On May 30, 2014, Anjali Menon’s Bangalore Days hit the screens and went on to become one of the biggest box office successes of Malayalam cinema. The film won her a Kerala State Award for Best Screenplay and also made Menon a household name among Malayalis across the globe.
Four years later, Menon is back with Koode, which was released on Saturday and has opened to positive reviews. A remake of Sachin Kundalkar’s Happy Journey (2014), Koode stars Prithviraj, Nazriya Nazim Fahadh and Parvathy and explores the relationship between two siblings.
After directing three films (including 2012’s Manjadikuru), Menon has already carved a niche with her distinct style. Her films are known for exploring the nuances of relationships and family, with each character well-defined and explored in depth, and each frame rich with meaning.
She’s also an acclaimed screenwriter and won the National Film Award and Kerala State Award in 2013 for her screenplay for Anwar Rasheed’s Ustad Hotel, starring Dulquer Salmaan.
Menon spoke to Scroll.in about taking a break after Bangalore Days and how the Malayalam film industry has handled the row over actor Dileep’s alleged involvement in the sexual assault of an actress last year.
You’ve been away for four years after ‘Bangalore Days’. What prompted the decision to take a break?
When I did Bangalore Days, my son had just turned two. I wanted to spend time with him and so decided to take some time off. I was writing in the meantime – there were multiple scripts. There was one to be directed by actor Prathap Pothen. But I stopped halfway because I realised I wasn’t comfortable working with him because our styles were very different. M Renjith, who was going to produce that film, however offered to do a film with me. That’s how I started writing Koode a year and a half ago.
Take us through the ‘Bangalore Days’ experience. Why did the film become such a big a hit, even among non-Malayali moviegoers?
I think it was a certain social climate at the time. People wanted young voices, young characters. The characters in Bangalore Days were all people who wanted to do things out of their comfort zones.
The other reason was that the film had a relatable family idiom. The main characters were cousins. The tone and the humour was also what people connected with. Here’s another reason: the film had subtitles for non-Malayali audiences. Outside of Kerala, everyone could watch it with subtitles. So the market value of the film went up.
We’re doing the same with Koode. This time around, one theatre in the three big cities in Kerala – Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Calicut – will show the film with subtitles. This is because these cities have students and other people from different states.
What is the idea behind ‘Koode’?
Koode is about relationships in families. A family has a very strong emotional connection. But even in families there’s so much that’s left unsaid and unspoken. That’s what Koode looks at. It has humour but it also has many other moods and dark moments too. That’s the crux of it.
Your films have strong female characters. But equally strong are the male characters, who aren’t talked about much.
Yes I’m surprised that no one talks about the male characters. My attempt has been to portray men who aren’t bigoted. In Bangalore Days, Arjun [Salmaan] asks his cousin Divya [Nazim-Fahadh] why she needs to change her name after she marries Das [Fahadh Faasil]. Das, for his own reasons can’t engage with the marriage but he always treats his wife with respect. Kuttan [Nivin Pauly] sees a foreign girl but he doesn’t make remarks about her. There’s a certain kind of value these characters have. It’s saying that heroes can be like this.
We have to redefine what’s considered normal because this is normal too. In Koode, Prithviraj plays a very sensitive man who’s rattled by things around him. Not every man is macho. Men can be fragile and on the brink too. But they find the strength in themselves. This [is] character history that a lot of people may relate to. It’s important to show that men have feelings too and are affected by things.
Normally in a film with a big star cast, one or two characters get lost in the crowd. How do you manage to ensure that doesn’t happen?
I think it’s a trust thing with actors who are playing those characters. We give very little credit to actors. It’s the actors who own the character. For example, when we cast Fahadh Faasil as Das in Bangalore Days, I called him up to ask if he was okay with dogs. He told me he loved dogs and in fact, took his dog to the set whenever he was filming. In the film, Fahadh’s scenes with the dog become a part of his relationship with his wife as well as his ex-girlfriend. It came from him and I worked with that.
‘Koode’, ‘Bangalore Days’ and your feature filmmaking debut, ‘Manjadikuru’, are all centred on families and relationships. What is it about these themes that you like exploring?
Human emotion is what all films run on, irrespective of language and culture. Family is a very peculiar unit. In a family, there are people not related by blood, for example a husband and a wife. Equally, in Bangalore Days, there’s a family of bike riders, brought together by a shared passion. In Manjadikuru, a 10-year-old boy discovers more about himself, his family and his culture during a 16 day funeral period for his grandfather. It’s the dynamic that’s interesting.
You’re one of the very few female writers and directors in Malayalam cinema. Why is there such a lack of women in an industry known for its creativity and experimentation?
There are very few women writers and directors in the world, so to speak. It’s not an easy life for women especially those who have other responsibilities.
It’s also about personal choice. I have made this choice to make films and I’m getting a chance. I am one of the early ones to write and direct films. but I’m definitely not the last. I see and meet girls who are motivated and driven enough to make films. I know they will.
You are a member of the Women in Cinema Collective , which was formed after the sexual assault of a leading actress in February 2017. Why is there a need for a group like this in the Malayalam film industry?
WCC has come about because there is a need for voices to be heard. In Kerala and many other parts of the country, working conditions for women who work in cinema are below par. India has very clear laws on security and inclusivity in the workplace. WCC has a very interesting mandate in that we’re trying to make this happen so people can come and participate.
We want to make it conducive for everyone, no matter what their gender, to work in the industry. The unfortunate event where an actor was assaulted while on the way back from filming, cannot happen again.
How do you ensure that as a filmmaker, you provide a comfortable and conducive workspace for one and all?
I have a gender-neutral policy. Every single person is part of the crew because they’re good at their job. When they’re offered a job letter, I make it clear that I expect them to behave in a way that’s not sexist but gender neutral. So when they come in, they know what’s expected so there’s no value conflict. I hope when people finish working on my project, they leave with this value of respect and carry it on to their next project.
What do you think about the Me Too movement in Malayalam cinema?
Right now, there’s a lot of media interest on microscopic things. It shouldn’t be about who said what to whom. We should instead focus on the change that’s happening. If you look at the larger graph of change, first there’s conflict. That’s a symbol of change. We can’t continue to exist on values that are outdated.
Filmmakers are making films that have new content, new concepts. The change that’s seen on screen in Malayalam cinema should be reflected off screen too. There are people who are in their comfort zone. It’s often a lack of awareness of issues. There’s a gap to be bridged here. We need to create an awareness that yes, there are problems here. But we also need to offer solutions. We’re expecting people to move out of their set patterns. The truth is, it’s time for things to evolve. There are good things from the past that we need to keep hold of because Malayalam cinema has a very rich history. But we also need to weed out what’s not needed.
What next after ‘Koode’?
I have a very interesting writing project. Writing outside of cinema. I should be able to share more details by the end of the year. I’m trying to do different things. I have a long way to go yet.