Akhil Sathyan: 'Feel-good' has become a reductive term today
The filmmaker gets candid about his debut feature, Pachuvum Athbutha Vilakkum, working with Fahadh Faasil, lessons from his father, Sathyan Anthikad, and more...
Would you be surprised if I told you that Akhil Sathyan is a huge Mani Ratnam fan? For a man born to one of Malayalam cinema's most revered filmmakers, one would expect him to mention his father, Sathyan Anthikad when asked whom he regards as his most influential filmmaker. So it goes without saying that for the young filmmaker, it's a cause for celebration to see his idol's latest feature, Ponniyin Selvan-2, playing in theatres alongside his directorial debut, Pachuvum Athbutha Vilakkum.
Akhil shares that even his twin brother, Anoop, who made his directorial debut with Varane Avashyamundu in 2020, also partakes in the Mani Ratnam fanboyism. "We both were enamoured by his films because there is a simplicity to his work and a degree of magic in his aesthetic, brought about through lovely visuals and magic, which is very commercial; as a filmmaker, one can't help but be touched by what he accomplished in Kannathil Muthamittal (Akhil's favourite MR film) or Alaipayuthey... anything from Nayagan onwards. You know, my father views Iruvar as a filmmaking textbook. I occasionally rewatch it to study some shots and sequences."
However, it's the experience of working in his father's films that showed him why the industry and audiences hold him in high regard. Most importantly, he witnessed first-hand the amount of effort that goes behind the filmmaking process. Does the occasional troll directed against his father (the bus that runs the same route) bother him? "No. When you see someone batting like Sachin Tendulkar and acing it, how can you ask him to bat like Rahul Dravid from the next day? The Sathyan Anthikad signature has fetched my father much success and continues to do so. Njan Prakashan was a hit, remember? My father has enjoyed a fortuitous 40-year career, and yet some people lazily tag or typecast him as such and such. Anyone who has thoroughly researched his career would know he has also done diverse films like Pingami, Appunni, and Samooham."
Akhil's labour of love, Pachuvum Athbutha Vilakkum, was a few years in the making. However, the onscreen realisation was hit by multiple delays, primarily due to the global pandemic. And having the lion's share of the film set in Mumbai and Goa meant the challenges would be more complex when compared to a film shot exclusively in Kerala. "Scattered locations, many crew members, covid measures... yeah, it was a massive challenge. At that time, everyone was thinking about doing smaller films, and Fahadh also directed his attention towards small-scale films such as CU Soon, Joji and Malayankunju. And just when he was getting ready to do our film, he got called to act in Vikram and Pushpa. But when Fahadh joined our film, there was no looking back. He was totally into it: he likes humour and had so much faith in the project. That's why he never let go of it despite other priorities getting in the way. It was his trust in us that saved us. We shot continuously for a 41-day shoot. Zero breaks. Six schedules. The entire film took 73 days to shoot."
Lately, Fahadh's slim appearance has got people wondering the reason. Akhil assures us that it's not a matter of concern. "He reduced weight for Malik and has remained that ever since. You can see him look like that in Joji too. In fact, that's been his look for the last two years. He looks younger, and he likes it."
Akhil is also not too bothered about the lack of pre-release promotions either. The film's existence remained oblivious to a lot of folks in Kerala until it arrived in theatres. He pins his hopes on positive word-of-mouth, which is true of the film of nearly three-hour duration. "I felt that this film demanded a three-hour runtime. If I had taken out, say, 30 mins, it would lose some of its beauty. Considering how multiple sub-characters are involved, cutting out portions here and there would affect them and their story strands. After all, we only get to tell this story once, so why not do it well?"
And given that Akhil is also the editor and co-producer of the film, he had the luxury of complete creative control. Like his father, Akhil likes telling stories replete with different human emotions. He detests the usage of 'feel good' or 'nanma' for films that deal with soft emotions or have an aspirational quality. "Why is it that when we include a soft-spoken young female character or an aged female character, people suddenly go, 'Oh, look, here comes another nanma (virtuous) movie?' I don't get that. Even my brother's film Varane Avashyamundu dealt with such comments."
Akhil thinks 'feel-good' is a reductive term insulting the sensibilities of a movie. "It has a negative connotation today. One can feel good even when watching a thriller like Bheeshma Parvam or Varathan. I prefer 'repeat watch' more, a characteristic of most of my dad's work. I endeavoured to capture the same quality in my too. I hope families will feel like revisiting PAV even after five years."
Finding the locations was a painstaking effort for Akhil. "I was particular about not depicting Mumbai and Goa how they did in earlier Malayalam films."I took my scooter and went looking for them. Take the Mumbai portions, for example. I didn't want to show the prettier side but rather the gritty, natural side. We shot in real Mumbai slums. The slum called Vasco, for instance, was not shown by any other filmmaker before. We did away with all the familiar Goa locations and their stereotypical picturisation. The characters and locations were all filtered through a fresh lens -- to make it feel immersive. I believe even my dad's films didn't have such images. My characters were not there in any Sathyan Anthikad film. Besides, 30% of the film is in Hindi, and we rarely focus on the main character's family portions. It's not the story of a family."
One of the notable aspects of PAV is its humour dominant through around 70% of the film. The novelty factor comes from their real-life inspirations, some from Akhil's own. In one comical scenario, Fahadh has to deal with a fishbone stuck in his throat and goes to the hospital to get it out. "My wife and I went through the same, and we have even mentioned our doctor's name in the film," Akhil laughs.
The presence of actor-filmmaker Althaf Salim, as Fahadh's assistant, also enlivens the film. The former's one-liners benefit from the usage of sync sound on set. Akhil credits sound designer Anil Radhakrishnan (Udta Punjab, Sonchiriya, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum). "It's not easy to do a project of this magnitude in sync sound, but Anil pulled it off beautifully," remarks Akhil. "We tried it first in Njan Prakashan, on which Anil worked. It was only after being impressed by his skill there that we contacted him. After working with sync sound, I find dubbing on subsequent films unappealing because it sounds so artificial."
These scenarios got also enhanced by the way they were staged and shot. Akhil says that the editor in him wanted to ensure that there was a proper plan before going on the set. "We relied on the old school approach of only shooting what's necessary. If a filmmaker has clarity on what to shoot, it's best to only opt for the essential shots. Otherwise, it would be vague to have footage taken from here and there and stitch them together in post. Even actors wouldn't know which take is going to be used. If I tell Shanu (Fahadh) that I'm opting for a particular take, that's the only one I would finally use. Had we not planned, we could've easily gone above 100 days considering the numerous locations and characters involved."
As for the shot division, Akhil and team had a rough idea in mind before filming and then figured out the final divisions on set. "It comes magically to me on the spot. I guess that's because I had worked with my father for ten years. If I were armed only with a three-year experience, I don't think I would've been able to have that kind of clarity. And, of course, the contribution of our director of photography, Sharan Velayudhan, was also integral. He was particular about not repeating any shots. He knows how to shoot fast without compromising on the aesthetic value."
Among PAV's outstanding qualities are the unique casting choices, most notably that of Viji Venkatesh and Vineeth as mother and son and Anjana Jayaprakash as Pachu's love interest, Hamsadhwani. "It took a lot of time, effort and expense to find the right person for essaying the mother. Viji Venkatesh is a Malayali who lost touch with Malayalam years ago, so we had to employ a language coach. It was not easy. And as for Anjana, I didn't want to give Fahadh an ordinary female lead. The same principle also applies to all the other principal female characters, for that matter. They are all connected to Pachu in an XYZ-axis pattern. Be it Hamsadhwani, Nidhi, or Ummachi, they all converge at a point that's Pachu. There are takeaways from all three. Hamsadhwani's story emotionally affected me more because we based her on a real-life character. I wanted to convey the magic of two people who have just met opening up to each other because of the trust and comfort they share."
When writing genuine emotions, Akhil is, first and foremost, his own harsh critic. "As a reader of my story, I should be able to impress myself first," he says. "My father's or anyone else's films don't factor in. After I wrote that pivotal vulnerable moment involving Fahadh and Anjana, I took a long walk because it haunted me. On the same day, I wrote that emotional scene between Viji and Vineeth ettan, which is also very special to me. And it's these scenes that got the best feedback."
Akhil wants to take some time to work on his next, which he says would most likely be a "female-centric, desi version of Sherlock Holmes." We can't wait.