Looking at writer Sharis Mohammed’s filmography, one feels that he is at his best when tackling a subject of an intensely political nature and far-reaching implications than something relatively laidback and replete with mischief. Jana Gana Mana, which not only opened to packed houses in Kerala but also had better reviews than all his other works, has established Sharis as a storyteller to be reckoned with in the mainstream Malayalam cinema space. As the film completes a successful one-month run, Sharis speaks to Cinema Express on the film’s impact, what he intended with it, and how he hopes people will perceive it. Interestingly, the film was a topic of discussion on social media a few days ago after the truth of the Hyderabad encounter case came to light.
The most important thing your film addresses is how people perceive a piece of news and the kind of weightage they give to it depending on its gravity. How do you look at news in general?
I feel Kerala generally has a left of centre mindset, which is something I also possess. We look at everything with suspicion. We don’t believe in the manifestation of a person or an idol. We are sceptical. We don’t suddenly buy everything sold to us. You see, I did my MBA in Marketing in Bengaluru, and in our institution, we were taught to think a bit freely. A great unlearning process happened. Someone can sell any product in any shape they see fit, depending on the location of the sale. News, too, can be treated in the same way.
I don’t accept any news first-hand. One should question everything from all angles. Example: If someone sees you going to a bar, that doesn’t necessarily mean you went there to drink. It could also mean you went there to change notes. I expect people to treat my film in the same way. They should ask why we made a film like this, or what we meant by it. And if they have any criticisms, they should express them openly. Only then a discussion happens. When Sandesham came out, a lot of people said it has an apolitical ending. I don’t believe that, even when today’s progressive-minded individuals say that. One can interpret Jana Gana Mana in the same way.
In one of your interviews, you said you don’t come from a strong political background. So when you feel outraged about something, how do you respond to it?
Outwardly, I don’t react that much. Internally, I might, though. Something would be simmering inside, but we might be in a position where we can’t do anything about it. I’m not active on social media because I believe that’s not where I should voice my outrage. Either I should express that through my work or voice it out in person if I see some injustice happening in front of me rather than indulge in hashtag activism.
That’s why one of my favourite scenes in Jana Gana Mana is the Maharaja’s College classroom scene with the lecturer. I happen to be an academician myself, and I don’t believe in 100 per cent occupancy classes. There was a time when students used to dictate the political climate of our state. The simple point we are making in the film is that we should question everything, even a group or ideology you’ve been loyal to. This is why there is a scene at the end of the film where a right-wing party member starts asking questions. He does it without switching parties. We could’ve shown him do that, but that won’t make any sense because other parties have their problems too. We are not a nation of one political party or one leader. We have many ideologies.
What do you have to say to those who call this film too loud? Some real-life lawyers have also criticised it for not having realistic courtroom scenes.
Look, from the outset, we intended to make a purely cinematic film. My inspiration is a quote by Bhagat Singh: “If the deaf is to hear, the sound has to be very loud”. I strongly believe in that. A strong topic has to be conveyed with the necessary loudness. If we had kept it a little subdued or realistic, it wouldn’t have that kind of reach.
As for the courtroom scene, we were particular about having representatives of the four pillars of democracy—executive, judiciary, legislature, and media—present. I have not seen the inside of a courtroom, and the same goes for 95 per cent of the public. I find that liberating because we treated it as a work of pure fiction. Our goal was not to make a realistic courtroom drama (ref: Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court). Obviously, we took creative liberties. Our commitment was only to the audience and to communicate to them our ideas. Perhaps, the public will be permitted to see the visuals of a real-life courtroom one day.
Since Prithviraj’s character, Aravind Swaminathan, asks all the questions, some viewers have brought up his caste in discussions.
As someone who created this character, I don’t know his caste. While writing, I didn’t ask myself what his caste should be because it’s irrelevant. In my eyes, his caste doesn’t exist. It exists in the hearts and minds of people who ask this question. Of course, they have the freedom to ask questions, whether it’s right or wrong. At least, it’s a good thing that they’re asking questions, which, as I said before, is also what our film is all about.