Chidambaram, who co-wrote and directed the humourous movie 'Jan.E.Man.', shares behind-the-scenes stories from the film that was made in a month.

A colour illustration of a film poster with many people drawn in itPoster of 'Jan.E.Man.'
Flix Interview Saturday, November 27, 2021 - 16:23
Written by  Cris

Exactly at midnight, when Monichan, the wayward son, is about to kiss his dead father for one last time, firecrackers shoot up into the sky from the neighbour’s house. They turn to see a man standing on the balcony next door shouting, “Happy birthday to me”. Death in one house, birthday in the other. Deep, you’d think, except, the way the story is told – for this is a story – you’d have little time to think of depth. You’d be flicking away teardrops half the time because you have laughed that hard. Jan.E.Man, the new Malayalam film on the block, comes from that beautiful recipe of adding dollops of humour into really dark situations. Chidambaram, the new director of this marvelous film, and his small team came up with a script a year ago, made it into a film in a month, and brought it quietly into theatres last Friday, November 19.

“We didn’t have much to market the film with – there were no stars, no original songs, no big fight scenes to work as a marketing gimmick. One particular scene can’t be showcased because it is all a string of events. But all in all, it’s going well now,” Chidambaram tells TNM, on the Friday after the movie’s release.

It’s not exactly a new set of actors. Monichan, the wayward son we mentioned, is played by Balu Varghese, a popular young actor in Malayalam. And the birthday boy setting the sky on fire is played by Basil Joseph, in one of his most exceptional performances. “I was not sure if Basil would agree when Ganapathi (actor and Chidambaram’s brother) and I went to see him with the first draft. He is a director too (Godha, Kunjiramayanam). But he was very much in,” Chidambaram adds.

The movie does not belong to one or both of these actors but a bevy of them – quite a few new faces among them and all of them wonderful in their acts. Arjun Ashokan, another established young actor, plays Sampath, the man whose house is chosen as the birthday venue, much against his wishes. Riya Saira, another known face, plays a young woman in the opposite house – she is the pregnant sister of Monichan and devastated by her father’s death. Lal is perhaps the biggest veteran of the lot, playing their uncle.

Chidambaram (right) with Lal

“Arjun and Balu were in the picture from the time the film was conceived,” Chidambaram says. The core of it came from his own birthday celebration a year ago. Like Joymon (Basil) who wanted to celebrate his 30th birthday with friends and came down to Kerala from Canada just for it, Chidambaram went to Thiruvananthapuram, the place he spent his school years at. His gathering was not as grand as Joymon’s (remember the fireworks, yeah that was not there), but then an old woman in the house next door died that day, putting ideas into Chidamabaram’s head, which had been perpetually in search of ideas. He has been assisting director Jayaraj, working in cinematography with Rajeev Ravi and KU Mohanan, all merrily, but realised one day that if he wanted to make films, he had to write them. Quite a few got written but nothing happened as quickly as Jan.E.Man.

“I went to my hometown Kannur, with this idea of birth and death happening across a fence, and told my brother Ganapathi about it. He went to Kochi with it and when Arjun (actor) came with a producer, Ganapathi narrated this one-liner. They liked it and the movie got made in a month,” Chidambaram says.

The humour is not planted into any of the events, it’s just a happy result coming from the least likely mix of characters. “There are two spaces – one where death happens, and the other with the birthday. Two sets of characters are in each space. We mapped it all out and intertwined it so that every character meets up with every other character. We worked on the script syntax and character introduction so that every time we had to establish something, it’d be repeated several times over. Before Monichan arrived, at least three times someone mentioned Monichan coming.”

Watch: Trailer of Jan.E.Man.

None of them were random characters you knew little about. They came with backstories. One was upset because his mother died, his father went downhill, the sisters split and he was left to fend for himself. Another man was so patriarchal in his mindset he beat up the neighbour who gave a lift to his sister on a motorcycle and still holds that grudge years later. This was one part one could not agree with so much in the script, especially because it becomes a major plot point. Hitching bike rides with a neighbour is not something people frown upon anymore, especially the younger lot. Perhaps they did 10-15 years ago. But the director disagrees.

“It is about the mindset. He is a patriarch, running his family with three women in the house – his grandmother, mother, and sister. He is protective of them and thinks like an average Malayali – finding it a problem when the man next door brings his sister on a bike. There are such characters in society, in our families, in our friends’ circle, who are outwardly very modern but have a very primitive mindset. Sampath (Arjun) is one such character,” Chidambaram says.

In his defense, the script does establish this. His sister and mother say how he never brings his friends home and they are tired of seeing the face of the one friend he does – Faisal Khan, played by Ganapathi. All the more reason why Sampath becomes frustrated every time a new guest shows up for Joymon’s birthday party who has made himself at home within no time. Basil is just wonderful here, you have got to keep saying it. If Chidambaram had a one-line philosophy – “bring out the silliness in the darkest situations” – Basil lives it through in the film.

Chidambaram and Basil (rightmost) in the set

Among the new faces are Prapti Elizabeth and Sruthy Sathyan, two performers who have already proven themselves on social media. And of course, there is Ganapathi, who began his career as a child actor winning hearts in Vinodayathra and continuing to do so as Faisal Khan, the skin doctor. Another wonderful performance comes from Ganga Meera, a 30-something actor who has played the mother of a 30-year-old in the film. Siddharth Menon, singer and occasional actor, plays a really amusing character as a villain in a television serial. The writers have simply added a few scenes into the film as shots of a popular serial, without making any comments on it. But from the picturisation, the dialogue delivery and the music, it’s very much a mirror into the regressive nature of television serials, found addictive by many.  

Despite all the fun and frolic – and it is no easy thing making a funny movie sensibly – the reception at the theatres was poor to start. The movie was showing on 90 screens across Kerala and only about 200 people turned up in total on the first day. A few shows had to be cancelled because the minimum number of people had not turned up. Within a week, however, the number of screens grew to 150 and the number of people watching the movie on a day was in the thousands. “All credit goes to the people who watched and supported the film and told other people to go and watch it,” Chidambaram says.

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