Mahesh Narayanan speaks at a brisk pace. It’s as if he is mentally constructing and editing his sentences. At times, I feel he is just thinking aloud. Extremely articulate, he methodically explains his craft, with clarity. “I will call someone a filmmaker only if he writes and directs a film,” he tells me. The editor-writer-director has transitioned into a successful filmmaker within a brief time—Take Off (a rescue drama), CU Soon (a gritty survival drama made during the pandemic) and the upcoming Malik, a period drama set in coastal terrain. Malik will be his second direct OTT release after the hugely successful CU Soon and his third collaboration with Fahadh Faasil. We had a long conversation.
I heard Malik is inspired from the Beemapally riots?
I haven’t really linked it to a real-life incident. If people want to read it like that, let them. The trailer itself comes with a disclaimer. Primarily it’s the place I grew up. My house is near Kovalam. We don’t really address the border issues of the people, and this is about the conflicts in the coastal belt in that region. This was the film we wanted to do before Take Off. But then we didn’t have the budget to mount this film. Finally it required a film like Take Off to do a Malik. I don’t make extreme commercial masala films. So the budget we get is based on the merit of our last film. Like every film of mine, Malik is taken from surroundings but it’s still a fictional place with fictional characters. If those who watch it think it’s related to Kerala’s social atmosphere, I can’t find fault with that as well.
Can we call it a period drama?
We’re exploring a period from 1960 to 2018. I don’t know if it is an epic drama. It’s a human drama about a lot of people who lived during this period. This is not a character-driven plot; we’re exploring events and geography through certain characters. It’s about marginalised communities. Though land is not shrinking, for those living on the shores they live in the fear of squandering their territory. It explores a cross-cultural coastal area, where people live in communal harmony and then one day that gets disrupted.
Fahadh’s weight loss journey was well-documented on social media.
This is the first time he has played a character who isn’t his age. To pull off an aged character you need a certain maturity as an actor. I wanted him to gain weight. Fahadh said his grandfather and father started shrinking when they grew older. He shared photos of his grandfather and we decided to keep the look for Fahadh.
Fahadh has been a mainstay in your films. What glues you together?
It’s about cinema coming out of friendship. When I was an editor, it was Fahadh who first suggested that we make a film. Even the films we don’t do he knows the story. We have the same sensibilities. For Take Off I needed someone who has star value and can mount the film. As a friend he joined the film. CU Soon was not written for Fahadh. I think films born from friendships are more rooted, they have an emotional connection. We have arguments and it’s a very transparent association. The actor comes only after the draft is written. It’s never about writing keeping Fahadh in mind.
How is your character development process?
When it comes to writing, I need to get the last image before starting the script. Take Off, for instance, earlier the last image was that of Sameera giving birth and handing over the kid to her son. I need an image like that to write the entire draft. I need closure or else my screenplay gets misled. For CU Soon, the Jimmy-Kevin conversation was already imprinted in my mind. Malik was the toughest for me to write. Every character I feel should definitely have a culmination. That’s why I take time to write.
Does that also mean that the last image invariably has to be positive/happy?
Ends positively? I don’t think so. In Take Off, they are recovering from a tragedy, but I don’t know how their life will be after that. She is going back with more responsibilities.
So the shooting will start only after a finished script?
I can’t go to a location without a finished script. Even Jalaja Chechi, who is there in Malik, was astonished. She said it’s the first time a director was giving her a copy. Everybody is included in the reading session. We give notes for improvisations. I haven’t been able to do a film in chronological order. About 75% of Malik was shot inside a set. We did the shoot in reverse as it’s easier to build a set and then demolish. Since I am the writer, editor and director, I’m solely responsible for the emotional graph of the characters.
What’s the advantage of editing your own film?
I write for my edit. I don’t write in excess, it’s for a vision. For example, in Malik, which has a big set, it’s about what all is there to see with clarity. You need to build only that. It helps in saving the additional cost and manpower. All such decision-making is included in my writing. So till the shooting draft a lot of editing has happened. There is no multiple coverage. That’s why I edit my own films. It will be over soon. Finally when it’s wrapped up and actors leave, I can show them a decent rough cut. It will be precise in shot-making. Writing is the most ambitious part. Once the shooting starts, only the execution work is there. I take time during pre-production.
How do you describe a well-written character?
All my characters are grey. I can’t write a person as completely white or completely black. I want to delve into the gradations between white and black, the circumstances. Close to reality, humans are more grey. My text is dramatic. I don’t have stylisation.
Cinema is now viewed under various political lenses. Does that faze you when you sit down to write?
I’m often asked if I get scared when I write about religion. Is it possible to take away religion or caste from a person’s story? If you can’t make a Nirmalyam today, it’s the problem of the period we live in. You can’t make that film taking away Velichapadu and Narayani. We’re merely taking impressions from the society around us. So show everything, right? All I try to be careful is in not glorifying something or wrong representation. One man’s right is always another man’s wrong.
What has changed in Malayalam cinema in the last 10 years?
Sensibility has broadened. We’re more exposed to situations around us. Today it is easier for a pan Indian audience to understand Malayalam cinema. In the 90s to 2000, our films were very verbose. Cinema has changed visually. I see the 80s’ golden era now back. Lot of things can be communicated visually now. Cinema literacy is more now. There is more international content. Digital reading opened more films from the outside world through subtitles. Our films get reviewed by foreign media.
Malik was made for the 70mm. And it is finally releasing on OTT. Were you okay with it?
When it gets into digital, it’s the sound technicians who are really worried. They got a lot of time to rework but then the soundscape is different. Since the primary consumption is over the phone, when it was grading we checked in our phones. AR Rahman once said how he had mixed music, taken it in an audio and put in his car stereos. If the mixing is correct, then it’s fine. Because he knew that’s where the maximum consumption happened. The filmmaker has the same responsibility. Someday this is going to be seen in theatres. We accept that reality.
How much of you is there in your cinema?
Everything is what I have seen. When I was visiting a journalist friend of mine, she was going through the same process as Sameera. We were having a party when the kid was there. She was wearing her pajamas tightly so as not to reveal her pregnancy. I had even used that image of tying the pajama. With CU Soon what inspired me was a video—an SOS message.
How do you update yourself? Can you make a film by watching a lot of films?
Today in film schools, students are required to unlearn a lot of things. But then most of them do not want to unlearn and opt to quit. Earlier a big change in technology happened in 6-8 years. When I started editing on celluloid, and digital came, we thought it was only an experiment. But one fine morning an image was produced which was superior to the film. Then we were unlearning everything. Now we’re seeing a different format every day. When a camera is made, within a few days they are making another camera with double its resolution. Today the content has an expiry date. A classic is a rare occurrence. Narrative form has got a quick jump. Look at Martin Scorsese who made Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, the latter needs the drive of a 30-year-old. Or Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen. That is the kind of update we require.
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.