Local is international is the new vibe of Mollywood says Rajesh Madhavan

The Actor-director opens up on his journey from amateur theatre to the world of cinema
Actor-Director Rajesh Madhavan
Actor-Director Rajesh Madhavan(Photo | A Sanesh, EPS)

Rajesh Madhavan is a tad antsy these days — Sureshinteyum Sumalathayudeyum Hridayahariyaya Pranayakadha (SSHP), his first film as the protagonist, is about to release, and the shooting of Pennum Porattum, his maiden directorial, is in its final leg. 

This was a long journey for the young actor-director, fuelled by a childhood passion that never died down. The beginning of it all was a short, comedic role in the film Maheshinte Prathikaram, a character that no one who has watched the film will ever forget. 

With measured answers, Rajesh opens up to TNIE about his filmmaking dreams and his love for the craft, his future as an actor, filmmaker and more.


How did your interest in art and cinema begin?

Well, one of my most earliest and distinct memories of experiencing art is a school play based on Poothapattu, in which my sister played a role. I still remember the characters, stage and visuals… I was mesmerised. Even now, the imagery appears fantastical in my mind. Some years later, I entered the stage for the first time while I was in Class 7. It was again a school play where I enacted the main character, ‘Mandan Shipayi’. It won me a best actor award at the sub-district level. That was my first acting experience.

From a school play to being a part of several blockbusters in the past decade, it must have been quite a journey…

Yes, I studied visual media for post-graduation, but wasn’t sure what to do after that. I did several jobs — four in two years — but realised they weren’t suited for me. The cinema dream was always there. It finally materialised when my friend Ravi Shankar, who is also the writer of my film Pennum Porattum, decided to do a short film. I joined him as the chief associate. The short film clicked and received encouraging feedback. So, our next plan was cinema (laughs). We were dreamers, gung-ho about getting an opening. But, nothing materialised. So, for around a decade, we toiled in Kochi, just like how film aspirants of the past struggled in Kodambakkam.

Were you always interested in acting?

No, I never tried to get into acting. My focus was on the off-screen part. Ever since I started watching films, I was drawn by the people working behind the scenes. When [script writer] Syam Pushkaran, who knew me, offered me the role in Maheshinte Prathikaram, I did not express much excitement (laughs). But I soon realised I wouldn’t be able to survive here without acting. There was no other income at that time.

I am a big fan of Lal sir. I was awed by his performance in Kaliyattam, and used to wonder how he excelled in acting as well as direction. I used to tell myself: ‘Let’s try acting after becoming a good director’. However, eventually, it happened the other way around.

You spoke about the struggling days in Kochi. So, how did you find work for survival?

A lot of people always ask me about a way to enter the world of cinema. There is no set way that fits all. I came here with the confidence that we got after making the short film. It was a time when short films were trending. Basil Joseph had done one at that time. So we had some connection with such artists. 

Since I studied visual media, I knew the basics of photography. That was one income-generating area — taking photos of interior designs of hotels, etc. Since editing also was part of the curriculum, I used to edit school projects and small documentaries. While in Kasaragod, cinema felt like an unapproachable world. In Kochi, it felt like we were a lot closer. There was never a stage where I went around asking for chances, though.

How did the entry to ‘Maheshinte Prathikaaram’ and the association with the likes of Dileesh Pothan and Syam Pushkaran begin?

Syam ettan had watched one of our short films in which Unnimaya was also a part, and he would occasionally invite us for their discussions. So during Maheshinte Prathikaaram, he offered me a small role. At that time, I didn’t realise the significance of my character or how his contribution to the series of incidents that form the film’s core conflict. I only knew about the ‘Jana Gana Mana’ scene, but I loved the scene the moment Dileesh Pothan told me about it. He narrated it wonderfully. After Maheshinte Prathikaaram, I had no other option but to go to Dubai in search of a job. Thankfully, Pothannan called me to assist him in Thondimuthalum Dhriksakshiyum, as I was from Kasaragod. If not for that call, I would have gone abroad.

You are fortunate to have got that opening, but is the industry a welcoming space for newcomers?

Every person’s journey is different. I have always wanted to be part of the film industry and tried relentlessly for it. Going around asking for chances is not the only option, there are many other ways to get there. I initially tried writing scripts and approached directors for narrations. Similarly, there are several other means to knock on doors. I believe everyone should learn a bit about the process of filmmaking before starting out. With all the glitz and glamour in this world, it is natural for people to be drawn to cinema and dream of becoming a hero one fine day. But we better not think illogically.

Over the past few years, several films have been set in the north Malabar region. How do you see this shift?

The Malayalam cinema we knew from 10-15 years ago has changed for the good. As part of this, cinema has reached local areas. Earlier, regions like Kasaragod and Kannur were sidelined, but that has changed now. My film, Pennum Porattum, is being shot in Kollengode in Palakkad. It’s a popular shooting location, but we may have never seen an actual story of Kollengode in our cinema. Similarly, there are several regions that are still left to be explored.

(Photo | A Sanesh, EPS)

Coming from Kasaragod, you must have grown up experiencing all the cultural art forms and rich folklore of the region. Have they influenced you?

Yes, of course. Before exploring theatre, theyyam was a major part of my life. People like me, from the Kannur-Kasaragod region, are hugely influenced by this art form and it reflects in our daily lives in one or the other way. Even just the thought of the Vishnu Moorthy theyyam still gives me goosebumps. You will find a bit of one theyyam or the other in every person from that region. 

With Kasaragod-based narratives gaining prominence and more talents emerging from the region, have you been able to identify an evident transition in how cinema is perceived there today?

During my growing-up days, Kasaragod wasn’t deeply connected to cinema. When I was in Class 10, a children’s theatre group was formed. We met every Sunday. I was one of the students in its first batch. It wasn’t an academic study space; we just used to meet and make plays. The possibilities were limited. However, after my generation, several cinema collectives started sprouting and film festivals became a regular occurrence. There’s a sense of community now. For instance, Senna (Hegde) rarely ventures out of Kanhangad to make films. My friend Vinu Kozhichal, the director of Bilathikuzhal, also contributes to the local cinema scene.

Now that you are also a filmmaker and a casting director, is there ever an inclination to make the path easier for those from Kasaragod?

It does not work like that. As I said, there was a time when cinema was something distant for people from regions like Kasaragod. But it’s not like that now. Now, people from any region can easily dream of cinema. ‘Local is international’ is the new vibe in the industry. Geography is no longer a barrier. The diversity of cinema is vast today. Yes, people from my region seek chances. But I have to be professional; only 100 out of 1,000 get chosen. That’s the painful part.  

What is the diversity you are referring to?

Cinema is now diverse in every manner. For instance, its language and visual expression. Consider recent films like Avesham, Premalu, Bramayugam, Manjummel Boys, and Aadujeevitham. Each of these five films is distinct. Aadujeevitham is an international film in every sense, while Manjummel Boys employs a unique visual language in the survival thriller category. Girish A D’s craft stands out in Premalu, and Bramayugam is equally exceptional. There’s a constant evolution in filmmaking styles and experimenting with language and format. Our filmmakers demonstrate sensitivity and innovation. Lijo Jose Pellissery’s films, for instance, contribute to this cinematic language reform. I am optimistic about the future of cinema. Good films will continue to be made, and I am grateful for having been working in this space in this period.

‘I had to reject Karthik Subbaraj’s offer...’

Rajesh Madhavan talks about the upcoming film, Sureshinteyum Sumalathayudeyum Hridayahariyaya Pranayakatha, headlined by him, and his directorial debut

As an actor, so far, you have mostly done roles with short screen time. Yet, you managed to grab attention. Do you strictly follow the script, or improvise while delivering the scenes?

I follow what my director says. They know the best. In films like Minnal Murali, I could deliver an over-the-top act because Basil encouraged me to. I like going a bit overboard; maybe that’s my signature (laughs).

Did you expect your character in Nna Thaan Case Kodu to get such a wide reach?

No, but I was sure that the character would be noticed by the audience.

What was your response when director Ratheesh Balakrishna Poduval (Nna Thaan Case Kodu) told you about the spin-off plans?

The initial idea came when we were working on Madanolsavam. By then, there were talks in social media about the spinoff potential for Sumesh and Sumalatha’s characters. Inspired by the comments, Ratheesh decided to work on it. I was also excited. But, then, I didn’t expect it to take off this soon. Two weeks after that initial discussion, we were on stage to announce the film.

How would you define SSHP?

It is a fun love story with several layers of emotions. The narrative spans different stages of Suresh and Sumalatha’s relationship to emphasise how love doesn’t change. Ratheesh’s knack for quirky humour will also be evident throughout the film. Many interesting visual techniques are employed to offer a new experience to the audience.

Your performance in Prappeda was in contrast to your other outings. How was the experience working on it?

Director Krishnendu was experimenting big time with the film, and I loved his vision and ideas. During the pandemic, he came up with a dystopian story and a small budget, but had some great technicians in it. We started out with just a half-page script and figured out the rest on the go. It was a wild experience. I am not even sure if I conveyed the director’s thoughts correctly. Though the narrative is not everyone’s cup of tea, I feel that the film should reach more audiences. It is a bit abstract, as the director just created a structure and gave a vague idea of the plot. It was us actors, who had to act accordingly. I had to perform in an unemotional manner, which was difficult but fun.

It is often said that an actor who can handle humour effectively can pull off any emotions. Have you ever felt like pushing yourself out of the humour shell?

I prefer not to repeat myself in similar roles unless I am cash-strapped. I would love to play a villain role, preferably a psycho one. I have even told a few directors about this. There are a couple of upcoming films that have me in a new space. It includes Ratheesh’s next. I am not keen on doing lead roles, as there are so many responsibilities associated with it. Supporting roles are safer with fewer responsibilities to manage.

Could you elaborate on the shift from supporting roles to headlining a film?

I am still not sure if I am good at acting. People might love me as a performer, but as an actor, I have a long way to go. Regarding SSHP, I had to maintain an emotional consistency for a longer period than usual.

After becoming a lead actor, do you feel the pressure of its commercial potential?

It’s a huge risk to back a film without popular actors. Since our film is a bit too long, the commercial risks associated with it are bigger. Despite all that, the producers have been very supportive. I hope they gain some profit to enable them to support more such films. That is all I am thinking of right now.

Earlier you had spoken about the drastic change in cinema from how it was a decade ago. What is that difference according to you?

Though we always had great directors and scriptwriters, there was a period when our industry focused solely on mass entertainers. However, this changed after the audience started embracing quality content from other regions. It’s not just about twirling the moustache anymore. Downloading platforms like Torrent introduced our audience to a wide range of content and they started appreciating the craft and art of foreign filmmakers. A new crop of makers tried adapting these styles here, resulting in a positive change in Malayalam cinema. Creators have now realised the importance of content. I believe it will only get better.

What kind of films did you envision making when you first landed in Kochi?

I appreciate the rich diversity of cinema. In my childhood, I watched films like Children of Heaven, thanks to the Sunday theatre group. It left a lasting impression. During my college days, [late director] K G George sir introduced me to French New Wave and neo-realism. While doing my master’s, my teacher introduced me to The Godfather. She was shocked when I told her that I wasn’t much impressed by it. But years later, when I revisited the film, I realised why it’s a timeless classic. I instantly called and apologised to the teacher, moving her to tears. I religiously watched films by directors like Griffith, Kusturica, Fatia, Wes Anderson, Scorsese and Coppola. Initially, I was confined to just local, masala movies, but my exposure to world cinema changed a lot of my perceptions. When I started getting into the film industry, there was a clear boundary between parallel movies and commercial films. But now, this gap is narrowing, and I hope it gets negated in the future.

Is Pennum Porattum an attempt to straddle the fine line between offbeat and commercial sensibilities?

You could say it’s an attempt. I am wary of making a definitive statement. However, I’ve consciously tried to strike a balance. There is a specific segment in the film where I intentionally infused some commercial elements, yet, I have aimed to maintain authenticity and not disrupt the natural flow.

The film has an entirely new cast. Was this a requirement dictated by the script?

Absolutely. The story is quite dramatic, illogical, and absurd — centred around a quarrel between two families in a village. It doesn’t necessarily follow the usual beginning-middle-end structure. Despite that, it has a commercial flavour. I hope that audiences will appreciate the humour. If they laugh, it’s a comedy; otherwise, it might lean towards tragedy (laughs).

What were the challenges that you faced during the transition from being an assistant director to an independent filmmaker?

While working under someone, we have a lot of ideas, but we don’t get to take the final call. But when you become independent, all these possibilities are open. So, the greatest challenge is to rein oneself in. A control on the immense freedom upon our shoulders – that is the challenge. We are only answerable to the producer, but most of them would not intervene when there is a creative call. It’s natural to feel anxious because the whole responsibility is on your shoulders, and there’s a lot of money involved. It is also important to be aware of the craft and what you are trying to communicate. This is something we can learn only by doing it. I didn’t know how to direct a film until I started doing it. We might have notions about ourselves and the job before doing it, but as we enter the job, we will realise most of it is not true. I am now learning, and hoping to do it the right way.

Most of them associated with my film are friends. So, there’s a lot of bond and mutual respect. I seek that kind of comfort while I’m doing a movie. Many are new to cinema. These are people who never thought of being part of cinema, so the whole vibe on sets is different. Even if my tone turns slightly serious, they get worried if I am disappointed. At the same time, it is also a daunting task to manage everyone. It requires a certain level of discipline and I am still trying to achieve it.

Malayalam cinema has often been plagued by controversies…

They are inevitable in this celebrated field, but their timing remains unpredictable. Personally, I prioritise discussing cinema and maintaining my stance on certain issues. I prefer not to comment on matters I am unfamiliar with. When in a position of influence, it’s important to avoid outdated beliefs and embrace modern perspectives. I recall being misled by a teacher’s opinion about flashbacks in filmmaking. So I am cautious not to mislead others.

Have you received any offers from other languages?

Recently, I had to decline one due to a date clash. It was Karthik Subbaraj’s film, and I was genuinely excited about collaborating with him. I never thought of becoming an actor, but since I am one now, I’m eager to know where it leads me. It was unfortunate that I had to turn down Karthik’s offer, and I hope he will call again (laughs).

Do you check reviews and comments on social media?

Though I don’t interact much on social media, I love to observe all the opinions. I use social media to gauge responses, but I don’t absorb everything out there. I think a movie should offer what the makers want, not what the audience wants to see. If makers offer good movies and new experiences, the audience will invariably accept them. Bramayugam is a perfect example of this. We never thought a black-and-white film would be released at this age, but it’s rather the experience that gained acceptance.

Despite all the changes in the Malayalam film industry, there are still only very few women working behind the scenes. What’s your take on it?

I recently did a short film where all the technicians were women. So, things are changing. It also depends on the kind of film we are taking. Two of my associates are women. I feel that every set should really have more female presence because their perspectives are important. There was a time when female technicians had a tough time surviving in the industry, but it is changing now. I hope they soon start making films and bring about newer trends. The film industry has been man’s domain for a long time and it has its share of problems. The change can’t happen overnight, it will be gradual. But it’s definitely changing for the good.

TNIE team: S Neeraj Krishna, Vignesh Madhu, Krishna P S, Mahima Anna Jacob, Aishwarya Prabhakaran, Anna Jose, Swathy Lekshmi Vikram

A Sanesh (photos)

Pranav V P (video)

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