Regional cinema is free from adulteration: Jayaraj
National Award winning filmmaker Jayaraj on the state of regional cinema, his inspiration for doing Bhayanakam, and casting Renji Panicker
Though he has dabbled in both commercial and arthouse cinema, National Award winner Jayaraj has displayed a particular affinity for arthouse cinema, and has won several accolades for films like Deshadanam, Kaliyattam, and Shantham. Now Bhayanakam, his sixth film in the 'navarasa' series that began with Karunam, is nearing release. Starring Renji Panicker and Asha Sharath, the film won three National Awards: Best Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
Do you find it more comfortable to do arthouse films than commercial films?
Yes. I feel completely free when doing arthouse films. There are preconcieved notions and expectations when doing a commercial film. You have to take into account and worry about what the audience wants, and how they're going to respond. With arthouse films, you can take your own time and do things the way you want to. Be it writing or shooting, the freedom is unparalleled.
Despite doing commercial films occasionally, you are often trolled for doing only 'award films'.
That's the difference between India and other countries. Here, even if you win many awards, you're not given the respect and appreciation you deserve. Whereas abroad, once you win an Oscar or an award at Cannes, you're given special treatment. Take Hollywood, for example. Having "Oscar-winning filmmaker" attached to your name gets you more offers.
Do you think this attitude will change anytime soon?
Not anytime soon. I believe it will take some time. The audience needs more time to mature.
What's your take on the current state of regional cinema?
I'm very optimistic about what's happening in regional cinema these days. Regional cinema is flourishing more than Bollywood. The success of the Baahubali films is a testament to that. We have now shown to the rest of the world that we are capable of doing big budget blockbusters that can go toe-to-toe with anything made in Hollywood. And Shekhar Kapoor's recent statement gave such a boost to all of us.
More people are seeking out regional cinema these days...
The quality of regional cinema is better because we stick to our roots. We make films about things we know and what we see around us. There is beauty in our mother tongue and the various slangs that we use. These well-made regional films showcase the rawness and goodness of the language and the people that speak them. These films are free from any form of adulteration. That explains why something like Sudani from Nigeria is such a huge success. It's a small and simple film, and yet, it struck a chord with many.
Bhayanakam has been a passion project of yours. When did this idea first come to you?
It came to me 30 years back when I was working as an assistant to Bharathan sir. I felt that the novel Kayar (by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai) had good cinematic scope. However, as we were technologically backwards, it would've been difficult for me to recreate the old Kuttanad. A certain amount of CGI was required to get the look we wanted.
For many of us, Renji Panicker is the man who wrote Commissioner and The King, despite appearing insupporting roles in several films. What was the impetus behind casting him as the postman in Bhayanakam?
The film is divided into two halves: pre and post-World War II. Before the war begins, he is the tough but likeable neighbourhood postman, a bearer of good news. And him being a former war veteran, he seems capable of handling anything. But once the war begins, he undergoes a major transformation. Now the bearer of bad news, he becomes an embodiment of death. Everyone dreads his arrival. And I felt Renji had the physique and demeanour that was perfect for this kind of role. When you see him in the film, he is not Renji; he is that postman.
Was Renji your initial choice?
No, my initial choice was Vijay Sethupathi. But I wanted him to do this in a specific span of time, and that was difficult for him. He was very much on board for this project but our schedules didn't agree. I loved his performance in Vikram Vedha. He has an unusual toughness to him that would be so apt for a role like this.
Usually for a period film, the preferred format is film. Why did you opt for digital?
I felt digital would be suitable for the treatment we were going for, especially during the second half, when life becomes devoid of colour. The colour tone borders on black and white. And besides, I wanted everything to be conveyed through the characters' faces -- especially the postman's -- rather than the visuals.
Your next projects?
I'm working on an adaptation of a novel by Russian author Chinghiz Aitmatov. I hope to begin it by August. I'm also planning a Kerala-set adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.