Three months ago, six-time National Award-winning director Jayaraj accompanied photographer Ritu Konwar to Kuchiani village in Assam. In his hand was a photograph of a little boy balancing himself on a bamboo raft along with his three goats. They visited tea stalls and knocked on several doors until they were directed to a brick factory where the boy’s father worked. The boy, Ashadul Islam, had no idea that it was his photograph that had inspired the Malayali director to create Ottaal, which won the Crystal Bear in the Generation Kplus category for children at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival in February.
Ottaal (The Trap), based on Anton Chekov’s short story Vanka, explores the relationship between Kuttapayi (Ashanth) and his ailing grandfather (Kumarakom Vasudevan), who sends the boy to work in a cracker manufacturing factory. Jayaraj, who is busy wrapping up his upcoming film Veeram, an interpretation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth through the Vallunadan ballads of Malabar, could not travel to Berlin. He told Scroll.in that he is overwhelmed by the response to Ottaal, which has also bagged the National Award for Best Film on Environment Conservation apart from winning honours at the Mumbai Film Festival and the International Film Festival of Kerala. (The film is available for viewing on the website Reelmonk.)
Had you predicted this burst of awards for ‘Ottaal’? How does it feel to win at Berlin?
The Crystal Bear is undoubtedly the biggest moment in my filmmaking years. Even when the film was bestowed with three awards at IFFK, I lacked conviction somewhere. With this recognition from the Berlin film fraternity, I have again gained confidence in the sustainability of good films.
For me the highlight, and why this is so dear, is the fact the jury comprised innocent children who empathised with Kuttapayi. I couldn’t make it to the festival, but Ashanth, the child artist who played the protagonist, told me that all the three screenings were flooded with kids, most of whom got out of the theatre teary-eyed.
The Kuttanad setting must have seemed like a fantasy land for the jury members and viewers, like the American film ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’. Did the exotic element contribute to its appeal?
I would like to believe it is the simplicity of the story that speaks to a diverse crowd. Ottaal is like a sad bedtime story that will move listeners across ages and cultures. Through this adaptation, I have aimed at discussing a relevant problem haunting society today, of child labour. A good deal of credit goes to the background music that helps bind together different facets.
The movie has been praised for its depiction of nature. You previously said in an interview that ‘Ottaal’ could have been set in a city. Why Kuttanad?
If I say for the innocence of a village backdrop, I am only partially correct. For a foreign audience, they associate the purity of Kuttanad with Kerala, but not even 5% of the state mirrors the scenic imagery showcased in the film. If I just turned my camera to the other side of the river, we could see a host of houseboats hurrying by, the contaminated water scattered with plastic filth and the commercialisation of something that once used to be serene and beautiful. I stuck to a chaste fantasy land without throwing light on the underbelly of Kuttanad, for it would deviate from what the film has to say.
‘Ottaal’ restored your faith in low-budget movie making. What else has changed?
The general trend involves us tracking down festivals and sending them a copy, but for Ottaal, we are being approached from festivals all over the world. Some want to premiere it as their opening film, others want to ensure that we enroll it for their competition section. The film has become a matter of prestige for them. This is all really new to me.