I owe some of my best career decisions to my friends: Director Vineeth Sreenivasan intv

In a chat with TNM, Vineeth Sreenivasan talks about his new movie ‘Hridayam’, working with Pranav Mohanlal, his writing process, and his obsession with music.
Director Vineeth Sreenivasan
Director Vineeth Sreenivasan
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Despite director-actor Vineeth Sreenivasan being on tenterhooks due to the uncertainty of the release date of his Malayalam movie Hridayam, he graciously agrees to this last-minute interview. And by the time the interview happens after changing the time twice, Vineeth confirms the release date for his film – Friday, January 21. “Theaters will go into crisis. So we made a decision to release it. I don’t know why there should be a Sunday lockdown. But hopefully, on Friday, we might see good footfalls,” says Vineeth.

Maybe, some people thrive under pressure. Vineeth surprisingly sounds buoyant during the interview. Hridayam is his fifth film as a director-writer and ever since its announcement, the film has been eagerly awaited. The film stars Pranav Mohanlal, Kalyani Priyadarshan, and Darshana Rajendran. Though Vineeth has only directed five films and scripted and collaborated with two films in a career spanning over a decade, he has had a terrific winning streak so far (except for the box office failure Thira). The audience seems to think he is the man with the Midas touch, the feel-good messiah who miraculously understands the pulse of the audience.

In a long chat with TNM, he talks about working with Pranav Mohanlal, his writing process, and his obsession with music.

How would you describe Hridayam?

It’s more of a coming-of-age drama. About this young man’s journey from 17 to 28 years, and the different phases in life. His relationships, challenges, friendships, and insecurities.

Is it based on your life?

I would say it’s based on a lot of incidents that happened during my college life in Chennai. The first half of the film is a cinematic dramatisation of real-life events. Thattathin Marayathu (his second film) is a campus I am not familiar with. But this is home.

Do you find it easy to write romance?

Let me put it this way. When you fall in love with your characters, they start to speak to you. We only nurture and help them grow. Maybe we will get inspiration from something or someone, and the world starts building around us. I had a rough scene order in my mind but discovered the depth and conversations once I started to write. Mostly, I will listen to a few songs, which will help me to be with the characters and see what they are doing. I have not written all my films like this.

But was it easier to go back in time and write romance for a younger self, perhaps? 

I have a lot of memories about every phase of my life. Be it when I was 17 or 25. I still recall what perfume my father wore when I was a child. Once we are in that mode, it becomes easier.

What led you to pick Pranav Mohanlal for the role?

In his film Aadhi, I liked certain portions in which his eyes and smile were quite something. Actors are often judged on their last performance while I try to see if I can extract something new from them. He has a similarity to Mohanlal from the 80s and 90s, whom we all love. This film required a charmer rather than just a good actor. Like Suriya in Vaaranam Aayiram and lead actor in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Pranav’s off-screen personality is fascinating. His walk, his nod.

Was it easy to mould him, considering he is known to be a reluctant actor?

He is not a reluctant actor. I think he is one of the most committed actors I have worked with. You give him scene 52, chart scenes 34 and 46 to read, and then say that you are going to start shooting scene 52, he doesn’t have to look at the paper once, he has it all memorised. He is that thorough. We were literally on the go. Actors might panic. He never panicked. He has a certain kind of sophistication that works with my character.

What about his dubbing?

Actually, during dubbing, we had several sittings. When a language is not familiar to you, we always give it an extra push. So I wanted him to do it without that push. I tried to bring the dialogue delivery to his sweet spot.

Whenever I speak to you, I feel like you have the ability to put anyone at ease. Does that explain why you are so good with actors?

I root for them. I am able to empathise with their moods and navigate the shoot accordingly. As an actor, you are being watched and judged. But with Pranav, it was difficult to understand his moods. He always had a smile.

Music is such a key component in your films. It seldom goes wrong.

When I write, there is a rhythm. I connect everything in my life with music. Music and sound are something that I live with. I tell Divya (his wife) that I walk with a background score in my head. That’s never a pressure. I write songs like I write my scene. It will have an intro, background (BG), second stanza, third stanza. That’s why the song BG and charanam fit so well. Look at the song featuring Darshana Rajendran in the movie.

Do you also have a say in the voices who bring the song to life? 

There isn’t anything I haven’t discussed with Hisham (music director). We have been conversing regularly for the last two years. Like the song that KS Chitra sang, she is the star and we needed a star equal to her to retain the beauty of the song. That star had to be an instrument. We found it with a Tambour from Istanbul, which is a primitive version of the tambura and it can be played like a mandolin or guitar. You can hear metallic plucks that make you feel like your heart is breaking into bits. When her voice ends, this instrument starts. It gives the song another layer of depth. Every instrument and singer is important.

Writers have a lot of quirks when it comes to writing. What’s yours?

I need to love the characters before writing them. It’s only when you are emotionally invested in the characters will you start to love them. We don’t know them initially; they develop and soon seem like real people. After a point, we start loving them. We can also hear what we have in our mind or sometimes just listen to what they say and simply copy that.

That sounds eerie.

Not every time though. Oru Vadakkan Selfie, for instance, I wrote from the brain. I only thought of what Dhyan Sreenivasan (his brother) will say and then the humour organically came.

I heard you don’t like rehearsals...

Not at all. It depends on the actors. Darshana Rajendran for instance has strong areas. I don’t even brief her at times. I just make her listen to music. Sometimes we just shoot it with the music. Like we shot a sequence with the Cinema Paradiso theme or Namukku Parkaan Munthirithoppukal. If a scene has more moments and choreography, we rehearse. But I make sure all the energy is not drained during rehearsal and the best shot is reserved for the final take.

Creating mood with music. That must be something new for actors?

I don’t know if anyone else is doing it. But this I feel helps them to get into the mindscape of the characters.

I also heard you don’t like to experiment with sync sound?

I love watching in-sync sound. Dubbing I feel gives me a reason to write a new screenplay. In post-production, during a conversation, I can write something new about a character’s reaction if lip sync isn’t an issue. You don’t have these privileges while doing sync sound. Background characters' details can also be sorted in dubbing and the story world can be made bigger.

Though you said Darshana reminded you of yesteryear actor Karthika, I felt she looked more like Jalaja.

Some old-world charm is there about her. And her theatre experience is of great help. She can emote easily.

Basil Joseph started as your associate in Thira. Did you anticipate his success?

What I liked about him is his amazing ability to update himself. I think he does that every four months. Minnal Murali is just a start.

Your depiction of male bonding is interesting. Almost like giving a spin to your father’s own iconic Dasan and Vijayan camaraderie.

Male bonding is so important. I owe some of the best decisions in my career to my friends. Including the Hridayam release.

People say you know the pulse of the audience. Do you feel that too?

I don’t know. I think the audience is constantly evolving. You can’t think what they want. You can only do what you like, write and direct with conviction, and rope in good actors.

How much of you is there in your cinema?

There is no answer to that. I am more interested in a film if the character is not like me. In Thattathin there is a scene when Nivin Pauly removes a ladder and jumps over the wall. I would never do a thing like that. But when my hero does it, I am excited. I would get bored seeing myself on screen. 

How has fatherhood changed you?

It makes you understand a lot of things at a macro level. I am more sensitive and that’s reflected in the writing. Even in deciding how much I want to hurt my characters.

Finally, will there be a Thira part 2?

I am not in that frame of mind. I don’t want to do films that take a toll on me. It is too much of a dark zone and not healthy for my children.

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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