Abhilash Joshiy, director of Dulquer Salmaan’s King of Kotha, on the challenges of mounting a big-scale ‘mass’ film in Malayalam
It’s not often that a debutant filmmaker gets the go-ahead to make one of the biggest films in Malayalam. And to pile on the expectations, the movie’s box office could also prove to be a seminal one for the film industry, which is still awaiting its first-ever pan-Indian blockbuster when all the other South counterparts have delivered post pandemic.
But King of Kotha director Abhilash Joshiy is unfazed by all these expectations as taking on the project itself was a “daunting” task. With just three more days left for the Dulquer Salmaan-starrer’s pan-Indian release, the buzz is deafening but Abhilash seems calm on the surface, as he explains to OTTplay the challenges of making the film, the lessons from his father, legendary filmmaker Joshiy, and what he has tried to achieve with King of Kotha.
King of Kotha is billed as one of the biggest Malayalam movies this year. Being the son of director Joshiy, who has defined ‘mass’ movies and created superstars, was this genre a natural choice for your debut?
I actually didn’t want to venture into this genre in the beginning. I love action films and wanted to do this genre, maybe a couple of films down the line. I had worked on 2-3 scripts before; I wanted to start off with something lighter like a feel-good love story because once you do a large film like Kotha, you tend to get typecast. The kind of films that would come your way later will also be similar. I didn’t want to get stereotyped. But then all the people around me wanted me to do this kind of movie. So, I decided to settle down on this idea of a ‘mass’ entertainer, which is my father’s forte. I am grateful for whatever has panned out for me and extremely happy I got to helm King of Kotha.
Being childhood friends, was Dulquer always your first choice as the lead for your debut film – even for the feel-good movies you had planned?
Yes, we grew up together and we have been close friends since childhood. It made sense for me to do a movie with him first, even though I have also planned projects with other people. He was always the first choice as it was easier for me to approach him and discuss scripts. We had worked on a couple of other scripts, which did not materialise. Dulquer always wanted me to start off with the action genre, he kept pushing me to do it. He also wanted a shift in the kind of movies that he was portraying and he wanted to do an action commercial entertainer, and it was more or less like a makeover for him. I am happy that he trusted me with that.
It's a massive undertaking for a debutant director – in terms of budget, scale, cast and even the setting as it spans the 80s and 90s. So, was the pressure huge?
There were a lot of elements involved, as you had mentioned, and handling this kind of a cast for a debutant is always tough because tbecause they don’t necessarily have to understand your vision. Actors like Shammi Thilakan chettan and TG Ravi sir have worked with my dad and they have done so many movies; telling them to do a particular scene in a different manner was a challenge, but all my cast in KOK made my life easy. I have worked with a few artistes like Chemban Vinod chettan and Nyla Usha before in Porinju Mariyam Jose and Dulquer is my childhood friend, so that made life easier.
In a recent interview, Nyla Usha, who had worked with your dad Joshiy in Porinju Mariyam Jose for which you were also the creative director, said that there were streaks of your father’s directorial style in you, while she was shooting of King of Kotha – especially the disciplinarian aspect.
I think that’s the only way this kind of film can be done. I can’t help it. When I worked with my dad as a creative director I always felt I would want to be a lot calmer when I direct, but then over time I have come to realise why he would lose his cool. When you are doing a movie on this scale with a massive number of people, you have to be a tough taskmaster. It’s not something that I do deliberately; it just happens naturally. I have always wanted to do a movie in the most jovial of spirits but when you are handling so many artistes and crowds, you have to be tough, else they won’t listen to you.
I have always wanted to do a movie in the most jovial of spirits but when you are handling so many artistes and crowds, you have to be tough, else they won’t listen to you.
King of Kotha’s shoot itself lasted over 100 days and it’s a film that kept everyone involved for a year at least. This can be exhausting at times, so what kept you going throughout that period?
I have always had the passion to do my first film well. I have given it my 100%. Now, its upto the audience to see and decide. The challenge for this movie was creating the fictional town for Kotha. We can’t go to, say, Thiruvananthapuram and shoot the whole movie there and say it’s Kotha; people won’t relate to that and it will almost be like fooling the viewers. We had to scout a lot of locations and stitched together this town.
Also, the budget will climb if you go to a location outside Kerala and the production has to be okay with that. We shot in a lot of places across the country, so that people get a different visual experience in terms of terrain and setting.
That shone through even in the trailer of the film, which had these grand visuals and also slight hints of a Wild West setting here and there. Could you take us through the process of conceiving this town of Kotha?
I had a clear idea of what I wanted Kotha to look like. I had taken references from a lot of sources to get that across to my technicians working on the film. But when we started hunting for locations, I wasn't quite getting the mood I had in mind. So we had to do further homework and decided to shoot extensively over 4 or 5 different locations including Karaikudi and Rameshwaram and many other places to bring the imagery of Kotha to the screen.
In addition, we used computer graphics to add more scale to the visuals. This was done because i wanted the audience to experience something different to what they had already seen earlier. The easiest way would have been to just put up a set in Kerala and shoot, but we consciously decided against that. The production house and art director Nimesh also supported what we had in mind and we put up massive sets to bring Kotha to life. It was daunting because in Tamil and Telugu, they do this in four times the budget. So, we were like, ‘How do we get here in a quarter of that budget?’ But I had to go through with it and the production house, Wayfarer Films, also supported my vision. Now, when I look at the references of Kotha on my phone I feel we have managed to achieve what I envisioned before shooting.
The buzz for King of Kotha is already sky-high, which is necessary for a big film to attract audiences to theatres these days. But what’s your pitch to the audience to watch this movie?
As a filmmaker, there are certain things that I wanted to do. As I said earlier, I didn’t want to do a ‘leave your brains behind’ kind of ‘mass masala’ movie. In King of Kotha, there are a lot of elements for all sections of movie-goers. It’s got a well-sketched storyline with strong emotions and characters with a lot of grey shades, that you don’t get to see often. If you take one character out, the story won’t pan out. I would request the audience to not come expecting a pure out-and-out ‘mass’ film, as this film has some emotional content that are intertwined with the mass sequences, which are essentially married to the story.