Ahead of the release of the Fahadh Faasil-Sai Pallavi starrer, the screenwriter talks to TNM about how he came to work on the film and his craft, among other things.

Writing for Athiran was stepping out of my comfort zone PF Mathews to TNM
Flix Mollywood Wednesday, April 10, 2019 - 14:54

His first story for a film was the Mammootty starrer Thanthram, an intelligently woven investigative thriller. That was followed by Puthran, a sequel to his own successful tele-series Mikhayelinte Santhathikal, and Shaji N Karun’s award-winning Kutty Srank. But it’s only after Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Ee. Ma. Yau that mainstream Malayalam cinema and audience took note of PF Mathews.

Though he has worked in various capacities – short story writer (7), novelist (3), television series writer (13) and screenwriter (4) – Mathews considers himself primarily a novelist. He is one of the reasons the Fahadh Faasil-Sai Pallavi starrer Athiran, directed by Vivek, is a much-awaited film this Vishu.

Athiran is a psychological thriller. That seems to be a new territory…

I don’t know about the genre. It’s a story tailored around a mental asylum and there is an element of thrill to it. Since I have done very few films, this is something new for me. Be it Ee. Ma. Yau or Kutty Srank, it had what I consider my favourite tropes in writing – the backdrop of Kochi, its coastal villages, backwaters, their simple way of life, and elements of fantasy and history.

How did the film come to you?

Fahadh Faasil wondered if I could hear a story by this new director called Vivek. Since I wouldn’t think of a story like that, I thought this will be an interesting attempt; fresh and out of my comfort zone.

What’s the difference between writing a novel and a screenplay?

A novel is a solo creative process, where I am the king in that world. I am my novel’s Hitler. But when it comes to cinema, I am just part of the larger picture, just one of the many pieces that help form the picture. You give a plan, improvise, write additional screen space. It isn’t purely my own work. But a novel is my baby and therefore deeply satisfying.

You recently said Ee. Ma. Yau is the only film that was a total validation to your screenplay…

Absolutely! Though I have written for Shaji N Karun, Ee. Ma. Yau paid wholesome tribute to my vision and writing. When the writer, director and cameraman fall in the same track, which is rare, that magic happens. That’s when it becomes a work of art and only then will it satisfy us. I saw the film several times – rough cut, every minute was running through my eyes. I saw it a dozen times before music was added and the final film itself another dozen times. But not once did it bore me. I can’t say the same about the other films I did. Why do we re-read a novel? Because it leaves us wanting for more.

You have written several stunning works for television. What’s the difference in scripting for films and TV?

Television during the time I debuted was something new, when only Doordarshan was around. The first issue was that we weren’t that well-versed with the medium. Vijay Mehta’s Lifeline was one of the references before us. We eventually learnt through trial and error. When we were doing Shararanthal, we learnt to iron out the flaws during the next schedule. By the time we did Mikhayelinte Santhathikal, we had understood the craft. Now we have Netflix and Amazon Prime where there are quality television series, but then Indian television continues to churn out regressive content, especially in Kerala.

But we don’t see much from Malayalam in web series?

My two sons are part of this Karikku channel. It’s quite a good attempt. The problem is when you conceive a web series as a short film instead of for a new and innovative medium. A lot depends on what we give. We tend to underestimate the audience. But the young filmmakers now seem to realise this.

Can creativity be taught?

No, only craft can be taught. But we can give tips to inspire creativity. There are so many books on screenplay writing but if the writer has no creativity it won’t work.

Is the motivational force the same behind writing a novel and a film?

Writing a novel is something I choose to do. It’s about my experiences and experiments, the possibilities are infinite. But cinema has limitations since very often one has to tell a story that might have a 100-year-old history in under 160 minutes. So, we have to choose what to tell. We have an audience in front of us and we have to communicate through the audio-visual medium. There, the internalising process will be much less. But in novel writing, we need to travel to the inner depths of our soul where fiction is in full flow. In cinema that doesn’t happen. It has rarely occurred with directors like Tarkovsky or a Bela Tarr (his Satan Tango had a run time of more than 7 hours), who can make cinema into a meditative process. When Antony Quinn wanted to make a movie on One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez refused to give permission saying it might not work as a film. The novel has a more universal nature. We don’t have many filmmakers who have that kind of a vision. Agnes Varda was such a director. I recently re-watched her Cleo from 5 to 7 and it was such a beautiful experience to see cinema through images. It’s always in literature where such magic has occurred, and it will again continue to occur in future.

When you adapt from literature into screenplay, isn’t there a dilemma about what to pick and what to discard, especially since you are a visual storyteller?

Yes, so many questions keep racing in your mind: What visuals should I present before them. If I show this, will they accept it in the same way I conceived it, will it convey a meaning I haven’t intended? Also, when we pick a visual, we have to take our politics into consideration.

What are the kind of mistakes writers can commit in their career and craft?

Earlier in Malayalam cinema, most of the villain characters had Muslim names or very rarely Christian names. I once asked this writer why he made that cruel villain a Muslim character? He replied, “It’s just a name, that’s it.” I think that’s the biggest disaster that can happen to a writer. It’s not just a name, that its name is Islamophobia is what we learnt much later. We need to think before we even pick names. When we start procrastinating, writing becomes dangerous.

Writing is always a lonely process. Does that aspect bog you down at times?

To me, writing is a painful experience. But I enjoy that struggle. Even when I am alone, I am restless, a lot of tracks keep running through my mind and then I lose focus. Finding the right word is a huge struggle. But once you get it, everything feels right.

Which is your all-time favourite screenplay in Malayalam?

Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Elippathayam and Kodiyettam. I don’t think such a great screenplay has been written before or after. Every turn is beautiful and enriching.

And the one director you would want to script for? Adoor?

Not him, he always writes his own scripts. I can’t nor want to enter his world. Lijo Jose Pellissery would be good. But I don’t have such dreams. All I ever dream of, or want, is to live like a novelist.

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