Marakkar's intricate audio-visual design deserves the big screen: Ani IV Sasi
Priyadarshan's co-writer and assistant director on his enriching experience with the director and how Marakkar contributed to his growth as a filmmaker
When interacting with an ardent film buff, I prefer the conversation to be as uninterrupted and unhinged as possible. Unfortunately, Chennai's weather played spoilsport when my telephonic interaction with Ani IV Sasi was interrupted not once but four times due to network issues. But being the gracious and patient man he is, Ani obliged to go along, minor annoyances notwithstanding.
Many would have expected the son of the beloved and legendary IV Sasi to make his directorial debut in Malayalam. But Ani chose a different route, a decision that eventually proved rewarding for him. Ninnila Ninnila, a Telugu-language film starring Ashok Selvan, Ritu Varma and Nithya Menen, showcased a filmmaker whose sensibilities differed from his father's. A food-based movie that also doubled as a heartwarming love/ghost story, Ninnila Ninnila was initially planned to be done in Malayalam but owing to certain hindrances in Ani's way, doing it in Telugu seemed a wiser move at the time. He wants to direct his first Malayalam film, though, but we'll have to wait a little longer for that.
However, he got an opportunity to be involved in the creation of one, a massive one at that. Marakkar: Arabikkadalinte Simham, touted as Malayalam cinema's most expensive undertaking yet, saw Ani involved as director Priyadarshan's co-writer and assistant director. Marakkar happened before Ninnila Ninnila, and Ani observes that working on the former gave him the much-needed push before embarking on the latter.
"Marakkar was a big learning experience for me," he says, adding that the film demanded the involvement of a minimum of 500-600 members, including junior artistes, every day. "You know, one of my dreams is to do a mythological epic, but before joining Marakkar, I was quite apprehensive about shooting battle sequences. Marakkar quelled all those fears. Looking at what was happening on set, I thought, 'Hey, it's really not that big a deal.' When we completed shooting in March 2019, I was so pumped. I felt like I could handle anything at that point. I was so eager to do Ninnila Ninnila, which started filming in December 2019."
It was Ani who first expressed interest in being Priyadarshan's collaborator on Marakkar. He wasn't even sure if he wanted a co-writer credit. He just wanted to be a part of it because he was awed by the things Priyadarshan had told him about the project. "After finishing my work with him on Oppam, I told him that I wanted to do something on my own. By then, I was pitching a lot of scripts here and there. While paying Priyan sir a casual visit one day—his office and house are like second homes to me—he told me about this big film that he wanted to do. The main character is Kunjali Marakkar, a pirate who later became a naval commander. I found it exciting and wanted to be a part of it. And despite doing so many films, Priyan sir doesn't have any airs and graces. He is so accomodating and open to good suggestions. When he offered to have my name as co-writer, I asked him, 'Are you sure?' and he said he was," says Ani, who has assisted Priyadarshan on ten films, beginning with Aakrosh.
The research for Marakkar, Ani recalls, was overwhelming and considerably dicey given that Kunjali Marakkar was portrayed differently in every historical account they could get their hands on. The film was initially supposed to be co-written by another veteran, T Damodaran, who had given Priyadarshan a lot of material on Kunjali Marakkar. Marakkar was supposed to be the duo's next big project after Kaalapani. "But even in those materials, the information was limited," observes Ani. "We had to deal with contrasting views. The Portuguese account was different from the Malabar one. While we came across some contrasting incidents in some areas, the 'facts' in others confused us. Because of that, we took creative liberties to make it suitable for a cinematic interpretation. There is a disclaimer at the opening of the film that states it's a fictional take."
On why the 4th Marakkar, essayed by Mohanlal, was deemed a worthy subject instead of the three that preceded him, Ani remarks that his history was the most interesting one. "It's because everything ended with him. Comparatively, we knew more about him than the others. He was the one who brought in a lot of strategies and all that. And he is the one who got betrayed the most."
Ani sees Priyadarshan as an unhinged visionary. "He loves creating new worlds. He just goes with the flow," adds Ani, who was careful not to have too many visual or shot descriptions in the script. "With Priyan sir, you only need to be concerned about the characters, their dynamics and dialogues. As for the visuals, he is someone capable of conjuring up something while on the set. You see, only he can do that because he has got the experience. I can't. I need every little detail in my scripts. If I did that with Priyan sir, I might obstruct his vision," he laughs.
Given the enormous scale of the film, I asked Ani if they managed to give every character a deserving space amidst all the spectacle. "Well, I hope all the characters stand out. But ultimately, this is the story of Marakkar more than anyone else, so we didn't want to risk losing the focus to anyone else. The spectator is supposed to connect to him and his perspective more."
Like many of us who feared that Marakkar would premiere on an OTT platform, Ani, too, had similar concerns. He is relieved that it's finally coming to the big screen on December 2. "I can't imagine watching a film of this magnitude on a small screen. Marakkar has an intricate audio-visual design. You need an ATMOS—or at least a 5.1 or 7.1 system—and a bright projector to experience something like that. Sitting in the electrifying atmosphere with a lot of people... you can't replicate that experience at home even if you are with your entire family."
Marakkar managed to grab three Kerala state awards and three National awards even before release. While Ani finds these accolades encouraging, he believes it's the reception of the audience that matters above all else. "I hope it lives up to their expectations," he concludes.