Prithviraj: If Lucifer had failed, people would've buried me
In this candid chat, the actor-filmmaker opens up about making use of his opportunities, working with Murali Gopy, directing Lucifer, and more
It's not often that you see someone accomplishing most of the things they once said they would like to achieve. And it's not often that you meet an idol who lives up to his reputation. 2019 proved to be a major year for Prithviraj Sukumaran with his newly launched independent production company doing well and a tremendously successful directorial debut to his credit. The actor-turned-filmmaker, who has been hailed as a visionary, is now in a position where he can put together any project he wants, with the team and degree of excellence that he demands.
Perhaps things would have been different had Lucifer not been a success, but the wind is currently in his favour. I ask if there was ever a moment of self-doubt in his 18-year journey. "No," he replies, without a second's hesitation. "I couldn't fall back on the excuse of not getting any opportunity," he continues. "I first got an opportunity to be a producer with Santosh Sivan's Urumi. Back then, it was a big deal to pull off a large-scale production like that. And contrary to popular belief, there was actual investment involved. So it was a brave thing for me, Santosh, and Shaji Nadesan to do at the time (the three co-produced the period epic)."
Prithviraj was supposed to make his directorial debut much earlier, with City of God (2011), but Mani Ratnam called him to act in Raavanan. However, he is glad that Lijo Jose Pellissery made it instead because he feels he wouldn't have done it as well as the Angamaly Diaries director did. Prithviraj got his opportunity five years later, with Lucifer. "I know that this came to me on a platter. There are more talented filmmakers out there waiting for an opportunity to make their first film. I got it easily because of my experience. But I still chose to take the tougher route. Maybe it would've been easier for me to do a smaller film, for a festival circuit or something. With a big film like Lucifer, I knew that if I messed it up, everyone would bury me (laughs). I managed to get one of the biggest stars in India, a big production house, screenwriter Murali Gopy, cinematographer Sujith Vaassudev, and all the technicians I wanted. So there was no excuse for me to not make a good film."
The actor was bitten by the filmmaking bug early on and made serious efforts to learn the craft on every film he has been part of. Prithviraj got his taste of practical experience when he was allowed to shoot an action sequence for M Padmakumar's Vargam (2006) and a small prison scene for VK Prakash's Police (2005). He is indebted to director Bhadran and cinematographers S Kumar, Azhagappan, and Santosh Sivan for teaching him everything he needed to know about the craft.
Prithviraj’s collaboration with Murali Gopy was the result of him being floored by the latter’s script of Left Right Left, a film featuring Prithviraj’s brother Indrajith as a police officer named Vattu Jayan (a performance he calls his favourite). "That was the first time I approached someone to write a script for a potential directing vehicle. It was later, when we acted together in Tiyaan, that Murali told me about Lucifer," he recalls fondly.
Lucifer revived interest in the kind of superstar-driven, mass-appeal entertainers that dominated the 80s and 90s but was considered a bit outdated amidst the proliferation of ‘new-gen’ cinema. Despite being perfectly aware that Lucifer was to be a showcase for Mohanlal, the superstar, both Prithviraj and Murali were cautious about their material. "When making a film with an enigmatic character like Stephen Nedumpally, it was imperative that we don’t overdo it and talk too much about it. The mystery is part of the character’s charm."
Prithviraj credits Murali’s strong script for helping him pull it off, adding that writers of superstar-driven thrillers are very underappreciated. He cites examples like Renji Panicker, Dennis Joseph, and Ranjith. "I think people tend to overlook the writing when it’s a commercial film. It takes a very intelligent and skilled screenwriter to do that. Trust me, it’s not easy. I know this because I was part of the writing process," he says, adding, "The premise of Lucifer is not small — it’s not about a feud between two families; it’s a humongous premise with a galaxy of characters. And, as a filmmaker, I believe that shot-making can only happen from the written word. You can only decide the staging of the scene, camera movement, lens selection... everything... from the writing."
To drive this point home, Prithviraj cites a scene in Lucifer featuring Stephen and the dubious cop Mayilvahanam. "If Stephen had given a long dialogue in that scene after Mayilvahanam had hit him, I couldn’t have framed Stephen’s eyes the way I did. I was able to compose it that way because Murali wrote in the script that Stephen just ‘looks at him, doesn’t say anything, and is then taken away.’ If Stephen had said some dialogue there, that shot wouldn’t have been possible."
Having said that, Prithviraj doesn’t prefer too much detailing in his script. He likes to take care of that himself. To give an example, he shares that Stephen’s black Landmaster car wasn’t part of the script initially. "I had asked Murali for a script that wasn’t overly detailed. I wrote a shooting script later, in which I listed an approximate idea of the lensing, camera movement, lighting, and other details. It’s this shooting script that I gave to my team, with individual instructions for each department."
Lucifer opened up a lot of doors for Malayalam cinema internationally. The film was released on digital platforms while still running in theatres. The same can be said of his last film, Driving Licence. Asked if this trend of not maintaining an eight-week window is healthy, Prithviraj says, "I don’t think it’s something we can fight. We have to learn to evolve within this new ecosystem. Take Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker who has always been a champion for the film and theatrical experience. His dream film, The Irishman, was released on Netflix. And Will Smith, one of the world’s biggest stars, did a Netflix film called Bright. Do they think it’s beneath them? No. Even Bollywood A-listers are doing that now. Digital rights, just like satellite rights, are here to stay."
While a film coming out on an OTT platform on the 40th day of its theatrical release may sound unfair, Prithviraj points out that 10 years back, a film coming out on TV on the 100th day of its release would have sounded unfair too. "Today, when a film comes out, the collections start tapering off post the 20th or 25th day. I don’t think there will be another film that enjoys a 150-day run. A film’s lifetime collection will happen in the first 25 days unless it’s a giant blockbuster. We also have to take into account issues like piracy, for which we still don’t have a solution. So, a person who hasn’t watched a film during its theatrical run can watch it on an OTT platform. We have to accept this fact."
Prithviraj believes that if the current ecosystem is sustained and grows, the number of films will increase because the demand from the theatres will increase. "I think that, after a point, these big-screen experience films will start doing well in theatres. When the theatrical run is shortened, the demand for films will grow. More films being produced — and statistics have already shown this — will lead to a fast turnover. And with all these new revenue channels, a film’s return on investment is probably within six months, which means more films being churned out."
He points out that there are now around 150 Malayalam films releasing every year, consistently. "As far as a Malayalam cinema is concerned, OTT platforms give a guarantee in terms of the revenue. We also get a lot of liberty in terms of how a film can be made, how much we can spend, and so on. We can’t deny that leverage. As a filmmaker, I hope that digital platforms, satellite rights, and theatrical rights co-exist. I want all three to flourish together. If you want to dream big, you need avenues like these."
This Friday will see the release of Ayyappanum Koshiyum, which not only has Prithviraj reuniting with Anarkali-director Sachy (also writer of Driving Licence) but also with his co-star from that film, Biju Menon. Though it will have a few themes that Sachy has already explored in Driving Licence, the script of Ayyappanum Koshiyum is way more potent, feels Prithviraj. "Unlike in Driving Licence, things get to a point in Ayyappanum Koshiyum where it becomes more animalistic," he says.
Prithviraj believes it’s his clarity about his characters that makes Sachy an extraordinary storyteller. "I just think he is very good at understanding people and breaking down characters. He does it not from an intellectual standpoint, but from that of an ordinary individual. Sachy has not written a mediocre story yet. But he took me by surprise as a filmmaker. From Anarkali to Ayyappanum Koshiyum, he has grown both as a filmmaker and technician."
This year, some of the big stars are moving away from smaller, experimental films in favour of bigger, commercially-appealing projects. Does this mean the saturation point for the first category has been reached? "If everyone is consciously trying to stay away from subjects that are slightly off the mark, then we need to ask if they’re looking for gratification," he says. "As a producer or actor, the ultimate gratification for me is when a film works. No matter how many awards a film can collect, one feels gratified only when that film is acknowledged by lakhs of people. Maybe everyone is after that drug."
However, he is not one to blame the audience if a film fails to set the cash registers ringing. "Sometimes a film works, sometimes it doesn’t. Blaming the audience is not the way to go about it. Ultimately, we make films for the audience, and if certain ideas have not been conveyed to them properly, then I believe it’s our fault. As a producer and an actor, I will still take the blame on myself if a film of mine doesn’t work."
Prithviraj has lined up some big projects which could create waves in the international market in the future. There is Aadujeevitham, whose main portions will be filmed soon; Karachi 81, an espionage thriller with a pan-Indian appeal; Kaaliyan, a period action film expected to film in October; and Shaji Kailas’ Kaduva.
Besides these, he has already set up his next production titled Ayalvaashi, to be directed by debutant Irshad Parari and co-starring Indrajith. "It’s not exactly what I would call a small film, but it’s unlike 9 or Driving Licence," he says. "It’s a story set in Malappuram, about two neighbours. I have not done a film like this before."