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‘The ultimate fear is the fear of war’: National Film Award winner Jayaraj on ‘Bhayanakam’

Jayaraj’s latest movie has World War II as the backdrop and stars Renji Panicker.

Malayalam film director Jayaraj is basking in the glory of not one but two National Film Awards for Bhayanakam (Fear) – for director and best adapted screenplay. The director has previously won national awards for director and lead actor (Suresh Gopi) for his Othello adaptation Kaliyattam in 1997. Jayaraj also won the best film award for Shantham in 2001.

Jayaraj has been straddling independent and mainstream cinema for several years. In 1996, he made Desadanam, about a 10-year-old boy who chooses to be a sanyasi. His 4 the People (2004) was a commercial hit, but he finds it easier to make arthouse films, he told Scroll.in.

You have been working on ‘Bhayanakam’ for a while.
Since 2000, actually. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out then. But currently, the situation in the world is that of war. There’s fear everywhere. So in a way, it turned out to be the best time to make this film.

Bhayanakam means fear. The film is an adaptation of two chapters from Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s epic novel Kayar. It’s the story of a postman who comes to the backwaters region of Kuttanad during World War II. Six hundred and fifty people from this area are fighting for the British army. The postman, played by Renji Panicker, starts bringing in telegrams declaring people dead. A former soldier himself during the First World War, he slowly becomes an omen of death.

The ultimate fear is the fear of war. The postman is a symbol of the pain and agony of the war.

Bhayanakam. Image credit: Prakriti Pictures.
Bhayanakam. Image credit: Prakriti Pictures.

‘Bhayanakam’ is the latest in your Navarasa series of films.
Yes, since it explores fear. My previous films in this series are Karunam, which looks at how old people are treated and Shantham, about political violence in Kerala. Then there was Bheebhats in Hindi, starring Seema Biswas, Adbhutham and Veeram. After Bhayanakam, I am planning films on shringaram (romance), roudram (anger) and hasyam (humour).

You have also won the award for best adaptation. What was it like adapting the great TS Pillai’s work?
I made a short film on Thakazhi’s story Vellapokkathil [In the Deluge] in 2008. It’s a widely read story about the relationship between a Dalit and his dog. It explores the pain and hopelessness of caste identity and isolation. I find adapting Thakazhi’s work easy. In every story of his, the expression is great, every character is defined in great detail. I feel like I don’t really have to do much.

‘Bhayanakam’ has won the best film award without being released.
The film will be out in May. In Western countries, when a film wins awards, people flock to the cinemas to watch it. In India, it’s the opposite. People are happy to watch an award-winning movie at film festivals, but won’t come to the theatre.

Renji Panicker has acted beautifully in the film. He’s an established and well respected actor as well as scriptwriter in Malayalam cinema. So this film will get more attention. The producer of Bhayanakam, Dr Suresh Kumar Muttath, was also very supportive.

You’ve made commercial as well as arthouse cinema. What kind of movie do you prefer?
I find directing experimental cinema easy. But it’s difficult to make a commercial hit. Nobody knows what people like. When I’m experimenting, I have the freedom to do things my way. For commercial success, I have to think of satisfying the audiences. I’m trying to build a bridge where I make a film that works on both an academic as well as a commercial level.

Malayalam films have traditionally done very well at the national awards.
Not just Malayalam cinema, but regional cinema does very well at these awards because they show real life, real characters. Malayalam cinema has always experimented. We have a lot of actors and filmmakers who don’t shy away from trying new bold themes. Our films are very close to the emotions of down-to-earth people. Not just Malayalam, Tulu, Assamese, Gujarati, Marathi – all regional films are truthful.

Bhayanakam. Image credit: Prakriti Pictures.
Bhayanakam. Image credit: Prakriti Pictures.
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