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Manjummel Boys Writer-Director Chidambaram: 'Cinema Is Not My Politics, Cinema Is Cinema'

Ahead of the release of his second film Manjummel Boys, writer-director Chidambaram speaks with Neelima Menon about his debut success Jan.E.Man, his creative process and his upcoming outing.

Manjummel Boys Writer-Director Chidambaram: 'Cinema Is Not My Politics, Cinema Is Cinema'

Manjummel Boys poster (left); Chidambaram (right)

Last Updated: 05.28 PM, Feb 18, 2024


Though bundled as a comedy, Jan.E. Man unpacks as a composite narrative, cleaving into the complexities of the human mind. The characters are well-defined—be it Jomon who throws money to cover his sense of isolation or Monichan who takes to the bottle to hide his depression. We are also privy to their subtle caste and class biases. For Chidambaram, this was an impressive debut, as he seamlessly pulls off a comedy without diluting its reflective subtexts. His next film, Manjummel Boys is a real-life story, penned by Chidambaram, packed with a bunch of young talents, headlined by Soubin Shahir. And it’s also one of the most awaited films of this year. We had a chat with a very unassuming director about his sophomore outing. Below are some edited excerpts:

What were the films you grew up watching?

Since my dad worked as TV Chandran’s associate I watched a lot of his offbeat films. It was more about getting introduced to such films than really enjoying them. But today I do enjoy watching Dany. I am not someone who watches a lot of films. My movie trivia is poor.

You have assisted Jayaraj, Rajeev Ravi, and cinematographer KU Mohanan for 15 years. What was the learning there?

I discontinued my BCA course and finished a course in Visual Communication from Bharathiar University. I began assisting Jayaraj (in Pakarnattam) as my father was his associate. Later, I shifted to cinematography and worked under Rajeev Ravi for Kammatipaadam and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum as well as KU Mohanan (did a schedule in Blessy’s Aadujeevitham). Cinematography is very technical, and you need to learn your tools to know your medium. The cinema was nothing like what I thought it was. It is a physically and mentally taxing job. You need to keep your ego aside and learn fast. I also got tips on how to behave on a set and to make a film with minimum resources. I still believe I am a cinematographer though. I learned to avoid postcard cinematography. They could create beauty in chaos. I know it sounds abstract but they gave me perspective.

And then you shot a few documentaries as well?  

Yes for KFSDC as well as independent ones. I assisted International filmmaker Ian McDonald who did documentaries on communism. It was a great way to observe life at close quarters. In hindsight, I am grateful that I didn’t make a film earlier when I was working as an AD. I was able to learn and then get into this field with the right temperament.

Was it difficult to clinch your first film?

I wasn’t planning to make Jan.E.Man. I didn’t want to debut with a comedy as it can be very tricky. I had a one-liner and suddenly producers were on board. It happened within two months.

Jan.E.Man poster
Jan.E.Man poster

What were the challenges during the making of Jan.E.Man?

We shot it during the pandemic. Since I was already trained to work under constraints, the shooting part wasn’t much of a hassle. For me, it was the writing aspect that rattled me. If that works, everything falls into place. Also, it was a very script-based verbal film, every dialogue has to carry forward and take it to the next scene. The layers weren’t planned. We discovered them (isolation, caste and class bias) during the process of writing. Thankfully most people got them.

How is your character development process?

All the characters have to be distinct. And no one should be one-dimensional. Even characters with a few scenes should have a solid backstory that defines how that person will behave or engage with another person.

At least three directors are acting in Manjummel Boys. How was it on the sets?

Logistically it was a difficult process. The casting wasn’t difficult as they are my friends. The directors were all having fun and were content to just act. I think films born from friendships are more rooted. There is an emotional connection. Here we could create so many lovely memories.

This is also your first solo work as a scriptwriter...

When it comes to Jan.E.Man, we were the creators since it was a work of fiction. But Manjummel Boys is a real story, and therefore nothing was in our territory. We couldn’t cook up a screenplay; it took almost a year to finish writing it. All the characters and incidents are real. We interviewed all 11 people, did a documentary, and then wrote the script. Of course, my whole direction team was involved in it. Their experiences are manifold, and I knew that I would be able to show only 10 percent of it in the film. Creating a script from all these multiple narratives was a tough job. We had to make the characters distinct and interesting, and we had time constraints. The audience needed to be invested in them before they got to that point.

Still from Manjummel Boys. Screengrab via YouTube
Still from Manjummel Boys. Screengrab via YouTube

What’s the challenge in making a survival thriller?

The thriller element, to start with, has to be consistent. Be it in writing, shooting, or editing. One shouldn’t feel fatigued while watching.

Are you worried about the “political correctness” meter when you sit down to write?

I keep political correctness out of my room when I start writing. Cinema is not my politics. Cinema is cinema. There will be characters who have different politics in the film. That is also the reflection of our society. If we give too much emphasis on political correctness, it might become one-dimensional. Jan.E.Man was sensitive because of the genre, but if I make a gangster movie I think it will uncheck all the boxes. But I did attempt to play comedy without offending anyone. When you are writing comedy, you are targeting a broader audience. Malayalees have a collective conscience—sometimes we react and at times we are detached.

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