Vineeth Sreenivasan: It's not always our successful films that teach something
The actor-filmmaker on playing an unscrupulous lawyer in editor-turned-director Abhinav Sunder Nayak's Mukundan Unni Associates, which hits theatres this Friday, and much more...
Vineeth Sreenivasan is not a stranger to grey-shaded characters, but in Mukundan Unni Associates, he promises a protagonist who is a few notches above the rest. Recalling our previous conversation, where he said the titular character's principles are in stark contrast to his own, I ask if it was that very idea -- playing someone diametrically opposite to him -- that compelled him to take on this character. "Absolutely. In life, there are all these rules, the ones set by the system and the ones we set for ourselves, which we get to break in cinema, and it's such a great feeling, I tell you," he laughs. "Mukundan Unni is someone who makes you think, 'This guy is capable of doing anything.'"
He adds that it was only until recently that he started getting approached for such characters, a fact he attributes to the increasing frequency with which Malayalam filmmakers have been exploring grey characters of late. "Not that there weren't grey characters before, but in the last 4-5 years, we noticed a surge, no? Today's filmmakers have a strong compulsion to see some actors in a way they haven't before -- they want to do an image revamp -- and now we get to see a lot of actors like that. Jagadish ettan in Rorschach is an example. Hopefully, we'll see similar surprises soon."
The trailer of Mukundan Unni Associates was quite intriguing. The film seems to carry both dark and comical elements.
It has some dark elements, but I wouldn't call it too dark, even though we follow events of that nature in Mukundan Unni's life. Abhi (director Abhinav Sunder Nayak) hasn't treated it that way. If you look at the poster, there is so much whiteness in it. (laughs) The novelty factor in Abhi's filmmaking is that where many filmmakers would get tempted to give a dark treatment to such a subject, Abhi went in the opposite direction. His filmmaking style is one of great contrast.
Knowing Abhinav's principles, I imagine he approached you with a bound script and wanted everyone to follow it to a T.
Here's what happened: We started filming with a bound script, but we later realised that we couldn't shoot in the order it was written, which was what Abhi wanted. The reality is that it's not practically possible with a film like this when you factor in the involvement of many actors, such as Suraj ettan (Venjaramoodu). It was impossible to get their dates in a way that enables in-order filming. Suraj ettan, for example, loved the script and came on board despite being busy with other projects. There's also Jagadish ettan, Biju Sopanam, and many others.
Since Abhinav is also an editor, there must've been opportunities to enhance the film and performances more in post-production.
Oh, lots. Abhi took me by surprise because I realised that he also changed the film's genre in the editing stage. He even changed the backstories of the characters. It was fascinating because the script I read and the movie I shot for were relatively darker, but Abhi did something later that changed all that. Of the films I've been in so far, I remember a fair amount of post-production enhancement in Oru Vadakkan Selfie and Aravindanthe Athithikal, too -- little edit improvisations, especially in the latter's second half. At the time, I thought they were a big deal, but after working with Abhi, I realised they were only minuscule. He also played around with the aspect ratio (as seen in the trailer) and even incorporated some of his own quirks during the dubbing stage. I guess you'll get a clearer picture once you see the movie.
So this was a hugely enjoyable process?
Yes, it was so much fun. Shooting the film, of course, was serious work. We were not supposed to disconnect from our characters. We had to learn the text by heart, considering the use of long takes and everything. If there was a minor change in the scene or dialogue delivery, we had to go for retakes. I would say I actually enjoyed the film more during the dubbing. Again, there too, Abhi surprised me by coming up with an idea for altering the entire film's mood while dubbing for the second half. We were doing alternates all the time, depending on which the edit improvisations kept coming, and each time was fun.
Aside from filmmakers, friends, family, and within, where else do you seek encouragement?
For me, it's not doing different characters but rather the opportunity of working with directors who think differently, which does it. I find that more exciting, even when my character hasn't much to do. The experience in one film contributes in little ways to my subsequent films, even when I'm directing something. Only after working in Mukundan Unni did I learn that we can do these many edit improvisations -- that when we keep our minds open, many things are possible. My takeaway from this film is not that I got to play this character, but I got to work with a director like Abhi.
Malayalam cinema started showing signs of a tectonic shift in 2011. You were part of some benchmark-setting films of the year, such as Traffic and Chappa Kurish. Could you share with us the mood of the industry at the time?
We could feel a palpable change while many projects were under discussion. When I went to the shoot of Chappa Kurish, I was surprised to see the absence of a film camera, lights, or cars. When they stick LED strips and tell you, "Stand here," you couldn't believe it. They brought in a 7D (Canon) camera, and you wondered how the footage would look on the big screen. Filmmakers started to forego anything superfluous -- including makeup; some films didn't need it, and you still saw characters appearing more human on screen, even when they emote. Sensibilities were changing everywhere. There was an upsurge of fearless directors and technicians with fresh perspectives. In the old days, a technician could become independent only after working in the industry for many years, but that's not the case anymore.
Once, Sameer Thahir, who used to work under Amal Neerad, told me that the older generation looked at a camera with fear and reverence, whereas we see it as just a tool. Also, in those days, screenplay writing was thought of as something that not everyone could do. There were only 5 or 6 prolific writers at whose doors everyone queued up. However, the new generation started thinking, "No writers? No problem, I'll write it myself." Or get a writer and be a collaborator. We saw the main difference in the creative side. The other advantage is that now we have producers coming from a creative background. And then we got actors like Nivin, Dulquer, and Tovino. All the shifts started happening simultaneously.
You forgot to mention Vineeth Sreenivasan.
(Laughs) Well, I wasn't too keen on being an actor in the initial stage. I just did roles that interested me; thankfully, they worked out. My primary focus was -- and still is -- filmmaking. With acting, as I said earlier, the excitement comes from working with different directors. You know, even with the films that didn't do well, I benefitted a lot from working with their directors. For example, I did two movies with Anwar Sadiq -- Ormayundo Ee Mukham and Manoharam -- which didn't do great business, but they weren't bad films either.
I loved Manoharam...
You know what? Out of all my films, that's the one my dad appreciated the most. When Anwar came to pitch the story, he told me that for that character, he needed the Vineeth from the interviews, not the one who performs in movies. Until that point, I had never observed myself that way, and then I started watching my interviews and realised what I was supposed to do. When I recently did Thankam (written by Syam Pushkaran), I noticed that I could speak with the same ease as in real life. I should credit Anwar for putting that thought in me. I also loved working with Leo Thaddeus chettan in Oru Cinemakkaran. If I get the opportunity to work with him again, I will do it. That's why I said it's not always our successful films that teach us something.