How did an engineering student turn to be a script writer, director, and then actor?
I always had a fascination for movies from my childhood and coming from a place like Wayanad in Kerala, the film industry was too alien for us. My father is a priest and I’m from an orthodox family background. In my childhood, I have discussed doing medicine or engineering, but there was no thought about entering the glamour or the film industry or anything beyond the comfort zone. I just wanted to join a good engineering college after schooling and we were just going with the flow. Once I joined IT, there was a sudden boom of short films not in Kerala but in Tamil Nadu. There was a show on Tamil TV channel called ‘Naalaya Iyakunar’ with people like Balaji Mohan, Karthik Subbaraj, Nalan Kumarasamy and short film directors getting into films and that kind of triggered me. I knew there was something inside me, but I had no contacts in the film industry. I got to know that people are getting opportunities through short films to prove their talents. It’s a good platform for someone like me who doesn’t have a film background. So we planned to do an entertaining short film which was really rare in the Malayalam industry during 2010. Because of the entertaining factor, my short film became a huge hit in Kerala and until then most short films were serious. I sent my short film to so many celebrities in Kerala through Facebook messenger but nobody answered except the actor Aju Varghese who watched my short film and liked it. He asked for my number and called me and through him, I got the opportunity to meet director Vineeth Sreenivasan and he liked my short film and that is how I started working for films.

Tell us how did Minnal Murali happen and what is the title all about?
The idea of Minnal Murali came to me from our writer Arun who I worked along with the film called Padai ootam as an actor and we were friends back then. Also, our producer Sophia was team to the idea. The idea had so many scopes but the genre of a superhero would be a little difficult, considering our Malayalam industry has some budget constraints. Making a convincing superhero movie is going to be a little tougher because the action, effects everything has to be compatible with the international movies these days like Marvel and comics has so many superheroes so people like it and they watch these movies. We can’t go below the par on the technical side just because of budget constrain then we shouldn’t try such a genre. Only if we want to break the benchmark beyond par with any such standard do we have to go ahead and do it which was a major challenge we faced initially. But our producer Sophia gave me the confidence to do it and told me that she will be there to support me. Also, Arun had confidence in the team so I went forward to do it. So they are the people behind Minnal Murali and that’s how we started.

Of course, the process was challenging to break each and every technician, artist’s comfort zone to get the best of everyone. We had a lot of obstacles in the middle of Covid, so it was a kind of an experience and it got stretched to three years. But now we are happy with the outcome. It’s all up to the audience now.

What was the reason to get Tovino Thomas for this role?
It was not a big issue for me to convince Tovino because we have worked together in his debut movie called Godha. We had mutual trust and we are good friends so I just had to pitch the idea. Anyway ‘superhero’ films are always exciting for any actor and even Tovino was excited the moment I shared the idea. It took a year for us to write the script that is convincing to our audience here, because even though people watch comic characters like Spiderman or Superman in Marvel or DC, it is not easy to convince them in our regional settings, culture and scenario for a superhero. We can’t make a superhero out of the blue and make him do fancy things, effects, exaggerated lights going around. It has to beyond that.

Malayalam films are well-known for their realistic approach, so how well will the audience receive a superhero film?
We are very optimistic about the film and everyone from the crew has done their best. Besides the challenges like Covid, we had to shoot only 4 or 5 schedules which have increased the number of shooting dates within the budget. There are so many fans around the globe for Malayalam films for the realistic approach and we have so many technicians coming from the Malayalam industry making path-breaking movies. Audience response is so important. There are constructive competitions happening in the industry we just want to make sure that quality is really good for every film and make the industry much better, stronger when every time somebody comes with an idea. People are getting used to this culture of making some quality films here. Everybody is trying to make a good film because of the new wave revolution happening in the industry. So every single person in the industry is on the same page, coming up with concepts and ideas which are grounded and commercially realistic, not too much Masala stories, so everything has some clarity and is quite good to watch in its cinematic sense. In the Malayalam industry, people support each other, we converse with each other and all technicians help each other and that is how people build relationships with others. It’s a small industry so people know each other and everyone is friends with everyone. So the thought process and everything is creative and constructive that something special is happening around here. It’s a big revolution happening here and every movie going to come out is going to work out critically well.

What is your view about the trending OTT platforms?
It’s a revolution. Already the OTT revolution has begun. It happened a few years ago but because of Covid, it has intensified. It’s really good for any movie especially for Malayalam movies because our movies went globally through OTT. There are no more boundaries. It’s not just about the content, actor, or culture but people connect with the situation. With the global platform, we have more exposure and opportunity, so it’s a good thing that happened. Even game of thrones we watched in OTT but we didn’t feel like we missed the experience. The content should be engaging. So it doesn’t matter if its OTT or theatre, the content needs to be good.

Any memorable moments working with Tovino Thomas?
Every moment in Minnal Murali is unforgettable and the movie is like part of our life because we had to face so many things like Covid, also church vandalisation happened, so many dramatic things that happened in the process of the shoot. We had to stick together as a team and fight everything to make a quality output. With Tovino if you ask me, there is a scene you should have seen in the trailer when he was kicking the lunch carrier in the hospital. Tovino did it with practice, there were no graphics and to get that shot correctly we went for so many takes. Once we finally got the shot we were like Tovino has got a golden globe award in the final world cup match. The whole unit was waiting patiently to get that shot to get it right and when finally, Tovino made it happen, we were celebrating on the sets like we were on the dance floor, jumping around with sheer joy and we even have a video of that moment. It was such an unforgettable and memorable experience and it was really good team work.

What’s your experience working with actor Fahad Fazil for the movie Joji which was inspired by William Shakespeare’s famous play Macbeth?
Director Dileesh Pothan called me for Joji. It was a big break for me because I have done more comedy characters previously but it was the first time I did a serious character as a Syrian priest. I can relate to my character because my father is a priest so I remember all the verses from childhood and I knew how mannerism should be. I also got help from my father’s other priest friends to help me with the verses, thrones, music, and gestures. They helped me by sharing the videos, voice notes, and text to make the role comfortable for me. Also, credit goes to the director and the writer for breaking the cliché and thinking out of the box to cast me. I admire the brilliance of Dinesh Pothan. Fahad used to prepare for the character at home and he doesn’t use WhatsApp or any social media and he is a passionate, method actor and very comfortable to work with. You will have so much to learn from Fahad Fasil as an actor.

Any plans to enter into the Tamil film industry if yes, who would you cast?
I admire the Tamil industry a lot because my first short film came out with the directors in the lights of Karthik Subbaraj, Nalan Kumarasamy, and Balaji Mohan and was inspired by all these people. I heard that Balaji Mohan directed his first movie Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi at the age of 24! After watching his short film, actor Siddharth called him to act in his movie and make the short film to feature film, I was so inspired by that and that’s the reason I also did short films. I was like, ‘I should do something like Balaji Mohan’ and the film Soodhu Kavvum also inspired me. I’m so grateful to the Tamil movie industry for whatever breaks I had in the initial days of my career. If I make a Tami movie I would like to cast Ajith as a fan and Vijay Sethupathi as an admirer.

What are your future projects?
I’m working on some acting commitments too. There are a few movies coming up and also I’m acting with Tovino. I also signed for a movie as a lead which is produced by Dinesh Pothan. My directorial commitments might take some time and I’m not prepared for anything yet, just waiting for Minnal Murali to release.

-By Vinitha Venkatesha