Prajesh Sen: Nambi Narayanan taught me to be more appreciative of others
The writer-director on switching from journalism to filmmaking, the impact of his directorial debut Captain, and working with Madhavan on the Nambi Narayanan biopic, Rocketry: The Nambi Effect
Prajesh Sen never once expected to become a filmmaker during his 10-year stint in journalism. He thought the closest he would get to it was writing and directing plays as performing arts was also a passion. The storytelling spark in him grew stronger once he became a journalist. He started off as a reporter at All India Radio (Akashvani) before shifting to Madhyamam newspaper. His story and book on the late footballer VP Sathyan became the source material for his directorial debut, Captain, starring Jayasurya.
For a beginner unfamiliar with the screenwriting format, Prajesh's journey leading up to Captain wasn't easy. And quitting at the peak of his journalism career to work as the assistant of veteran director Siddique increased his hardship. "I enjoyed being a journalist. I loved meeting lots of people and doing stories on them. I even got a bunch of awards for my work. But, after a certain point, nothing amazing happened. So I resigned just six months after winning the Ramnath Goenka award," he laughs. "The reality of not having a steady salary hit me. After all, minimum savings can only take you so far. I struggled quite a lot in the three years that followed. I did a lot of odd jobs, not for cinema, but for survival."
Prajesh recently completed the work of his second directorial feature, Vellam, his second collaboration with Jayasurya and first with Samyuktha Menon. He also has a co-directing credit (with actor Madhavan) on the Nambi Narayanan biopic, Rocketry: The Nambi Effect. Like Captain and Rocketry, Vellam too is based on a real person. "The subject of Vellam is not something extraordinary, but some stories stay with you for a long time. This is one of them," says Prajesh, who finds real-life stories more compelling.
He agrees that taking certain creative liberties with true stories is very challenging. "While exploring a subject's achievements or internal struggles, we have to do justice to them. We have to be careful not to cause any disrespect to them or their loved ones. Now, I wouldn't have to worry so much if it were a fictional figure."
Aside from being the first sports biopic in Malayalam, Captain also did away with some of the tropes found in most Indian sports biopics. The film was born out of his massive respect for Sathyan as well as football. "He was such an important figure for me that, while writing his story, I constantly referred to him as 'Sathyettan'. The film's impact was beyond my expectations. I think its success can be attributed to the fact that those who had ignored him earlier got an opportunity to finally give him the applause he deserved. I don't think it's because it is a great film or my making style was good. I thought the film conveyed his emotions effectively."
Prajesh says it's important to acknowledge the work of someone when they are alive. "It was my journey with Nambi Narayanan that taught me to be more appreciative of someone's good work, no matter how small they are. I used to travel with him to different places. He has the habit of saying 'thank you' even when buying something from a small roadside stall. When someone behaves nicely to us, we don't say anything. But if someone is rude, we start questioning it. We, especially Malayalis, have this tendency to acknowledge a foreigner's success a lot but not that of a fellow Malayali," he says, adding, "You know, when we completed the shoot of Vellam in Kannur, I thanked the locals for cooperating with us. Without them, things wouldn't have gone so smoothly. It was a big deal for them."
Speaking about his involvement in Rocketry and working with Madhavan, Prajesh says the thought of a cinematic realisation of Nambi Narayanan's life occurred to him while working on the scientist's biography and the subsequent documentary. "I felt Madhavan would be an apt choice for the role. I was brought in as a co-director because Madhavan was doing double duty — he also had to be in front of the camera. The film has turned out perfect. We were supposed to release it in May, but then the lockdown happened."
Prajesh adds that working with Madhavan was an enriching experience. "He is great. I mean, even though he is the main creative force of the film, he still gave me a lot of freedom. He valued my inputs. He is also a fabulous actor. He is so dedicated and passionate about his craft."