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Writing Appan was an emotionally affecting experience: Director Maju- Cinema express

Writing Appan was an emotionally affecting experience: Director Maju

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Published: 02nd November 2022

It seems a good time for dysfunctional family dramas in Malayalam cinema. Alongside two theatrical releases that explored this space -- Kumari, Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey -- we had Appan, streaming on SonyLIV. Unresolved traumas and mounting aggression abound in the film, a tour-de-force of stellar performances across the board. 

In this post-release conversation (with minor spoilers), writer-director Maju talks about making a potent comeback with his second feature, extracting the best out of his actors, including its leading man Sunny Wayne, who delivers his career-best turn in Appan. 

Excerpts:

What inspirations did you draw from while etching the characters in Appan? And did you get to retain a lot from the initial seed you had in mind?

Different sources, some of which were acclaimed works of fiction I read. I've always been fascinated with stories exploring the animalistic side of human beings. And given that we have a history of migration in Kerala, one tends to look at how that affected some individuals -- travelling through forests, encountering wild animals and how such harsh experiences brought about a change in them, sometimes without them even realising it -- not all of them, though. Have you thought about how doctors and cops undergo changes in their personalities after training? Similarly, I thought of how the former kind behaves -- whether they maintain decency or exhibit the same wild behaviour -- again, not all. How is life with such people? How are their family members coping with their attitude? I reflected long and hard on these questions. 

So when I suggested this idea to my co-writer, R Jayakumar, who hails from Idukki, he was intrigued. Our first approach was much more humorous. However, once we got deep into the writing and the characters' thought processes, we slowly started thinking like them. Even though we tell the story from Njoonj's (Sunny Wayne) point of view, we become deeply immersed in it. When we look at it like that, we find some things unacceptable because they are painful. When our reaction comes into the picture, the fun part slowly dissipates.

Take, for instance, that scene where Kuttiyama (Pauly Valsan) says she is beginning to see the traits of Njoonj's father in him, and -- he breaks down. When we start thinking about Njoonj's dark backstory, even though we don't show it, it's not funny anymore. Every character in the film has a point of view. Everyone is grey. We gave space for the point of view of both sides, even that of the vilest of characters.

Some things are expressed without words in a couple of brilliantly performed moments in Appan, like that powerful scene with Kuttyama (Pauly Vatsan) and Sheela (Radhika Radhakrishnan), where the latter drives away those two women. Am I right in assuming that the former regrets not having the same attitude as Sheela once upon a time? 

Yes, that's correct. In the end, Kuttyamma realises that Sheela is her version of this generation and that she is as trapped as Kuttyamma is. Remember how Rosy asks the same question in two different places? She first asks Kuttiyamma why she didn't leave if life with Itty is so unbearable, and later she asks the same to Sheela in the climax. Kuttyamma smirks when Rosy does that. Giving them a common ground was constantly in my mind -- to show that the situation of these women is the same no matter how many generations have passed. But it was also necessary to have Rosy (Ananya) think differently. She is independent-minded; she represents the new generation, possessing traits of today's women -- fearless; she would drop everything, take her kid and leave. She warms up to Sheela, even though they got off on the wrong foot. Rosy is a pillar to Njoonj and every member of the house. More than a father-son story, I see it as a story of four women.

Pauly Valsan was incredible here. I think it's her best performance yet.

Directing her was an emotionally affecting experience because I'm very emotional by nature and was so affected while writing the script. So whenever I used to give her directions on set, I would almost choke up because I already lived Kuttyamma's life vicariously through the script. There was one moment when her tears were real, and I felt deeply moved.

Were there any background references for Kuttyamma?

Nothing; she is simply an amalgamation of most women we see around us who have gone through similar experiences and suffered a lot, like women from the 90s, for example -- 60-70 per cent of them think it's their duty to be subservient because that's the conditioning they get from birth and forced to live like that till their death. They are unable to think differently. For that to happen, exposure to different thought processes, either through reading or through women who are different from them, should happen. It's just like how the wild nature of some men gets passed on to their children. It's like believing in religion or a political ideology.

Did you get all the performances the way you wanted while shooting, or was there space for enhancing them in the editing stage?

Of course, some changes had to be made in post-production, even though we followed the screenplay to a T. We had written it with all the editing decisions keeping in mind the expenses. But then, not everything would work out the way we wanted. When a performance didn't work, we could resolve the weak element by cutting to a reaction shot. So, yes, editing helped quite a lot in enhancing some performances. And since we shot in sync sound, there were many advantages. In a film like this, being spontaneous is the best thing because it's so difficult to recreate the same kind of responses and mood later in the dubbing phase. You have to remember that when it comes to actors, a lot of work happens on the set. Everyone has a different way of working. Some would rely on a certain piece of music to produce the necessary emotions. It's a complicated process. 

What sorcery did you apply on Sunny Wayne to get the best out of him? 

(Laughs). Since I've already worked with him in French Viplavam, I knew he has the calibre. I knew he could deliver the right output when we gave him certain things. The Sunny Wayne I know is not the Sunny Wayne that other filmmakers know. He, too, is a sensitive individual capable of giving exactly what you want if given the right triggers. Njoonj is a character with a lot of depth, and his bond with Itty is rife with complications and mixed emotions. It's only when he gets to the verge of killing his father, and his mother says that she saw slivers of Itty in him, that he undergoes a noticeable change.

And what made you think of casting Radhika? She is phenomenal as Sheela.

She is, indeed. She happens to be a dancer and RJ. If you saw her offscreen, you might not recognise her. I was particular about casting a fresher for that part because I didn't want the audience to have preconceived notions. She keeps certain emotions hidden, which escape Itty's notice. She has a backstory. We also had to convey that she likes Itty's family members but can't show it. Again, another complicated character. Had we cast an experienced actor, everyone would find her predictable, but not with Radhika.

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