At one end of Thiruvananthapuram's Tagore Theatre, Bina Paul asks Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi about neo-realism. On the other end, a bespectacled, bearded man walks slowly, listening to the words Majidi speaks in a foreign language. A day before, he had been at the other end, surrounded by viewers of his film, Udalazham. Till that first screening at the International Film Festival of Kerala, Unnikrishnan Avala was panicky, nervous as a first time filmmaker would be. But the love and acceptance that people coming out of the Tagore Theatre gave him should have removed all doubts from the mind of this LP teacher.
Like a true teacher, he answers questions in order. From his teacher days to writing stories and newspaper features, to realising the power of visualising what he wrote. And only then, the making of Udalazham, the story of a tribal trans woman called Gulikan, played by Mani, the child actor from Mohanlal's 2006 film Photographer.
There was a person like Gulikan who Unni met in the forests of Nilambur - Raju. But before Raju, there were other stories. "It was when I began working as a teacher in Nilambur and travelled in buses. Tribal people would get on the buses and I would observe them. I began to study them and write articles in newspapers. The stories were so fantastic that it seemed exaggerated to the newspaper desks. They would ask if it was all real," Unnikrishnan says.
That's when he felt the need to give them proof, to show them what he wrote. It ended up as a documentary called Last Page. "We shot with a camera used for shooting weddings. The film was about three tribal groups - Cholanaikkar, a tribe deep inside the forest, Aranadar, who live between forest and the modern world, and Aalar, who have been put into a settlement outside forests. After making the documentary, I understood how effective visuals could be." Another documentary followed - Womenses, on menstruation.
That's the time Unni met Raju and learned of her life of pain. "She was a woman inside and man outside. They called her attackers kundanmar, but fondly like it was something cute and naughty. Raju could not stay in her forest anymore. Just like my protagonist Gulikan could not in the film."
The film, he says, is pure fiction, perhaps inspired a little by the experiences of Raju. But then, Raju died. "I had - after four to five years of work - written a book on Raju, called Vipareetham, published by DC Books. That brought her some attention. People brought her gifts, offered to take care care of her. She didn't like that. She called me to say no one should come to see her anymore, to not tell her story to anyone, and to leave her alone."
The book also led to Raju going through a sex-reassignment surgery but she didn't wait to complete the process. "She got fed up. Three years later, she died," Unnikrishnan says. "She never got the tranquility she wanted in life."
But Udalazham's Gulikan does not get any such offers of help. She suffers as a woman trapped in a man's body and complains to god for creating her "like this". At 13, she gets married to the girl promised to her, Mathi. Remya as Mathi fits so easily into the life and culture of a young tribal woman married to a trans woman who can't make love to her. She has even picked up the tribal language, Paniya Basha. There are known faces too - Anumol, Joy Mathew, Sajitha Madathil and Indrans.
Mani, who plays, Gulikan, hails from a tribal family in Nilambur. He is known for his role of a tribal child in Photographer and a song in the film 'Njanum nenne poloru pulchaadi'. Two big offers had come soon after that, one with Mammootty, another with Rajinikanth for a Tamil film. But Mani could not take them up because just around then, his father had been put in jail following a land dispute. He did appear in a few short films, but in typecast roles replicating his Photographer role. There was little money, too. Mani was fed up. He stopped acting, but continued to love the art.
But there was a family to support and he went for road work. Someone recognised him as the child actor from Photographer and new offers reached Mani. But around that time, another tragedy came to the family - Mani's sister killed herself.
He went for other odd jobs, once to work at a cardamom estate. He met Pavizham there, and at 14, got married to her, like Gulikan does in the movie. Mani and Pavizham now have three children - the third child was born during the shooting of Udalazham.
"It was Pavizham who helped me reach Mani, who was reluctant to do the film and kept avoiding my calls. She told us how he really felt about acting, how he loved it. So we went to meet him and it took him two days to begin talking to us freely. I took him to my place and he stayed there for six months, getting trained to behave like a trans woman. We took him to the Koovagam Transgender Festival and he roamed about freely there, observing, learning. By the third day he had mastered it," Unni says.
Mani is no longer the shy young man who would run away from films and fame. He asks Unni if he could assist him in his next film. "He'd tell me, 'I am dark and thin. I would not get many chances to act. Let me work with you, Unni chetta'," the director says. Unni has already planned his next film. A 60-year-old Malabari woman's honeymoon. It will take time, Unni says. He needs time to do his research, fix the right actors who can carry off the Malabari character. And from the pains he took to make a masterpiece of his first feature film, we know that he will. Carry it off.