Express Dialogues | If we are a little mad, anything is possible: Director Blessy

Right from his first film Kaazhcha to the latest Aadujeevitham, Blessy has poured his heart and soul into the craft. Excerpts of his conversation with TNIE
Director Blessy
Director Blessy(Photo | T P Sooraj, EPS)

You come from a space with not much film or literary background… How did the journey begin?

My father died when I was three. So, I don’t even have the concept of father. Mother was very protective. She died when I was 16. I was very lonely… my only refuge was a theatre that was just across my home. It became an integral part of my growing up; the film bug must have bit me there. From a young age, I wanted to be a film director. My native place, Tiruvalla, was never known for any cultural or literary activities. D C Kizhakemuri had once said that the houses in Tiruvalla had only the Bible and bank passbook, and there was no serious reading (smiles). But, somehow, I got hooked on reading from a young age. On a lighter note, I can tell you a story that may explain my love for literature. My grandfather was a Menon from Ponnani. He had his name, Achutha Menon, inked on his arms. His family name was ‘Chalappurathu’. The family got converted and migrated to Tiruvalla. Writer Uroob was from Chalappuram. So I, too, can claim a great lineage (laughs out).

When did you realise filmmaking was your way forward?

I was a member of a film society, ‘Sudhrishya’. Later, I became its secretary at a time when the society was struggling. I grew up watching the works of famous filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman, and Jean-Luc Godard by bringing 16mm films from archives in Thiruvananthapuram, or films such as Kolangal by K G George, Utharayanam by Aravindan, and Kanchana Sita from General Pictures’ office in Kollam. Back then, I would take a bus to Tiruvalla with a big box carrying the film reels (smiles). Those experiences taught me the seriousness of filmmaking. K G George, who was from my town, was another huge inspiration.

You were an assistant director to Padmarajan, Jayaraj, and Lohithadas. You worked with them for 18 years. Why did it take you so long?

The 18-year journey didn’t tire me, despite the remuneration being low. Assisting Padmarajan was a matter of immense pride, but I realised I would always be his shadow if I continued. Working with legends like Padmarajan and Lohitadas taught me several things. I always wished my first film would be as notable as Padmarajan’s or Bharathan’s. I pursued several people, including Lohithadas, for a script. As luck would have it, since none wrote a script for me, I had to write it myself (chuckles).

Director Blessy
Director Blessy(Photo | T P Sooraj, EPS)

It is said that Mammootty gave you the confidence to write the script for Kaazhcha...

I had worked with Jayaraj on five films; the last one I assisted on was ‘4 the People’. After Desadanam, Jayaraj told me that I would be directing the next film from his production house, New Generation Cinema. Desadanam was a big hit, and being asked to direct his next venture was a significant recognition. It was a shock and a great honour. However, even though my dream was to make a film, when the moment arrived, I realised that I was not prepared. I didn’t have a story or script. I spent some days thinking it over, and finally, after spending two days alone, a visual came to me: a country boat with a child perched on one end, and images reflected on him. The visual surprised me, and I actually prayed, understanding that I could develop a film from it.

At the same time, when I looked through a window of the house where I was staying, I noticed a business sign of a projector rental company. It was Babu Janaradhan’s company, which rented 16mm projectors. Interestingly, the sign had been there for the past five years, yet I had never noticed it before. All I had was these visuals. I told the concept to Jayaraj. He didn’t respond positively, unsure how to develop it into a full script. Then, I told Sreenivasan, who agreed to write the script. Months later, when some financiers approached me, I went back to Sreenivasan with the idea. He discouraged me, suggesting it resembled ‘Cinema Paradiso’ and would be challenging to write scenes involving characters speaking different languages. Disheartened, I shared my frustration with Murali Nagavally, a good friend. After hearing the idea, Murali encouraged me, saying films with such ideas should be made. I approached Jayaraj again. He suggested that I meet Mammootty. Although I knew Mammootty well, I was apprehensive about casting him as Madhavan, a simple man from a rural area, since he was a big star at the peak of his career.

What was Mammootty’s response?

When I narrated the story to him, he asked me who would write the script. I suggested Lohithadas, but Mammootty felt it wasn’t his style. We discussed several writers, and finally, he encouraged me to write it myself, offering to correct it later, if needed. I asked several people, including Ananthapadmanabhan and P F Mathews, to write the script. Fortunately, they were all busy. With Mammootty’s dates secured and no one available to help, I was compelled to write. I then read the script to Mammootty. After listening to two pages, he asked me to leave the script with him to read the rest later. When the film was released, the script was published. Mammootty, at the launch, admitted that he had not read the whole script. After two pages, he was convinced it was very good (smiles).

After Kaazhcha, you got state awards (screenplay and direction) for Thanmathra. Was it the experience gained through Kaazhcha that helped you overcome the writer’s block?

The story of Thanmathra was there in my mind even before I wrote Kaazhcha. After reading Padmarajan’s short story ‘Orma’, I had discussed it with Lohithadas. He pulled out, saying the subject was too scientific and complicated. I didn’t have the confidence to write. But after writing Kaazhcha, I gained confidence. Now, I like writing the scripts for my films.

Aadujeevitham took a long time — about 16 years — for conceptualisation, shooting and release. The world changed a lot during that period. Did you try to reflect the changes in the film?

No. Because it was a subject that transcended the limits of time and space. Even now, the story seems to be something very unbelievable. This is what makes the story relevant across the timeline. Hence, I never thought of changing the storyline. I started writing the script in 2015. Since then, there was no change in the basic structure of the story. However, we did make use of the advanced technologies during the post-pandemic shoot.

Director Blessy
Director Blessy(Photo | T P Sooraj, EPS)

Was Prithviraj Sukumaran the first choice to play Najeeb in Aadujeevitham?

I discuss all my films with (actor) Vikram. He was keen. But when I decided to do it in Malayalam, only Prithviraj was in my mind.

We have heard that you worked hard on stripping the confidence off Prithviraj’s eyes to transform him completely...

Prithviraj has a confident personality, which people might mistake as arrogance. The truth is his confidence stems from his vast knowledge, and it reflects in his energy levels. However, Najeeb is not such a person. So, Prithviraj had to be restrained.

The film Pranayam tells the tale of a love triangle. However, in most such storylines, one of the three is painted in a bad light. That was not the case in Pranayam. How did you arrive at the idea?

What is love? It is generally believed to be a creation of a relationship between a man and a woman. But I don’t think about it along the same lines. I have learnt that God is love. My behaviour or the way we talk and smile are all different types of expressing love. It is only after a certain age that a person walks through the most wonderful stages of life.

Your initial plan was to cast Mammootty in Pranayam. Then what happened?

The concept for Pranayam came to me even before Kaazhcha and Thanmathra… I had discussed the film with Mammootty during the shooting of Palunku. Mammootty suggested we do it later. In fact, I narrated the story of Pranayam to him before writing the script. I remember, S N Swami and Shaji Kailas were also present. Mammootty noted that he would be playing an elderly character. I had planned for him to play Achuthan Menon (eventually done by Anupam Kher), a character similar to my grandfather.

As I started writing the script, new sequences emerged, and I felt the need to consult Mammootty about his comfort with the role. When I sought a meeting, he questioned if I had doubts about the role. I explained that he needed to understand how I had been developing his character. I met him on the day Venu Nagavally passed away, and narrated the script during our journey. After listening to it, Mammootty suggested casting someone else. I had anticipated that, and accepted the situation without any argument.

Then came Mohanlal?

Not really... I then approached S P Balasubrahmanyam. He loved the plot, but expressed doubts about his ability to perform the subtle acting required, and also concerns about the language. The film, focusing on three elderly characters, needed intense detailing. The search for the right actor affected script-writing. During a trip to Dubai, I visited the shooting location of Roshan Andrews’s Casanovva, which starred Mohanlal. Lalettan (Mohanlal) asked about my plans, and I briefly narrated the story. The issue with casting Mammootty was about finding someone to play his younger self. This was a technical challenge. Lalettan also raised this concern. After lunch, Lalettan surprised me by offering to play Mathews, a philosophy professor confined to a wheelchair — a less prominent role compared with his usual central characters. I could never have asked him to play Mathews, but his willingness energised me. After discussing with Lalettan, I decided to approach Anupam Kher for the film. Since Anupam Kher’s youth looks were relatively lesser known, casting another actor for his younger self was not a challenge.

How would you recall the experience of directing two superstars – Mammootty and Mohanlal?

As a beginner, when I was working with Mammootty, I noticed that he gets disturbed when there is a crowd. Once, he asked me: ‘What do you think? I am Mammootty, not Madhavan (character in Kaazhcha).’

I replied, ‘I can’t shoot the film thinking that you are Mammootty. I can only consider you as Madhavan.’ I still don’t know where I got the courage from. Maybe it’s a blessing (smiles). We share a very friendly bond. He understood it. He used to tell me that I needed to be loud and should shout to lead. He has helped me a lot. While planning a project with Mammukka, one should fully convince him. He is comfortable when we clear all his doubts.

Mohanlal is a different story. The location of Bhramaram was set in the remote area of Nelliyampathy, where transportation, water supply, and even generator facilities were challenging. The entire crew, including the producer and cameraman, expressed their displeasure over the location. However, all the dissatisfaction dissipated with just one response from Lalettan, who emphasised that shooting would be possible only by acknowledging the challenging conditions (smiles).

Some intimate scenes in your films had stirred controversies. How do you respond to them?

Controversies are triggered when someone finds it hard to digest another person’s efficiency. The aim is to grab attention. I don’t think every controversy needs to be addressed. There were some controversies associated with Aadujeevitham as well, including a ban in some Gulf countries and contradicting statements about an intimate scene with a goat. There was propaganda that the book [Benyamin’s ‘Aadujeevitham’] had been banned in Arab countries, and that’s why we couldn’t shoot the film in that region. Similarly, even before censoring, it was said that the film wouldn’t be released in the Gulf. It was all part of some deliberate efforts. But, eventually, the film had a simultaneous release across India and the UAE. Later, we managed to release it in most Gulf centres, except Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Marketing has become crucial these days. What’s your take?

The digital revolution has opened immense possibilities to take a film to the audience. Social media offers plenty of scope to publicise a film. The market has widened, along with the number of distributors and exhibitors. But, at the same time, there is also a lot of politics within the industry. Take, for instance, PVR’s recent stance on not screening Malayalam films. My film, which was running with packed audiences, was dropped without any prior notice. That is the kind of monopoly that one has to be cautious about. All the issues have now been sorted, thanks to the intervention of Lulu Group’s MD, Yusuffali M A. He managed to find a solution even as the government stood helpless. The PVR group had no other option but to accept his proposal, as he owns several big malls across the country. But, unfortunately, the brief boycott took a big toll on my film.

Was there loss in momentum for Aadujeevitham’s box office collections after this issue?

We lost more than 100 screens outside Kerala for three days due to the stalemate. When the issue got sorted, things got tougher as they resumed screening my film alongside three newly released films. Obviously, those films got better showcasing.

So, that caused a loss for you?

Of course.

How did the film Aadujeevitham influence Blessy as a director and as an individual?

I feel it reflects the world that supports our dreams, as Paulo Coelho and others have said. I also wrote that life could be more beautiful than the dream if we know how to live it. The things we think are impossible can become possible. For instance, we never thought we would be able to shoot in a place like the Sahara Desert in Algeria and return alive. If death is not an issue, then there is nothing to fear. If we are a little mad, anything is possible.

During your conversations, you often mention ‘gurutvam’ (blessings of mentors). Who do you view as your ‘guru’?

No doubt, it’s Padmarajan sir… I experience his presence a lot during shoots. When we plan a project, before starting its shooting, the prayer in my mind is that the film shouldn’t turn out to be an embarrassment for ‘sir’ (Padmarajan) in my capacity as his disciple.

Which are your favourite Padmarajan films?

My favourite is Oridathoru Phayalvaan.

You come across as a staunch believer. Do you pray often?

When I am alone, I pray. I like it. I haven’t prayed for myself in the past three to four years. I know that God knows about me, so I don’t have to pray for myself. I pray for others. That’s my spirituality.

Do you feel exhausted after Aadujeevitham?

Yeah. I badly need some more sleep, and some time to travel (smiles).

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