What was your childhood days like, back at Trivandrum?
Surprisingly as a child, I didn’t get to watch movies. I think it was because both my parents had really tough government jobs and didn’t find the cinema to be any sort of necessity in daily lives. As a matter of fact, the first movie I saw was in college; a movie called Chemmeen with my parents. As an adolescent though, I stole few moments whenever I could, asking my friends about stories from the movies they have seen or stealing a moment at the cinema theatre during my teens and so on. Only when I was an adult could I freely indulge in cinema. My love for cinema grew exponentially around college time and I would watch just about anything. Feature films, documentaries and you name it, I love it. At that point, I started stealing money from my father’s pocket to watch the same.
Did you know you’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker?
I still hadn’t formed an idea to be a part of the cinema empire after school. I was actually interested in becoming a cricket player. But after an accident damaged my left eye for good, my father burnt all my cricket paraphernalia during the time I was unconscious at the hospital. For a while I was recovering at home. My father was a librarian so we often had writers and publishers come visit us. I never paid heed to it for I thought they were just my father’s friends but as a sat and paid attention, I realized they had wonderful stories to tell and I would imagine what it would look like in screen if I had to translate them to visuals. Whatever I am today is because of books and a strong reading habit.
When did you get your first big break?
Back then you couldn’t get access to a camera at the snap of your finger. Actually, Kerala didn’t even have the equipments to shoot a film; one had to travel all the way to Madras where the film industry was properly established. A few of us, Mohanlal, Suresh and I had a dream of getting into cinema and we set about doing so. I initially started with writing scripts for movies. I wrote about 9 films in the beginning and started working on 4 of them. I have never been associated with anyone before and did it all on my own. I would have preferred to become a cinematographer at that point but it was not at all an option because training in the same is very expensive. I remember this conversation with my father when I approached him to ask if I could pursue learning cinematography. He asked me how much it would cost and I couldn’t open my mouth to tell him about the exorbitant amount of fees it would be. That there left me with a clear path of getting into director-ship alone.
Tell us about your close association with actor Mohanlal.
I think by now every Tom, Dick, and Harry knows about my long association with Mohanlal. It’s basically a relationship of mutual trust. As children we both formed a friendship and we started our careers together so our professional relationship grew strong as well. I think our formula has worked for so many movies because we have this deep trust in each other that we have never questioned each other’s decision. He has never asked me what is the role he would be playing in my movie, he would just turn up at the spot after the schedule is laid out. That kind of trust is also a responsibility and I know I should be careful with it. My efforts to repay his unconditional trust in me is what these hit movies are made of. One thing I must mention here is that Mohanlal is an effortless person when it comes to acting, it comes so naturally for him. He is also never overtly proud of his hits or too disappointed about his flops, he is a very honest and together person. Both professionally and personally, Mohanlal has been a pillar of support for me!
Your career spans 3 decades now. How did you manage to stay relevant?
When I started my career, cinema was basically all dependant on analog. Now that it is the age of digital, adaptation is key. I know so many directors stuck in this time loop and unable to change so they slowly fade away. I know some filmmakers who don’t even know how the modern camera works because they are not ready to update themselves. People with big names who have received Padma Bhushan and other prestigious awards in the past are making trash nowadays. I think the only reason I ‘survived’ is because I noticed the change, I accepted it and adapted to it. As the world paces forward, technology has been taking over various aspects of life. We can’t forget cinema is the portrayal of life itself so we have to let the technology sweep over this side of us as well.
You predominantly directed movies from stories that you, yourself scripted. Do you still choose to do the same?
I think I was in that state of mind as an artist. Now I take things a little more relaxed. There was a time, I think it was 1986 when I came out with 8 films out of which 6 were box office hits. There was even a time when I completed a full film in 16 days – Vellanakalude Nadu. It was a hit as well. The pace slowed down a bit after entering other languages because I had to slow down to shoot the way I knew it would work in a different place. When one film is on the floor I used to think about what I am going to do next. Sometimes I would have signed on two more films without knowing what they are about. Today I don’t run with the same confidence I used to. I am unable to write one film now over a period of one full year. I think back then I had this strong drive to prove myself so I would take whichever script came my way.
You have dabbled in all genres. Do you have a favorite?
Honestly, that makes no difference to me. I have made films in all types of genres such as comedies, period films, art films and more. I would never want to be typecast to making only one genre of films so I have tried whatever mood I was in for at that time.
Do you see any differences in the film industry according to the languages?
I think financially I have benefitted from my movies in Hindi and even in Telugu because their industry is more revenue oriented. Movies I made in Bollywood will purely entertainment ones. In Tamil and Malayalam however, I believe I have had room to experiment. The southern audience I feel are more educated and go to cinema expecting more reality than anything else. The northern audience only looks for pure entertainment and don’t really look for logic and sensibility.
Tell us about the experience of shooting the National Award winning Tamil film, Kanchivaram.
Even from the first day of the shoot, I knew the film would be larger than life. I had heard of this irony a long time ago – ‘A silk weaver who could not give away his daughter as a bride with the perfect saree’. This struck a chord in me and 9 years later I set about working on the script. I could not find producers for the longest time though. Nobody wanted to invest in a sombre script and I was unable to find a lead as well. Mohanlal couldn’t do it though he was my first choice because he couldn’t do the bald scenes with another film in his schedule back then.
When I was in a casual conversation with Prakash Raj was when I told him about the script I had been invested in for a long time. After I had narrated the story for some reason he walked out of my office. I assumed he was disinterested in the story so much he just had to go but later he called me over the phone to inform me he had left because he did not want me to see him cry. He then came forward to produce the movie himself under his banner and did not take a single paisa to essay the role he beautifully aced. Over the course of the film, he naturally lost his real hair slowly, no wonder the film won a national award. I must thank Sabu Cyril and cinematographer Tirru as well.
What does reward-recognition mean to you?
Be it the Padma Shri or National Award, what matters is that your satisfaction as a filmmaker to say you have done the best you could is what counts. I am personally proud of Kanchivaram and Sometimes (Sila Samayangalil). These are the two movies that give me a lot of validation.
With the advent of Youtube and Talent Hunt Shows, do you think Cinema has grown for the better or worse?
Back then getting your hands on a camera was difficult now there is none who walk around without a camera in their pocket via a phone. The key is the content. Just shooting and editing anything does not a good filmmaker make, it is being a storyteller. A genuine filmmaker to perfect his art has to learn the art of communicating a story to a viewer in the most effective way with the maximum utilization of resources given to one.
You have introduced a number of stars who have gone on to have great careers. What is the process involved in your casting decision?
It was not an intentional move. When I was starting on Snehithiye, I happen to come across Jyothika’s picture and went ahead with the casting. Even when Laysa Laysa happened, I met Trisha and found her to be perfect for the role. It was not a conscious choice. Even when Keerthy Suresh approached me as I am her mother’s friend the first advice I gave her was that people would talk about favouritism if I were to do her first movie myself. I told her to come back to me after she was a couple of movies old and that is how the idea of Geethaanjali movie was conceived.
You are clearly a voracious reader as well an ardent writer. Have you ever thought of authoring?
I think yes. After becoming a filmmaker my reading has been cut down to almost 1/3rd of how much it used to be but at least I haven’t stopped reading completely. Maybe not a full-on retirement but for the better rainy days my plan is to enter the book scene as a last resort. I would take up writing and come out with a splendid book.
What is currently on your schedule?
I am now working on a period film supposedly the biggest ever made in India. It is big budgeted and it is going to be extravagant. After completing that I have a couple of Malayalam movies in the kitty. As long as I can walk and talk I will be making films. I want to be a filmmaker till my very last breath.
A film that has impacted you the most?
“Bicycle Thieves. I have watched it more than 25 times.”