INTERVIEW | Rewriting Mukundan Unni Associates was a frustrating process: Abhinav Sunder Nayak
Editor-turned-director Abhinav Sunder Nayak on his six-year-journey with his debut feature and extracting the best out of leading man Vineeth Sreenivasan
Published: 16th November 2022 08:16 AM | Last Updated: 16th November 2022 07:19 PM | A+A A-
It’s always a cause for celebration when someone from the film industry who doesn’t follow conventions and expresses his independent thoughts without worrying about how others might perceive him—a rare, admirable quality these days—comes out with flying colours with his debut feature.
Abhinav Sunder Nayak, who had cut his teeth in the industry as a gifted editor on the films Godha, Aanandam, Uriyadi and Kurangu Bommai, gets candid about his journey with Mukundan Unni Associates and extracting the best performance out of leading man Vineeth Sreenivasan.
There is no space for redemption in Mukundan Unni Associates. Did that concern you at any point?
Not at all. Our writing started after we had a clear idea about the climax. The main driving thought was that it had to feel like a reflection to the audience, and then we worked backwards.
Breaking the romantic notion associated with success was a thought I harboured for the longest time. Also, our films can be a reflection of our own feelings at a given time. I conceived this idea when the thought of my career not turning out the way I expected worried, frustrated, and saddened me. Those feelings showed up in the movie. Maybe my second script could be about what worries me next or what makes me happy.
Where did you get the idea to set it at a hospital?
It was simply about exploring a hitherto unventured area. There was potential for making the character’s journey and narrative relatively fresh. I wouldn’t use the word ‘new’, though. While I developed the character of Mukundan Unni, my co-writer Vimal Gopalakrishnan worked on the rest.
Do you find shady characters more appealing?
I don’t have anything against a specific type of cinema or characters per se. However, I’m averse to most films that always follow a very plain format. That said, there are films like Hridayam that genuinely worked for me, and it’s not because Vineeth Sreenivasan made it. I mean, I enjoy something like Baahubali and Eega and other straightforward stuff too. At times they work for me; at others, they don’t.
When you wrote this film, were you concerned about people comparing it to something that came before?
The idea for Mukundan Unni originated in 2017. At the time, nothing of this sort came in Malayalam cinema. Internationally, yes—the first reference being Nightcrawler, a similarity many people have mentioned, which is fine because it’s not like we copied it or anything—if that were the case, then we didn’t have to take this much effort to write a script. (Laughs) Nightcrawler is my favourite film of this decade. In fact, I consider it The Godfather of this decade. There is no doubt about Mukundan Unni being an original film. Just because the shade of one film is in another doesn’t mean it’s a copy.
It seems that audiences now crave such films. The success of Rorschach and Kurup is a testament to that. Do you find this acceptance liberating?
Definitely. I would say the response was much better than I anticipated, both in terms of feedback and box office response, although I feel the latter would show more improvement had the offline publicity been a little stronger. But that’s understandable because everyone is new. Other than that quibble, I’m ecstatic.
I heard the script went through a lot of rewrites. Could you elaborate?
You see, I have this constant habit of reworking. Malayalam cinema is now at a stage where it can produce all kinds of interesting thoughts. I had to rework the script multiple times because aside from the fact that our project got delayed several times—it’s been a six-year journey—there were films like Trance and Joji, which bore slight resemblances in terms of some core themes, dialogues and mood.
So every time a new film came out, we had to rewrite some areas. The script was actually ready by 2018, and all we did after that was reworking— not because the first script was poor, but because of all these new films that kept coming. It was so frustrating; it affected us mentally, putting us through a low phase. But giving up was not an option.
Was it hard to approach actors and producers?
To be frank, approaching producers with this script wasn’t a problem because everyone was familiar with my editing work; they trusted me. Initially, another producer had come on board but they opted out owing to some technical reasons. But when a film demands a particular budget, you need a star of a certain calibre. Otherwise, doing the film for a lesser budget was unimaginable for me. So getting the dates of a star was more difficult, especially for someone from within the industry like me; for an outsider, getting a producer would be more difficult.
Also, I’m not good at socialising, a prime reason for not having many contacts, except for Vineeth Sreenivasan, because I had worked as his assistant director; otherwise, that wouldn’t have happened either. (Laughs) His involvement changed the behaviour of the film a lot. Now when I think about it, I regret not going to him in the first place.
But this seemed like the right time, no?
True. It all came together at the right time. So I have no complaints, really.
What I’ve noticed about most editors who turn directors is that they start the editing process in the scripting stage. Was the overall visual design pre-planned?
No. All those things—animation, voiceovers, treatment, musical mood—happened in the post-production. It was a much more direct film at first, with more dialogues, which we had shot too. The exposition was more dialogue-driven than voiceover-driven.
The voiceovers in this film are of the right frequency. Usually, people find them difficult to endure.
That happens when the voiceovers are dishonest—when they don’t match the character. If they closely align with that particular character, people will endure voiceovers no matter how many are there. Thankfully, everything fell into place in our film.
Vineeth also got the deadpan dialogue delivery right.
The direction I gave him is that Unni doesn’t have emotions. He is a born psychopath. The empathy nerve in him was missing at birth. So even if he kills somebody and gets stopped by the police, his pulse doesn’t waver. The only time Unni got frustrated was when he worried about losing his job because success was the only thing he cared about the most.