I’m still in shock: ‘Helen’ director Mathukutty Xavier on winning National Award

In an interview to TNM, debutant director Mathukutty Xavier explains how they got the idea for ‘Helen’ and about shooting in a real freezer with Anna Ben, the lead.
Mathukutty Xavier
Mathukutty Xavier
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Vineeth Sreenivasan was reading their script. Mathukutty Xavier, Alfred Kurian Joseph and Noble Babu Thomas waited for Vineeth’s feedback as the singer-songwriter, actor and director paused reading halfway through. Vineeth then calmly announced that he would produce the film. This was in January-February 2019 and Helen, the film, was made, released and loved in the months that followed.

Two years later, Helen has won the National Indira Gandhi Award for Best Debut Feature. COVID-19 had delayed the National Awards by months. When the award was announced, Mathukutty, the debutant director of the film, was with co-writers Alfred and Noble, discussing the various good films that were competing for the awards this year.

“We didn’t have the slightest inkling we’d get it. I’m still in shock,” Mathukutty tells TNM, a day later. Helen, in which Anna Ben played the lead character, was a survivor thriller with not many big names in it. But it clicked, connected and did well after an initial lull.

Word of mouth appears to have worked for the film. Helen revolves around a young nursing graduate who is trying to get a job in Canada to make some quick money. While she waits for her Canada break, she works part-time at a restaurant in a mall where a life-changing incident occurs. It also shows her adorable relationship with her dad (Lal). Anna Ben said in an earlier interview to TNM that it was more a person-oriented film than a woman-centric one.

“We never thought about it as woman-centric or about people accepting such a movie. Perhaps that’s why we weren’t worried about making it,” says Mathukutty.

Honest answers come easily to Mathukutty, who is not entirely new to the industry. He has been making short films with Noble and Alfred for a while now, but most of it was for practice. “We have not published them. We wanted to understand how the conversation or mood settings worked. Especially since I have not assisted anyone before,” he explains.

In 2015, Mathukutty quit his job as a graphic designer cum video producer to dedicate all his time to writing films. Alfred and Noble joined him later. Noble, a friend of Vineeth, also turned actor for most of Mathukutty’s short films. “We had in fact written a few scripts together and were planning to make a different feature film. But we couldn’t get the dates of the actors we wanted for that film. So we thought of doing a smaller film while we waited. And the idea for Helen had been there for a while.”

Alfred had the habit of collecting interesting news reports and clips from across the world. “That’s how we came across several instances of people getting trapped in freezers. In some cases they lost their lives, but then in some miraculous cases, they had escaped,” says Mathukutty.

The team of three walked into freezers in export companies in Alappuzha to study the temperature and other settings. “There, some Bengali workers told us stories of getting trapped in freezers for five or six hours sometimes and moving things around to retain the body heat. In some other stories, we read about people eating chocolates as that would help them fight the cold. We put all these facts together for the film.”

Minute observations were made. How Anna’s face make-up should change to red and then blue – colours showing the blood rush, the stretch and the paleness. Poor Anna worked in real minus degree temperatures in the waitress’s uniform which offered little protection from the cold. Mathukutty says the rest of the crew were covered in jackets!

They also decided that the character should be played by someone really thin. “A person with more body fat could survive longer. We wanted it to be someone who had to fight hard. Anna is really thin.”

It was Lal who suggested Anna’s name. The writers knew halfway through the script that Lal would make the perfect dad for Helen. “He has been of such great help. Having directed so many films earlier, we could ask his help regarding shots or settings or anything. It was he who suggested Anna’s name and we realised that would be very fresh,” Mathukutty says.

Watch: Song from Helen

For Helen’s boyfriend, Mathukutty put Noble on screen. “Not only am I comfortable with him, but we also didn’t want it to be an established actor, taking attention away from Helen.”

They got Aju Varghese to play the annoying bad cop, a role he performed very well. “He and Noble had studied together. He had said even earlier that he’d want to be a part of Noble’s movie, whatever the role was going to be.”

There is another important character played by a tiny rat. In the freezer, you first see Helen getting scared by the rat but then she pets it and keeps it close to her. “That’s human nature. Even a creature we think is disgusting could become important to us when we yearn for company. It was not fake, it was in fact a gerbil (a rodent that’s also called desert rat). We shot with two identical gerbils. Anna was quite comfortable with it, she is great with animals,” the director says.

The film received good reviews even with its unusual experimentation. “We thought it’s been a long time since Malayalam cinema had a survival drama. The last big one was Malutty, I think. So we thought it was about time we had another,” Mathukutty says.

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