Mollywood director Ranjith Sankar talks about what went into creating the one-actor movie, why Jayasurya reconsidered the role after rejecting it initially and what drives him
Listening to filmmaker Ranjith Sankar talk about his writing would be inspiring to a lot of aspiring scriptwriters. When most would be struggling to complete a script in a year, Ranjith’s expediency means that he would have conceived at least five, finished scripting them and then dropped them to move on to something that’s better and more exciting.
“My strength is writing and I can create a script anytime. I don’t know whether it would be great, but at least that’s my confidence,” says the Njan Marykutty director, who is all set for the release of his first direct-to-OTT movie, Sunny, on Amazon Prime Video on September 23.
The Jayasurya-starrer, again, is a unique venture in Malayalam as it’s a one-actor film. In this exclusive interview, Ranjith talks to us about scripting the movie, why Jayasurya reconsidered the role after initially declining it and what drives him.
You took almost six months to complete the script of Sunny. When was the first time that the idea of doing such a film come to mind?
Actually, it’s something that I have wanted to do since 2013 and I had also talked to a lot of stars about it because it becomes interesting only when a star does it. As a commercial filmmaker, you tend to look at it from an audience’s perspective.
There are several such films that had inspired the thought such as Buried and 127 Hours. For instance, I had this idea about the final 90 minutes of a suicide bomber; there is a lot of turmoil going on with him dealing with his family, emotions and philosophy. I also thought about several other subjects, but then I dropped the concept because all of it was falling in to the same genre of the other films that had come out – which is either about a person being trapped in a place and if he or she will escape or not, or someone trying to rescue another person who is trapped. I didn’t want to repeat that. I discussed the concept with many actors over the years and everyone was excited to do different stories because such a film happens only once in an actor’s career.
What prompted you to revisit the concept with Sunny?
I was ready to helm an entertainer that was scheduled to go on floors in April 2020 when the lockdown was declared last year. So, I started working on two scripts to keep myself busy. I thought about the movies that we can make keeping the limitations in mind. One script was of a screen-based movie like C U Soon, which I didn’t know had the same concept back then. The screen-based movie was a thriller, but I dropped it because it’s more of an editor’s film and needs that kind of technical expertise to pull it off. I might be able to write it but I didn’t think I would be able to execute it effectively. If it doesn’t come off well, you don’t feel good about it.
That’s why I came back to the one-actor concept with Sunny. This happened on the same day that PM Narendra Modi had announced the lockdown. I thought there couldn’t have been a better time for a story on solitude as the entire world was experiencing it; even when we are in the company of people, we are still isolated for various reasons. The challenge was whether I could write a 100-minute, engaging film on this subject. So, I didn’t talk to anyone about the movie till I completed the script because I thought if I could write it well, it would be easy to get an actor to play the role under the circumstances, as not many were busy during the pandemic.
Sunny is not a thriller; it’s a human story with some suspense. After I wrote the first draft, I really liked it as something you can read, but to translate it on screen is a different exercise. In Buried and 127 Hours, there’s that element of whether the characters will escape that keeps the audience intrigued. Sunny didn’t have those, and so to make it interesting, it required a lot of layers and plot points.
That’s how I began thinking of Sunny’s wife, lover, acquaintance, a close friend, a friend who betrayed him, a sister, a police officer and a doctor who helps him and is like his father, with whom he shares a special relationship. These characters are played by great actors like Siddique, Innocent, Mamta Mohandas, Vijayaraghavan, Sshivada, Aju Varghese and others. They come in different forms in the film and add more layers to the film.
When did you approach Jayasurya with the film?
I wrote a lot of drafts and by October, I felt I was ready to make the movie; in fact, I felt that urge to make the movie. If it was now, I might not make Sunny because the COVID-19 situation has gotten worse. Back then it was better. It’s often like that; you have to make the movie when you are completely convinced. It was the same for Njan Marykutty. If I had waited for two more months, I wouldn’t have done it out of fear. Same was the case for Su.. Su.. Sudhi Vathmeekam and Ramante Edenthottam. I knew that the latter wouldn’t have been a superhit while I was directing it but I still went ahead because I wanted to make the story.
So, when I finished the script of Sunny and began thinking of whom to cast, I met Jayan. He had grown out his beard and I felt he was looking like Sunny; otherwise, he wouldn’t be the first face to come to your mind when you think of a musician. However, I didn’t tell him about the movie.
While I was writing, I thought that would be the biggest challenge. But after that, the making became a huge task because how many shots would you take in a place with a person. That’s when I realised that it would not be easy if I would be collaborating with someone I haven’t worked with before. I wanted a good actor and someone familiar with the way I operate. To make Sunny, you needed an extreme level of teamwork. If you finish your shot and then pull away, it’s not going to work; you have to be part of the discussions and that’s when I thought of Jayan.
What was his reaction when he first heard the narration?
He was excited when he initially heard the idea. Then we had a discussion and he expressed his doubts, and we decided not to do it. That was around October 10. I was fine with it because an actor can have a lot of apprehensions about how he can perform and pull it off. I immediately thought about the next option and approached another actor, who agreed to do it. I was about to announce it, but that’s when Jayan called me and said, ‘This character is haunting me, I have started to dream about him. So, can we discuss it again?’ I felt what he was saying was genuine. I then weighed the possibilities of both actors and went with Jayan; I also convinced the other actor. By October 20, we had another discussion to sort out Jayan’s confusions and within 15 days we began shooting. He had other commitments that he pushed to accommodate this film.
To shoot the movie too, the task was to find the perfect location that was visually interesting. We couldn’t erect a set because that would increase the crew personnel. Fortunately, we got Hyatt and a huge advantage of its suite was that it has views on all four sides including Bolghatty, the Arabian sea and the bustling city. As we were producing the movie, we didn’t think of the budget. We rented out an entire floor for the team where we stayed and shot the movie. We felt people would talk about Sunny in the future too and so we wanted to make it well.
Often when you work on multiple drafts of a film over a period of six months, you do tend to be disinterested. Is it more in the case of a one-actor film?
Disinterested is not the right word, you tend to lose confidence. As I said earlier, I wouldn’t have made Njan Marykutty if I had waited longer because I would have had a lot of doubts – why am I making the movie? If it doesn’t work, people will mock me. Same is the case with Sunny. People could say it’s just a gimmick. If we had decided to shoot Sunny after three months, I would have moved on to another script because you lose conviction.
You get a refreshing feel from the teaser and the poster. Apart from the performance, the atmosphere around the only character in the film is important and how did you go about creating that?
It was clear that such a movie wouldn’t work just on performance, like Su.. Su.. Sudhi Vathmeekham or Njan Marykutty. There were a lot of compromises in the making of those films because I knew those would work just based on the script. However, for Sunny, the margin of error was zero, to keep the viewers engaged. So, it should have good sound design. It’s the first movie that I shot with sync sound. Sinoy Joseph, who has worked in Piku, Pink, Gulabo Sitabo and Sardar Udham Singh, has handled the sound department for Sunny.
Also, every scene of the movie had to be visually stimulating. We can’t rely just on dialogues. The problem with visuals in Sunny was that we had limited space. We knew all this right from the first day. Every scene had to be different from the previous one to make this movie work. It didn’t require much editing because we just had one actor and so each scene had to be choreographed brilliantly.
Creating the atmosphere was important. After we shot a scene the first day, I had sent it to our editor. He said it was fine, but I knew it wasn’t working. So, we discussed what the problem was and reshot it the next day. We knew for Sunny to stand out, every dimension should gel – from its scripting, choreography and editing to its sound design and background score.
Do you always look for an element of experiment in your films – be it from your debut film Passenger to Sunny?
As far as I am concerned, especially now, I write, direct and produce my films. I am happy that Amazon Prime Video is distributing Sunny; they are taking care of marketing. It’s a huge relief for me because I used to do all of it myself. Because I have been doing this, the monetary interest from films doesn’t exist. It wasn’t there in the past either because I used to do a job that I was happy with. I still lead a middle-class lifestyle. I have produced movies and fortunately some of them did well. I don’t need money from films or in my life anymore. What I have always been looking for is excitement and challenges. These are what keep you going.
I felt relieved after Sunny as I didn’t think of a script for the next 5-6 months. I felt really happy that I could do it and it’s important to find joy in something else. Right now, I have again began working on my next script, so there’s no escape from that.
What I am saying is that because I am involved in so many aspects of filmmaking, I know the challenges involved to get it to the audience when I choose a story. Money has never excited me and frankly it would be a wrong motivating factor because you never know if you will make money. I think a filmmaker goes through at least a minor heart attack before his or her film’s release, if they are making a movie like me. And right now, most directors are producing their films. There’s so much pressure and costs, and so you need solid motivation.
Take, for instance, my previous movie Kamala. That film didn’t work. I was actually supposed to make a multi-starrer before Kamala with two big stars in Malayalam. They were both excited to shoot it. I thought about it and realised that I was getting mechanical about my job. I know the business and was aware that I could make a lot of money from the film but I didn’t want that. If I had done it, I would have probably lost interest in filmmaking. So, I told them I didn’t want to do it right now and instead, I chose to do Kamala, with no star cast. I was looking for that kind of excitement.
There’s a saying that if the story is simple, the narrative can be complex and vice versa. In Kamala, I took a complex story and added a complex narrative with no star cast. There is no bigger risk than that, and I produced it myself. Shooting the film rejuvenated me. Filmmaking was becoming a monotonous job for me as I had been continuously making movies and they were doing reasonably well – so everyone was happy. Doing a movie that satisfies the trade is one thing but making a film that you are satisfied with is another thing altogether. If you do both, it’s great but it’s difficult. Sarpatta Parambarai is a movie like that. It balanced both those elements.
When I was shooting Varsham, I used to wake up at 4am and think about the scenes I was going to shoot during the day. But after that I realised I was waking up at 6am and going for shoots; I knew something was happening to me that wasn’t right. But when I was shooting Kamala, from the fourth day, I began waking up at 4am again. It was also shot in the forest. I am not the kind of person who enjoyed the wild but for this movie, I was excited. I made it with a lot of enthusiasm and love and it brought back my interest to make more movies.
The good thing about Sunny was that the thought was pure. It didn’t have any business interest. So, the experimentation is for me to keep myself going.
Sunny, also, is a musician searching for inspiration. How much of the character is drawn from your experiences?
All my characters reflect my state of mind at that time. For instance, Marykutty believes that everyone who is talented will succeed. Maybe that was my state of mind then. Sunny is not like that. He knows he is talented, just that he is not lucky. There are many like that also. Sunny has a lot of me in it. He is an extremely simple person, and those are the most complicated people.
You had also been working on a lot of other scripts during the lockdown including one about cryptocurrency. So, what are you busy with next?
I have dropped all those scripts. After Sunny, I had been watching a lot of good movies that I hadn’t seen during the second lockdown. I thought I would work on another script after Sunny released. But then a friend, who is a big star, called me and asked if we could think of a movie. Immediately, the ‘old me’ came back and I wrote one really fast. Now, I have finished about five scripts. So, I will be making one soon; it will mostly be a multi-starrer thriller.