When talking to a one-film-old filmmaker, it isn’t new to hear the usual quote, “I tried so hard to pitch my stories and get my first film running.”
However, it does feel a bit off-key when it is told by Ani Sasi, the son of one of Malayalam cinema’s greatest filmmakers, IV Sasi.
“I know it is easier for a second generation filmmaker like me to get a film, but I wasn’t getting the kind of films I really wanted to do. People kept telling me that my ideas weren’t the kind of films IV Sasi’s son should do. But what can I do if I couldn’t really connect with the IV Sasi brand of films,” asks Ani, who attributes the disconnect to his upbringing in Chennai away from the political hotbed of Kerala.
When we see his debut film, Ninnila Ninnila (Telugu), and his recently released short film, Maya (Tamil), we understand Ani’s vision. It is not something IV Sasi would do.
The former is a romcom set in the world of chefs in London, and the other is a short film about a one-film-old director finding it in himself to write his second film. There is no grandeur. There are no politically charged dialogues.
There are no stunning set pieces. But again… why bother emulating a legend when the other path of being original is right there for the taking. Both Ninnila Ninnila and Maya have a wonderful fantasy element woven into the narrative, and Ani believes this fascination for the fantastical can be attributed to his love for cartoons.
“Although Tamil and Malayalam films were a staple in my childhood, it is the cartoons I watched that have heavily influenced my thoughts,” says Ani, adding that his mentor Priyadarshan too taught him a lesson or two about introducing such elements in films.
“Priyan sir always says that it is the characters that matter. Once we make them relatable, and the emotions are resonant, everything around it can be fictionalised.”
For someone so deeply entrenched in the inner circles of Malayalam cinema, and for someone who grew up in Chennai watching Tamil films, making a debut in Telugu was an interesting detour.
“It just fell in place. I wanted to do Ninnila Ninnila in Malayalam, but I couldn’t find writers to make it there. When I went with my friend and DoP Diwakar Mani to Hyderabad to pitch a script, I went with a proper commercial film. However, my producer BVSN Prasad garu took a liking to Ninnila Ninnila, and I ended up making my directorial debut in Telugu,” says Ani.
This adaptation to change is something Ani seems to be engaging with quite often in his films. The role played by Nasser in Ninnila Ninnila was originally written for his mentor Priyadarshan, and even in Maya, Ritu Varma was supposed to be playing the lead.
“I’m glad that Nasser sir readily included certain mannerisms of Priyan sir to bring to life the role I had visualised. In the case of Maya, the Jallikattu protests were happening in full swing, and Ritu couldn’t make it. However, Priya Anand was gracious enough to get on the project. She didn’t even ask me the details, and we moved on to the shoot,” shares Ani, who shares a warm camaraderie with a lot of his fellow second-generation filmmakers and artistes.
Despite such friendships, did it ever occur to Ani that he could cast them in his films? “Both Ashok Selvan and Nithya Menen are my friends too, and I was sure about casting them in Ninnila Ninnila. Once I saw Pelli Choopulu, I knew Ritu was my Tara. In fact, Kalyani Priyadarshan was there right from the scripting stages of Ninnila Ninnila. She dissected the script with me and even evinced interest in playing Nithya’s role. But then, my friends like Kalyani and Pranav Mohanlal understand how I envision a script, and how I go about the casting process.”
Considering his lineage, Ninnila Ninnila could be called quite a sedate start from Ani Sasi. It was released on Zee5 on the PPV model, and it didn’t really, for want of a better word, go viral.
“When the film was out, a lot weren’t aware of it. It grew with positive word of mouth. While I know a lot of technical aspects of the film would have been better consumed in a theatre, the reach through OTT was an advantage too,” says Ani, who has also been grappling with this theatre-OTT debate for one of Malayalam cinema’s most-anticipated films, Marakkar, in which he shares writing credits with Priyadarshan.
“Yes, the wait was excruciating. We were worried if it would justify the unreal hype surrounding it. But, Marakkar is a theatre film. The grandeur and technical finesse of the film needs the theatre experience. Also, there is the collective energy of watching a Mohanlal film with the audience. Those aspects are really important too,” says Ani.
Being the son of not just an all-time great director, but also a celebrated actress, Seema, was an acting career ever on the anvil for Ani? “Never. I was always interested in the technical aspects of cinema. One of my earliest memories of my father is me sitting on his lap as he told a then 10-year-old me about what kind of lens to use for a particular shot.”
But it must be quite an intimidating task to follow the footsteps of a visionary like IV Sasi. Does it feel daunting… ever?
“There is no place for comparisons in the first place. He has done 150+ films. He once had 13 releases in a year. It is ridiculous. I have once seen him shoot four films in a single location in a single day with almost the same set of actors. I can never see myself working that way,” says Ani, who shares that there was always an ego clash between him and his father when it came to matters of cinema.
“He was the most tech-savvy person I knew growing up, and when I started working and studying technical aspects of cinema, I used to show off. It was an attempt to prove to my dad that I was growing up too. You see, even our fights used to be about cinema,” signs off a refreshingly candid Ani.