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Jeethu Joseph: I don’t have the intention or potential to make all my films box office successes

In an exclusive interview with OTTplay, the Mollywood director talks about his favourite genres, his biggest regret and why he will never remake anyone else’s movie

Sanjith Sidhardhan
Jun 08, 2021
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A few days ago, Mohanlal fans shared a poster of Drishyam 2 celebrating 100 days since its release. It would have been a big deal had the movie been a theatrical release but considering the response the sequel of the 2013 blockbuster received online, it’s hard to discount what the movie has already achieved.

The film’s director Jeethu Joseph though is amused when we point this out to him. “Every film that releases on OTT completes 100 days. People are just sharing their happiness,” he says. But it’s this aspect of creating characters that the audience connects with that has propelled Jeethu’s 14-year-old career.

In a candid chat, the filmmaker talks to OTTplay about his favourite genres, his biggest regret and why he now ensures that he has the final say in his Bollywood projects.

Drishyam cemented your status as a director of thrillers, something that you have been vocal about shaking off. But looking back at your career, you started off with the investigative thriller Detective. Was this always your favourite genre?

The reason I selected the genre for my debut was that there has always been a demand for investigative crime thrillers. When you read a book, listen to a story or watch a film, you will be engrossed in it only if it has intriguing incidents; investigative thrillers are full of such elements. Just like everyone loves comedies, people enjoy films filled with suspense. So, if you can pull a film in this genre off, you are guaranteed that people will like it. It’s not the same with a comedy or a romance. For my sophomore attempt, even when producers had asked for thrillers, I chose a family film such as Mummy & Me to avoid being stereotyped.

 You have also done a comedy like My Boss. Which genre is the toughest to pull off?

Comedy. It’s extremely tough to make people laugh. It’s comparatively easier to have people on tenterhooks with brilliant performances, tight shots and intense music. But that’s not possible with humour as it can easily backfire. So, I have immense respect for people who direct comedies.

Who do you bounce off the ideas while scripting a comedy?

Unlike for a thriller, you can’t seek feedback for a comedy. When I finished writing Drishyam 2, I asked my wife and children to read and all of them unanimously agreed that they loved the script, except for a few doubts here and there. But if I had passed them a comedy script, all three wouldn't have enjoyed it the same way. I think for a comedy, you have to shoot the entire film and then screen it for a select audience to truly gauge if it’s successful. So, feel-good movies and comedies always bear greater risk than a thriller, which will work if it has a few smart tropes and twists.

Is that why you haven’t done many comedies after My Boss? Life of Josutty was probably the only other film that had a few comedy elements.

Not really, it’s because I got pushed to another track. I want to do comedies. For instance, I have loved movies like Mummy & Me, Life of Josutty, Kumbalangi Nights and Sandesham because they are all connected with real life. I did Life of Josutty, after Memories and Drishyam, as I wanted to do something different. There again there was a difference in perspectives. Many called me to say that they loved the first half but the second half was a disaster and others said the reverse. Then there was a section who didn’t like the movie at all; they said as someone who helmed Drishyam, I should never do such a movie again. I told them I will.

All the films that you just mentioned are about families. So, how much has your relationships with your near and dear influenced your scripts?

My family life influences my writing a lot; be it my relationships with my parents, my family or my sibling’s family. If I was a youngster who had faced a lot of heartbreaks and came to the industry after that, my films would have had that shade. So, our films are inevitably connected to our lives. Also, I try to do movies that are related to reality, by telling stories about the society that we live in and a society comprises a group of families. I remember when I did My Boss, many told me that they thought that the role of grandparents had become non-existent in Malayalam cinema and so the movie made them happy.

Expectations increased after Drishyam in 2013. Do you ever think what would have happened if Memories released after Drishyam, instead of a few months before it?

I don’t think it would have affected Memories much because it was a good thriller. Personally, I don’t regret doing Life of Josutty. Even though people criticised me for Mr and Ms Rowdy, I enjoyed making the film. It was made with the intention of doing a small film with a comedy angle. It was during a time when I was going crazy doing thrillers all the time; I wanted a change, to enjoy what I was doing.

The only film that I regret is Oozham because I should have been more careful while scripting the movie. I used a non-linear narrative for the film. One of the most shocking feedback I got for the movie was when one person told me that he liked the way the story was told but his wife didn’t. I asked him why and he said she didn’t understand the story well because she thought Prithviraj was doing a dual role in the movie. That made me realise that the non-linear narrative didn’t work.

Similarly, when Life of Josutty released, a lot of people wrote that the movie was laden with helicam shots. But the story was told from the perspectives of an angel and a devil. So, every scene required a top-angle shot. But not many understood that.

So, apart from Oozham, I have enjoyed all the movies after Drishyam. There’s a film that I had scripted and my friend Anzar Khan had directed called Lakshyam, which was about two prisoners in the wild. It was something I did to satiate my craving for a difference. I will continue to do that. Some work, some don’t, but I don’t bother about that. I know my films have a basic quality and that should not go down. I don’t have the intention or potential to make all my films huge successes in the box office.

In a recent interview, you said that you weren’t completely satisfied with how your Bollywood film The Body turned out.

The movie was a disappointment for me due to a variety of reasons. After that I have decided that I will never remake anyone else’s film. Secondly, it was the first time in my career that I had to deal with a lot of interferences. This was not from the actors. I don’t want to name them but there was a lot of meddling during the editing and other processes, and I felt uncomfortable with that. The silver lining is that I could associate with Rishi Kapoor sir and Emraan Hashmi, who is a professional artiste. I also understood that there’s no use in doing such films because we can’t make a lot of changes. When you adapt a foreign film to our culture, there’s bound to be a lot of problems.

After that lesson, do you now ensure that there are minimal intrusions?

Oh, I clearly state that now. I am in talks for 2-3 Bollywood projects right now. That’s the industry from which I get the most offers and I put forth this condition. It doesn’t mean I am not open to suggestions, but it’s just that the final decision should be mine. Only if they agree to that, I will do the film.

Jeethu Joseph, Meena and Mohanlal on the sets of Drishyam 2

When you ask for feedback for a script like Drishyam 2 and people express their doubts, do you go back and change it or do you try and convince them?

For all my investigative thrillers, I first pass the script around to my family and then I give it to my assistant directors and ask for their suggestions. Some people point out logical issues, which I try my best to correct. You can’t have a script that is 100% fool proof. So, if six out of eight people point out a logical inconsistency, I eliminate that. I try to convince people but if the majority are still not swayed, I reconsider.

When it came to Drishyam 2, it’s a film that came with its baggage of expectations. So, first I made my family read the script. They were convinced that it would make for a good movie. I asked all three of them to read it at the same time because I didn’t want them to be influenced by each other’s opinions.

Then I brought each of the ADs to a room and told them to believe they are going to watch the movie. I asked them to read the script and come out when it was time for the interval. Then I asked them about their feedback. I wanted to know what they thought about the twist about Saritha’s character. Some of them said that they had a doubt whether she was a cop when she asks Rani about what is worrying her. That’s when I decided to break that scene and use one bit when they were talking in the IG’s office. In the original script, the scene was there in its entirety. So, it’s the feedback that helped me place it accurately.

When Drishyam released, it was mostly watched by the Malayalam audience and hence the remakes in other languages made sense. But Drishyam 2 had an OTT release with subtitles, so when you are remaking it in Telugu, did you also have to make changes?

No, you can’t make many changes in these films. It was the same for The Body. When you try to alter the story, it fails to make sense. The OTT audience in our country is still only a small percentage. Telugu audience especially, love watching films in theatres, so there’s a majority who still haven’t watched Drishyam 2. Also, even if a film comes on OTT, it doesn’t mean everyone will watch it. For instance, consider that my mother is from North India and she has watched Drishyam in Hindi. But just because Drishyam 2 released in Malayalam, it doesn’t mean she will watch the movie unless she’s a film buff. She will wait for it till it comes out in her language with an actor she is familiar with.

Mohanlal, Adil Hussain and Jeethu Joseph on the sets of Ram

What are your upcoming projects?

I am working on scripts. When I did Detective, there was another thread I wanted to do as a sequel. I have almost finished writing that now. There are a few Hindi projects that other writers are scripting and I am working with. I also have two projects in Malayalam that a friend will be writing; so, the discussions for those are ongoing. We should be able to resume Ram (which also has Mohanlal) only after everything returns to normal. Part of it will also be shot in the UK.

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