The award-winning Mollywood filmmaker talks about his upcoming Fahadh Faasil-starrer, which will release on Amazon Prime Video on July 15
It’s been a long and uncertain wait for director Mahesh Narayanan to see the release of his magnum opus, Malik. But he has kept himself busy, even as the theatrical release of the Fahadh Faasil-starrer was delayed due to the pandemic. Last year, he shot for C U Soon with the Malayalam star and earlier this year collaborated with him again in Malayankunju, which had Mahesh as a scriptwriter and cinematographer. However, the second wave of the COVID-19 had the team re-evaluating their plans for Malik and finally opting for an OTT release.
With Malik set to drop on Amazon Prime Video on July 15, OTTplay caught up with Mahesh to know what went into making the big-budget political thriller, his influences and processes as a filmmaker.
Straight off, why did the team opt for an OTT release for Malik, which was made on a budget exceeding Rs 10 crore?
The movie was ready by February 2020. Back then Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham was set for its release in March and we wanted to avoid a clash because ours was also a big film. That’s why we decided to release it for Vishu in April 2020. But then the pandemic happened and May 13, 2021, was the third date we had announced. We can’t announce another date with certainty. Kerala was also among the only few states that maintained a 50% occupancy when theatres reopened earlier this year. All other states had increased it to at least 90% by then. We agree with the concern of the Kerala government because cinema is not an essential service. In such a case, when so much money is invested and you don’t have a certain date to aim at, what Amazon Prime Video has offered – in terms of value and visibility – is a great advantage. The producer’s expenses have been covered and when we include all the other rights, there’s a small profit too. It was a collective decision; if we wanted to opt for OTTs, we could have chosen that path earlier.
Malik is a political thriller. How relevant is it?
I think relevance is something that the audience has to find. I am a storyteller and I communicate what I want to say. I haven’t made a preachy film yet or know how to make a movie that influences people. My films speak about subjects in our environment that hit us and I want the stories to enlighten people to be aware of what’s happening. I believe what people lack the most today is resistance. Malik is about the kind of resistance I want to see. When the movie releases, I am sure people will compare it to what’s happening in Lakshadweep.
In an earlier interview, you said the film touches upon land encroachment in ecologically sensitive areas, corporate greed and the displacement of coastal communities. How much thought did you give in terms of the presentation of these hard-hitting subjects?
If you look at my previous films too, there are multiple layers. My focus has always been human drama. In Malik’s case, it’s the first time that I have paid attention to geography while executing a movie. It has love, heartbreak and all other emotions; I haven’t done such a movie before. It is also the first time that I was handling a film with so many characters and I wanted each of them to have a definite culmination. Sometimes, when you have a plethora of characters, many are forgotten in the course of the film. I didn’t want that. I see Fahadh’s character Sulaiman as a collective voice. There are parts of so many people that I have met over the years in Sulaiman. But I have never made their backgrounds evident. The audience can interpret it any way they want.
From the trailer, it’s also about standing up against the government and its forces. Is that a central theme of Malik?
It’s not just about the government, there are several other factors including the corporates that sway the State. I understood what’s happening in the coastal areas because I have a lot of friends during my degree years who are from the coastal belt – from Vizhinjam to Poonthura in Thiruvananthapuram. I used to go to their houses, have heard their stories and have understood what was happening. Again, I am not trying to represent people.
The comparison that I wanted to make was with our borders. Like the Indo-Pakistani and the Indo-Chinese border, coastal areas are also a border. The people in these regions also have a story to tell and I don’t know if we are addressing that. When I went to Chennai (to attend film school) and visited the coastal areas there with my friends, though the language and culture were different, the ideology was the same, in terms of how religion becomes a part of their lives, how the economy is shunning them and how they are treated by other people. These are issues that we witnessed and whatever happens in these communities – be it the revolts, genocide, displacement or defection – have to be discussed. We have to understand why it’s happening and who benefits from these.
Fahadh plays Sulaiman from the age of 20 to 57 in Malik. While creating this character, were there any real-life people who influenced you and what were Fahadh’s inputs?
As I had mentioned earlier, Sulaiman is the collective voice of a lot of people. I didn’t have any prior reference. A filmmaker whom I admire is Costa-Gavras, who has done political movies like Z and Missing. His films discuss the politics between people and emotions. During every phase, a filmmaker will have a particular inclination. I want to make hard-hitting films and that’s probably why my films sort of have a documentary style in the past few years. After Take Off, a lot of people told me that the movie is “hard-hitting” and it’s difficult to watch. But in Malik’s case, because the budget demanded it and I wanted it to reach more people, I have written it differently and brought all kinds of variations.
I can confidently say that Fahadh has not played such a role before; he hasn’t played a character older than he is in real life. Right now, a lot of people say that his roles are getting darker, of late. But this has him in a totally different zone and because of that he needed more time to prepare. He always had an apprehension to do older roles and that’s why we kept putting off this film.
For the older portions of Sulaiman, Fahadh sent me his grandfather’s photo as a reference and that’s how we conceived his look. He also did a lot of research for that part. He collected photos of Fazil sir descending the stairs at different ages. He used to analyse the differences in each of those photos.
When the trailer released, a lot of people also compared Sulaiman to Kamal Haasan’s Velu Naicker from Nayakan. Did the Kamal Haasan movie have any influence?
This is not a gangster film. For me, this movie is about the resistance of the people. You can’t say Sulaiman is the voice for the voiceless. These people have always had voices, it’s just that they didn’t reach where they had to. I also don’t think this movie is about an achievement. I believe life today surpasses any achievement. During the pandemic, a virus that we can’t even see is ruling our lives. Also, the characters that I have written till now have all had shades of grey. There are no heroes or villains in my films.
You are essentially an editor, who loves to tell stories about multiple relevant themes. But when you write these stories, how do you ensure that the volume of ideas you want to convey doesn’t overpower the script?
When you are scripting, you try to justify the core theme. So, unless I conceive or construct the ending, I don’t begin scripting. If you write before that, it would digress. You will have so much material as part of research and if you want to include all of it, the story would progress in multiple directions and be scattered at the end of it. The chances of this happening are high in the case of a movie like Malik. I don’t know if that has happened; it’s up to the audience to decide.
In the past, a lot of people have asked me when I take a sensitive subject, if I deliberately keep some checks for political correctness? But I believe you can’t tell a story like Nirmalyam without the oracle’s wife Narayani. That’s how I have looked at films. Cinema is an aesthetic art and so we should present it unbiasedly, by showing all perspectives in equal proportions. The audience can decide what is right and wrong from that. There will be disagreements, which again we should accept.
Be it Take Off, C U Soon or even Malik that is told in a time frame of 14 days even though the entire story spans from the 60s to the current era, all these films have a fixed time construct. Do you deliberately use that to make it more focused?
I think that depends on the stories that I have thought of. Even though the duration of a story is less, there’s a lot that is told. Take Off is mostly told in a linear fashion, except for a few flashbacks. C U Soon was also sort of a linear story. Right now when I think about it, it was tricky to write a movie that unfolds only through screens. If you use any other type of shot, it’s no more a screen-based film. So, it’s the device that is controlling the story. The writer doesn’t have too much of a say in films like that.
In Malik, even though it evolves in 14 days, it’s told from the perspectives of many people. Fourteen days is the time period of judicial remand; that’s the time the person waits for the judgment or the next phase of trial. Again, the person waits in a State-owned facility and that’s why I have selected that period. I have created a structure to tell his entire story in a non-linear way with this film.
C U Soon was one of the first made-for-OTT Malayalam movies. In terms of creativity, the digital platform does offer a lot of space where the filmmakers don’t have to worry about adding commercial elements. They are allowed to slow down and focus on different aspects like how Sanu John Varghese did with Aarkkariyam. Are you the kind of filmmaker who enjoys that freedom?
I actually think it’s more difficult to make movies for the digital platform. People who are watching films on OTTs aren’t dedicating their entire time for that. They might be doing some other tasks too. I remember blogger Vinod Narayanan had told me that he was assembling a table while he was watching C U Soon in the US. But after some time, they were so engrossed by the movie that they watched the film till the end and then returned to the table. I liked that aspect. People now have an interactive tool in their hands, using which they can skip or go back. I never thought Aarkkariyam was a slow movie; there was information in every scene and people were curious about what’s going to happen next. Today, it’s the toughest to create that level of intrigue.
You made your debut as a writer with Milli in 2015. How do you evaluate your progress as a writer?
I think the audience should judge that. Milli was written for another filmmaker and that’s different from scripting for yourself. I believe a scriptwriter must write based on what the director wants. You have to write keeping into account the filmmaker’s sensibilities. It’s just like the relationship between an actor and a director; even though they are collaborating, at the end of the day, the actor is delivering for the director.
You have also been an ardent student of cinema. While mounting a big movie like Malik, do you take references from other similar movies? You had mentioned once how IV Sasi and T Damodaran’s 1982 film, Ee Nadu, was a huge influence.
There are close to 25 characters in the movie and you cannot tell the story without them. So, all of them have equally important roles. Consequently, there is so much material for the movie. For Malik, I have followed Sasi sir’s films, Francis Ford Coppola’s movies and also Costa-Gavras’. I still haven’t found the energy of Sasi sir and Damodaran sir’s films in movies after their era. I am hardcore fan of their films such as Ee Nadu and Iniyengilum. While I was not able to enquire about that to them, I have discussed these films with people who have collaborated with them. So, even though I wouldn’t term it a tribute, what I have learnt from their movies, I have tried to realise in my films for the current generation.
You are also working as a cinematographer in Fahadh’s Malayankunju. Was that again a pandemic-driven decision?
Pandemic has also triggered it but it’s mostly about doing what we love. Sanu keeps saying this, “Even though there are specialist doctors, there are also general physicians and from now on, they are the ones in demand”. After Malayankunju, I will be directing Ariyippu. The pre-production work for the film has started but again it’s dependent on the pandemic situation. The priority right now is to complete the shoot of Malayankunju.
You seem to have got busier after the pandemic?
I am always busy. I have to work. I used to be busy editing films but after the pandemic, there weren't any movies to edit and so I decided to make my own films.