In an exclusive interview with OTTplay, the actor-producer-distributor talks about #Home, which will be streaming on Amazon Prime Video as an Onam release
When actor-producer-distributor Vijay Babu decided to release his movie Sufiyum Sujatayum directly on OTTs last year, it was met with widespread opposition from the Malayalam film industry’s trade bodies. Fast forward a year later and direct-to-OTT releases have now become a norm for Mollywood, with superstars’ films queuing up to drop on streamers, possibly prompted by the delayed reopening of theatres in the State.
Vijay, who has also completed the production of Valatty and Prithviraj Sukumaran’s Theerpu, is now all set for the release of his second digital release, #Home, which will be streaming on Amazon Prime Video as an Onam release on Aug 19. In an exclusive interview with OTTplay, he talks about the relevance of #Home, the impact of OTTs in the industry and more.
What is director Rojin Thomas’ #Home about?
I always try to make small films with a message, like Phillips and the Monkey Pen and June. We decided to do #Home now because we thought it was the need of the hour. It talks about phone addiction. Our generation is lucky to be technologically updated but due to the sudden growth of technology, there are people from the older generation who have lost track of what’s happening. My dad doesn’t know what Instagram is. But that doesn’t mean he is outdated or unintelligent. At times, the younger generation tends to look down on older people because they don’t understand what they are saying. The former group doesn’t realise how much pain those insults cause for our parents.
So, we are trying to convey a message with #Home. Right now, we say that all of us are at home but in reality none of us are. We are all on our respective phones, in different worlds. Some of the lines in the movie try to explain what we are missing when we are addicted to phones, when our attention span is reducing day by day and we just don’t have the time to listen.
Do the cast of the film also represent different generations?
Yes, the characters played by Indrans ettan, Manju Pillai, Kainkary Thankaraj ettan, Sreenath Bhasi and Naslen, represent different age groups. So, through them, we show the situation of a home today. Indrans ettan plays the technologically-challenged dad of two children from a gadget-addicted generation.
Over the years, you have backed films of various genres such as Aadu, Angamaly Diaries and June. But when you decide to produce films, do you also insist on the so-called commercial elements in them?
Yes, I do. I have said this in the past too. Only if a film becomes a commercial success, I can do my next movie. I try to ‘commercialise’ the project while keeping the aesthetic value intact as much as possible. Cinema is an artform but at the same time it has to entertain as well. When you balance both these elements, it pleases all kinds of audience. A movie like Phillips and the Monkey Pen won five State awards, was a superhit and is probably one of the most repeated films on TV. That gives us a lot of satisfaction because we were able to convey a message aesthetically and were able to satisfy all target audiences. #Home replicates the same team of Phillips and the Monkey Pen, with the same director, scriptwriter, cinematographer and producer, and we can assure you that it will also have the same mood.
You were the first producer in Malayalam to opt for a direct-to-OTT release last year with Sufiyum Sujatayum. How much have OTTs become a relief for producers during the pandemic?
In a decent way. I am not saying everybody has waded the waters. There is a limit of how long you can hold on to films. If you see, leading producers such as Antony Perumbavoor and Anto Joseph, who had huge amounts of money invested in movies such as Marakkar and Malik, got some relief by releasing their movies Drishyam, Irul and Cold Case on OTTs.
The pandemic is going to take its due course of time to end. Why I released Sufiyum Sujatayum on OTTs is because I was told that the virus will spread. It was already happening in the West and I was informed that in India, once it began to spread, it would take time to abate. Also, during that time, the audience was deprived of entertainment and then there were people who were dependent on us. When I released Sufiyum Sujatayum, I was asked why I was in a hurry to sell it to OTTs. My reason was that if you can liquidate your money, you can give jobs to 50-60 people. I kept my promise by using the money I got from the OTT deal to produce a smaller film, #Home. This way I could give jobs to my staff and others in the industry.
On top of that, a movie like Sufiyum Sujatayum, which is a slow-paced romantic drama, could reach a wider audience and there was a section of audience that loved the film. So, OTTs are a blessing for smaller films like #Home. Imagine a situation in the past where I am doing a movie with Indrans ettan. How long do you think I would have to wait to release it in theatres? Even after that, word-of-mouth publicity has to build. Sometimes, even if the movie is good, by the time it takes for the audience to know the response, the movie might be removed from theatres.
So, OTTs are a blessing for small content-driven films. In an earlier scenario, a film like #Home could never have reached over 200 countries. I am hoping people like it and I can make more content-driven films.
Both you and Rojin were earlier set to team up for a big budget film Kathanar. But based on the current scenario, would you hold off on doing big films for the next 1-2 years, given the uncertainty?
We don’t have a time period per se. I have actually completed Theerpu; I have also produced the biggest experimental film in my life, Valatty, which revolves around dogs. So, all of that is done with the hope that everything will be back to normal in the future. Similarly, I am also aware that a film like #Home is more suitable for OTT and that’s why the streamers were interested in it. Theerpu though can wait till theatres reopen; but even that has a limit. I also have plans to do Aadu 3 and have bought the rights for actor Sathyan’s biopic. I don’t decide a budget and then search for scripts, it’s the other way round.
As a producer, at least for the time being with theatres not set to reopen any time soon, do you feel that OTTs now have a monopolistic reign over the money offered for films?
Do we have a choice? If you look at the past, when there were no satellite rights or OTTs, theatres were monopolistic. Newer revenue models have always come in. If things were normal, I would say this was a golden period for Malayalam cinema because there are so many revenue channels to back production houses – OTTs, satellite, theatrical, remake rights and others. OTTs have helped Malayalam cinema reach greater heights. There are a whole lot of non-Malayalis now sitting across the globe and watching our films. They are getting more and more interested in Malayalam films and we are getting a wider audience of non-Malayalis.
Do you think this will translate to numbers when the theatres reopen?
Theatres and OTTs will co-exist. OTTs became active in India since 2017. But streaming platforms have been operating in the West before then and just because they were there, it didn’t mean that people were watching movies only from the comfort of their homes. When superhero and sci-fi films were released in those countries, people used to go to the theatres, for the experience. In India, our superheroes are our superstars; Lalettan, Mammukka, Rajinikanth, Vijay, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan are our superheroes and their big budget, pan Indian movies will keep coming, but we will only have theatres to dedicate to them. So, then what happens to smaller movies? They will be opting for releases on OTTs so they can reach a wider audience.