinds of films like Thanneer Mathan Dinangal and Kumbalangi Nights. We have more films left to release this year like Trance. Every film is different and every one is hardworking. No one is lazy.
Also all of us share a friendly relationship – like a theatre friendship. We watch movies and read books and do our work.
Do you watch a lot of movies?
Nowadays I'm very lazy and I've become very bad at watching films. I have these kind of shifts. For the last one year I haven't watched enough. Also, while working on a movie I don't watch much of other films. You get confused with the narrative and I fear that my vision will get diluted.
Then what do you do to keep yourself creatively inspired?
I have lots of friends with whom I just talk and we travel a lot. We have a cafe in Kochi called Cafe Papaya. It's basically an art cafe and we also have events like music shows. We are 8 partners who have been running it for 7 years now. It's become quite popular now and we just upscaled it to a major centre in Cochin. At Papaya, we have a good coffee and tea collection and the menu is local-international, much like our movies! We take local stories and mix it with continental flavour.
The other thing that helps me a lot with ideas is driving. Whenever I have a creative block I drive off. We just chill somewhere and I know some idea will come for sure.
On Virus, you had three writers working with you. Even on your other films you've collaborated with writers. Are you not interested in writing your own script and then directing it?
Actually I started writing my first film Daddy Cool and the screenplay was by me. After it released I realised it's not going to work like this. I'm not that good a writer. And then I met Syam and Dileesh (Pothan) who were writing so well that I never wanted to do it again. But we all work together and we gel very well as friends. Also I don't know how to write by myself. I need people to bounce ideas off and take everyone's perspective.
Thank to the internet, the Malayalam industry became a little more democratic and transparent. Before that filmmaking was treated like it was rocket science. We felt that no one can enter this space and you'll be charged some dakshina for even looking into the eye piece of the camera.
You also keep shifting genres with every film. Do you get bored easily or is this your way of challenging yourself?
Yes, that is very important. I told you that lazy filmmaking is very dangerous. You have to keep yourself interested so I have to constantly come out of my comfort zone by challenging myself. I guess that is my technique.
Is there a genre you enjoy a little more than others?
Actually, I love doing love stories. I made Mayaanadhi and even Salt N' Pepper was a love story although little bit dark. I can come close to characters in a love story.
At the screening yesterday you said that the Malayalam audience is hard to please. Is that what has ensured a higher standard of filmmaking in Kerala?
Yes, absolutely. People love you, appreciate you, but once you start giving them bad films, they will react. The failure of my film Gangster was a huge blow but I totally understand where it was coming from. People trusted me and I didn't deliver so they have every right to react like that. It's the power of cinema, you just can't control your emotions.
I always knew it wasn't a strong film. It was just a fascination to do a gangster film with Mammukka (Mammootty). That time I was being a lazy filmmaker and I thought I will pull it off somehow and it didn't happen. I was making something I was not comfortable with. The homework was not good and I could not pull attention away from the superstar.
Did you realise this during the making or after you saw the entire film?
During the making, maybe around the 50 per cent mark, we knew the second half is weak. We tried our best to add some gimmicks but again the Malayali audience! They told me straight – if you want to do a gangster film, do your homework and come.
Will you make another gangster film?
Yes, yes. Next year, maybe. And this time with a better script. This will be the second version of Gangster. This one Syam will write. He was busy earlier so he couldn't contribute anything to Gangster. It's his and Dileesh Pothan's idea to make a version two of the film. We want to now make the initial idea of the film, what we actually set out to do the first time around. But I shifted 11-12 times from the original script and eventually it was not at all connected with the first idea.
For someone just discovering Malayalam cinema, what are the five films you'd recommend?
First is Kumbalangi Nights and it has nothing to do with the fact that it's been made by my friends. It's a really personal movie and as a cinema lover I would recommend it to others so that they also feel that connection. Then Maheshinte Prathikaram. This story about a man choosing to not wear chappals till he takes revenge happened in Syam's birth place. It was his father's friend who said he won't wear chappals. The incident happened during Syam's childhood and he kept it in his mind. Apart from that there's Amen, Rajeev Ravi's Annayum Rasoolum and Lijo's Ee.Ma.Yau.