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Basil Joseph: The success of Jan-e-Man has made me more selective- Cinema express

Basil Joseph: The success of Jan-e-Man has made me more selective

The actor-filmmaker opens up about his journey so far, shifting sensibilities and increasing responsibilities post his successes with Jan-e-Man and Minnal Murali, among other things

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Published: 29th August 2022

There was a time when Basil Joseph, the actor, used to be relegated to minor supporting roles, chiefly as the affable, wisecracking friend of the protagonist or a member of his gang -- not too far from his real-life personality. No matter the screen time, Basil has, by now, cemented himself as an endearing guy in the minds of Malayalis. Recently, though, he proved himself to be a worthy leading man through debutant Chidambaram's smash hit, Jan-e-Man, a film that also saw the entire cast and crew contributing to its success. Now, Basil is back in another full-fledged leading role, in another debutant's (Sangeeth P Rajan) feature, Palthu Janwar, backed by Bhavana Studios -- the dynamite collective comprising Fahadh Faasil, Dileesh Pothan and Syam Pushkaran. Ahead of the film's release on September 2, Basil opens up about his journey as an actor and filmmaker, shifting sensibilities and increasing responsibilities post his successes with Jan-e-Man and Minnal Murali, next acting and directorial ventures, and more.

Excerpts:

Was the success of Jan-e-Man a major confidence booster for you as an actor?

Of course. Jan-e-Man was a big start, but I felt its magnitude only after its release. I treated it as a regular film during the shoot, but the immensely favourable reception post-release was overwhelming. So you naturally tend to feel more responsible after that: you want to push yourself to do better. It makes you more selective because carrying an entire movie on your shoulders is no easy feat. So when you get a script with essential detailing, layers, and nuances, all anchored by strong technical support, you know things won't go wrong. Of course, there is an increase in pressure, but I enjoy that space too. An experience like Jan-e-Man happens only once in a blue moon.

I loved how sensitively the film treated your character, Joymon, and his admission of depression.

Yes, the idea was to do it in a way that would be relatable for all instead of getting pretentious. Many youngsters connected to -- and celebrated -- that particular aspect in the film.

People generally see you as a cheerful personality. Do you ever get depressed? Because we rarely see the other side of celebrities.

Well, I haven't gone to the extreme extent that Joymon did. But I have been in many anxiety-inducing situations like most of us. Most of my struggles came after I joined films, not before -- especially during my directing career, be it while directing Minnal Murali or Godha.

I imagine you felt a great deal of anxiety when that Minnal Murali set got destroyed... 

That, along with the pandemic-induced uncertainties and anxieties. We had no idea whether we could finish it on time. The amount of stress I experienced while trying to put together the climax portion of Minnal Murali was a first. Various factors played spoilsport. For one, we had to shoot in Karnataka in the middle of the first and second waves of the pandemic. The unfamiliar language, big scale, big crew, crowds who have not seen a shoot before, 100 crew members getting tested daily... An infinite amount of problems. If one person tested positive, we would've to halt filming. Besides, the government wasn't that supportive, with the stringent rules and everything. Back then, only those from Kerala who took the RTPCR test were allowed to cross the border. Making matters worse were local news channels propagating something called the 'Kerala virus'. We had to deal with the locals protesting outside our set and the collector asking us to vacate the premises. It was like sitting atop a time bomb.

Tovino told me that the set destruction was a blessing in disguise of sorts because you guys managed a better job with the new location.

He is right; we were delighted with the results. That said, the behind-the-scenes stories were terrifying, to the extent I thought of making a documentary like Francis Ford Coppola's Hearts of Darkness (which chronicled the chaotic production of Apocalypse Now). I found Hearts of Darkness quite relatable because shooting Minnal Murali was pretty much like that, minus the heart attack. (laughs) There were some dicey situations in Godha, too, caused by unforeseen delays owing to various factors, including demonetisation and theatre strikes. The original plan was to release it before Dangal came out.

I believe your directorial debut Kunjiramayanam was a relatively smooth ride.

Thankfully, yes, because we were free of the burden of any expectations or other forms of pressure. There was nothing to prove, you see. The only goal was to bring out the film that was inside us. It was my easiest shoot. In fact, we wrapped up everything nine days ahead of schedule. I enjoyed it a lot. Godha and Minnal Murali, on the other hand, were comparatively much bigger in scale and made under certain constraints, be it budget or shooting days. Also, since Tovino wasn't a big star then, his market value dictated the budget. But the script demanded a big-scale sports movie approach. We had to shoot a lot of things in very little time. And with Minnal Murali, the pressure was multiplied by four. But we can turn stress and fear to our advantage because we work twice as hard to make something more exciting. I have no intention of doing something within my comfort zone. If we are stuck there, we become saturated, and our learning process diminishes. When we push ourselves aggressively within our restrictions, we become more innovative. That's when films such as Minnal Murali happen. If I keep making films like Kunjiramayanam, I'd be out of the field by age 40. You see, what's considered outdated from twenty years ago today has now shrunk to five years. Today's generation evolves at a much faster pace. So we have to keep up with them.

Coming to your acting side, I found your roles in Joji and Nna Thaan Case Kodu (NTCK) to be effective image-breakers. We got to see a more serious and unpredictable side of yours.

That was precisely the filmmakers' intention too. With NTCK's climax, we needed a clever diversion that created the necessary amount of tension. Had I shown up as myself, things would've gotten predictable. That was Ratheesh Poduval (writer-director) thinking out of the box with casting and lensing choices. You see, as an actor, there are limitations when everything you get is familiar. There is no scope for novel variations in comic roles -- unless your name is Jagathy Sreekumar. (laughs) The minor parts usually come with a one-line description. You don't get to do much there, whereas films like Jan-e-Man take you in bolder directions, and people take you seriously after that. I also feel confident about Palthu Janwar and the upcoming Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey (co-starring Darshana Rajendran; directed by Antakshari-fame Vipin Das).

Did leading man roles seek you earlier too?

They did. But back then, whatever came to me didn't pique my interest. Besides, I wasn't that enthusiastic about doing lead roles because I had to divide my attention between acting and directing. So I took only supporting roles, the advantage being you get more time to participate in discussions and writing processes on the side. But when you get something like Palthu Janwar, which comes from the stable of Bhavana Studio, or even Jan-e-Man for that matter, you don't think twice because it's guaranteed to bring satisfaction. I don't think of myself as a great actor, but I give my best to whatever I get. And when you get a team that provides you with a space where you feel compelled to push yourself, you naturally find yourself accommodating. I initially didn't plan on continuing with lead roles after Jan-e-Man, but this is Bhavana Studios, after all. Aside from being a huge admirer of their work, there is the confidence that follows the knowledge that they'll present you well on screen.

What's Palthu Janwar about in a nutshell?

It's a simple coming-of-age drama-comedy drama about a livestock inspector who comes to a village. It's about his journey, challenges, and interactions with a host of colourful characters, which includes our four-legged friends.

Dileesh Pothan and Syam Pushkaran must've been hands-on on the set as usual.

It was fascinating indeed to see their work because they don't treat it as just another movie. They spend a lot of time on rehearsals. There is no pressure on the technicians to hurry and finish it by a particular deadline. They are serious about their craft even if it demands the necessary budget. It's all about polishing it and polishing it until they get it right. So if a film doesn't turn out profitable, the makers' credibility remains intact. There is no point in saying something made a certain amount of money while the credibility is lost. It's simple logic. And director Sangeeth is a guy with much clarity. The communication between the team and the writers, Vinoy Thomas and Aneesh Anjali, was also quite productive.

What are you directing next? There is talk of you collaborating with Fahadh.

I can't say much about it at the moment, except that the scripting (by newcomers) is in progress. We hope to shoot it next year.

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