Female filmmakers with an inclination for crowd-pleasing entertainers are rare in Malayalam cinema. Seasoned costume designer Stephy Zaviour, who recently made her directorial debut with Madhura Manohara Moham (MMM), is one.She describes herself as a quintessential ’90s kid who grew up with a deep fondness for cinema — a “cinema Wikipedia” who knew every actor’s name, aside from becoming enamoured of their costumes.“That’s how I got the idea of becoming a costume designer, which eventually led me to fashion designing and a career in films after finishing my degree,” Stephy smiles.
How did you come to direct Madhura Manohara Moham?
The thought of directing a film popped up after working as a costume designer for seven or eight films. But there was the concern of someone judging me because being a costume designer, you’re not always present on set, and the technical know-how is hard to come by, unlike in the case of an editor or cinematographer. The others are expected to remain only on the creative side.So I took a year to tell a friend about this. When writers Mahesh Gopal and Jai Vishnu approached me with a script, I liked it. Long story short, I thought Rajisha would be apt to play the character Meera. Three days later, I committed to it. Rajisha liked the story, and she was completely on board with what we were doing. She didn’t even demand to ask to see the film before release, except for her portions when dubbing. She saw the whole film for the first time in the theatre.
So you aren’t one of those people who believe in the idea of learning thoroughly about all the departments before embarking on directing?
I would say I was prepared to direct MMM. There is generally the assumption that just because I’m in the industry and know some technicians, I can easily get into direction — no, that’s not how it was. Following the greenlighting of MMM, I took around one year to prepare for the pre-production.And though I’ve been in the field for a while, there were some aspects of filmmaking I was ignorant about, so I used to clarify doubts with the editor and cinematographers I knew. I wouldn’t say I’m technically brilliant or anything. I did my homework, and I think that helped.
Did you always have this filmmaking spark within you?
I didn’t know anything about filmmaking. When I first got into this profession, I had no clue who did what. When working in Ezra, I started scrutinising all these details associated with filmmaking. So at one point I started asking C V Sarathi sir (of E4 Entertainment) about how some scenes are shot and why this was that... and so on, and he told me if I’m so excited, I should try to find some script and direct it. That gave me a push.
Many female filmmakers have spoken about the hesitancy among crew members to follow their instructions. Did you face any such problems?
No, I didn’t experience any of that. It might be because I was familiar with almost everyone on the sets. The unit members were actually proud that someone from their group was directing the film.
According to the existing system in Kerala, the working schedule is till 9.30pm, and payment is fixed based on that. If the shoot goes beyond that, even for ten more minutes, the crew members should be paid extra. During MMM, there were several days when the shoot went beyond 9.30 PM, but the unit was very cooperative and never demanded any extra payment.
Do you think the formation of an organisation like WCC has had any positive impact on the Malayalam film industry?
Since I’m not a part of the WCC, I’m not the right person to comment on that. But still, if you ask me as an industry insider, I would say I haven’t felt any changes. Be it WCC or any other organisation, they all have their agendas, but they should be for the betterment of the industry and not for a selected set of individuals. For me, FEFKA has been of great support right from my debut when I was not even a member of it. Costume department is where there’s maximum female participation, and it’s majorly because of FEFKA’s backing that we feel safe and respected.We often hear actors complaining about pay disparity or lack of caravan facilities. But there are other crew members like hairdressers, costume assistants, and background artists whose issues also need to be addressed.There used to be times when we got stranded without knowing which vehicle to board during location shifting. But all that has changed and things are much more organised now. I always believe change should start from the bottom.
Did you not feel the compulsion to get involved with the costumes of this film?
In MMM, I handed it over to an associate Sanooj Khan (making his independent debut). One tip that my director of photography, Chandru Selvaraj, gave me was not to get involved in it— that he and the costume designer would figure it out, which I thought was a good idea so that my focus won’t waver.
Did you draw your confidence from working with people you previously gelled with?
I used to plan a lot right from the beginning. The camera department especially, because I didn’t want to look awkward when I went to set. (laughs) Initially, I entertained the thought of working with a cinematographer friend who was there through pre-production, but he had to take on another project to which he couldn’t say no. So I was without a cinematographer for nearly a month before the shoot until Chandru Selvaraj got in touch. Oddly enough, I don’t speak Tamil—we couldn’t even converse in Malayalam— and it took a lot of effort to convey my ideas, like resorting to English translation. I learnt a bit of Tamil later, and now there is a good sync between us. And my editors—Appu N. Bhattathiri and Malavika V.N—were so helpful, aside from the other technical team members. We all worked as a unit.
Most of the releases today don’t do well. Rarely do we get hits. Were you concerned? Did you expect MMM to be a hit?
Though we had marketed it as a family comedy, we had to ensure that our film didn’t come off as something about characters who were the ‘epitome of virtue’. The idea was to convey that the content is entertaining, unlike anything done before. Here’s the thing: even when you make a good film, it doesn’t mean it can be successful. We had some challenging factors before us when we decided to release in June—rains, kids going to school, parents’ financial constraints... things like that, but we took the risk regardless. We also knew our film didn’t have big names that would get people flocking to theatres on opening day. That said, we were hopeful about solid word of mouth working in our favour.
It’s commonly heard that for first-time directors, decision-making is one challenging aspect when doing a film. Be it choosing a background score or first look poster, indecisiveness mostly comes to the fore. So being a first-time director, how has been the whole decision-making part for you?
Despite being in the industry, this is the first time I’m getting involved in post-production. For 19 days, Malavika, Appu Bhattathiri, and I sat down and discussed the process. It was then I started viewing cinema through a different lens. It was a collaborative effort; since we were together, we had good communication throughout on what needed to be added or avoided in the editing table. Though we had difference of opinion during the process, we respected each other’s opinions and decisions. But when it comes to the technical side, I mostly took the opinion of our DoP. Also, music is one area in which I found it difficult to share my opinions; this is due to my lack of awareness. Jibin Gopalan is the music director. We both worked together for two months in his studio, so during that period we were able to understand what we required in each track.
References are often taken for inspiration, so being a costume designer, do you think it affects your creativity?
It does affect. But at times the reference stock acts as a guiding tool as well. It’s good to have references, especially when the crew doesn’t understand what the director wants in a particular scene. But if the entire movie or costume designs are heavily dependent on references, then it becomes a problem. I feel if you rely heavily on references, as a creator, it might affect your confidence when you want to put out something of your own.
The movie is satirical in nature; in the beginning, it explores the Savarna system and has portrayed certain aspects humorously as well. However, in the second half, it did feel like the movie took a U-turn and went back to the concept of upholding the traditions and ways of the community...
Though the movie hints at traditions and holding community values, certain scenes speak the opposite. For example, when Bindu Panicker’s character Ushamma gets to know of Rajisha’s affair with a Christian boy, though she showed the emotions of a typical Malayali mother, with some outbursts in between, however, the same Ushamma who values tradition and culture, sort of reconcile with the situation. Even Sharafudheen’s character tells Rajisha that if she had expressed an interest in marrying any of the multiple partners she had, the family would have agreed to it. I think all of these scenarios speak a lot.
Since the movie is set in Pathanamthitta, were you aware of the location, culture of the Nair community and the surroundings?
Pathanamthitta is one place that I’m not familiar with. But we took references from our writers’ acquaintances who are settled in Pathanamthitta. We took note of the way people speak—even the minutest details, like keeping old dysfunctional objects just to show the family’s glory or even hanging various deities’ pictures on the wall etc.... such observations helped the film.
Can you explain how the costume department collaborates with other technicians?
After reading the script, we’ll get a basic idea of the film and its characters. Further interactions with the director will lend more clarity. Then we sit with the cinematographer and discuss the colour palette. He will tell us about the mood he wants; it might vary from earthy to bright to pastel tones. For some characters, the colours might vary according to their emotional graph. So we discuss that with the art department and plan the backdrops accordingly. I’m not saying all our films follow this process. There are certain films where we don’t bother about the colour palette, but we still try to avoid anything that’s flashy and distracting.
Madhura Manohara Moham had a warm colour palette. Was it to rekindle the nostalgia factor?
If you notice the visuals from the 90s like in Priyadarshan sir’s Thenmavin Kombathu or the song ‘Sreeragamo’ from Pavithram, they are dominated by a beautiful combination of deep colours like black-red, green-red, yellow-black... We wanted to recreate that. Now that you’ve observed it, I guess it has worked (laughs).
Do you think the costume department doesn’t have much prominence in Malayalam cinema?
Not really, because we were the ones who made an experimental film like Thallumaala. I think it’s the most expensive Malayalam film in terms of the budget allocated for the costumes alone. Its costume designer Mashar (Hamsa) made most of the purchases from abroad. So, things are changing from how it was when I started. At that time, producers were the most stringent in spending for costumes.
Mammootty’s costumes in The Great Father were also much spoken about...
I can’t take complete credit for that. Mammukka had a personal designer named Abhijith, with whom I was in good sync. Abhi and I used to discuss and finalise the ideas, based on which he did all the purchasing.
Kumari must’ve been a challenge since it’s set in different eras...
Most of the sarees that Aishwarya Lekshmi wore in that film actually belonged to that era. I got it from a friend’s grandmother, who had a wonderful collection. I didn’t go for a lot of innovation for the period portions. We took references from films like Pazhassi Raja and designed accordingly. But for the tribal sequences, we attempted some fresh ideas and played around with shades of red.
Is there a film that gave you a lot of personal satisfaction but didn’t get noticed much?
Lord Livingstone 7000 Kandi was a challenging work, but I don’t think it reached beyond a niche audience. Similarly, I loved the sarees I designed for Mamta Mohandas in Goodalochana and Neha Iyer in Tharangam. Unfortunately, not many noticed them. I believe a film has to work among the masses for our work to grab some attention.
Can you name a non-Malayalam film where you found the costume design impressive?
I love Eka Lakhani’s works. She’s a personal favourite. I’m always in awe of whatever designs she comes up with.
Is there a favourite genre that you would want to attempt in direction?
I would like to do all kinds of films except women empowerment subjects. That’s something people always expect from a female filmmaker. I don’t want to do that.
I’m currently doing costumes for Garudan. After that, I’ll be taking a break for a couple of months. In the last 7-8 years, I’ve done around 95 films. But it came at the cost of missing out on quality sleep and valuable moments with friends and family. I’m also thinking of using the break to find good stories for my next directorial.
TNIE team: Cithara Paul, Sajin Shrijith, Vignesh Madhu, Krishna PS, Mahima Anna Jacob,
Sooraj TP(photos), Harikrishna B (video)