Mera Naam shaji

Nadirsha isn’t resting on the glory of his last two films, Amar Akbar Anthony (2015), starring Prithviraj, Indrajith and Jayasurya, and Kattappanayile Rithwik Roshan (2016). “I know successes and failures are fickle in this industry.” It’s probably why the actor, music director, lyricist, director, anchor, and singer would rather not put all his eggs in one basket. He is still the happiest on stage, belting out his favourite parody songs. Cinema is still a dream, an emotional experience he wants to share with friends. “Cinema should move you, it should be able to take away from the mundanity in our lives and it’s part of our nostalgia, alle?” We caught up with him a week before his third film’s release—Mera Naam Shaji.

You are introducing a new writer, Dileep Ponnan to Malayalam cinema. How did they reach you?

Earlier, when Dileep Ponnan was planning to direct this film, I was roped in as the music director. I had only listened to the song situations then. The producers felt a new director might not have much luck with getting the artistes they want, and their dates might clash. On the basis of my first two films, they wondered if I could direct it.

I adored Kumbalangi Nights, Maheshinte Prathikaram, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. But then it’s clear that we need films like Lucifer and Madhura Raja as well. And they need to be presented as they are, otherwise, they won’t work, and the brilliant Malayali audience are receptive to every kind of cinema today  

It’s an unusual combination—Asif Ali, Biju Menon and Baiju…

Apart from the fact that they were apt for the role, we liked the novelty of this partnership. It’s about three guys based in Kozhikode, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram, who share the same name. Slang is as important.

Suraj Venjaramoodu once said nine out of ten times, he has been asked to “produce” comedy on the spot. Is it a good thing or a bad thing?

It’s when you have nothing on paper that such a dire situation arises. I have heard that Jagathy Sreekumar used to do that a lot back then and was successful as he was such a terrific actor. Improvisation during comedy is another matter—it can be a word or a dialogue or simply a reaction. And I think most good actors do it. It takes the scene to another level. Be it Asif, Biju or Baiju, they had that skill and worked very well in the film. But I know a lot of directors who insist that their actors speak exactly what’s on paper, including the intonation. That’s another way of doing it.

Do you prefer to brief your actors thoroughly about their role? Or do you give hints?

Yes, more than anything else, this generation of actors insist on listening to the full script. They take their cinema very seriously. And that’s the way it should be — a single film can break or make you. Ego won’t work here.

What’s the biggest challenge of transforming comedy from paper to screen?

I have been doing it for years. I began with audio cassettes and we managed to create an impact without visuals, with just sounds. Then we did mimicry video cassettes where the metre of comedy required is even more than we need in cinema. The difference is only between good comedy and bad comedy. That experience helped in understanding exactly what works with the audience. Unless you present it well, a joke won’t work. The visualisation is very difficult. One man’s joke might not be another man’s humour and taste. I might not be able to perform it well myself, but I know how to make others do comedy. I can correctly measure the extent of comedy needed in a scene. That’s why Prithviraj got so much appreciation for AAA.

Did the success of Amar Akbar Antony surprise you?

Of course, I had prayed for its success, but not to this extent. A prominent writer who came to know about the child abuse angle warned me against making it. He said it might get an A certificate as he felt it would be a dicey prospect to shoot it without it turning vulgar. When my producer Allwyn Antony expressed reservations about investing in such a project, I told him I was committed to it. Nothing was going to dissuade me from making it. Being the father of two girls, I was extremely careful about not churning out scenes that would make a family cringe.

A Muslim sister being adopted by a Hindu family. That was a nice touch…

It wasn’t a deliberate attempt to give a secular angle to the plot. That part is taken from my friendships—be it Dileep, George, or my other friends, we have all lived like a big family. Honestly, till someone pointed it out to me, I didn’t realise it was anything special.

You are again dabbling with comedy. You can’t take Nadirsha away from comedy it seems…

This is a comedy plus thriller. But yes, comedy is something that is expected from me. If we are able to laugh at the comedy that is being written on paper, I think it has a fair chance of getting successfully converted on screen, with the help of good actors, of course.

Does it have anything to do with your mimicry background?

No. It has everything to do with my childhood spent in a small town with friends. That’s where I learnt the yin and yang of life, probably how all that humour became a part of me.

I thought there was a broad Siddique-Lal influence in your films, especially the brand of comedy…

Siddique-Lal—I consider them my gurus. Their films like Godfather, Ramji Rao Speaking and In Harihar Nagar stand the test of time. I want to be like them, but of course I can only aspire. Then I like Priyadarshan. When I take an action scene, I try to recall the many Joshiy films I have watched. Since I haven’t assisted anyone; whatever little I know about filmmaking is derived from all their films I grew up watching.

Today a film like Kumbalangi Nights is able to coexist with a mass entertainer like Lucifer.

I adored Kumbalangi Nights, Maheshinte Prathikaram, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. But then it’s clear that we need films like Lucifer and Madhura Raja as well. And they need to be presented as they are, otherwise, they won’t work, and the brilliant Malayali audience are receptive to every kind of cinema today. It’s a fantastic space out here.

You have worn many hats and continue to do so. Which was the one you initially wanted to fit into?

Acting was always what I wanted because I thought it was the easiest thing to do. Very soon I realised that I am not cut out for it and then I deviated into other fields. Swayam thiricharivu, ennokke parayille? (Isn’t that what we call self-realisation?)

What’s the kind of films you want to do?

I want to make films at my own pace and time, rather than go on a signing spree. I do have a parallel career apart from direction. Stage shows continue to be my biggest strength. A film’s success cannot be trusted but the stage can never betray you.

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