Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval: Filmmakers might soon be ousted from India

Writer-director pulls no punches as he opens up about his journey from the outskirts of Payyannur, work style, vociferous stance against censorship, future endeavours, and more
Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval: Filmmakers might soon be ousted from India

Five years and five films later, writer-director Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval exudes a devil-may-care magnetism. From Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25 to the recently released Sureshanteyum Sumalathayudeyum Hrudayahariyaya Pranayakadha (SSHP), his films have ventured into uncharted territories, exploring obscure topics that some may find absurd or quirky. He speaks with directness that can be jarring. His clarity of thought makes his opinions unambiguous, but the bluntness can come across as abrasive. And he, clearly, doesn’t give a damn about that!

Ratheesh opens up to TNIE about his journey from the outskirts of Payyannur, work style, vociferous stance against censorship, future endeavours, and more.


Q

Let's begin with your journey from Payyannur, a quaint region, distant from the world of cinema...

A

During the 1990s, hailing from a place like Payyannur, all one could do was dream about cinema. Film shootings were rare in the Malabar region. Since I was into painting, I was once approached to assist in the art department of a Malayalam TV serial. From there, I joined art director M Bava as his assistant and went on to work under many others before moving to Mumbai on the insistence of [cinematographer] K U Mohanan, who is related to me.

Though I aimed to be a filmmaker, I continued with the art departments because of the steady income – unlike assistant directors who had no unions to guarantee wages.

My first independent work in films as a production designer eventually came with the Hindi film Force (2011). During the same time, I was also running one of the busiest production design firms in the country, focusing on advertisements. It was during the peak of my career that I switched track to become a filmmaker, putting my financial stability at stake.

I thought it would be a smooth journey with the connections I had made over the years, but my assumptions were wrong. It took me two years to put together my first film (Android Kunjappan Version 5.25). Convincing people about a story involving a robot was the biggest challenge. Finally, it was cinematographer Sanu John Varughese who introduced me to producer Santhosh T Kuruvilla. Among actors, only Suraj Venjaramoodu had full faith in the script initially. All others came on board mostly due to the producer's influence.


Q

How did you conceive such a story involving a robot?

A

There was a time when my ailing mother was finding it hard to adjust with the home nurses. And I used to quip that only a robot would be compatible with her. Sanu, who was also in Mumbai, was facing a similar situation. We wanted to be there for our parents in person, but it was not always possible. That's how I got the idea of a robot doing a home nurse's job.

Q

Do you always draw inspiration from real life to form your stories?

A

I am more of a director than a writer. Whenever a potent thought worthy of a screenplay comes to mind, irrespective of whether it is based on reality or not, I try developing it. When it comes to drawing inspiration from real life, it can be based on one’s own experiences or those of others. Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham (KKK) was based on an incident from my own life. Nna Thaan Case Kodukku (NTCK) was born from the thought of whom I could hold accountable if I get bitten by a snake on the road while trying to avoid an accident. Several other real incidents also contributed to the conception of that film.

Q

Writers usually create backstories for supporting characters, even if they don't make it to the final output. Is SSHP based on such a backstory you had created for Sureshan and Sumalatha during NTCK?

A

Of course, their characters had a backstory. The two are based on a real-life couple I know, though they do not behave like caricatures as shown in the film. We see Sureshan and Sumalatha only briefly in NTCK. In SSHP, you can understand the depths of their characters.

Q

How did you arrive at a visual narrative that spans three different timelines in SSHP?

A

Every love story has the same hurdles, regardless of timelines. I can easily communicate this thought through a letter, but while making a film, I have to make it my way. We made the set and costumes in black and white; it’s not something we did in post-production. I think it’s the first such attempt in Malayalam — both this type of black-and-white shooting and the jump in timelines. I am confident in my creativity and firmly believe that I won’t be making any ‘cringe-cliche’ films. I don’t fear anyone’s reviews. To make a film, I need to convince myself first. And if things don’t work out, I will do production design, or design covers, or even write banners (laughs).

SANESH SAKA
Q

The character sketches in your films are memorable… for instance, the magistrate played by P P Kunhikrishnan in NTCK. Does character-building happen while writing the script or do you improvise during the shoot?

A

It happens both ways. In NTCK, I imagined how it would be if [former chief minister] E K Nayanar was a judge. So, we conducted auditions looking for someone like Nayanar, who could handle humour. Kunhikrishnan maash sent us a picture of him in a rustic setting with a cow. That audacity got us curious, and we wanted to give him a chance. It was only later that we realised that he was a party worker and a councillor. We had initially cast him as a politician, but we still couldn't find a judge. So, we called him again for an audition and made him play the judge during the mock shoot. Whatever we see in the film now are his mannerisms. In his case, I found the artist first and developed the character later.

Q

Mock shoots are a recent trend in Malayalam. What are their pros and cons?

A

I can only think of advantages. The purpose is not just to judge the script, but also to help reduce unnecessary shoots. We did most of the mock shoot using phones or small cameras, and finished it within 15 days. The drill helps us understand our film's duration and shoot accordingly. If we reduce two days of shooting, we can save about Rs 15 lakhs. I saved some 10-15 days with this process. In case you don't like what you have shot, you have the option of scrapping the entire project. It helps you save crores. That said, you can't have mock shoots for all films. NTCK was mostly set in a confined space, so we could. That’s not the case with films like SSHP, which involved plenty of outdoor shoots.

Q

Suraj in Android Kunjappan and Kunchacko Boban in NTCK were peculiar choices...

A

Alencier was my first option for the father's role in Android Kunjappan, but we couldn't cast him. It was my producer who suggested pitching the idea to Suraj. I was initially hesitant because I thought he was too young for the father's role, but Suraj was excited and ready for any makeover. Similarly, Kunchacko Boban and I had been in talks for a while when I told him the idea of NTCK. Once I completed the script, I realised that his look should not be typical, and, gladly, he was also up for it. There is a general notion that a thief should not be fair-skinned, so we had to maintain that.

Q

Shouldn't we break such stereotypes?

A

About fair thieves? Yes, we have fair-skinned thieves in the film — the minister, politicians, etc (laughs).

Q

This strange sense of humour seems to be your forte…

A

Yes, that's how I approach life in general. I don't think twice while cracking a joke, and I am never mindful of its consequences. If I was, I wouldn't have asked people to watch my films only if they wished to.

Q

The release day poster of NTCK, which warned viewers of potholes on the road, stirred a controversy...

A

Like everyone else, I was also concerned about the potholes on our roads. People have even died due to them. An advertisement's objective is to attract people. That ad said: "There are potholes on the road, but please still visit theatres." It was a trap, and people fell for it.

Q

Did you expect it to become such a big controversy?

A

No. But not everyone thinks alike, so it's natural to have contrary opinions and controversies. Everything is a controversy today, but not always valid. We are living at a time when we are not allowed to freely make films, but there's hardly any controversy about that. For SSHP, the censor board gave us a U certificate with a star, which indicated corrections. They asked us to replace footage of around 1.25 minutes, which includes changing a key character’s surname from 'Nair' to 'Nahar'. But for anyone watching the film, it's obvious that we meant 'Nair'. How is it possible to make a film that questions casteism without mentioning caste? Who are they to decide that mentioning a caste name will hurt the sentiments of the community? Yes, they have the authority, but how do they judge that someone might react in the future? If an issue blows up, we have law enforcement agencies. The censor board's job should be limited to categorising films, and not chopping someone's creativity. What about my individual rights then? So, either set up a censor board that is intellectual enough to understand every film, or don't indulge in such absurdity. We see how filmmakers are running to international festivals like Cannes to escape censorship. It won't be long before our filmmakers also start doing that. Just like how some artists were ousted from this country, filmmakers will also face the same situation.

Q

You had also spoken about not including smoking or drinking scenes in your films to avoid the mandatory on-screen disclaimers...

A

For me, visuals are crucial. Each scene has to look beautiful, at times like a painting. The disclaimers that keep popping up mar the visuals. And, will anyone stop smoking or start wearing helmets because of the messages? It's high time our censoring process changed.

Q

Don't you think it happens because cinema can influence people?

A

Several films have been made about Gandhi, but how many Gandhis were born after watching them? Cinema can influence no one. Only artists believe so. Just look back at the Covid time, theatres were closed for about two years. No one urged the authorities to open them. Entertainment is people's last priority. The ideas of star, stardom and everything will end in a snap if something like Covid strikes again.

Q

Though you seem to have a strong political stance, it's not evident in your films...

A

I never wanted to show my politics or any kind of politics in my films. Cinema is a collaborative work, and the politics of it also varies and can have multiple visions. As I said, whatever is happening in society reflects in our art. Naturally, there will be shades of my politics in it, but not any propaganda.

Q

Can we expect a full-fledged political film from you?

A

Of course, why not? I want to make a film from inside the legislative assembly and the MLA hostel. Let's see how many cuts it will get (laughs).

Q

Though KKK was primarily about a conflict between a husband and wife, you discussed some relevant politics in it. Was there a lot of homework involved?

A

I don't do much homework; I'm more of an accidental writer. As I said, KKK was inspired by a real-life story. My wife Divya is a serial actress, and this incident happened when we went to Bangalore for a shooting. Her necklace went missing at the hotel, and the ‘male lion’ in me pounced into action and made quite a ruckus in the lobby (laughs). There was a bar downstairs, and like in the film, it was a pandemonium involving different personalities… there were some Jaffer Idukkis, too. We were torn between dealing with the missing necklace and the fight amongst us. However, unlike the film, the clash did not end in murder. In the film, we made the husband a struggling actor. The dynamics between a successful and a struggling actor in a marital relationship would naturally lead to ego clashes, and that's what is reflected in the film.

Q

In that film, Rajesh Madhavan's character delivers hilarious lines like, "My name is Manaf Khan, but I am not a terrorist." Could you elaborate on such usages?

A

It was not meant to hurt anyone's sentiments. We see people making such proclamations in real life, so what's wrong with showing it in films? In SSHP, the story is about Sudhakaran Nair not letting his daughter Sumalatha marry Sureshan, who is from an oppressed caste. Sureshan eventually finds out that Sudhakaran belonged to a different caste, but added the 'Nair' surname in his ration card. This is the reality of the caste system, and it's not a personal opinion; rather, studies by anthropologists on the caste system and differences have confirmed that people are just assigned castes or they simply make claims about their caste.

I feel ashamed about my last name, Poduval, but I retain it because the name has a certain weight to it (laughs). I am just trying to convey this idea through the film. How would this offend the NSS or become a caste issue? The censor board asked us to send the film to Mumbai, which would have delayed the release by a month. So, we decided not to include the names of any existing castes. The raw footage was then sent to artists in various districts from where they dubbed and made all the corrections. We worked on these alterations over a weekend, and by Monday, we had to send it to the censor board again to get approval before uploading it to the Qube. Such hard work is often overshadowed by the criticism from theaters the next day.

Q

What's your take on 'review bombing'?

A

I don't believe in reviews. My responsibility ends with the film being uploaded to Qube [projection system]. I can only guarantee that my film will reach theaters at the right time. I am not really concerned about the tsunami of reviews that follows after release.

Q

Aren't you bothered about the commercial prospects?

A

It's foolish to waste time thinking about a film's commercial potential; it is solely based on luck. There is no success formula as such, so I just believe in my work. SSHP is my fourth film as a director. I enjoyed the response for KKK the most because it is the only film where the audience responded exactly how I had expected. My other films were either overanalysed or underread. KKK is my favourite genre, and I can proudly say that it's a space where I excel. I have been influenced by many great filmmakers, so I am aware that my films are not masterpieces. But the creative and intellectual investment in a film is still much bigger than its financial investment. The producers' goal is to gain financial returns. As a director, I only bargain for the intellectual property rights and a fee for executing my creative ideas. If the producers aren't convinced with that and aren't able to make money out of my script, they won't invest. If they aren't able to make money out of a film, it is because of their lapse in judgement. If they decide to invest solely on the current form of a director, it will only lead to disaster. Producers have to read the script, ascertain its value, and then decide on investing.

Q

How has the experience of art direction helped you as a filmmaker?

A

Android Kunjappan happened only because I was an art director. Since I was not able to convince people of its possibility, I manufactured a robot in Mumbai and showed how it works. Similarly, I was confident of production designers' competency to pull off the timeline shift in SSHP seamlessly. Since I have worked in the field, I don't have to depend on them completely. I just have to make the decisions.

Q

Could you point out some differences between the functioning of Malayalam and Hindi film industries?

A

Money is the major difference. The Mumbai industry is also highly professional and streamlined. In Malayalam cinema, an assistant art director has to handle multiple tasks, including cleaning floors and painting walls. In Mumbai, these works are done by specific departments. If Kerala had a system like that of Mumbai, it would be the best in the country. If there’s sufficient funding, people would be punctual, work efficiently and get regular breaks. Since none of this is happening here, it’s become more like slave labour. In Mumbai, I always noticed that most of the efficient and leading technicians were either Malayalis or Tamilians. What our people create here is magic. The resources or infrastructure for a cinematographer in Mumbai would be four times better than what a Shyju Khalid gets here. Yet, his works have an international standard. Can you imagine the output he can produce if has access to the same resources?

Q

So, what's next?

A

There's a psychological comedy with Kunchacko Boban, and another one with him titled ‘Anyagraha Jeevikal’. It's about the arrival of extraterrestrial beings.

Q

You seem to enjoy a solid rapport with Kunchacko Boban…

A

Yes, he is very straightforward in his opinions. He might have some suggestions, but won't hassle one with it. It's a matter of trust. I do consider his suggestions if they are valid, but I have the freedom to or not to make changes.

Q

The concept of love is depicted uniquely in Android Kunjappan and NTCK. Was it a deliberate choice to move away from the traditional style?

A

Times have changed, and marriages don’t depend on factors such as caste, religion or financial stability anymore. What's wrong about a Malayali falling in love with a Japanese woman in another country? It is thoughts like these that inspire such love stories. Similarly in NTCK, the woman falls in love with a thief. Someone comes to your house, you interact with them, fall in love, and they become a part of your home. These are things that we see and hear around us, and they get reflected in art.

Q

What went through your mind when NTCK bagged state awards?

A

I was thrilled when my team got awards, as I am usually like a ‘kanakku maash’ (maths tutor) on the sets, and they struggle a lot (laughs). I was genuinely happy, but all that ends with a cake-cutting, right?

Q

By 'kanakku maash', do you mean that you are ruthless on sets?

A

Yes (laughs)! If I have something to say on the set, I prefer shouting. It might affect my health, but it’s better than whispering to each one. I can save an hour with one shouting. The crew is about 200 people, and they come on the sets to make 200 films. So it’s my duty to make it into one film. These reel-loving youngsters come to the set with thousands of visuals in mind, and I need to constantly remind them about my film. They might feel uncomfortable, but I am not concerned about their sincerity. I want the work done. In the evenings, I join them to chill.

(Interview by: Vignesh Madhu, Vivek Santhosh, Cithara Paul, S Neeraj Krishna, Anna Jose, Swathy Lekshmi Vikram)

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