Karkidakam is the Malayalam month of ailments and the season when several Malayalis retreat into Ayurvedic centres for much-needed rejuvenation. It was during one such session in Malappuram that Jayaraj’s new movie Veeram was born. While stepped in warm oils, incense, and camphor, Jayaraj met MR Warrier, a historian. The director of the award-winning children’s film Ottaal had been thinking of adapting William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth and juxtaposing it with kalaripayittu. Together, Jayaraj and Warrier visited libraries, referred to ancient texts and plunged into vadakanpaattu, or ballads from North Kerala, to create Veeram (Courage). After Karunam (2000), Santham (2001), Bheebatsa (2002) and Albutham (2006), the period drama represents the fifth exploration of basic emotions in Jayaraj’s series based on the navarasas. Made in Malayalam, Hindi and English, Veeram has been screened at the BRICS summit in Delhi, and will be released in cinemas in October.
The story is of Chandu (played by Hindi film actor Kunal Kapoor), a prodigious warrior and an anti-hero in northern Kerala folklore. Veeram traces how Chandu’s ambition and jealousy lead to him betraying his cousin Aromal. Keralites are used to another account of the narrative – Hariharan and MT Vasudevan Nair’s 1989 epic film Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, in which Chandu is played by Mammooty. Chandu’s actions were justified in that film, but Jayaraj takes a different route. In his version, paanan (the balladeer), an oral historian who narrates the tale, takes us through what is clearly a tragedy.
Amidst a packed schedule, a sleep-laden Jayaraj finds the time to talk with Scroll.in even though it is nearing midnight and he has a morning walk coming up very soon.
Did you intend for ‘Veeram’ to overlap with William Shakespeare’s 400th death anniversary?
That was purely coincidental. The film has been in my mind for over four years now but bringing it together took quite a while. All of this is predestined. Look at the fact that the transcreation of a classic from another country has been screened at the BRICS summit, where people from all over the globe are present. When it’s the right time, things fall into place.
Chandu has been inspired by the ballads of North Kerala. How did you find his equivalence in ‘Macbeth’?
Macbeth was written and performed in the 16th century but three centuries before Shakespeare even conceived the idea, there was a story in our homeland that is not so different from the tragedy. That fascinated me. The similarities are plenty. To start with, ambition leads to downfall. There is cheating: both characters betray people close to them. In fact, there are parallels to every main character in the play – Lady Macbeth here is Kuttimaani, King Duncan is the same in spirit and situations as Aromal Chekkavar, who is Chandu’s cousin. Even the famous line “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him” finds a parallel. It is the forests of Tulunaad in Chandu’s story.
Have you taken liberties with the ballad and introduced Macbeth even in areas where the resemblance is low?
Minor ones, yes. I have added the three witches but it isn’t far-fetched because sorcery and black magic form a major aspect of our fables too. And I have retained the love story between Chandu and Unniarcha, which forms a key plotline of the ballad and keeps the North Kerala accent intact.
Elaborate sets and extravagant costuming – a period film is a challenging proposition.
Making a period film wasn’t a challenge in itself. What was challenging is that Macbeth has already been interpreted by several geniuses including Akira Kurosawa [Throne of Blood] and Roman Polanski [Macbeth]. My constant worry was to match these films or make better a scene that the masters have done justice to. “Life is a tale told by an idiotfull of sound and fury, signifying nothing” – that line, writing the scenes and finding the apt juncture in Chandu’s life for this line, was the hardest for me.
And yes, recreating a period requires a lot of money, but most of it is solved if you select the right locations that lend an old-world charm without elaborate sets. For Veeram, I decided to shoot at the Ellora caves [in Aurangabad] and Fatehpur Sikri, which took care of a lot of the mood. Moreover, I was blessed to find the right producer who was supportive throughout.
How did that happen? Did you have to approach a lot of producers?
In one of my interviews at the time of promoting Ottaal, I mentioned that I was planning a period drama based on vadakanpaattu. A week later I got a call from a man whom I had met 25 years ago. A non-resident Keralite, he said he would be glad to be part of the film and help me accomplish my dream project.
The film has a budget of Rs 20 crore, the highest among all your films. Was it planned this way?
I didn’t spend any unnecessary money on the actors or the sets. Normally in a big budget film, the actors take up a huge chunk of the finances. In Veeram we used it all to source highly skilled Hollywood technicians. There are four of them, for action, make-up, music and colouring. A colorist is extremely crucial to a period film and I did not want to compromise on that. Jeff Olm [Titanic, Avengers, How to Train Your Dragon] ensures the authenticity that the film requires.
Never before has kalaripayittu been the crux of any mainstream film. It is one of the oldest martial arts, and I brought in action choreographer Allan Poppleton, of Hunger Games fame, who stayed in Kerala and studied kalaripayittu in order to improvise it to suit the needs of the camera. Award-winning make-up artist Trefor Proud [Star Wars, Gladiator, Phantom Menace] and Hollywood music director Jeff Rona also form part of the Veeram team. Rona has collaborated with Malayalam song writers and musicians to recreate the magic of the pulluvanpaatu, or serpent songs.
In spite of making a mainstream film, you have gone in for several new faces. Did the courage stem from the success of ‘Ottal’, which had newcomers?
Most of my films have new faces because I believe anybody can act. In Veeram, a good majority of the cast are newcomers.
Do you audition these newcomers?
I never take auditions. In my head, I know what a character should look like, the height, appearance and features. When I spot someone who resembles the character and falls within the outline, I cast him or her. Sivajith Nambiar, who plays Aromal, is someone I noticed when we were looking for kalari practitioners who could train the team. Himarsha, who plays Unniarcha, is a newcomer but she resembles the legendary warrior best. Even Kunal [Kapoor], for that matter: I approached him not solely for his talent but because his is the perfect physique I had in mind for Chandu. It worked in his favour that he was more than willing to spend his time learning kalaripayittu.