After working as a cinematographer for multiple industries with the likes of Kamal Haasan, Sanu made his directorial debut with ‘Aarkariyam’.

Sanu with a mask below his cheek has specs and looks up at something, there is a yellow light on his face in the dark photo
Flix Interview Wednesday, April 07, 2021 - 19:16
Written by  Cris

A little after the lockdown was announced in March last year, Sanu John Varughese drove down from Mumbai to his home in Puthuppally, Kerala. He was ready with all the permits and passes for crossing borders during COVID-19 restrictions, and only a breakdown at Kozhikode posed a challenge. But that trip brought back the memory of an old one-liner he wrote somewhere, to make a movie someday. His tracks had deviated long before he knew where he was going, and he somehow ended up as a Malayali cinematographer in Mumbai, working in multiple industries.

While he ran between Kamal Haasans films, Bollywood and an occasional Malayalam film, Sanu daydreamed of writing a script of his own and directing it. When his friend Santhosh T Kuruvilla came forward as a producer and asked Sanu to direct, he thought of that one-liner, a thriller about a family's financial crisis and a father-in-law’s offer to sell the house, which came with a secret. In the lockdown days of 2020, that script somehow materialised into a film called Aarkariyam written by Sanu with Rajesh Ravi and Arun Janardhanan. It released on the first of April with three proven actors headlining it – Biju Menon, Parvathy Thiruvothu and Sharaf U Dheen.      

“It was a fast paced thriller I had in mind then, perhaps because I was younger and my perception was different. Now with more years to my age, I wanted a calmer treatment of the subject,” Sanu says in between bursts of quick laughter.

Read: ‘Aarkkariyam’ review: Parvathy, Biju Menon, Sharf U Dheen are great in this slow drama

He has made it really calm, even with a bomb of a secret revealing itself midway through the film. Another director might have pulled you up on your chair, made you latch on to the side-arms and bite nails if you had any. But Sanu just drops the bomb with a line casually dropped by Biju Menon’s 73-year-old character Itty Avira.

If you end up feeling fond of Itty, minutes after watching his character stagger about a lonely old house, it is the doing of Biju Menon, that maturing actor who grows better by the day. In a decade, he has become a reliable actor directors trust all sorts of strange characters with – Itty Avira ranking top among them. Before the memories of him playing the daring Ayyappan in Ayyappanum Koshiyum could fade away, Biju has turned into Itty, expecting in his lonely abode, the visit of his Mumbai daughter and husband, Sherly and Roy.  

Still from Aarkariyam

“I first thought of asking Biju chettan if he can play Roy, the son-in-law. But when I narrated the script, I asked him if he can be Itty. He said yes,” Sanu says, not explaining his change of heart.

Parvathy was quite busy at the time and the dates were difficult to manage but because she loved the script so much, she somehow made it. Sharaf U Dheen was producer Santhosh’s suggestion. Another admirable performance came from a little girl in the film played by Tejaswini. She is a child who has to grow up away from the family for a while and children mature when they stay away, Sanu says. In the grasp of the thriller you also spot the motherly anxieties in Parvathy’s Sherly, upset at one time, and surprised at another that her daughter has grown so much so soon.

All three key actors delivered as expected, overcoming the major challenge of learning to speak the Pala dialect. Parvathy from Kozhikode, Biju from Thrissur and Sharaf from Aluva had to swallow their north Malayalam dialects and adopt the Pala variant of the Kottayam dialect. There are so many variants in Kottayam alone, says Sanu.

“I know, I grew up here. Perhaps going back to this place in the middle of rubber trees and the language it spoke had all to do with a bout of nostalgia. I wanted to show the beauty of the light in the trees and the sound of the wind to the world outside,” Sanu says dreamily.

He left his hometown as a 21-year-old and had since lived away, making the occasional visit to Puthuppally. But distance makes home sweeter, warmer than when it was your daily abode, he says. “There are so many great writers in Malayalam who wrote beautiful stories set in Kerala when they lived away – OV Vijayan, M Mukundan, Paul Zacharia,” he names a few. “You appreciate the beauty of your home when you live away,” Sanu says.

Years in Mumbai had not stripped him of his love for or usage of Malayalam. Multiple languages – Hindi, Tamil, English and Malayalam, play on his tongue as he speaks to friends and colleagues scattered all over the country. But his thoughts are always in Malayalam, he says, with that rustic dialect his characters use in the movie.

He took that slice of his life and put it into the lives of Sherly and Roy. A Mumbai couple, their sentences cross between Hindi and Malayalam and English unobtrusively. Saiju Kurup plays another Mumbai Malayali married to a Hindi-speaking woman, and he beautifully switches between languages. Saiju is another actor who falls into the category of Biju Menon’s — ever-maturing, fitting into all spots with ease.      

Sanu too, like Saiju Kurup’s character, is married to someone who speaks another language. But while lending chunks of his life and shaping characters out of lives around him, Sanu is not quite sure where that first one-liner from 10 years ago came from. He is in the habit of carrying a sketchbook with him to quickly sketch or jot down the interesting story ideas he hears. “Once, a man told me about seeing a flying saucer and how his life changed after that – he became healthier, his grey hair turned black, his family life became better. But no one believed him. These stories interest me and I always put it down in my sketchbook.”

Working still from Aarkariyam

He could draw well, he had graduated from the Fine Arts College in Thiruvananthapuram and begun doing a Masters programme in Communication when he found himself holding a camera and shooting documentaries.

The first films he cinematographed were in Bollywood, Karthik Calling Karthik among them. Kamal Haasan found him and took him to Tamil cinema when Viswaroopam was made. In his recent works in Malayalam is the cinematography for Mahesh Narayanan’s Take Off and the upcoming Malik.  He learnt a lot from all the individuals he worked with, more than the industries, he says. “Working with Kamal Haasan especially was like getting yourself a version update, much like the operating system on your phone!” Sanu says.

But Sanu gave the camera to his associate, G Sreenivas Reddy, since he had to put all his mind to direction when it came to Aarkariyam. “I know what a lot of work that is, and what a lot of work cinematography is. I can’t make a film two ways! But I missed being behind the camera sometimes and my eyes would stray off to where it stood. I make a difficult director that way for a cinematographer,” he says, amid one of his easy laughs.

Watch: Trailer of Aarkariyam

Nearly a week after the release of Aarkariyam (he attributes the title to the uncertainty times of COVID-19), Sanu has received a lot of unexpected compliments and some criticism. The criticism circled around the slow pace of the film. “But many viewers also said that if you watch the film carefully, it needs to move at this pace. Among the compliments, the best I heard is that I have brought back the beauty of silence of frames, left void by the passing of Bharathan and Padmarajan. Another compliment was that Aarkariyam brought memories of KG George films. These are filmmakers I loved and learnt from as a young person.”

Will he direct more then, I ask. But whenever you give him the word direction he gives you back ‘writing’. If he can write a good script, yes. Writing is where his heart is, and telling stories is what he likes to do, either through his camera or the pen.