One afternoon, while Malayali director Jayaraj Rajasekharan Nair was on a boat on Vembanad lake in Kerala, the longest in India, he noticed an elderly fisherman with luxurious salt-and-pepper handlebar moustache approaching from the opposite direction. Those days he was working on the pre-production of Ottal (The Trap), his 40th film, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s short story Vanka. Intent on giving his film an authentic feel, the award-winning director decided to do away with the audition and look-test routine. Instead, Jayaraj wanted to cherry-pick his cast to tell a heartwrenching tale about a man and his grandson and explore the ugly reality of child labour. So when his eyes fell on a fisherman, K Vasudevan, the filmmaker knew his lead actor had “rowed into his project”.
If Vasudevan, who formerly worked as a mahout at a timber depot in Kottayam, was surprised by the acting offer that followed the next day, he did not show it. “I need money. As long as you pay me, I can do any job you assign me,” came the 70-year-old’s nonchalant answer to Jayaraj. Vanka, the original story written nearly 130 years ago, is about an orphaned nine-year-old shoemaker’s apprentice in Moscow who writes a letter on Christmas Eve, pleading with his grandfather to take him home. Jayaraj’s adaptation is set in the backwaters of Kerala where the grandfather is a duck herder called Vallyappachayi, and with his rugged and earthy appearance, Vasudevan is perfect for the role.
Finding the young actor who plays the grandson Kuttappayi — a free-spirited boy who is sent to work in a fireworks factory — was another coincidence. Jayaraj was visiting a friend in Cochin when the latter’s acquaintance, a theatre actor, dropped in with his nine-year-old son, Ashanth K Sha. Fascinated with the boy’s innocence and the way he conversed, Jayaraj knew he had found Kuttappayi. Later, he chose several other non-actors to play significant roles in the movie, which has been mostly shot in Kerala’s Kottayam district with sync sound.
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The film, showcasing the languid rural life and the sheer beauty of the backwaters has “quite unexpectedly” — by his own admission — won a slew of prestigious awards. The citation of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), where, last month, Ottal bagged four major awards, summed up its appeal: “Its strong cinematic language, interweaving local and planetary concerns; humankind’s relationship to nature and nurture and child human right — all grounded in a deep honest connection to culture and place.” Ottal has also won the National Award Best Screenplay Writer (Adapted), for Josy Mangalath, and Best Film on Environment Conservation/Preservation apart from two major awards at the Mumbai Film Festival (MFF), 2015.
Though the film did average business in Kerala when it released in November 2015, its journey continues. This February, it will be screened in the Berlin Film Festival’s Generation Kplus section (where Killa was featured in 2014). The Madrid International Film Festival is likely to be its next stop. Bolstered by the appreciation his film has been receiving, Jayaraj is planning to re-release the movie across India. “We will decide on a date once we return from Berlin,” he says.
For Jayaraj, the most overwhelming response to the film came from the audience of Half Ticket, a special section for schoolchildren curated at the MFF. Monica Wahi, who curated the Half Ticket section, describes Ottal as “a stunningly beautiful and lyrical film”. Wahi says, “At its heart lies a deep sense of empathy and respect for those who lead very difficult lives at the margins of our society. The children’s jury at MFF voted for Ottal not because it is a film on child labour, class disparities or environment but because it provided a sort of kaleidoscopic experience — authentic and fantastical at once.”
Though child labour is pivotal to Ottal’s plot, the film does not dwell on it much, barring the climax. Instead, the film allows the camera — handled by MJ Radhakrishnan, an old collaborator of Jayaraj — to capture regular scenes from village life, idle talk in toddy shops, swathes of waterlily plants, and starlit skies. There are also some characters who add charm and quirkiness to this world — a broody hen, nameless dog, a postman who never has a letter for the village and an old angler who never catches a fish, among others. “I did not want to show Kuttappayi’s loss of childhood alone. The film also talks about the abundance of beauty that he is going to be deprived of when he works in a city,” says Jayaraj.
Although he had studied to be an engineer, Jayaraj was convinced that “cinema is his destiny”, after watching movies by the masters — Akira Kurosawa, Vittorio de Sica and Satyajit Ray. After assisting renowned director Bharathan for nearly three years, Jayaraj made his debut with Vidyarambham (1988). His first major success was Desadanam (1996), a film about a 10-year-old boy who was chosen to be a sanyasi. During the initial years of his career, he focused more on commercial films; later, he successfully straddled both commercial and parallel cinema.
The 55-year-old has been veering towards the subjects he can emotionally relate to, such as Karunam (1999) and Atbhutham (2005) which are about old-age and euthanasia respectively. These movies are also part of his ambitious “Navarasa” project. “I want to release one film every year based on a rasa,” he says. For Veeram, the fifth film in this series, he has signed up actor Kunal Kapoor, known for his performance in Rang De Basanti (2006). The trilingual film is based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and set in north Malabar. Inspired by Vadakkan Pattukal, the medieval ballads of the region, the film also makes an abundant use of Kalaripayattu. This is not his first adaptation of one of the Bard’s plays. In 1997, Jayaraj adapted Othello, with Kerala’s Theyyam festivals as a backdrop, for Kaliyattam.
Jayaraj has begun shooting Veeram, and has moved to the complex Shakespearean world of ambition, betrayal and guilt. There is also a new-found resolution in him. After the “incredible” Ottal experience, he is now particular about sticking to just parallel cinema. “For me, this is the right time to stop making commercial films. I feel a sense of commitment to take up more socially relevant subjects and art-house cinema gives me the creative freedom to do so,” he says.