It’s a bit difficult at first to believe that Kumbalangi Nights was directed by a first-timer given the filmmaking finesse on display. But it’s easy to see why once you’ve heard of the two people whom Madhu C Narayanan have enjoyed a long association with — directors Dileesh Pothan and Aashiq Abu. Dileesh and writer Syam Pushkaran backed the film along with Fahadh Faasil. Madhu started out as an associate of Aashiq and later met Syam while working on Aashiq’s second film, Salt and Pepper, in which Dileesh also had a part. After Dileesh turned director, Madhu has assisted him on both Maheshinte Prathikaram and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum.
One of the notable characteristics of any film coming from the Dileesh-Syam Pushkaran camp is their superior quality. Is that because you guys spent a lot of time on preparation?
Absolutely. I, Syam and my assistant spent close to two years in Kumbalangi, getting ourselves acquainted with the place and finding not only the apt locations for our film but also the actors who could play some of the background characters. Considering the challenge that comes with a script populated by so many characters, we knew we had to approach everything patiently. Fleshing out all the characters and the surrounding details required a lot of time. All that preparation was needed just to get the entire story in a basic synopsis form. Once we had everything in place, writing the script didn’t take that much time. Syam followed in his script the same approach he had with all his other films. He has amazing clarity.
When it comes to the performances, did you plan the shot divisions in advance, or did you do all that later?
The first priority for us was to get the performances right. Everything else — the shots, lighting, etc. — came much later. First, it was all about giving the script and actors the necessary space. We played out the scenes to get a sense of the rhythm and timing. Have the actors understood that scene completely? Do they have anything more to understand? Can we do that scene in a different way? Only once we got the output of the actors right did we start thinking about the shots.
It all depends on their frame of mind at any given time. They show up on set all fresh and ready, and then we have to put them in the mindset of their characters. We tell them clearly what the characters are thinking at that particular point of time and then we make them do it. We kept fine-tuning the performances until we got what we really wanted. It’s about making them react realistically to a particular situation as their character, not as themselves. They should never deviate from their character.
Was there a lot of improvisation on set? Any moment that surprised you?
There was. Sometimes you give the right direction and the performances turn out to be much better than what you expected. Some astonishing performances happen in just one take. For example, the scene of Saji and the counsellor was achieved like that. Performances like that come from the inner recesses of the soul. When you know that the actors have a strong grasp on their characters, you feel very safe.
The arc of Fahadh’s character Shammi carries slasher film tropes. Was it planned that way?
Yes, that’s how we had always envisioned Shammi’s arc. Everyone has a breaking point, and once they’ve reached that, their true colours come out. Shammi’s dark character traits can be found in every man, and most of them find a way to manage them. But it’s not possible for all. Shammi has reached his breaking point, and we simply showed a scenario where a character like him could end up doing things like that. There are men who look normal on the outside, but inside they’re thinking, “I’m a man.” Once they loose a grip over themselves, they’re helpless. There actually exist people like that.
The main characters are regional and yet, quite progressive. Were there any concerns about the film appealing to all sections of the audience?
Considering the fact that there is already an audience for the films by Dileesh or Syam, we weren’t really that worried. There was that minimum guarantee. We were aware that everyone was looking forward to their films. And after the film came out and we started getting all the positive messages, we knew the film had succeeded beyond our expectations. We were elated when we learned that everyone — even those who were critical about the film — found something relatable in it. The credit for that goes to Syam’s writing.
What’s your filmmaking philosophy?
When I used to work with Aashiq and Dileesh, I used to observe how they worked with each department and how they got the best out of everyone involved. I tried to follow the same approach. Be it the music, art, costume or editing departments, you can get the best out of everyone only if we have given them all a clear idea of the kind of film we are making. All the crew members are my friends, and we constantly conducted meetings. The entire team was on the same page, and this is why everything turned out well.
Most of the films made today have rapid cuts. You guys, on the other hand, allow each scenes sufficient breathing time.
I was initially worried because this is a film with plenty of dramatic moments. Luckily, I had Saiju Sreedharan, whose editing contribution cannot be stressed enough. He knows how to sort things out and get the right rhythm. Once he gives you the okay, you feel relieved. This film actually improved a lot during the editing stage. We made sure nothing came in the way of what we were trying to convey in a given scene.
Dileesh’s involvement must’ve helped a lot.
Yes. His involvement gave the project a much-needed boost. He was immensely supportive. I and Syam had been carrying around this idea for 6-7 years — we discussed it right after Salt and Pepper came out. And Dileesh’s decision to produce the film jointly with Fahadh came as a huge relief. I didn’t have to worry about the production side at all. He gave me everything I needed.