Thirike, which recently set a record by casting Gopikrishnan K Varma, an actor with Down syndrome, in a lead role in a commercial film, was rejected by major OTT players like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ Hotstar before it premiered on the regional streaming platform NeeStream, says the film’s co-director, George Kora.
In conversation with Silverscreen India, Kora, who also wrote the film, adds, “Our filming was completed in November last year, but due to the ongoing pandemic, every theatre was shut. So, we had to go the OTT route as ours was a small crowdfunded film. We started pitching to all the popular streaming platforms. However, all of them only asked one question: ‘Who is the star?’ None of them watched the film or even the trailer before rejecting it.”
The film, co-directed by Kora and Sam Xavier, finally released on Neestream on February 26.
“Just as we were getting rejected by every OTT, NeeStream came into the limelight due to The Great Indian Kitchen. We got in touch with them and within a week they gave us the go-ahead. In fact, they were the first platform to actually watch the film and it immediately got picked it up. Watching a film is the basic courtesy any platform can do before rejecting it outright,” notes Kora.
Thirike, according to IMDb, is about “a young crafty man who kidnaps his own brother, who has Down syndrome, from his adoptive parents in an attempt to reclaim his past.”
(Read the Silverscreen India review of Thirike here)
Kora, who wrote the story four years ago, says it is extremely personal to him. “I never had a brother growing up and I always wanted one. Over the years, the story evolved in my head and I decided to make it with somebody who has Down syndrome.”
However, there were several hurdles in their way. From finding the perfect person for the role to funding the film, Thirike was made with much difficulty, says the filmmaker.
Finding the right actor to play the brother with Down syndrome was the first hurdle. Kora discovered Gopikrishnan K Varma with the help of Dr Shaji Thomas John of Baby Memorial Hospital, Kozhikode.
“The first thing Dr Shaji said was that he never got a call from someone asking for a lead actor with a disability. He had only one choice in mind after hearing the story. He sent me a few TikTok videos of Gopi, a 20-year-old from Kozhikode. There was an instant spark when I met Gopi and I knew he was perfect for the film.”
A series of acting workshops were held to prepare Gopi for the role. Kora even tweaked the script according to the things that made Gopi laugh and the way he said certain words. “His mother helped a lot in familiarising him with the script. Once Gopi came to the set, he knew the script better than me! While shooting I realised how conscious we normally are, but Gopi was so pure, so present in the moment. What you see on the screen is exactly how he is.”
Aware of the representation problem that exists in the Indian film industry, Kora says he was adamant about being 100% true to what he shows on the screen. “Once we chose Gopi as our lead, I wanted him to dub for his parts as well. And that was the most difficult part due to the speech impairment that people who have Down Syndrome suffer from. We took almost a month to finish his dubbing, but when we were finished, we were so happy to have achieved that.”
People with disabilities are “heavily overlooked” in cinema because there’s a misconception that they cannot survive in the industry, adds Kora. “But the reality is they were never given a platform to prove otherwise.”
This is the reason Kora decided not to go with a popular actor and make them act like someone with a disability. “That’s the way things are generally done in the industry, which, in my opinion, is unfair. One cannot take a popular actor and make them ‘act out’ someone with disabilities. We chose not go that way and once the film was out, we received positive messages from so many parents of children with disabilities. Seeing Gopi on screen was validation for them.”
Talking about what’s next for him, Kora reveals he is almost done with another script and it will be a comedy this time. “Nothing is finalised about it yet. It will be a comedy film with dual stars and I might shoot it this year or next year. I did not plan it that way initially, but I will be starring in it alongside another actor.”
No matter how his film career goes, Kora hopes that while Thirike may have been the first to showcase an actor with Down Syndrome as the main character, it won’t be the last to do so. “Hopefully, more and more people will start making such films,” he signs off.