Mammootty has more energy and passion for cinema than ever before, says Mamangam director M Padmakumar
We referred to old Kerala history books for Mamangam, reveals director M Padmakumar
M Padmakumar maintains that he was a mere apprentice when he joined the sets of Hariharan’s Mammootty starrer, period classic Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha in 1989. 30 years later he is awaiting the release of his 17th film as a director and it seems the icing on the cake that it headlines Mammootty in yet another ambitious period film.
Last year, Padmakumar’s investigative thriller Joseph was not only a sleeper hit but also won several awards. He took the traditional, familiar route to enter cinema—assisting veteran directors like IV Sasi, Hariharan, Joshiy, Ranjith and Shaji Kailas before turning independent in 2003 with a socially pertinent narrative around an old age home in Ammakilikoodu, coincidentally written by his mentor Ranjith. Since then, Padmakumar has taken it slow, deliberately experimenting with genres — Vargam with Prithviraj was an action family drama, Vasthavam (both in 2006) a political thriller won Prithviraj his first Kerala State award for Best Actor, Shikkar (2010) starring Mohanlal was a mystery thriller — besides trying out anthology films.
Despite turning independent he is known to assist filmmakers even today—like last year’s Odiyan and quite a few of Ranjith’s films. Excerpts from an interview
How would you describe your Mamangam journey?
Usually when we make a film, we already know the backdrop, except for the fact that the characters and narratives change, milieu will usually be familiar. But here, we have to create a backdrop from the references we got through books and from things we have only heard. The production design is built mostly from our imagination. But even then there is a thrill of offering them something they have not seen before. So, the challenge is to not distort history and at the same time make it cinematic. It can’t be just a documentary as we are not just narrating Mamangam the festival, but the lives of people involved and to make it engaging is a challenge. We shot in the forests of Kannur, interiors of the decadent tharavadu at Ottapalam and one of its main mansions (which was also the most expensive) were erected as a set at Ernakulam. We referred to old Kerala history books. The dialect is valluvanadan—but the dialogues are obviously dramatic and stylised as that’s how we have experienced in period films.
You were there on the sets of Mammootty’s Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha, and now you are directing him in a similar genre film. What changes do you see in him?
Nothing much has changed. On the contrary, I think he has more energy and passion for cinema than ever before. I can’t believe the 30-year-old gap. He would insist on doing the fights without a body double and gamely shoot through the night. Because he has an audience in Tamil and Telugu, especially after the success of Peranbu and Yathra recently, he insisted on dubbing it in his own voice.
Are you fine with the social media reviews?
It can be difficult, and someone can be the victim of personal vendetta. For instance, the review of Mamangam was posted even before its release. But there are positives as well, especially my film Joseph was a success thanks mainly due to the positive reviews on social media. There is only so much you can do when it comes to putting out ads in print or TV but a string of good reviews on social media can do wonders.
Do you take the film critics seriously?
Of course, I can understand a genuine constructive criticism when I read one. I try to iron out the flaws in my next film.
Malayalam cinema seems to be in a great space today and OTT Platforms have taken it to a pan-India audience. How do you see today's filmmakers?
I see directors and writers with a lot of great ideas. I quite like Basil Joseph, Madhu C Narayanan and Gireesh AD. Their first films itself were so impressive. I don’t think today’s generation takes cinema as just a job, in my case it was my only source of income. I can’t afford to take gaps between films, but today’s generation takes time off to script a film for 2 years. The dedication is amazing.
But having said that do you foresee these films having a recall value? Or do we have to wait and see?
I think we need to wait. Not just Malayalam cinema, I feel generally if you notice, there are so many films to watch from all over the world, on so many platforms, so perhaps that has shortened our attention span. Today anyone can make a film but during our time we had to slave for 15 years or more to make a film after working as an assistant and associate in films.
You mean the struggling period has shortened?
Yes. You can come straight to Kochi, meet a director and get an entry ticket or you can make a short film with your mobile camera and upload it on YouTube and then get on to the bigger platform. But the cons are that a lot of people who come to me to be assistants are more into this for the glamour and easy money. Earlier only those with genuine passion would attempt to make their mark in cinema as the road was quite thorny. Now that is not the case.
How has working as an associate and assistant in various films under veteran directors helped?
What one learns in an institute is how to turn a script into a film, shot selection, division, how to shoot etc., but cinema isn’t just that. We need to learn how to make a project, find a story, a script, a producer, artists and their dates and also a distributor. Since I have practically worked with them I know every step and I have learnt something from each director.
And you still go back to your old job of assisting…
Yes, as I think I don’t need to waste time between films or when I am writing a script. It helps me to learn and update my contacts. You should never stop learning. That’s one thing which helps you grow.
Was it a struggle to make your first film?
Not really. It was director Ranjith [Padmakumar has assisted Ranjith in six of his films] who insisted that I direct a film. He wrote me a script, his brother produced it. In cinema, it’s director Ranjith who has influenced me the most.
Is there a film whose failure broke your heart?
Not really. When I see my films again, I wish I had done better. I feel guilty. Perhaps the one film which makes me feel less guilty has to be Bolivian Diary, which was one of the three films of the anthology D Company.
These days films are analysed deeply and pulled up if it is politically offensive. Are you more cautious now when you make a film?
Definitely. I think when I pick a script that it should have some sort of social commitment. It’s a medium which influences a particular age group so we need to be accountable—maybe we can’t reform them, but we can at least try to not influence them negatively.
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