Both your films Kumbalangi Nights (2019) and Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016) explore what it is to be a Malayali man today. Is this something you think about a lot?
I have been thinking about men, emotions and masculinity for a long time, starting from Maheshinte Prathikaaram. There is always anger and desperation in films. But there is something more to men. There have been older writers like P Padmarajan in Malayalam cinema, who have extracted this kind of emotion. I am just following them…I see the nuances of being a man in the modern world, better.
Where did the idea of Kumbalangi Nights come from?
I started with the idea of a dysfunctional family. All families are dysfunctional, of course. I wanted to explore that. There was also this idea of ‘the complete man’, who can also be the dysfunctional man. That is the main theme of the movie: how Saji (played by Soubin Shahir) and Shammy (Fahadh Faasil) differ from each other. What is a complete man? What does he believe in? Is he someone who can show his emotions and break down at any point of time? This aura of a ‘complete man’ puts pressure on most men. He should be strong, he should not cry. Mard ko dard nahi hota hai (men don’t feel pain). And it’s from here that violence comes. I just want to tell men that it is okay to be emotional.
Do you see people like Saji around you? And where do you fit in? Are you more like Saji or Shammy?
I am mostly like Shammy only. Like him, I have a particular plate on which I have to have my lunch or dinner. I looked into myself and the dirty masculinity that I own and possess, while writing his character. For Saji, I had to look around, at my father and my cousins, who are vulnerable and nice people.
Maheshinte… also challenges the idea that men have to take revenge.
The vow or the shapath is the feature of a classic epic movie. In this case, he has vowed he will not wear chappals till he has taken revenge. We wanted to make a different revenge story. It has a climax which follows the formula, but the important thing is how we tell the story.
When you show men like Mahesh and Saji in the kitchen, or uncomfortable with the idea of macho-ness, where does it come from?
All the women in my life, whether it is my partner or my mother or my friends, have been molested. Ninety-nine per cent of women in the world have experienced sexual harassment or abuse at least once. Which makes at least 50-80 per cent men molesters. This disturbs me. It makes me a molester, actually, if the statistics are correct. This disturbs me very deeply. What disturbs you deeply comes out in your stories. And so, I want to make men less violent through my stories and films.
Tell me about yourself. Where did you grow up? How did you come to films?
I am from Alappuzha. My father was a businessman; we are a very middle-class family. My mother used to read and write a lot. I picked up my interest from her, though as a child, I would mostly draw cartoons. I was always interested in watching films.
After school, I studied fashion designing and worked in Delhi for close to a year. Then I left my job and returned to do a diploma in filmmaking. Even then, I wanted to direct a film. I went around looking for an assistant director’s job. But whenever I would go asking for a job, directors would ask me, ‘Do you have a story? Are you a writer?’ There was a poverty of stories, and writers. And so, it was a very practical thing for me to become a writer.
I started my journey in 2011 with a movie called Salt N’ Pepper (directed by Aashiq Abu). Since then, I have written around 12-13 films, mostly collaborations. But Maheshinte… and Kumbalangi… are my two solo writing credits.
In your interviews, you have spoken of how place is very important to your cinema. How did that shape Maheshinte…, for instance?
All the international films that we love watching have a place as a character in the film. I believe that local details add to the value of a movie, and are what make it art. I have learnt this from classic films and filmmakers, for instance, Bicycle Thieves (directed by Vittorio de Sica, 1948). Maheshinte… draws from a real incident that happened in my village. But Alappuzha is a coastal area. Dileesh Pothan (the director) and I wanted to set a story in Idukki. So, we took up a home and lived in Idukki for three-four months, to write and outline the film. We would go to the tea shop, and people would simply come and tell us their stories.
How is it to work with Fahadh Faasil?
He has acted in most of my movies, five in all. I had shared the idea of Shammy, the perfect man, with him many years before. I told him: if you didn’t want to do it, I am fine. He was having a good run, doing successful family films. But it was very courageous of him to agree to do this role. Most other stars are very conscious of their image.
Is it true that you like to work with teams and partnerships?
I like working in partnerships, I like to bring a lot of viewpoints into my story. People with similar thoughts, ideas about filmmaking, ideologies come together to make cinema all over the world. This is what happens here also. It’s the similarity of thoughts and beliefs that brings people like Aashiq Abu, Dileesh Pothan and me together. We didn’t go to the same college, or school. It is the ideas that bring us under a roof.
This has been a very good time for Malayalam cinema.
It is not something that has happened in two-three years, it has taken a decade of hard work. It has been a collaborative effort of writers and filmmakers such as Aashiq Abu, Lijo Jose Pellissery, Rajesh Pillai. A lot of newcomers came into the industry. They are fearless and not bothered about commercial success. Also, it’s a small industry, we can experiment with a lot of things. People are educated, they like masala movies but they also like the contemplative films we make. To a large extent, we give credit for this change to the audience.
You have written many complex, oddball male characters. Who among the women characters you have written are your favourite?
Women are very complex to write. I want to be a feminist. I try to write female characters to the best of my ability. In our movies, not much thought goes into the heroine’s role. All the attention goes to the hero — his struggle, his family, his mother. Everything belongs to the hero. And we make films that sympathise or empathise with the hero. The heroine’s life does not get that thought or attention. What I have tried to do is put some more thought into the women characters I write. That is only the way we can build them.
There is a scene in Kumbalangi Nights, where Saji talks about his stepmother, and he says she always smelt of pain balm. Did that come from thinking about women’s lives?
That’s my mom. She always smelt of Vicks VapoRub. She had a full-time job in the post office, she looked after us, she did her job. For the last 35-40 years, she has been running around, working hard, and also finding time to be with us. Mothers do such underrated work.