Outside the venue of a Malayalam film festival in Bengaluru, a smoke break turned into a full-fledged discussion about scene constructions and plot denouement. Malayalam filmmaker Dileesh Pothan held fort, mostly fielding questions about his 2016 debut Maheshinte Prathikaram (Mahesh’s Revenge), which was screened at the festival. Each question ended with a request for a selfie, which Pothan shyly consented to before trying to back away from the crowd gathering around him.
As a director, Pothan is only two films old. His recent outing was the highly appreciated Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (The mainour and the eye-witness) and already, he has a growing fan base beyond Kerala. Pothan started out as an assistant director to Simon Kuruvilla during 9 KK Road (2010). Around the same time, he also assisted Aashiq Abu and featured in small roles in such films as Salt N Pepper (2011), 5 Sundarigal (2013), Idukki Gold (2013) and Gangster (2014).
After a long period of struggle, Pothan felt he was ready to be in charge of a project. His assessment was spot on, for Maheshinte Prathikaram was a huge success in 2016 and went on to win a National Film Award that year. Its success spurred Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. Both films can be seen as companion pieces, slice-of-life narratives set in small towns that revel in the bizarre, often hilarious happenstances of life.
“The night before Maheshinte Prathikaram’s release, my co-director asked me if I was tense,” Pothan told Scroll.in. “I told him just one thing: this film has to run. If this film flops, then my film career is over. I’m the only person from my village who has chosen to become a filmmaker. And I’ve struggled to garner the confidence to make a film. If I fail, then I will become the example that all parents cite while trying to dissuade their children from becoming filmmakers.”
Pothan’s father was a distributor’s agent from Kuruppanthara near Manjoor district in Kerala. Pothan would tour the small theatres of the state with his father as a boy. “Often, by the time we’d reach a particular theatre, half of the film would already be over,” Pothan said. “Then I’d stay back and wait for the next show to start and watch the parts I missed. I think, before I had the time to realise it, I was already in love with cinema.”
When Pothan told his parents he wanted to study filmmaking, they said that he should first get a degree in something more stable. So, he studied computer science in Mysore. “I had no interest in computer science but I studied it anyway,” he said. “After the course, I landed in Bengaluru and through a friend, got to work on a bunch of tele-films. This was in 2002. The work I did was quite amateur. But it marked my first tryst with visual media.”
The tele-serial stint in Bengaluru gave him the confidence to explore a future in films. He took a year’s break, got together with friends who were trying their luck in advertising, and embarked on a long period of struggle. “It was a time when I was trying to find myself and the filmmaker in me,” Pothan said. “I contacted filmmakers, worked on short films, television serials and music videos. Gradually, I got to work as an associate director. I must have worked on close to seven films during this phase. All seven were commercial flops.”
This set off another period of introspection for Pothan, who began to feel increasingly depressed about his work. “I felt I had changed as a person and become angrier,” he recalled. “I took another break, and pursued an MA in Theatre in Kalladi Sanskrit University. I was around 30. It was that stint with theatre and the university that changed me as a person. The space that the university offered – with theatre, fine arts, music and dance departments interacting with each other– was quite enriching.”
Back with renewed energy, Pothan tried his luck with filmmaking yet again. He almost kicked off a project with Fahadh Faasil, but he lacked confidence. Everything changed during the course of a night-long conversation a year later. “When I was shooting for Idukki Gold, Syam Puskaran, the writer of the film, and I got talking one night,” Pothan said. “He told me about Thampan Purushan, a man from Puskaran’s town, who was once hit during a brawl. Purushan took an oath that until he hit the guy who thrashed him, he would not wear slippers. But the poor man had to wait a number of years because his opponent had gone off to the Gulf to resume his job. I thought this was a story worth shooting as an exercise or a short film. A few hours into the night, we then got talking about other such characters and situations we knew – a photographer in my town, scenes I remembered from a funeral once, some of our love stories. By the end of the night, we had decided that we had to make a full-fledged film out of all of it.”
It took Pothan two years after that night to finalise a proper script. He rented a house in Idukki and developed a final draft, threshing out all the tertiary characters and situations. Once it was ready, there was little doubt that Faasil would play the lead role.
“We needed a strong actor who could bring out the simple nuances of a character like Mahesh,” said Pothan. “At the same time, this actor had to be someone who would not overshadow the narrative itself. We needed someone who can lift the subtlest moments of the narrative but meld well into that universe too. Fahadh had also become a friend by then because I had known him through some of my other projects. I think one needs a certain rapport with one’s actor in order to communicate what one has in mind. I had that with Fahadh.”
In both Maheshinte Prathikaram and its successor Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, Pothan creates scenes that hold within them a unique balance. No actor dominates over another, and there is harmony even in the most chaotic moments.
“Whether it is a frame or a scene, there needs to be what I call a centre of attraction, an aspect that I want my audience to focus on in that scene,” Pothan explained. “As a director, my job is to ensure the attention goes to that right spot. And I cannot do this on my own of course. I need every department in filmmaking – right from the actors, the make-up, the set and the cinematography to work towards taking the viewer’s attention to that centre together. I discuss every scene with all the key technicians and get their opinions on how they view the scene. That’s how a film should be made. Everyone in the team should feel the film.”
In Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, a newly-wed couple tries to get a gold chain mortgaged to use the money to start a new life. Things go awry when a thief (Faasil) steals the chain and swallows it.
Does it bother Pothan that the two films have been called exceedingly similar to each other, especially in style? “I think now, after two films, I will be in a position to point out the flaws in my approach whether it is with style or the genre,” the filmmaker said. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to make these as companion films. When Sajeev Pazhoor told me the story for Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, I saw a film in my mind. I wanted to make that.”
His debut’s success made him realise that there was an audience for his narrative approach. “I decided to take advantage of that and reduce those elements that are considered commercial,” Pothan said. “I introduced more silences in the second film. It was a drier film. I didn’t try to make everyone laugh in every single scene. I reduced those entertainment value aspects that one is compelled to add. I realised that people are watching my films with a lot of concentration, noticing all the finer details.”
Pothan prefers talking about a scene with his actors rather than making them memorise the script or the dialogue. And he prefers shooting in the order in which the scenes are written. “Call it cheap thrills or whatever, but I try to keep the anticipation of the audience in mind while moving from one scene to another,” he said. “So, I insist that my crew also keeps alive their curiosity as if they are watching the film as they are shooting for it. That’s the only way to create fulfilling scenes, I feel.”
Does a director need expertise in all departments of filmmaking? “I have to be honest with you, I’m colour blind,” said Pothan. “When a song plays, I can’t even tap my feet to the beats correctly. All that a director needs is a vision.”