His debut feature film Ottamuri Velicham is making waves across the state for its nuanced portrayal of abiding social issues. Yet, the man behind it has none of the airs one would expect of someone whose debut film has just won the Kerala State Award for Best Feature Film. In fact, Rahul Riji Nair says he never imagined himself becoming a director.
Cinema yes, Passion No
Growing up, Rahul says cinema wasn’t his only focus. And certainly, he wasn’t one to binge on world classics. The few he saw were mostly Malayalam films.
“I always knew cinema was not within my reach," he says.
In college, he used to write and direct plays. That was that. He thinks cinema is an expression of self, an intimate close private space. And he admits finding it puzzling how cinema for him, as someone who hasn’t devoured a lot of films as a child, eventually developed into a passion.
“If people recommend films, I do watch. I prefer watching Malayalam films, but I don’t have the same drive to watch other films," he says disarmingly.
A human interest story
More than filmmaking, what really trigger ed his first documentary was the deeply human story behind it—Pakistanis, including children, migrating to India and the hostility they were subjected to.
Shot with a handycam in the outskirts of Delhi and refugee camps of Ghaziabad, Human Boundaries, is about people caught in no man’s land. According to Rahul, the film was “an unprecedented success.” It gained lot of media coverage at home, travelled widely and was screened at universities in UK as well as at the UN headquarters.
Soon after, when offers poured in to make films, Rahul thought that it was going to be easier. But it was a struggle and he admfmits, even after Ottamuri Velicham bagged the Kerala State Award for Best Film, the struggle is still on.
Struggling for a break
After the success of his first documentary, Rahul felt inclined to better his craft.
“I am a self-taught filmmaker," he says.
Short films seemed like a good idea. As did music videos. He took part in the 48 Hour Film Project (a contest in which teams of filmmakers are assigned a genre, a character, a prop and a line of dialogue and have 48 hours to create a short film containing these elements) and India Film Project (an annual filmmaking competition where you must make a film in 50 hours).
Rahul knew he was on the right track when their film won the Audience Choice Award for Best Film and the Platinum Film of the Year.
“We were competing with people from the best film schools and the standard of work was exceptional," he shares.
In 2012 he, along with a set of friends, started First Print Studios and began making shorts under that banner. They recovered some of their costs through the awards they won for most shorts and even through screening fee.
“At the end of the day, we always had money to fund the next one," Rahul says.
But hiring big technicians and equipment was ruled out. They took to asking people to work without money. Some did. Soon he resigned from his job at Technopark and registered First Print Studios as a company. Then began the quest to make their first commercial cinema.
Rahul recalls some of the “skirmishes” that came their way. A producer who listened to the story but wanted to shoot a song in Kashmir, a huge superstar film which got shelved, a smaller film which had the producer backtracking citing financial viability and satellite rights as the deterrents...
The break: One room light
Finally, they all decided to make a small film together with a budget of 25 lakhs. His friends stepped in and suggested pooling in a few lakhs each.
“We believed in the content and knew it had the potential to reach the global market," says Rahul.
Except for actors who were paid a nominal fee, the rest worked for free. Thankfully they could finish the shoot within the exact schedule. The basic thread was about this one room house with a light that doesn’t go off and how it affects the privacy of the newly married woman.
But then much later, they realised, they were addressing an important social issue — marital rape.
“That’s when we studied a bit about the law, read about survivors’ experiences and spoke to NGOs who rehabilitated them. It was important to show it aesthetically without diluting the issue. And we had a proper story board. The title came before the story,” Rahul admits.
The making of Ottamuri Velicham went like clockwork at Bonacaud tea plantation for 25 days.
He doesn’t like to call it arthouse cinema— “That doesn’t match with my sensibilities. We have used a lot of music; the second half moves like a slow thriller and the colour palette is rich," says Rahul.
The movie and the festival scene
When their first feature found no takers at IFFK, the only festival in the world with a 'Malayalam cinema today' section, it was a big setback for them.
“My access to the world was IFFK, it was my film school and here it was met with rejection. Did it deserve that?” asks Rahul.
But thankfully, the shroud of uncertainty didn’t last long.
They got market recommended private screenings at the Goa and Dubai festivals (one among 20 Indian films).
“That’s when we knew this film had the capacity to travel the world and that it wouldn’t be a theatre draw," he shares.
Soon after, they were invited to other festivals, too. The thing about film festivals is that they don’t accept films that have had a theatre release. The reason the team sent it to the State Awards was that the film got censored last year.
Right now, Rahul is awaiting the results of 3 festivals.
The indie film struggles
One of the lessons learnt during the making was that independent cinema doesn’t have a support system in Kerala.
“With this award, I might get a distributor or an extended run at a theatre but that’s it. There are amazing Marathi independent films but we only know of a Sairat. To reach a business plan is far more of a struggle for us than an average commercial filmmaker," says Rahul.
He cites the example of a recent release which had a mainstream Hindi film thread and treatment similar to Taare Zameen Par. Though the film had lots of humour, it struggled to get even five theatres.
Meanwhile, Rahul has a few commercial films in mind and is on the look-out for artists even as other struggles continue.