Mahesh Narayanan: Ariyippu is my most satisfying work yet

Ahead of the film's Netflix premiere, the director, along with actors Kunchacko Boban and Divyaprabha discuss the film and its inspirations
Mahesh Narayanan: Ariyippu is my most satisfying work yet

In today's digital era, where privacy has become a luxury for many, scandalous videos being leaked online is an everyday thing. It's a pertinent, universal subject that has been explored in several films worldwide. With his latest film, Ariyippu, writer-director Mahesh Narayanan also attempts the same by interweaving it with a few other relevant topics like imbalances in marital life, patriarchal conditioning, migration among skilled labourers, and the crumbling economy during the pandemic.

Unlike his previous films, Mahesh has eschewed all the so-called commercial elements in Ariyippu, and as intended, the film has had a successful run in several international festivals across the world. It all started with its world premiere at the 75th Locarno International Film Festival, followed by screenings at the British Film Institute, Busan International Film Festival, IFFI, and IFFK. Despite the successful run at the festival circuit, Mahesh feels that the 'real test' is on December 16, when the film comes out for public viewing on Netflix. "So far, the reception has been great, but unless and until it reaches the common audience, we can't be complacent. December 16 is the D-day."

Mahesh, an editor-turned-filmmaker is known for helming hard-hitting films like Take Off, CU Soon, Malik, and Malayankunju. There's an interesting pattern to all his films—he borrows inspirations from real-life incidents, craftily blends them with fictitious elements and then sets them in distinctive terrains. Mahesh admits that Ariyippu also germinated from a similar thought. "It was sometime in 2015 during the Take Off days when I accidentally came across this news article about a bank employee in Mumbai approaching the high court about a lookalike video circulating through porn websites. She wanted the judge to issue a declaration stating that she wasn’t the same woman. The judge was sarcastic saying that it can't be used as a legal document anywhere. But the woman was determined, and she got it issued. This incident sparked an idea."

When asked about how the pandemic and migrant labour issues came into the picture, Mahesh explains in detail the chain of events that lead to the making of Ariyippu. "A certain incident should affect me, and then I'll let it marinate and travel with me for some time. That's how most of my films are born. This incident of a woman's fight for a declaration stayed with me for long. I initially thought of setting the story in a bank, but changed it later because I'm someone who keeps rewriting my drafts every six months to ensure it stays relevant. During the pandemic, I visited a few factories in Kochi and interacted with the workers there. They were among the first to ring the bell saying that, 'look, there's something ominous coming our way'. They sensed it from the unusually huge quantity of orders and their long work shifts. From there, I also heard stories about how these skilled labourers migrate to other Asian countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. They don't take the usual route through Mumbai or Chennai. They move to places like Delhi, where most of the embassies are, live in the city's outskirts, work there for 6-8 months, attend recruitment programmes and then get the paperwork done. I found their journey interesting. What if such a couple with the intention to move abroad are caught in this video scandal and get stuck in an alien environment? How would they cope with it? That was my trigger for Ariyippu."

Kunchacko Boban and Divyaprabha play the couple, Hareesh and Reshmi, who face a crisis situation. For Kunchacko Boban, Ariyippu is special for more than one reason. It is the maiden production venture of his new banner, Kunchacko Boban Productions. Despite being a leading actor for over two decades, it is perhaps the first time he is part of a film that's gaining such global acclaim. The actor credits it as a result of Mahesh's conviction and some great teamwork. "I've known Mahesh for long, and he has been an integral part in shaping up my career in the second innings. Ariyippu's subject was suited for a gripping commercial film, and we all knew Mahesh was capable of pulling it off. But he wanted to do it in a grounded manner without any cinematic adulterations. We trusted his vision, and that's how Mahesh, Shebin (Becker) and I came together to produce the film. Our intention was to make a pan-Indian film with a rooted Malayali soul, which we could present globally. Thankfully, it all came together well with the efforts of some wonderful artists and technicians."

Over the last few years, Kunchacko Boban's career has seen a remarkable shift. The actor, who was known for his 'chocolate hero' image, had to consciously make some tricky career choices to get rid of that tag. In Ariyippu, he does scenes that one wouldn't have expected from him a few years back. The actor chuckles in delight when I mention it. "These are words that I've always longed for. This is my 25th year in cinema, and in pursuit of trying to reinvent myself, I've been doing a variety of genres and different character shades lately. It's a process that started during my Gulumal (2009) and Traffic (2011) days. Interestingly, Mahesh has been a constant in all my landmark films, mostly as an editor. Naturally, he knows me inside out, as a person and as a performer. In Ariyippu, he wanted to push my limits and make me do a character which I've never done before."

Like Kunchacko Boban, Divyaprabha has also had a long association with Mahesh Narayanan. Her breakout role came in his directorial debut Take Off (2017). Later, she did a noteworthy role as Fahadh Faasil's sister in MalikAriyippu marks her maiden film as a lead actor. "As an actor, I always believe in having a healthy rapport with the director. With Mahesh sir, since it's my third film, I'm well aware of what he expects from me." However, the actor admits that it was not easy to get into the shoes of Reshmi. "She is completely different from me, in terms of the way she talks or walks. I could only connect to her emotions. So I had to prep a lot, which included visiting factories in Kochi and Faridabad and observing the body language and mannerisms of the working class people."

Kunchacko Boban also has a similar acting process of observing and learning, but he believes that it's the well-compiled bound script and shooting in chronological order that helped him pull off Hareesh's character. "Hareesh was alien to me when Mahesh first narrated the subject. But when I finally got the bound script, I could understand everything about the character. There were even well-defined backstories for Hareesh and Reshmi, which is not there in the film. Similarly, shooting in chronological order in real locations did wonders to our performances." Mahesh quickly adds that this is the first film where he got the liberty to shoot in chronological order. "Given a chance, I would want all my films to be shot this way, but there's a problem with logistics. With Ariyippu, in which I'm also part of the production, I wanted to shoot it in order to help my actors perform with ease. In that sense, this is my most satisfying work yet."

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