Not everyone is fortunate enough to have their first screenplay led by a superstar. KR Krishna Kumar is one of the few who stumbled upon a golden opportunity to work with Mohanlal through 12th Man, which friend Jeethu Joseph got busy with immediately after finishing Drishyam 2. A journalism student who found his footing in advertising, Krishna Kumar was in the midst of developing an original thriller script with Jeethu, titled Kooman -- starring Asif Ali; filming completed -- when a Mumbai-based producer brought up the idea of remaking the Italian hit, Perfect Strangers.
"The original plan was to do it in a few Indian languages simultaneously, but then we felt it would be better to just adopt the game idea rather than recreate the whole thing, and then combine it with a murder investigation," says Krishna Kumar, who created an entirely new story and characters from scratch. "They liked the idea of bringing in a cop who explores the possibilities of the game to solve a crime. When I finished it, and the overall frame was clear to Jeethu and me, we narrated it to Lalettan and Antony Perumbavoor while Drishyam 2 was in production. Given the pandemic-induced constraints, it seemed a good idea to pull off 12th Man as soon as possible."
On the surface, 12th Man is, of course, a 'mystery'. But when we keep aside the suspense element, the script brings up some interesting questions about the nature of friendships and withholding secrets from them, which appealed more to me as a viewer. Was that what triggered your imagination too?
When I was writing it, I thought about people, even some of our friends, operating on social media with fake ids -- it could be male or female. But then, aren't we all doing the pseudo act too, with our original ids? Say there is a particular issue -- someone becomes accused of something -- on which everyone is giving their two cents. We'll see a major per cent rally against the individual in question. On the other side is a group supporting this person because they have all done the same thing. Our society is comprised of individuals presenting themselves in a particular way, but they are the opposite underneath. Even those who present themselves as super progressive discreetly bring up caste and religion. I have seen that happen, and it shocked me. People who generally have a 'pure' image often judge others when they do something disagreeable from their moral vantage point. But they, too, will indulge in the same behaviour unbeknownst to others. We can see this sort even in our friends' circle.
How many people who claim to be our friends can we genuinely turn to for help when caught in a predicament? Hardly one or two. Take people around us indulging in public displays of affection. How much of that is genuine? Now, I don't mean all of them are bad or untrustworthy, but this problem exists even amongst friends and relatives. As for sharing secrets, I don't believe that our secrets would be always safe with someone. It could be used against us when someone finds the opportunity. I wish people discussed these aspects of 12th Man more instead of looking at it as just another mystery film.
The original films ended with the subtle suggestion that some secrets are better not shared to sustain relationships. Would you agree?
Definitely! If all secrets came out in the open one day, all relationships would break. (laughs) Be it couples, parents, friends... no doubt about it. There is no such thing as full transparency between people. If anyone tells you or me that such a thing exists, I would call that person a fraud. Everyone has something to hide. In 12th Man, we are not just talking about secrets pertaining to illicit relationships but also financial matters and various other issues. A shady businessman won't spill his secrets even to his wife. The characters in 12th Man start the game to find out if someone has been fooling around. But there are other secrets too, like someone not on good terms with their parents-in-law wouldn't dare to tell the entire world that, would they? It's kept only between family members.
Speaking of illicit affairs, they constantly figure in many investigation stories in Malayalam. Do you think it's because the subject appeals to the voyeuristic side of Malayalis?
Well, it's not just that. Whenever something like that happens within a group, it's what causes a sudden outburst. In a circle of 11 friends, they're not too bothered by other issues except for this one. For example, a financial crisis wouldn't create as much noise as an extramarital relationship. With the latter, one can also explore possibilities of blackmail and whatnot. In the context of 12th Man, a married woman would find it difficult to tell her husband about the affair. She can approach him on any other issue but not this! (laughs) That's the case all over the world, no matter how progressive people say they are. If someone asks if extramarital relationships can exist within such a closed group of friends, I can only say they're being fake. I've seen partners who once boldly stood with each other through life's biggest hurdles and then, one fine day, after reaching a fortunate position, become unfaithful, irrespective of gender.
Is there any particular piece of criticism about the film that bothered you?
The dialogue-driven storytelling. Too many dialogues, some say. This is, after all, a procedural that takes place entirely in a room. How else can one drive such a script other than through dialogues? Look, I'm not comparing my film to 12 Angry Men or anything, but that film was all about 12 men sitting in a room arguing. They were doing nothing but talking. But some appreciated this approach too. I believe Jeethu's craft helped this script a great deal.
Were there multiple revisions?
Yes. When I sent the first draft to Jeethu, he forwarded it to close friends and technicians for feedback. Everyone was actually on the same page about going forward with it, but, there will be invariably space for corrections, some of which came from Lalettan. He read the whole thing and liked it but had some minor concerns, which we rectified in the subsequent draft. Later, we sent this version to the other actors, took their suggestions, and incorporated them to create a final draft. I would say it took about two-three revisions.
With these many characters with distinct backgrounds, were there any concerns about audiences finding it difficult to track everything?
We had no major concerns, except whether viewers would find the character names and relations hard to remember. The main challenge was that in a typical investigation thriller, the culprit has to be looked for in a large crowd whereas, in a film like 12th Man, we only have these many characters. If I had reduced the number to like, say, six, the audience would find it much easier to guess who the culprit is. That would make my job difficult. As far as I'm concerned, hiding the suspect among ten people is more convenient.