Geetu Mohandas: No one other than Nivin could have played Akbar so beautifully

The director talks about the journey that led to Moothon, getting the best out of her actors and why she didn't want to market it as a 'gay' film
Geetu Mohandas: No one other than Nivin could have played Akbar so beautifully

Geetu Mohandas once played a filmmaker in TK Rajeev Kumar's Sesham. Fast forward 12 years and she has become one for real, with two features to her credit: Liar's Dice (2014, Hindi) and Moothon (2019, Malayalam-Hindi).

It was Geetu's debut as a child artiste in the late 80s that steered her towards an acting career. But she found filmmaking to be her true calling. "It was inevitable that it would happen at some point. I think I was always working towards becoming a storyteller," says Geetu, who recalls her student days in Canada where she used to write plays and found herself leaning towards the more creative aspects of filmmaking than acting. Once she got back and started writing more consistently, she realised that she needed to start telling her stories. "As an actor, I felt stagnant. Neither did I have anything more to contribute nor was I good at it. I wanted to do something I would enjoy instead of looking at it as just a job."

Her script of Moothon, which was acknowledged by the prestigious Sundance Institute back in 2016, underwent a lot of changes before it came alive on the big screen. "What you see in the theatre is completely different from what was originally written," she says, adding that the original emotions and essence have been retained. "After your script is selected by a place like that, you're mentored by a group of professional film experts — filmmakers, producers — who help you hone your skills. They make you exercise your imagination and write freely — not as a filmmaker or editor or producer, but purely as a writer. I enjoyed that process, during which a lot of questions popped up that made me reconsider my narrative choices."

She reveals that the theatrical version of Moothon is five minutes longer than the festival one. The former, she says, is her 'director's cut'. "For the festivals, I wanted the narrative to be sharper and more ambiguous. However, I didn't think I would've been able to effectively communicate the ideas for the general audience had I screened that version in the theatres — and there are enough ambiguities in the theatrical cut as it is."

Some have found these ambiguities — like the mermaid scene, for instance — quite perplexing. Geetu has clear answers to all these, but she thinks revealing them would defeat the purpose. "If I start explaining everything, it will spoil the experience for those who haven't seen the film yet," she says. "Anyway, whatever I did was not part of a conscious pattern. There were some ambiguities in Liar's Dice too. They were not intentional. I enjoy that open-ended space where a lot is left for interpretation. I am stirred by movies that make me think in different ways. Take the mermaid scene. When people ask me about it, I throw their questions back at them and their answers have surpassed my own. Whatever you've felt about that scene is your answer. There is no confusion in my mind about any of the scenes. It was all clinically done, and it is up to the audience to construct the rest."

Moothon saw Nivin Pauly stepping out of his comfort zone, playing a character with dual personalities in two respective periods, one in Lakshadweep and the other in Mumbai. A vulnerable gangster with a tough exterior, it is undoubtedly one of the year's best performances. Asked if it is a challenge to bring out the best in her actors, she says it is not. "I spend a lot of time with my actors. I give them a lot of love and attention. We build a mutual trust which makes them feel they are in safe hands. Now, this goes for any department in filmmaking. Actors are very vulnerable. Some of them may have a tough exterior, but underneath they are very insecure. They're dealing with different kinds of emotions. Every director approaches their craft differently. They have to be a source of inspiration to their actors and crew," she explains.

Elaborating further on her approach to directing actors, Geetu says she prefers seeing them as people, not 'actors' or 'stars'. "Some actors get comfortable doing a certain kind of role and they tend to repeat the same acting grammar in another film. I wanted to break that conditioning. When I cast Nivin, I realised that I could find both personalities of Akbar in him. We happen to be neighbours and we have interacted a lot before the film. There's more to him than meets the eye. He was the perfect Akbar," she says, adding, "The same goes for Ameer (Roshan Mathew) or Salim (Shashank Arora). It is irrelevant to me what roles they did in the past. When you give them complete freedom and responsibility, magic happens. I don't want to restrict my actors. I ask them to say their lines and move the way they want to."

Geetu, along with cinematographer and husband Rajeev Ravi, allowed the actors' movements to dictate the camera movements and blocking. "Of course, there were certain spaces that we needed to block, but by and large our technique was more... anthropological," she continues. "For example, if an actor picks up and throws something, we construct the scene around that. There were no preconceived ideas concerning the visual grammar or actors' meter. There was a basic idea, of course, but everything else was an organic process. I'm often asked if I do shot divisions or storyboarding. I'm trying to work in a space where I can break the conventional grammar of filmmaking."

The delicate and sensible handling of LGBTQ elements in the film has won Geetu much praise, but it has also provoked the ire of a small section of the audience who went in expecting a 'straight' film. Asked if she had considered an alternate pre-release marketing approach to make certain aspects more palatable, Geetu says, "Our society has been conditioned in a certain way because of the films or information that has been fed to them. They are only familiar with whatever was made accessible to them. They're not conditioned to accept a gay love story. Having said that, my USP while marketing the film was not 'This is a gay film', but rather 'This is a film. Please come and watch it'. I wanted people to feel the characters' love, not their gender. My idea was not to provoke or titillate. By introducing them to this kind of storytelling, I wanted to engage them and slowly expand their perspective."

Geetu is happy that a young popular star like Nivin chose to do this film with so much confidence and nary a worry about his image. "When Nivin and I decided to do the film, we knew there was a certain kind of responsibility. In doing something pathbreaking as this, Nivin is not belittling his audience or fans; he is telling them that he is open to all kinds of cinema and I respect him for taking up such a huge challenge. I don't think anyone in Malayalam cinema could've played Akbar as beautifully and brilliantly as Nivin."

Geetu is also grateful to her three producers, especially Anurag Kashyap and Vinod Kumar (of Mini Studio), for giving her complete creative control. "Anurag (who wrote the Hindi lines) has been with the project right from the start. He became a producer after he saw the first cut. He is very protective of me both as a person and a filmmaker. Vinod has been a dream producer too, and I will search for him in every future producer."

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