Mahesh Narayanan’s filmography follows his belief that every new work should be different from whatever preceded it. His directorial debut Take Off in 2017 dramatised a real-life hostage crisis involving nurses in war-torn Iraq in 2014. In 2020, Narayanan made C U Soon, a missing-person thriller that plays out almost entirely on smartphone screens. In 2021, he directed Fahadh Faasil in the gangster movie Malik.
Narayanan’s latest project diverges in tone and treatment from his previous films. Ariyippu (Declaration) is an arthouse drama about a factory worker and her manager husband. Set in a glove manufacturing unit and with Covid-19 as a backdrop, Ariyippu dexterously addresses the complicated questions that lie at the intersection of migration, labour and the profit motive that underpins capitalist economies.
Kunchako Boban and Divya Prabha, both of whom starred in Take Off, play Hareesh and Reshmi, a couple who has moved from Kerala to the outskirts of Delhi for work. They hope to eventually emigrate from India. When a video emerges that seems to feature Reshmi performing a sexual act, the marriage begins to crumble.
Ariyippu, which also stars Loveleen Mishra, Faisal Malik, Kannan Arunasalam and Danish Husain in key roles, has been selected for the prestigious Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. One of the beautifully performed film’s most visually striking sequences is a montage of disembodied gloves rolling off the assembly line and into the hands of masked workers who must test them for quality before they go out into the market. While the gloves and the masks protect those using them from harm, the film itself is about the true face of morality in the time of a crisis.
Narayanan started his career as an editor in 2006. His credits as editor include mainstream productions as well as artistic projects that are admired beyond Kerala’s borders. Midstream Malayalam cinema follows from successful experiments in marrying commercial and aesthetic impulses in the 1970s and the 1980s.
Ariyippu was made alongside the recently released survival drama Malayankunju, directed by Sajimon, starring Fahadh Faasil and scored by AR Rahman. Narayanan also wrote, edited and shot Malayankunju, in which Faasil’s misanthropic repairman is trapped by a landslide for the better part of the film.
Does 40-year-old Narayanan ever take a break? Among his upcoming projects is the Hindi-language film Phantom Hospital. The medical malpractice thriller is produced by Priti Shahani and based on research by investigative journalist Josy Joseph. In an interview with Scroll.in, Narayanan spoke about the creative decisions that went into Ariyippu, his decision to turn director, and the adrenaline rush that he gets from writing.
What distinguishes ‘Ariyippu’ from your previous films as a director?
I make a certain kind of masala film. This time, I was sure that I had to make a film that would make me happy. It’s not like my other films don’t make me happy – it’s just that there are certain moments that needed to be created for the theatrical and distribution crowds. This was something I didn’t do with Ariyippu. It’s been made with a kind of honesty.
I believe in midstream cinema, that’s where I belong. But my actor friends and contemporaries also knew I had this side to me. I’m a huge fan of Robert Bresson, Costa-Gavras, Michelangelo Antonioni, Asghar Farhadi. I love the idea of mixing real life into my fictional geography.
How did you weave the Covid-19 pandemic into the plot?
I read a newspaper article about a woman working in a bank who went to court about a lookalike video spreading through porn sites. She wanted a declaration that she wasn’t the same woman.
This was in 2017. The idea had been there since then. If something stays in the mind for a long time and there is an urge to explore it through a visual language, then you should make it.
During Covid-19, I met glove factory workers in Kochi. I am also interested in Kerala’s migrant culture. I created a couple who want to travel abroad for a better life. The wife is the skilled worker, while the husband is a manager. It’s like in nursing, where the wife moves first, followed by the husband.
North India is an actual transit area for many migrants from Kerala. They go there since all the embassies are there, stay on for six-eight months and finally get visas to travel onward to other countries. There’s an entire small-scale economy based on these migrants.
Did you actually shoot in a factory?
We couldn’t – which factory would have supported us? Also, we couldn’t interrupt the production cycle. The only factory shoot we did was in Kochi, where we filmed pick-up shots.
We borrowed a few unused machines. The production design [by Jotish Shankar] was huge. We had to set up the whole factory, where we could shoot for at least 25 days. Divya, who played Reshmi, trained in glove testing for the film.
The montage of the gloves on the assembly line was created for Ariyippu. We actually produced gloves for the film.
The film has an observational style and recreated realism. What conversations did you have with cinematographer Sanu John Varughese?
Sanu and I get along very well, we have a similar vision and taste. We have worked together on Take Off and Malik too. Sanu is an artist who has the bandwidth to do both commercial and indie films.
Most of my work gets done in pre-production. That’s when the decisions get taken about what lenses are to be used and how much detailing there needs to be.
In Ariyippu, everything is seen through a normal viewpoint. There are no high or low angles. We used a lower camera sensor to give us greater depth of field, since we needed to see the eyes of the characters and their expressions.
The most challenging job was for the sound department, since we were shooting in sync sound. That’s why the film has barely any background music. The factory itself provides the soundscape.
I wanted to stay as close to the story as possible. I didn’t want to communicate too much through dialogue. There was no thinking on the lines of, there’s no kick in the scene, no commercial prospects, so let’s change it. I didn’t want to disrupt the original idea and add too many things just for the sake of drama or theatrical viability. The film’s core is the relationship between the couple.
I follow the Syd Field rule of writing – there needs to be in inciting incident in the 15th minute. In the film, the sex video turns up in the 18th or 20th minute. I wanted actors who were as natural as they could be. Then I wanted a certain kind of senior employee who has been around for years and who actually runs the factory. That’s the character played by Lovleen Mishra.
For Malayankunju, you expanded your skillset to include cinematography. How did you end up shooting the film?
Malayankunju had actually started production during the first wave of Covid. Fahadh fractured his nose during the shoot, so we had to wait for it to heal. We were also waiting for AR Rahman’s background score. In between that, Ariyippu happened. The film was written for Sajimon, my associate director. Both Fahadh and I wanted him to become a director.
There were restrictions on the size of film crews because of Covid. We were supposed to release Malik in the theatres, but were stuck, so Fahadh and I decided to make a screen-based film. We shot C U Soon with a 15-member crew. I was directing as well as pulling focus. My boom man was the sound recordist as well as the light man because he was tall.
When it came to Malayankunju, Sanu was busy with a Telugu film. He said, you are fascinated with shooting, so try it out. When I went to film school, I had actually wanted to learn cinematography but was given editing. This was the time for me to learn a craft. I enjoyed the experience thoroughly.
The film was supposed to be released on a streamer, but it arrived in theatres instead.
Fahadh wanted to release the film in theatres though I kept telling him not to take the risk. Most of this kind of cinema is going directly to streaming. We don’t know the future of midstream, serious cinema. Fahadh was very helpful in bringing the film into the cinemas.
We had AR Rahman’s score. When Dileesh Pothan saw the film at the mixing stage, he said, this is for the big screen, people will fast-forward the landslide portions on a streamer.
Spectacle cinema doesn’t have be the standard. Films like Malayankunju have to run too. Ariyippu should also get a buyer, otherwise how will filmmakers survive?
When you are not writing or directing films, you’re an editor. What lessons have you learnt from editing?
I miss classical filmmaking. There was greater respect for the medium in celluloid, when it was more expensive to make films. Now, we can erase something and reshoot it.
In the days of celluloid, we would watch the dailies with the entire crew. This was a much-needed process, where we realised what mistakes we had made and whether the screenplay was flowing well. Nowadays, the first cut itself is the editor’s vision.
Some of my contemporaries in Bollywood are seeing two-three hours of footage for a one-minute or two-minute scene. It’s like a dump. Editors should actually get screenwriting credit. This argument is there in documentary too.
That’s why editors are moving either into a meditative mode or trying to make their own films. I remember Sreekar Prasad telling me, if you are planning to direct, do it now. Editing is like a loop. You can’t deny directors what they want. Editors are sometimes in this insecure space where they don’t know how to say no to a director. I have been given films that are three-and-a-half hours to four hours. It’s hurtful to cut it down. Then we have to be objective and find ways to make the film work.
So that’s why you became a writer and director – to have creative control?
Certainly. Writing has always been very dear to me, I consider it very close to editing. I am primarily a writer. Cinema writing is, at the end of the day, about your craft.
Writing is the most painful and challenging but also the most fun part of filmmaking. Even during a narration, a film grows. That gives me a high.
There are films like Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic where people praised the editing, but it was written like that. I remember reading that the writer of Amores Perros [Guillermo Arriaga] was offended when the editor got all the credit. He said, I have written the film like that. So it actually starts with the writer.
Phantom Hospital is your first Hindi project. What is the Hindi film industry’s work culture like?
I had been approached earlier to remake my films, but I didn’t want to. Once I’m done with a film, I am done, I will find only mistakes in it. I want to work on my own ideas.
Phantom Hospital is still in development. My problem with Bollywood is that they [producers] take too much time. It takes close to two years to set up a project. But in six-eight months, an idea will expire or will come up in another language.
There’s a saying in Malayalam that when too many people are trying to kill a snake, it won’t die. In Bombay, there are multiple feedback and drafts and focus groups, and everybody is a creative person. Only certain producers give us that kind of respect. Luckily I have that with Priti Shahani.
So you are addicted to work?
I work only on one film at a time. I have to know what I am going to do next, and I will try my level best to make it happen. But there are multiple projects that I have shelved too. If a story is not travelling with me after the first draft, I will move on. I go to an actor or a technician with a finished draft and narrated the story in exact screen time.
This is the right time to make films in Malayalam. There is an understanding between audiences, actors, technicians and producers. We have the freedom to be honest to a film and feed it correctly to the audience. If I get support from technician and investors, then I can make another film like Ariyippu.