Why Ratheesh Poduval made ‘Android Kunjappan’, a film about a lonely old man and a robot

The film has Suraj Venjaramoodu playing an 80-year-old while Soubin plays his son who works abroad.
Why Ratheesh Poduval made ‘Android Kunjappan’, a film about a lonely old man and a robot
Why Ratheesh Poduval made ‘Android Kunjappan’, a film about a lonely old man and a robot
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Director Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval doesn't use his native dialect when he speaks on the phone. He's from Payannur village of Kannur district, where he set his first ever film -- Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25 which released last Friday in Kerala. The film has a Thiruvananthapuram-based Suraj Venjaramoodu and a Kochi-based Soubin Shahir speaking the Kannur dialect. The film has been getting good reviews and Ratheesh is one happy director.

“I tone down my Kannur slang when I speak to others so they understand. For the movie, I thought Suraj’s character might need a Thiruvananthapuram background to explain his accent but he spoke the Kannur dialect so well that it was not needed,” says Ratheesh.

It is Soubin whom Ratheesh first cast in the movie – the son who has to leave his elderly father when he goes for a job abroad.  Soubin and the film’s producer Santhosh T Kuruvilla suggested Suraj for the dad's role. “I had thought of casting someone who is as old as the character. I was skeptical about asking a 40-year-old to play an 80-year-old. They’d have to wear make-up all the time. But my search was going nowhere,” Ratheesh explains.

Suraj was the first to join the sets before Soubin or Saiju Kurup -- who also plays an important character. The extent of Suraj's involvement in the film surprised Ratheesh. “The way he’d first start speaking to the local people and reply in their dialect – to children and older people. He even corrected the pronunciation of other actors when they got a word wrong. Suraj would also help in the direction sometimes. I’d sometimes ask him to give the character brief to other actors,” Ratheesh says.

Of course, the biggest surprise was the robot. Malayalis who love the Star Wars series and especially the R2-D2 droid in it, have never had a proper robot movie so far. “The plan was to use VFX full-scale but we didn’t have the budget or time for that. So, a technically strong team manually worked on creating the robot that works with a remote," he says.

The robot comes into the life of a grumpy old man who is angry at his son for leaving him alone and going to work abroad. The son, who is worried about his father, brings a robot when none of the human caretakers get along with his dad. “These are stories we see around us – not the robot. I mean the people who live alone in their old age. It is not always easy for the children to stay with them. Even for me, when my mom was bedridden, I couldn’t always be at her side. We wish then for someone or something that could do everything for them when we are not there. That’s how the idea of the robot came,” Ratheesh says.

He also rightly figured out that you’d love a character based on how the character behaves, no matter what form it comes in. To lonely old Bhaskara Poduval (Suraj), the robot feels as human as his son. Even the audience develops a liking for the little guy who never takes offence. “It doesn’t have to be beautiful. In the design stage, we never thought of making it cute. Somehow it came out like that,” Ratheesh adds.

The other surprise was the heroine, Soubin’s girlfriend, played by Kendy Zirdo. In the movie she is half Japanese and half Malayali and speaks Malayalam with a heavy accent. “It was sync sound so yes, it is her voice you hear. She is from Arunachal Pradesh. We tried to get a Japanese actor but it was proving difficult. That’s when an assistant director suggested Kendy’s name. She’d religiously write down all her Malayalam lines in Hindi and English and learn them.”

Ratheesh, who was a production designer before, has been working in Mumbai for years. He has done part of the production design for Rajeev Ravi’s critically acclaimed Kammattipadam. “Production design has only been a way to reach direction,” he says laughing.

Coming from Kannur, he says that humour is a speciality of Kerala villagers. The lines he wrote would just come out sounding humourous even without trying. He has taken so much from his village – the film was shot around his house – that he decided to give his last name to the old man - Poduval. 

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