Visakh Subramaniam: I'm now interested in collaborating only with my friends

The producer talks about his latest venture, Varshangalkku Shesham, his equation with Vineeth Sreenivasan, and the revival of Merryland Cinemas
Visakh Subramaniam: I'm now interested in collaborating only with my friends

Visakh Subramaniam's journey from a theater owner to a film producer was one filled with passion, friendship, and a deep love for cinema. Born into a family deeply rooted in the film industry, Visakh's love for the silver screen was instilled in him from a young age. Growing up amidst the captivating allure of movies, he was witness to a transformative period in Malayalam cinema during the 2010s. As he ventured into assisting his father in managing their family-owned theaters, immediately after completing his engineering course, Visakh found himself at the epicenter of this cinematic revolution in Kerala.

"Back then, young theater owners were few and far between. When I started managing one, there were hardly any peers my age to help me or clear my doubts. My main interactions during that time were with this new crop of successful filmmakers and actors," says Visakh, adding, "Before 2010, festival seasons were usually dominated by films headlined by big stars. However, post-2010, a new wave began, and many content-oriented films without star-backing started tasting success regularly. Traffic (2011) marked the beginning of this change, followed by films like Salt N Pepper (2011), Beautiful (2011) and Chappa Kurishu (2011)."

Visakh's previous production, Hridayam (2022), was released theatrically in the beginning of 2022 amidst a raging pandemic. It was a time when many big ticket films opted for streaming their films on OTTs directly instead of releasing it in theatres, but the Hridayam team were keen on a theatre release, and the film eventually went on to become a huge success. Fast forward to 2024, Malayalam cinema is going through a purple patch globally, with back to back humongous hits. It is in the midst of this unprecedented success streak that his latest production venture, Varshangalkku Shesham, got released on April 11, which clashed with two other films—Aavesham and Jai Ganesh.

Speaking about the growing demand for Malayalam cinema outside Kerala, an excited Visakh says, "Now distributors from other industries are calling us directly to acquire our films, which is a significant development considering how we used to pursue them earlier. Previously, negotiating even for an additional show in many places across the rest of India required a lot of effort. But now, without any demand from us, they're scheduling all the regular shows for our films, including my film Varshangalkku Shesham, and that too in their major screens."

Varshangalkku Shesham was an idea that Vineeth Sreenivasan had been toying with for many years, which caught Visakh's fancy. It was after making Hridayam that Vineeth was confident about going ahead with developing his idea to a fully formed story, which he narrated to Visakh. "I was so engrossed by Vineeth's narration, which went on for about 5 to 6 hours, that I forgot it was my wedding the next day. And within the next couple of months, he finished the entire bound script," recounts the producer.

Visakh was convinced—after Vineeth locked the script—that pre-production is the key to bring this vision to fruition. "The film has a grand scale, requiring a large number of actors. A significant portion is set in 1970s Madras. However, finding locations in present-day Chennai reminiscent of that era was impossible. Our main challenge was recreating the old Madras through elaborate set design. Hence, we opted to commence shooting only after thorough planning, spanning approximately 6 to 7 months," says Visakh. It was Visakh and his production team's meticulous planning, down to the last detail, that enabled Vineeth to complete the shooting of a film with such a vast canvas and numerous location shifts in just about 40 days.

Varshangalkku Shesham also sees Visakh marking his debut as an actor, which was nothing planned at all. "Initially, someone else was supposed to play the part. I ended up taking on the role to save time. My appearance in the film is limited to just one shot, which you can see in the trailer of the film. Discovering it was a filmmaker's role was a special moment for me, as my grandfather used to direct and produce movies."

As a child, Visakh grew up hearing about his grandfather P Subramaniam's role as the founder of Merryland Studio. One of his grandfather's pieces of advice to his descendants was to steer clear of film production, citing its volatile nature. Reflecting on this, Visakh remarks, "I used to joke that if he had been alive to witness my passion for films, he might have encouraged me to carry forward his legacy."

It was Suchithra Mohanlal, a close family friend, who casually suggested Merryland Cinemas' revival while discussing the possibility of a Vineeth film starring Pranav Mohanlal. Visakh had considerable apprehension about this proposition before changing his mind. "People will praise you if the film succeeds, but if it fails, you'll bear the blame for tarnishing the reputation of such a well-respected brand. But when Vineeth pitched me the story of Hridayam, I instinctively felt that this was the right opportunity to resurrect Merryland Cinemas."

Visakh's friendship with Vineeth began after the latter's debut as a filmmaker, Malarvadi Arts Club (2010), when it screened in the former's theatre. It grew over the years and evolved into a close bond with Vineeth's brother Dhyan Sreenivasan as well. Visakh's foray into film production came with Dhyan's directorial debut, Love Action Drama (2019). Adding more about the success of his and Vineeth's work relationship following Hridayam and Varshangalkku Shesham, Visakh explains, "I believe the ideal relationship between a director and a producer should mirror that of a husband and wife, where trust and partnership are paramount. This is the dynamic between Vineeth and me. It's only when such a relationship doesn't exist between the director and the producer that the film's budget gets overshot or doesn't go as planned initially."

All of Visakh's production ventures were born purely out of friendship. He openly admits that he wouldn't be interested in backing someone else's project without establishing a trust factor. "I have access to a certain set of filmmakers and actors, and I can negotiate with them smoothly because of my relationship with them. If someone randomly pitches a script and insists on a particular actor, I may not be able to secure their dates, leading to a conflict I'm not interested in," he explains, while adding, "As of now, I'm only interested in collaborating with my friends. I have a few subjects done by my friends that I'm interested in, and obviously, that will be my first priority."

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