Prithviraj’s collaboration with Murali Gopy was the result of him being floored by the latter’s script of Left Right Left, a film featuring Prithviraj’s brother Indrajith as a police officer named Vattu Jayan (a performance which he calls his favourite). “That was the first time I approached someone to write a script for a potential directing vehicle. It was later, when we acted together in Tiyaan, that Murali told me about Lucifer,” he recalls fondly.
Lucifer revived interest in the kind of superstar-driven, mass appeal entertainers that dominated the 80s and 90s but considered a bit outdated amidst the proliferation of ‘new-gen’ cinema. Despite being perfectly aware that Lucifer was to be a showcase for Mohanlal the superstar, both Prithviraj and Murali were cautious about their material. “When making a film with an enigmatic character like Stephen Nedumpally, it was imperative that we don’t overdo it and talk too much about it. The enigma is part of the character’s charm.”
Prithviraj credits Murali’s strong script for helping him pull it off, adding that writers of superstar-driven thrillers are very underappreciated. He cites examples like Renji Panicker, Dennis Joseph, and Ranjith. “I think people tend to overlook the writing when it’s a commercial film. It takes a very intelligent and skilled screenwriter to do that. Trust me, it’s not easy. I know this because I was part of the writing process. The premise of Lucifer is not small—it’s not about a feud between two families; it’s a humongous premise with a galaxy of characters and actors. And, as a filmmaker, I believe that shot-making can only happen from the written word. You can only decide the staging of the scene, camera movement, lens selection... everything... from the writing.”
To drive this point home, Prithviraj cites a scene in Lucifer featuring Stephen and the dubious cop Mayilvahanam. “If Stephen had given a long dialogue in that scene after Mayilvahanam had hit him, I couldn’t have framed Stephen’s eyes like how it is now in the film. I was able to compose it that way because Murali wrote in the script that Stephen just ‘looks at him, doesn’t say anything, and is then taken away.’ If Stephen had said some dialogue there, that shot wouldn’t have been possible.”
Having said that, Prithviraj doesn’t prefer too much detailing in his script. He likes to take care of that himself. To give an example, he shares that Stephen’s black Landmaster car wasn’t part of the script initially. “I had asked Murali for a script that wasn’t overly detailed. I wrote a shooting script later, in which I listed an approximate idea of the lensing, camera movement, lighting, and other details. It’s this shooting script that I then gave to my team, with individual instructions for each department.”
Lucifer opened up a lot of doors for Malayalam cinema internationally. The film was released on digital platforms while still running in theatres. The same can be said of his last film, Driving Licence. Asked if this trend of not maintaining an eight-week window is healthy, Prithviraj says, “I don’t think it’s something we can fight. We now have to learn how to evolve within this new ecosystem. Take Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker who has always been a champion for the film and theatrical experience. His dream film, The Irishman, was released on Netflix. And Will Smith, one of the world’s biggest stars, did a Netflix film called Bright. Do they think it’s beneath them? No. Even Bollywood A-listers are doing that now. Digital rights, just like satellite rights, are here to stay. A film coming out on an OTT platform on the 40th day of its theatrical release may sound unfair. Ten years back, a film coming out on TV on the 100th day of its release would’ve sounded unfair too. Nobody is saying that anymore. I think that, after a point, these “big-screen experience” films will start doing well in theatres.”
Prithviraj believes that if the current “ecosystem” is sustained and grows, the number of films will increase because the demand from the theatres will increase. “Today, when a film comes out, the collections start tapering off post the 20th or 25th day. It has been the trend lately in Malayalam cinema. I don’t think there will be another film that enjoys a 150-day run. A film’s lifetime collection will happen in the first 25 days unless it’s a giant blockbuster. We also have to take into account issues like privacy, for which we still don’t have the solution. So, if a person doesn’t get the urge to watch a film even on the 30th day of its release, then they will feel compelled to watch it on an OTT platform. We have to accept this fact. When the theatrical run is shortened, the demand for films will grow.
Since theatres will need films to play, I don’t think they will ever shut down. More films being produced—and statistics have already shown this—will lead to a fast turnover. And with all these new revenue channels, a film’s return on investment is probably within six months, which means more films being churned out. We now have around 150 films releasing every year, consistently. Let’s face it: As far as a Malayalam film is concerned, an OTT platform like Amazon Prime gives us a guarantee in terms of the revenue being generated for the producer. We also get a lot of liberty in terms of how a film can be made, how much we can spend, and so on. We can’t deny that leverage. As a filmmaker, I hope that digital platforms, satellite rights, and theatrical rights co-exist. I want all three to flourish together. If you want to dream big, you need avenues like these.”
This Friday will see the release of Ayyappanum Koshiyum (AK), which has Prithviraj not only reuniting with Anarkali director Sachy (also writer, Driving Licence) but also his co-star from that film, Biju Menon. Though it will have a few themes that Sachy has already explored in Driving Licence, the script of AK is way more potent, feels Prithviraj. “Unlike in Driving Licence, things get to a point in AK where it becomes more animalistic,” he says.
On what makes Sachy an extraordinary storyteller, Prithviraj thinks it’s his clarity about his characters, “I just think he is very good with understanding people and breaking down characters. He does it not from an intellectual standpoint, but from that of an ordinary individual. Sachy as a writer no longer surprises me, because he has not written a mediocre story yet. He also took me by surprise as a filmmaker. From Anarkali to AK, he has grown both as a filmmaker and technician.”
This year, some of the big stars are moving away from smaller, experimental films in favour of bigger, commercially appealing projects. Does this mean the saturation point for the first category has been reached? “If everyone is consciously trying to stay away from subjects that are slightly off the mark, then we need to ask if they’re looking for gratification,” he says.
“As a producer or actor, the ultimate gratification for me is when a film works. No matter how many awards a film can collect, one feels gratified only when that film is acknowledged by lakhs of people. Maybe everyone is after that drug.”
However, he is not one to blame the audience if a film fails to set the cash registers ringing. “Sometimes a film works, sometimes it doesn’t. Blaming the audience is not the way to go about it. Ultimately, we make films for the audience, and if certain ideas have not been conveyed to them properly, then I believe it’s our fault. As a producer and an actor, I will still take the blame on myself if a film of mine didn’t work.”
Prithviraj has lined up some big-scale projects which could create waves in the international market in the future. There is Aadujeevitham, whose main portions will be filmed soon; Karachi 81, an espionage thriller with a pan-Indian appeal; Kaaliyan, a period action film expected to film in October; and Shaji Kailas’ Kaduva.
Besides, he has already set up his next production titled Ayalvaashi, to be directed by debutant Irshad Parari and co-starring Indrajith. “It’s not exactly what I would call a small film but it’s unlike 9 or Driving Licence,” he says. “It’s a story set in Malappuram, about two neighbours. I have not done a film like that before.