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Filmmakers must adapt to the changing times: Harikumar- Cinema express

Filmmakers must adapt to the changing times: Harikumar

The veteran filmmaker opens up about his upcoming Suraj Venjaramoodu-Ann Augustine feature, Autorickshawkkarante Bharya, adapted from M Mukundan's short story

Published: 13th June 2022

Director Harikumar has been keeping himself busy. After 2017’s critically acclaimed Clint, the veteran behind such titles as Sukrutham, Ezhunnallathu, and Swayamvara Panthal made two films—Jwalamukhi, starring Surabhi Lakshmi; and Autorickshawkarante Bharya, headlined by Suraj Venjaramoodu and Ann Augustine. The latter, which hits theatres soon, sees Ann Augustine returning to the silver screen after a brief hiatus. In a conversation with Cinema Express, Harikumar spoke about adapting the M Mukundan short story on which the film’s screenplay is based, and picking Suraj and Ann for playing the story’s married couple. 

Interestingly, the initial name considered for the titular role was Nimisha Sajayan. But since Suraj and Nimisha had traversed similar territory before, Ann was chosen instead. When Harikumar first had Suraj in mind for the husband character, he wasn’t a “big star”. Harikumar wanted an actor who didn’t have stardom attached to him. He then witnessed the massive success of The Great Indian Kitchen and some of Suraj’s subsequent releases elevating the actor’s status overnight. “During the shoot, I told Suraj that if I were to do the film now, I might have considered someone else,” says the director, adding that Suraj’s subtle acting touches worked in the character’s favour.   

The M Mukundan short story first caught Harikumar’s fancy when he stumbled upon it in a weekly. He felt it was ripe for a cinematic adaptation. But he also felt the original story was short enough only for a short film or teleserial. He asked Mukundan to expand the material to make it more suitable for a feature-length movie, which meant incorporating additional characters and subplots (Swasika Vijay features in one of them). “Mukundan first suggested I write it myself, but since I was particular about shooting the film in Mahe (the film’s main location) and having the characters converse in the local dialect, I deemed it prudent to let the original writer develop it instead,” says Harikumar. The dialect turned out to be a challenge for Ann, though, and Kerala State Award-winning dubbing artist Sneha—who lent her voice for Nimisha Sajayan in Eeda—was brought in to dub for her.  

Harikumar was drawn to the short story because, aside from its strongly women-centric narrative, he was amused by the characters and situations in it. “It’s a very lighthearted story about a lazy, irresponsible autorickshaw driver who treats life in a lackadaisical manner. He happens to be the only son of his mother, and his nature has been the main reason for his delayed conjugal bliss. Then one day, he is married off to Ann’s character. Suraj’s character is interesting because he is the sort of man who isn’t assertive. In one instance, he can’t even muster enough courage to demand the money he is owed. In another, he stops his ride to listen to a singer, worrying his passenger, who is in a rush. Suraj hasn’t done a character like this in his post-hero phase.”

The women-empowerment aspect, says Harikumar, comes from having Ann’s character taking the reins after a turning point in the story. “She has to take the autorickshaw from her husband and do what he did. She entered his life with many expectations but eventually realises that things are going on a different tangent. She takes on her husband’s responsibilities and confronts life head-on.” 

Harikumar filmed Autorickshawkkarante Bharya after the Surabhi Lakshmi-starrer Jwalamukhi, which fetched her the Kerala State Film Award for Best Actress last year. Harikumar calls it a “very personal film” with an experimental approach, something he had not done before. “In terms of tone, it is poles apart from Autorickshawkkarante Bharya,” reveals the director. “It’s about a woman’s helplessness, whereas the latter is about a woman’s perseverance. I shot Jwalamukhi during the pandemic and sent it to festivals here and abroad. It’s based on a story that my daughter, Geethanjali Harikumar, brought me: of a female gravedigger. She initially thought of making a documentary on Selina, a female gravedigger from Ernakulam, but felt it had the potential for a film treatment. There are only a few female gravediggers in India, and I thought that subject was unique.”

While on Harikumar’s daughter, Geethanjali, who had completed her film studies and is also a subtitler, plans to follow in her father’s footsteps. “She has already assisted a couple of directors, including me,” he says. “Many people discouraged her from getting into filmmaking, but I wouldn’t do that because I had been through that myself. Besides, there are a lot of women filmmakers out there now, so, I say, why not?” 

It’s been four decades since Harikumar made his debut with Aambal Poovu, starring Sukumari and Jagathy Sreekumar. How does he look at the changes the industry and moviegoers have undergone over the years? “Well, the most important thing is filmmakers must adapt to the changing times,” he replies. “They have to update themselves constantly. When I made Aambal Poovu, some regarded it as a ‘new gen’ film, but it wasn’t successful. The theatre response was dismal, but the feedback from certain corners was very encouraging. So I got to do my subsequent films based on that strength. You know, I often think about this: of all those who got into the industry at the same time as me, only a few managed to hold on.”

Being a big fan of Harikumar’s Mammootty-starrer Sukrutham (scripted by MT Vasudevan Nair), I couldn’t help but ask him about the film that haunted me upon first viewing in my school days. Would audiences go to theatres to watch such an intensely dark film today, especially after the advent of OTT platforms where such films are usually preferred? “No, I don’t think they would. People have become wary of watching dark films in theatres. Take Jwalamukhi, for example. I know perfectly well that they wouldn’t watch it on the big screen because, aside from death being the main theme, it doesn’t have any major stars. But Autorickshawkkarante Bharya doesn’t have that problem,” he chuckles. “People can enjoy it anywhere—theatres or OTTs.” 

Shot by cinematographer Alakappan and edited by Ayub Khan, Autorickshawkkarante Bharya is produced by KV Abdul Nazar under the banner of Benzy Productions.

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