It has been only 11 days since the Malayalam film Varane Avashyamundu was released, but its director, Anoop Sathyan, is already traversing through Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district, shooting a documentary on a tribal school in the middle of a forest. Far away from the limelight, Anoop, the son of veteran filmmaker Sathyan Anthikkad, is wrapping up a project he started five years ago.
“It’s my way of unwinding myself. The last few months have been really hectic and I wanted a break and what better place than a forest to be in. Also, it’s my way of going back to normal life, away from the crowd and glitter. I am quite attached to the schoolchildren and other people here in this tiny hamlet called Jamnya. It’s really important to find our own spaces occasionally,” says Anoop, while travelling in a jeep, cautioning us about the feeble network there.
Own space -- that’s something Anoop has always been particular about. Be the film which is all about finding individual spaces or the lack of them, even in seemingly close-knit relationships or his decision to wait for a year for Shobana to play his lead character. In a long conversation over two days, Anoop talks about his debut film, its ensemble cast and his eternal love for Chennai where the film was shot.
It’s a long time since we saw Chennai with such resplendence. Also, the city and its myriad hues are part of the narrative itself.
Oh, yes. In a way, the film is an ode to the city and its people. I have lived there only for 15 months or so, but no city has charmed me as Chennai did. Since my brother lives there, I do frequent the city and every such trip evokes so many memories. It’s also the city where my father (Sathyan Anthikkad) made so many memorable films. In fact, I shot at the exact spots where my father filmed decades ago.
Strange as it may sound, I was (very) particular that all of my crew too had a fondness for the city. In fact, I had to politely say no to a top cinematographer who made a nasty remark about Chennai when I narrated the script. Right from the cast to my technical department, everybody had a favourite Chennai moment or two.
Interestingly, you chose to follow the Anthikkad template, so to say, though the so-called new age filmmaking in Kerala is at its peak.
Obviously, I draw inspiration from my father who mostly dug out stories from people whom we can relate to. At Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design, where I did my filmmaking course, I was telling stories everybody can relate to while my classmates were making abstract and experimental films. Beyond doubt, most of them were terrific films, but my mind was always searching for stories which would strike a chord with the audience.
My stories were mostly plucked from real life scenarios where I could communicate with the characters. My first film at the institute was about a mother-son relationship [inspired by my own father and his mother] which won everybody’s hearts there. To my surprise, I emerged as the topper in the class, having made stories straight from the heart. Again, my documentary which won an award at Indian Panorama, had real life slices. It came quite naturally to me and I can’t forcefully create something which I can’t relate myself with.
Having said that, Varane Avashyamundu is as contemporary as any new age film. Telling a family story does not mean it’s old fashioned or outdated. Most calls I got after the film were from women, in awe of the subject I'd picked for my first film. The other day, a teenage girl called up quite emotionally, and said she wanted her mother to follow what the lead character in the film does. But yes, I love to narrate personal stories, much like what my father did/does. So why not the template if you wish to call it so?
What did your father say? Did you discuss the script with him at the writing stage or while making?
I did send him the first draft of the script, and he reverted with a few corrections. From his responses, I realised that he was not convinced at the way I was taking the story forward. Perhaps out of nervousness, I decided not to send the post-interval draft to my father. During the making too, he was very clear that he did not want to even visit the shooting locales. So, he watched the film at the preview show straightaway and yes, he was very happy.
She seemed a bit sceptical about the film the first time, but on second viewing, she was excited.
Coming back to the making part, you spent almost a year chasing Shobana to play the lead character. What was really going on in your mind?
It certainly was not as distressing as it sounds. When I narrated a brief sketch of the script, she seemed convinced, but then there was a long period of silence. I too did not push it too hard, allowing her to take her own time. You may not believe it, I have met her only thrice in the last one year and our interactions mostly were through the phone. Meanwhile, I did some travel and kept developing the script. Incidentally, even Urvashi said no initially, and a month before the shoot began, she came on board.
Suresh Gopi was thrilled when I narrated the story, but rescheduling his dates was the only problem. Slowly, everything fell into place and I believe it had to.
What if Shobana had rejected the role? Did you have a Plan B?
I was confident Shobana would join eventually, but then it could not be too delayed. Meanwhile, I was in talks with production houses in Mumbai to make the film in Hindi with Madhuri Dixit and Anil Kapoor. Now that the film has been released, it’s easier to pitch the film in Hindi. So, yes, a remake is on the cards.
Many felt there was some mismatch in writing and sequences. Was the film chopped drastically at the editing table?
From nearly 3 hours, the film was cut short to 2 hours 25 minutes. I had to forego some crucial scenes (involving Wafa, in particular) and I am really aware of the shortcomings caused. But to keep the film three hours long would have been criminal. 150 minutes is the industry norm, keeping in mind the multiplex crowd.
But you chose to include almost seven songs. Even the background music stood out, evoking nostalgia. Was it part of the screenplay?
Songs were used mostly as a tool for storytelling. BGM (Alphonse) and sound design (Sachin and Hari ) were two aspects I was very choosy about. As far as BGM is concerned, many notes were written along with the script. Nothing works like nostalgia when you have an ensemble cast who have entertained for decades. I understand from responses that it has had a telling effect on the film.
Even the climax ended abruptly.
Not at all. As a writer-director, I don’t believe in conclusive or clear-cut endings, rather I prefer to leave the characters and their fate to the audience to interpret. As a viewer too, I am a fan of such films. For instance, I loved the ending of the 2011 Hollywood film, The Descendants. It’s a light-hearted film and the climax was so simple and unexpected. As a storyteller, I wanted my characters to live in that particular moment. Let viewers go home with their own judgments and expositions.
But is there a risk there at least box-office wise?
There could be, but again as the maker, I wanted it that way.
What next? Will it be the remake in Hindi?
Most likely, a Malayalam feature. As far as the Hindi remake is concerned, I am not planning anything. Let us see what unfurls.