Pookkaalam director Ganesh Raj talks about his upcoming movie starring Vijayaraghavan and KPAC Leela in the lead
Malayalam director Ganesh Raj, who made a dream debut with the campus coming-of-age tale Aanandham, a few years ago, has chosen a movie with nonagenarians as its protagonists for his sophomore venture. Pookkaalam, which is set to release on April 8, is also scripted by the young filmmaker, who says that he chose the subject as he believes it has a “fresh and novel” thread.
In an exclusive interview with OTTplay, Ganesh opens up about what went in to choosing the story of Pookkaalam, why Vijayaraghavan and KPAC Leela were the best fit for the characters and why a popular cast is not enough to ensure a film works in the post-pandemic era.
Pookkaalam is about a couple who are nearly 100 years old. When you do a movie that is in an unfamiliar space, it also leads to a lot of growth as a filmmaker. How was that experience for you?
Frankly, I haven’t thought of it that way. I have always only wanted to do an interesting, fresh film; by that I mean that I know such a film has not been made yet across the world. Consequently, our film immediately has an USP. Often when you think of that, you mind goes to big-budget and sci-fi movies. But that’s not always the case. There are always smaller stories that are yet to be told.
When I did my debut film, Aanandham, I believed that there weren’t any coming-of-age movies about a college students’ tour. We hadn’t seen anything in that format before and that seemed fresh – not just for Malayalam but everywhere. See, every day you have five new ideas about a movie in your head, and so the first filtration process is – ‘Could there be a film like this?’ If it’s a yes and unless the idea is that exciting, you would drop it.
With regards to Pookkaalam, I got this story from a newspaper article a few years ago. It’s based on a true story that happened in Italy. It’s about an event and when I read about it, I felt it was novel and we could place it well in Kerala’s socio-political milieu. We also get to explore a lot of things that we otherwise couldn’t. That was the initial spark; the characters being 100 years old and everything else came second.
You don’t have too many movies in Malayalam where the protagonists are past 70 and 80 years of age. This is also a feel-good movie?
Yes, it is.
So, once you have conceived these characters, how did you go about casting them?
You should have an idea of the character and then for us to make the story work, these characters should have certain traits. For instance, a person with a particular belief would behave in a particular way. Those were the basics. The rest we had to add on to that. I don’t know how a 100-year-old person would behave and this film is about a couple who has been married for 80 years. So, to understand those aspects, you talk to a lot of people. That was the primary research. But the character is fleshed out completely when a great actor comes in.
I was extremely lucky to have KPAC Leela aunty and Vijayaraghavan sir. When he heard this story, he jumped onboard. He was waiting to play an aged character and felt it was a role where he could flaunt his acting chops. Insane amounts of input came from him – from how the character’s body language must be to the suggestions to improve the script.
Vijayaraghavan’s father NN Pillai’s Anjooran is still among the most recalled aged characters in Malayalam cinema. Did that have a bearing in casting him for the role?
Not really. We went to him because he’s a fantastic actor. We couldn’t cast a 100-year-old actor for the movie. Vijayaraghavan sir is also someone who is physically able to shoot the entire film. So, he ticked all those boxes. And of course, he is NN Pillai sir’s son. Vijayaraghavan sir was also excited because his father had also done such a role.
Even when you have a film with veteran actors playing protagonists and a strong story, do you still need popular faces as supporting cast for the movie to now work in the box office?
If you look at the industry now, movies with relatively lesser-known cast are becoming hits. That’s what we have seen the past two years. Especially after COVID-19, people have become more choosy about the kind of movies they want to watch. Earlier, if it was a star’s movie, they would decide to watch it, no matter what. But that social climate has changed. A lot of people lost money and jobs; there’s a dip in the economy and the first thing they cut out in such times is luxury.
For about 95% of the people, going to a theatre is just about entertainment. End of the day, our job is to entertain them. If a family used to go to theatres four times a month, they have now cut it down to once and would probably have used that money for two OTT subscriptions.
So, there needs to be something to bring them to theatres and it’s no longer the stars. If they are going to theatres, they would ensure the movie that they are watching is the best film to release that month. A lot of audiences now think that and I believe it’s relieving for a lot of us creators because our primary focus is to give the best product.
When you set up such a project, the entire tension is for the producers. No matter how popular the supporting cast is, the leads are aged actors who are not superstars. This affects the pre-sales of the film. So, what you can do is make such a good project that when you show them the film, they can’t say ‘no’. Touchwood, that is what is happening now.