Auteur-actor Dileesh Pothan chats with Neelima Menon about his innings in cinema on either side of the camera. He sheds light on his creative process, approach to craft, and collaborative experiences.
The term 'Pothan Brilliance' has been used to encapsulate Dileesh's directorial oeuvre.
DILEESH POTHAN has directed three films in Malayalam so far. Maheshinte Prathikaram (2016) was a slice-of-life narrative that revolved around the coming-of-age arc of Mahesh who runs a photo studio in a small town. 2017’s Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum was a dark comedy set against the backdrop of a small town, and Joji (2020) was a psychological drama that rallied around a rich Christian family in Central Kerala. All three films were resounding critical successes, earning appreciation for their nuanced making and storytelling. That’s how the phrase “Pothan Brilliance” was coined. Meanwhile, Dileesh used the break from directing to act, appearing in close to 70 films.
Dileesh is very matter-of-fact about his flawless track record. He says everything comes from a space of immaculate research, relentless redrafts and improvisations, a superb talent pool of technicians, and an undying passion for this craft. Nothing, he says, appears out of thin air. He has struggled for years as an AD, doubted himself, always dreamt but was unsure of whether he would become a filmmaker. He believes that fortune favours those who work hard with honesty and integrity.
At the moment, Dileesh is rather elated by the response to his performance in Ranjan Pramod’s O Baby. He spoke with this correspondent about acting, training actors, and his own process. Edited excerpts:
Was acting an accident? Something you did for friends…Yes. It was purely accidental. I was roped in for Aashiq Abu’s Salt N’ Pepper as they felt I had a director's look.
When did you start taking it seriously?
Initially, I didn’t take it seriously as I wanted to concentrate on direction. Acting was just a side gig. It was when I did a cameo in Rakshadhikari Baiju that I started enjoying the process. I could slip into the character very easily. Now I look at it very seriously.
What do you like about acting?
I think you are able to understand a person deeply when you enact a character, his emotional upheavals, and the perspective that might be foreign to you otherwise. It is interesting to journey through that terrain. To live as someone else is fascinating.
While acting, are you tempted to give inputs?
Yes. But when I am acting I have this fear about getting into that character. I would rather trust the director. After my first film, I realised that it is tough to direct myself. I do give inputs and I am okay even if they don’t take them. I think a director will have more clarity about the character than me and I prefer to believe him.
You are considered a filmmaker par excellence today. But I think one skill that’s not really talked about is your way with actors. It is difficult to find bad actors in your frame. How do you spot talent?
I do spend a lot of time in the casting process; finding an actor who looks closest to that character. Then you have intuitions when you speak to someone, and you feel like he/she might be apt for that role. The father character in Joji for instance — I found him in an older interview and took an audition.
What’s the auditioning process? I heard seasoned actors as well as newcomers have to audition for your films.
When it comes to established actors, they might be fine actors, but I am keen to see how much they are able to absorb my character the way I envisaged. I don’t really tell them to use the film’s dialogues for the audition. We brief them about the character’s traits and ask them to do an impromptu act. At that time I interact with them like I would with the character and watch their reactions. Depending on the character the number of auditions will vary. Sometimes it will take 5-6. For Maheshinte Prathikaram I think the main characters must have gone through 5-6 auditions.
Who do you find easier to mould? Newcomers or experienced actors?
It is difficult to say. We always look for actors who haven’t attempted a role like this before. Seasoned actors might have fallen into a structure, so the first round will be according to that structure, and they may be above average, but then we prompt them to change that style. An unlearning happens there. That’s how Baburaj did that role in Joji. Acting is basically reacting to something. We feed them (inputs) about the character's psyche. We try different tricks for different actors, based on their calibre, sensibilities and experiences as a person, and also according to how much they allow us to mould them. But newcomers will come as a blank slate, and it is easier to mould them. Every method has its own challenges. But then I enjoy that process.
Your films are obsessive about detail. How do you achieve that so meticulously every time?
I am not consciously trying to make it detailed. I like to add some details and keep it real and authentic according to that narrative and milieu. That’s about it.
You make it sound so simple…
See, it is an organic process. It’s about doing everything to make a scene perfect. I would like to believe that each film and its process and approach are different. We put in the effort and approach with honesty.
What’s the Syam Pushkaran-Dileesh Pothan synergy?
We worked as ADs on a film called Ringtone in 2006 and we hit it off immediately. Syam is of course a brilliant writer, and his support was a bonus. He is very open to ideas and has no ego. A writer and director can go through a lot of friction while working but we have the space to fight and disagree. We usually start working at a point when a thought excites us both equally.
Since you work as a collaborative unit, can you break down the writing-to-screen process?
We start with a one-liner and then the writing begins. After the first round of scripting, we think of casting. Till then we are thinking of making these characters independent. We have a draft which we have reworked several times. Scripting is an ongoing process. Once the casting is done, we write another draft. If we change actors, we rework the draft again. Even during the shoot, we don’t think that is our final draft. Every evening we will rewrite the next day’s scene, and discuss the growth of the characters. Next morning, there will be a scene in Syam’s writing and that is what I will shoot. There will be another stage of actor improvisations and even during the dubbing, and editing we keep tweaking. The “come on dra Maheshe” dialogue in the climax (of Maheshinte…) was written during post-production. Such changes keep happening.
I have heard that you have an efficient team of ADs. What’s the qualification required to be an AD in your film?
Currently, my team is full. Most of my ADs are those who have worked with me since my first film. There are some 10-11 ADs now. I never send anyone away. I do look at their writing skills though. We have regular team meetings and I welcome their suggestions. But I will take only what is needed. You require a lot of physical and mental stamina to be an AD. They also work on other films. I just call them when there is a project. Then they work in my production. They are my friends. I don’t think you can make a film alone. You need a solid team.
Which was the hardest film to get out of your mind — Joji, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum or Maheshinte Prathikaram?
Honestly, none. I just leave the film once it is done. I do watch these films in the theatre to check the quality otherwise I am not keen on watching them again. I have never rewatched any of my films. I don’t really enjoy it.
Do you watch a lot of films otherwise?
Yes, but mostly Malayalam. If someone recommends another language film, I might watch it.
You started as an AD. Was it a struggle?
Of course, it was really tough. I worked as an AD in 10 films and then joined Aashiq Abu’s sets. Before that, none of the films I worked on were commercially viable and that really affected my morale. But I kept on working. All I wanted was to make a film that ran for 20-30 days. It was not as easy as it is now for someone to become a director.
Would you say that your association with Aashiq Abu was a turning point in your career?
Absolutely. That’s when I worked with a successful team, and that really worked wonders on my confidence. Besides, my first film was produced by Aashiq Abu, and that was a big turning point. He gave me a lot of space at work and the set was one-of-a-kind and comfortable.
I know you have said that Fahadh Faasil’s casting was just incidental in all your films. What do you find special about Fahadh?
Except for Joji, the rest were incidental. Since it was shot during COVID, we wanted a comfortable team. So we also decided to produce it. He is just dedicated, trusts directors blindly, and isn’t image conscious.
The actors are all very happy on your sets. How do you do it?
I really don’t know. Perhaps I make them comfortable mentally, which in turn produces great results. It is also true that just as their suggestions are welcome they also have to hear a lot of rejections from me. Just teamwork.
You have been a co-producer for Kumbalangi Nights, Joji, Palthu Janwar and Thankam. I am guessing that here also it is about teamwork.
As a newcomer, having a producer like Aashiq Abu really helped. It was a great crutch to get support from someone who knows cinema so closely. So when I had the opportunity to hold a production, I decided to do the same. As a producer my vision is to facilitate the kind of films I want to see being made. Of course, I am involved, but I do trust the director and want to make things comfortable for him. Once the screenplay is ready the film will be his to make. Cinema is a director’s (medium). No one gives as much effort and time to a film as he does. We can give suggestions at every phase. But otherwise, there is no involvement.
I think your production house has an ISI mark.
It has something to do with the kind of content we choose. A producer’s selection is what is important.
You did your post graduate degree in Theatre & Performing Arts. How did that help you?
Mostly we staged plays and learnt about theatre. Koodiyattam and Kathakali were also part of the course. I graduated in Computer Science and later joined the film industry as an AD. I did this course much later, in my 30s. Then I joined Aashiq Abu’s sets as an AD. The course influenced my perspective on films.
You are slotted as someone who does only realistic films. Does it annoy you at times?
Not at all. I don’t really take notice of it. It is just that I am slightly shy when I hear praise. I want to do films in every genre. I don’t know if it will be too far away from realism. I would like to believe that all three films I did were totally different films but with some common flavours. Probably even if I do a potboiler, it will have some of my staples. I am actually curious to see how it would turn out to be.
How are you able to juggle direction and acting?
When I start directing a film, I don’t take up acting gigs. As a refreshment time (sic) I like to act, and I get to learn from technicians and directors.