Twenty one years after his directorial debut, Lal Jose is ready with his 25th film, 41 (Nalpathiyonnu), a satire which is set to release on November 8. The 53-year-old director, winner of four Kerala state film awards, was a major steering force in Malayalam film industry in the 2000s, when his films such as Meesa Madhavan (2002), Classmates (2006) and Arabikadha (2007) emerged as critical and commercial successes. In a conversation with Silverscreen.in, Lal Jose talks about 41, his secret to staying relevant in a rapidly changing film industry, and the controversies he encountered in the last two years.
The trailer of 41 signals something unusual. It is slickly cut. The light folk music that plays in the backdrop is different from the conventional melodies that Lal Jose is known to have an affinity for. And this time, the filmmaker has brought on board an interesting set of actors. Besides Biju Menon and Nimisha Sajayan who play the film’s central characters, close to 45 local theatre artistes from Kannur are making their film debut through 41. Two of the pivotal sub-characters in the film are played by Saranjith and Dhanya Ananya who are professional theatre artistes and former students of Sanskrit University’s acting department. Dhanya played one of the lead roles in Thuramukham, the play directed by Gopan Chidambaram.
This is your eighth film with Biju Menon…
In my films such as Oru Maravathoor Kanavu, Randam Bhavam and Pattalam, he played prominent character roles. After a point, Biju became successful as a lead actor, and started playing comic roles. When I decided to work with him again I wanted to create a character different from what he has been playing. He plays CS Ullas Kumar, a parallel college teacher.
Sabarimala comes as a background in 41. Given all the controversies around the subject, isn’t it a huge responsibility?
Biju Menon’s character in the film is an atheist. One of the pivotal themes in the film is a clash between theism and atheism. Sabarimala comes as a narrative background, but I haven’t handled it in a sensational way. The topic I have tried to deal with in 41 goes beyond the petty politics.
I started working on the film three years ago, when the Sabarimala issue hadn’t grown mammoth. I had even shot an actor-less part three years ago. The delay happened because I had to wait for Biju Menon’s dates. I didn’t change the script when the Sabarimala issue happened. Although I was surprised to see the screenplay becoming timely over the years.
How did you meet PG Prageesh, the debutante screenwriter of 41?
Sometime ago I started listening to screenplays from people who had registered their names at my office. There were close to 100 candidates. I had to listen to at least four screenplays a day. It was from this giant list I selected Prageesh’s screenplay. He is a former journalist and author of several short stories.
Listening to screenplays isn’t as easy as it might sound. It’s exhausting. In most of the cases, you can rate a screenplay half way through. But I make it a point to listen to the end because sometimes magic can happen in the second half. The toughest is to convey it to the writers nicely, without hurting their feelings, that their screenplay isn’t worth pursuing. In some cases, I get brutally honest with people and tell them writing isn’t their area. And then there are people who might be good writers or filmmakers, but bad narrators. I am not a great narrator at all. I am sure many actors agree to work with me only because of the goodwill I have, because I can’t really convince anyone by narrating a screenplay.
Earlier, I used to be approached by acting aspirants. Now I see more number of screenwriters. For some reason the public seems to have come to believe that direction and screenwriting are jobs anyone can do.
You assisted director Kamal in 16 films before making your directorial debut. That is a long time.
In our time, if one had to learn filmmaking, he/she had to assist a director or go to a film school. The CD/video cassette rental stores in our small-towns had only action films. Youngsters now a days will find it unbelievable. Today, in most colleges, there are small-term courses on the basics of filmmaking. We had to work in at least three-four films to grasp it.
But practical knowledge isn’t the same as academic knowledge. If you have a good story and you know how to narrate it, you can always start making films. I was never inclined to academics. I joined Kamal sir’s team because I wanted to learn filmmaking the practical way. I worked pretty much like an apprentice at a automobile workshop.
How do you remain relevant in the changed environment?
Many of my friends are youngsters. I keep myself updated about the trends in popular culture, politics and general social life. If you look at the crew of 41, most of them are young people. I keep an open mind when I am working with new writers.
Also, I think being disciplined and professional is very important. I have never taken this profession lightly. My parents were teachers who worked hard till they were 55. I work like them, responsibly.
Your last two films – Velipadinte Pusthakam and Thattinpurath Achuthan – weren’t box-office hits. How do flops affect you?
Every film is a result of many months of hard-work. It does affect me when films fail to make an impression at the box-office. I have been through several rough patches in my career. But now a days, failures affect me a little more than what it used to. Audience take to social media right after the first half of the film and write scathing comments. I have been personally attacked on social media many times. It does take a toll on me, albeit temporarily.
I admit that I couldn’t communicate the theme of Velipadinte Pusthakam to the audience in the way I wanted to. I still have faith in that subject – an actor who is unable to get out of his character. May be I was too jittery about handling a superstar like Mohanlal for the first time. I was too conscious that everyone was looking forward to watching our collaboration.
You are also a producer and distributor. How do you assess the film industry at the moment?
At a press meet before the release of Classmates, I was asked about Malayalam cinema’s future. Classmates was shot in analog. It was one of the last Malayalam films to be shot in film. I replied that cinema will be digitalised soon, and that would be revolutionary. I predicted that there will be a steep rise in the number of films made in the industry in the coming years, and that will change the scene altogether. Today, there is a lot of cinematic content the audience can choose from. But if you notice, the number of films that actually succeed at the box-office isn’t very different from what it was 10 years ago. Only what is sensible and good will stay in the market.
Earlier, cinematographers and people who work in the technical department of films used to go through bouts of unemployment. But now they are all working without a break. Lot of jobs are being created in the industry now, which is the positive side of this digital era. The negative side is that we don’t know where this is taking us. The world is now facing the threat of an economic crisis. It might have an impact on our film industry too. Only time can say the quantum of its effect.
You were embroiled in many controversies in the last two years.
I was not directly involved in any controversy. All I did was stand by my friend (actor Dileep). I was supporting a person I knew intimately for over 25 years. We have examples such as Nambi Narayanan in front of us, who were subjected to brutal media trial and were acquitted by the court later. I am not afraid to speak what I know is right. At the same time, I believe it’s not my responsibility as a filmmaker to go to news channel shows and comment on everything under the sun. Filmmakers’ response to social issues should be through cinema.
Your love for travelling is well-known..
I am planning a trip next, from December 1. I am travelling to Assam to attend the Hornbill festival. I travel to rejuvenate myself. It’s a very personal activity. Although, may be, the experiences I garner on the way help me in the filmmaking process too.