IFFI 2018: Bhayanakam director Jayaraj on his Navarasa project and his love for Shakespeare
Acclaimed Malayalam filmmaker Jayaraj discusses his new film Bhayanakam, why he cast Renji Panicker and what he learnt from working with Bharathan.
Almost three decades in cinema and Jayaraj is still a bit of an enigma. Having experimented with style, story and genre, you will remember him for an entire spectrum of cinematic experiences - from Desadanam and Kaliyattam to 4 the People and Loudspeaker. His most recent successes are the critically acclaimed Ottaal and Veeram. He has received innumerable awards — national and international — and is now taking Bhayanakam, the sixth in his Navarasa series, to IFFI, Goa. Here are excerpts from a conversation with the man himself.
I hear the idea of Bhayanakam germinated a long time ago?
I was assistant director on Bharathan’s film and had just finished reading Thakazhi Shivashankara Pillai’s Kayar (Coir). I was particularly stuck on two chapters about a postman, which was based on a real-life incident. Playwright John Paul observed that there was a cinema plot in it. I did try to make it happen but due to the difficulty in recreating that era, technically and economically, we had to put it on the backburner and go ahead with Karunam.
It’s also the sixth in your Navarasa series after last year’s Veeram. What intrigued you about the story?
War continues to be one of the greatest threats in our life. This passage occurs between two World Wars, first and second. Around 600 army men from Kerala were killed and families were orphaned but nowhere in history does it get a mention. The postman who at first was a symbol of prosperity as he came bearing money orders soon turned into a messenger of death by the second World War. Since he has been part of the first World War, he recognises its setbacks. Bhayanakam is about his predicament. We don’t show war, but the atmosphere is rife with its tensions.
Renji Panicker is an interesting casting choice. Which film was the decider?
I never decide the casting according to any actors’ previous performances. I always liked his presence on screen, he has a masculine face that can be moulded in anyway and a great baritone voice. My postman had to have a muscular body too. For the role of Kunjamma, played by Asha Sarath, I was looking for someone with an aristocratic bearing and a face that epitomised beauty of a bygone era. Thakazhi describes her vividly. That’s one reason why I love his writings — the details. Be it food, characters or ambience.
After Ottaal, you have again framed it against the backdrop of Kuttanad and this one also won an award for cinematography…
In Ottaal, we got it all free of cost from nature. In this film too, nature had a hand in the frames. Rain was the metaphor for war in the film. Whenever we wanted it, nature poured on us, added white clouds, thunder, lightning. At times, actors contributed with their magical acting.
Which was the most challenging in this series?
I would say Adbhutam, which was 2-hours-14-minutes long and was shot with a single camera. It dealt with euthanasia and we had to do a lot of rehearsals before the shoot. It was difficult to recreate the scenes.
You have brought back old timers like Arjunan Master (Music) and Sreekumaran Thampi (lyrics)...
I am a fan boy! Besides, they were able to recreate that era with authentic folk songs and meaningful lyrics.
What’s the best thing about being part of a film festival?
The energy is tremendous. For me, it’s not about watching films back-to-back, but about interacting with filmmakers from world over, exchanging culture, ideas and thoughts. I would say one should gauge a film festival’s success according to the ambience they create. Since 1996, I have been a regular. PK Nair, John Abraham, Aravindan, they used to be the energy of these festivals earlier.
Your love for Shakespeare is well known. How were you introduced to the Bard?
I was around 8 when I heard Sambasivan’s Kathaprasangam — Othello was his most popular. It was midnight and I was half asleep but his narration was so fascinating that Othello created a major impact on my mind. The beauteous Desdemona, the helpless Othello — tragic, but it haunted me for a while. Then I saw Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and it blew me away. The film was in black-and-white but the perfection, expression and his control over the medium stunned me.
From the brilliant Kaliyattam to the Navarasa series, it seems to have grown into an obsession since…
I don’t know whether it’s an obsession, but Shakespeare continues to put me under a spell — his characters and themes hold the test of time. Othello’s possessiveness and ego, Macbeth’s ambition, Hamlet’s loneliness…
Which is your personal favourite?
Othello is my all-time favourite. The dynamics are powerful — not to forget the underlying pathos in the story.
Adapting these classics on celluloid…isn’t it a daunting task every time?
The beauty is that, for me, each one of them happened on the spur of a moment. I never planned it. I wanted to do Othello at some point. I was also keen on tapping the possibilities of Theyyam. It was during that time that I read Theechamundi Kavitha (Kaithapram); it all culminated in Kaliyattam. The same occurred in Veeram. Once it falls in place, it becomes easier. I want to adapt Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov next.
What are the kind of books you grew up with?
Books were always my first love. MT Vasudevan Nair was a major influence during my teenage years. He took me to the fascinating Valluvanad, Bharathapuzha, Nalukettu and Sarppakavu. I read a lot of M. Mukundan and O.V. Vijayan as well. Then I explored Shakespeare. Cinema and books, they both stand on the tightrope between reality and fantasy.
But you seldom write the screenplays of your films….
I don’t have the courage. I am happier to support the writers and I mostly experiment with new writers. Madambu Kunjukuttan is amazing that way.
I can’t think of another director who has experimented with most genres like you…
I get there by doing what I like. I am a bit of a contradiction myself. I love Wild West classics and modern Mexican music but prefer traditional Kerala percussion. My cinema is an extension of these extremes. The thought of doing another film is the biggest driving force.
But even you would have a comfort zone as a director…
I won’t call it a comfort zone, but when I did Deshadanam, it was an empowering moment for me. A kind of epiphany. A feeling that I was finally doing my kind of cinema, without any pressure, without the fear of being judged. It was surreal.
What’s the one thing you learnt while working with director Bharathan?
I learnt to appreciate music, visual beauty, experiment with genres, and to give emphasis to a character’s appearance.
Who among the current lot of directors do you find impressive?
Sanal Kumar Sasidharan and Vidhu Vincent are talented and fearless. They aren’t bothered by the economy of cinema. Not just them, but I feel the current lot of filmmakers are very genuine and come up with original ideas. I like how they never try to go over the top.
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