One doesn’t feel the time passing when conversing with Pathinettam Padi (stylised as 18am Padi) director Shanker Ramakrishnan. Self-assured and overflowing with an intense passion for cinema, the occasional actor sounds like one of the characters from his own scripts. You sense in his words clarity of thought and unapologetic pride in his work.
Though it’s been 10 years since Shanker directed a segment titled Island Express, for the anthology Kerala Cafe, he was always part of the film industry in varying capacities. He made his screenwriting debut with Urumi eight years ago and made his acting debut a while later in director Ranjith’s Spirit. In between, he wrote an experimental film, Natholi Oru Cheriya Meenalla, starring Fahadh Faasil.
The decision to direct 18am Padi, his first full-length feature, after such a long time was not a deliberate move. “I didn’t see directing as the ultimate thing that I wanted to do,” he says. “Filmmaking as a whole is appealing to me. Directing is not the only way to be part of it, you see. I’m happy to be part of the production in some way. The advantage of directing a film so late in your career is that you develop the maturity required for this job.”
Your screenplays of Urumi and 18am Padi have an epic feel to them. Do you like writing big-scale stories?
We all grew up listening and being fascinated by the mythological stories told by our grandparents. Be it stories like the Amar Chitra Katha, Mahabharata or the 80s’ Amitabh Bachchan movies, everything stimulated my imagination. Take Mahabharata, for example. Is there any genre it doesn’t cover? Then post-1985, I was introduced to world cinema—the films of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, David Lean, Akira Kurosawa and so on—through the video libraries we often frequented in Thiruvananthapuram. But there is always a personal connection to the epic stories you heard in your childhood. Sometimes you can give that big-scale feeling to even a small story, like a fable. That’s what I tried to do with 18am Padi.
Why is this film so dear to you?
It’s a story about developing resilience in uncomfortable environments. When you’re in a comfortable zone, there are fewer chances of achieving excellence. But when you’re in certain environments that make you very uncomfortable—like hostels, towns, or tutorship—you try to fight and survive. This is what the film is all about. The moment you step out of your comfort zone, greater things can be achieved. That’s why, in the olden days, kids from palaces were sent to gurukuls, where they were asked to do tough tasks and give gurudakshina. That’s what Mammukka’s character is doing in the film’s latter half. Everybody who has become somebody in life has gone through extremely uncomfortable situations. These are characters I identify with. Take Prithviraj’s Ashwin and Arya’s Ayyappan. Ashwin is fighting his inner demons by running a parallel institution and Ayyappan is fighting the outer ones by becoming an army officer.
Was it always the plan to structure a story like this inside a commercial movie format?
Yes, it was my idea to do a big movie with many songs and fights (laughs). I didn’t make it for the cinema pundits. I was very clear about my target audience. I wanted to blend the coming-of-age and action genres. It has never been made before, not to my knowledge. I believe it’s an absolutely original work free of cliches. If you dissect the script, you can see a thoughtfully done script progression. We start from Ashwin, cut to Arya, his past, cut back to Ashwin’s younger self, then take the story through Mammukka’s character, transferring the baton to Arya, and then we come back. The architecture is very different.
Were you able to retain the structure the way you wrote the first time or did it change later?
I had created a detailed superstructure before the shoot. But naturally, there were organic changes while shooting the film. One has to adapt to the schedule changes. This was not an easy script to write or narrate. There are more than 65 characters in it. You have to convey everything properly to the technicians. For that, multiple narrations were needed every day. And sometimes, in the process of dissecting it scene by scene, you get new ideas, how to improve existing ones, things like that. I made sure the actors knew what they were about to do. They were not trained just for my films. They’re here to stay.
Have you experienced any violent situations as depicted in the film?
Not really. This film is not necessarily based on any particular school. I have been part of both private and government institutions. We have heard of the rivalry between schools and the violence that occurs. This is just a fictionalised version of the experiences I’ve heard from others, in a package appealing to general audiences.
Tell us about working with cinematographer Sudeep Elamon.
He is a born genius. He has the talent to remain in the industry with or without my help. Usually, no one would trust a first-time with a project of this magnitude. Though I knew the inherent risk, I trusted him and was very confident about him. I could’ve gone to any experienced cinematographer, but the advantage of working with Sudeep is that he had the time to be with this project for two years. For me, it’s about building a family with my technicians. Every technician I’ve worked with know all sides of me. I always try to be the source of encouragement and strength for them. Some of them—editor Bhuvan Sreenivasan, music director AH Kaashif, stunt director Kecha Khamphakdee—don’t even speak Malayalam.
Was the climax fight with Mammootty’s character made for the fans?
It was, I must admit, but it’s not there just for the sake of it. It was a politically justified scene. I haven’t shown anything that’s not. That fight occurs when someone tries to stop him from finding out a certain truth. If we had shown him creating much bigger havoc than what was already shown—like killing someone or burning a building—he would’ve turned into a superhero. But that’s not what I was going for. It’s a minute-long fight, and if you really think about it, he doesn’t actually win. We have used Mammukka correctly.