Moothon premieres at TIFF 2019: Director Geethu Mohandas on working with Nivin Pauly, and what Mollywood is getting right

Neelima Menon

Sep 10, 2019 08:16:21 IST

Though actor-turned-director Geethu Mohandas prefers to call Kelkunnundo (2009) her first film (the short film won several awards at film festivals) it was Liar’s Dice, her first feature film, that put her firmly on the International film festival map.

Streaming on Netflix right now, Liar’s Dice (2014) is a brilliantly meditative film about a rural woman’s search for her husband that takes her to the city. With stellar performances from Nawazudin Siddique and Geethanjali Thapa, the film was India's Official Entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 87th Academy Awards, apart from winning National awards for Best Actress and cinematography (Rajeev Ravi).

This year she is getting ready with her second offering, Moothon, her first Malayalam feature film (though it’s a bilingual, releasing in Hindi as well), which has already created interest for several reasons. It will be premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, apart from being the opening film at MAMI. Excerpts from a conversation with Geetu Mohandas.

 Moothon premieres at TIFF 2019: Director Geethu Mohandas on working with Nivin Pauly, and what Mollywood is getting right

The poster for Moothon.

What led to the tale of Moothon?

After Liar’s Dice, while planning my next film, again I had this idea of a journey and I wanted it to be in a different space from my first film. Liar’s Dice had a certain mundaneness about the journey, an angst and rhythm. I wanted to break that and write something more adventurous with more drama. Then the writing started and came up with a tale about a young boy’s search for his older brother. He is fascinated by the tales of the elderly brother whom he has never met and eventually his search takes him to Mumbai’s underbelly and how a lot of characters emerge from there. Then I won the global filmmaking award for a story at the Sundance Film Festival 2016, was mentored for a year there by Paul Federbush and Mathew Takata, about the script, how to approach it and about character arcs. It was a fabulous eye-opener.

Anurag Kashyap has written the Hindi dialogues.

I wanted someone quirky with an interesting sense of humour to do the dialogues. I approached him; he was on board. I have been associating with Anurag for close to 15-16 years because my husband Rajeev Ravi has been his constant DoP for so many years. I keep saying that he is my 'Moothon'. For Anurag I was always Rajeev Ravi’s wife, and this was the first time we are spending time as professionals. It was very important that I have my own identity and rapport with him. We share a common passion for cinema and the type of stories we want to tell.

Considering he has embraced success for his quintessential boy next door roles in Malayalam, Nivin Pauly seems an unusual choice to play the hero?

True. When he came on board, I played around a lot with his character. His is a very unassuming cast, as he has always done boy next door roles in commercially successful film within the comfort of his friends’ circle. This is the first time he is stepping out of that comfort zone. I also didn’t know what to expect from him and was very intrigued to see how I will be able to mould him. When I watch a film, after a point, the star tags just go out of the window, people should just see the character for what it is. So, I thought he suited the role the best, that’s why I chose him.

How was the process of moulding him?

I felt Nivin really needed attention as he is used to a certain type of expression and I didn’t want him to repeat those in Moothon. He had to be fresh and believable in this character. I didn’t know about his approach so was pleasantly surprised at his willingness to submit completely to the character. “Let’s achieve it together” was what he told me. I thought that was a beautiful approach by a star. Just the fact that he would subject himself to workshops and be part of a collective training programme which challenged them to certain extremes helped him to shed a lot of inhibitions which I thought he had. There were also diction classes.

What did you learn from directing your first film?

It’s difficult to pinpoint. You grow as a filmmaker with each film, hone your skills and continue to learn. With every film you gain more experience and excitement to do your next.

Your Wikipedia lists at least 29 films as an actor. You have also won several awards. Did that facilitate your interest in filmmaking?

Acting was never a passion. I don’t even want to go into that territory now but perhaps being on the sets and observing these things might have helped in some way. Though I would like to believe it was my husband who helped here. We met when I was very young, he had just come out from FTII. I literally grew up with him. I feel that a lot I have learnt is from him, he exposed me to world cinema and varied narratives. Then, I started with my own journey in understanding cinema in a different way and I want to believe that I have found my own space.

He has been the cinematographer of Liar’s Dice and Moothon. How was it on the sets?

We have never argued on the sets. We are both professionals who have been working in this space for a long time. It was a hand in glove existence with him. The only point of worry would be whether our daughter has been picked up from school.

Which is your favourite film directed by Rajeev Ravi?

Njan Steve Lopez.

Where do you stand in the social media argument about the importance of political correctness in movies?

If your film has a socio-political undercurrent, then there is a certain sense of responsibility attached to the filmmaker but that doesn’t mean that every film has to be about this politics.

What are the kind of films you grew up watching and what do you like to binge on now?

As a kid living abroad, I grew up on a lot of 80s comedy films. It made us closer to home. Naturally my tastes evolved, through reading and exploring other kind of cinema. I got hooked to world cinema when I was 19 years old. I would frequent all film festivals and watch all the films. It was my me-time. Now thanks to my friends in cinema, I am updated about the current mainstream cinema. I love all types of films, from Pedro Almodóvar, KG George, Aravindan, John Abraham to Padmarajan and Bharathan. I have been influenced by their films.

Malayalam cinema is steadily finding a pan-Indian audience today. Are we on the cusp of a golden era?

There has been a visual switch. We have new directors with radical ideas, and we will soon get there. When each of us continues to tell the stories, we want to tell and not go with the herd mentality of a star-driven industry, things will change. Change will also happen when actors and stars are open to filmmakers like us and want to push their limits. Lots of interesting collaborations are happening. We have someone like Fahadh Faasil, a successful commercial actor, who also produces and acts in a film like Kumbalangi Nights.

Also read on Firstpost: The Kumbalangi Nights Phenomenon: One small step for Mollywood, a giant leap for Indian cinema

And yet there seems to be a space and audience for both kinds of cinema now…

Yes, but we still need more actors coming in support of films that aren’t always in the commercially viable zone. You can’t just keep doing films that pay obeisance to your stardom, thinking it’s what the fans want. That’s belittling their intelligence. When you have the power and stardom to take your industry to the global platform, why don’t you do that as well? Why not produce interesting films with interesting filmmakers along with doing your commercial hits? When you do that you will be remembered not as a star but as an actor many years later. That attitude can be seen among the present generation of actors and stars. Hence, I am saying we are nearly there but not yet fully there.

Was there a struggle with Moothon despite having the presence of a star?

When I made Moothon, I had to make it workable to have that production money to make the film as nobody will give me money on my name. That’s my reality because of the arthouse filmmaker tag. When Moothon went into the market to be produced nobody wanted to touch it with a bargepole, despite having a big star in it. Because producers only want commercially viable films. That’s why I am stressing on more stars stepping forward to be part of such projects. If it clicks in the box office, there will be a run for such films. I cannot always fear this and not do my kind of cinema.

Do you see better written female characters in Malayalam cinema now?

Yes, and I also see many male filmmakers who are sensitive towards this. Considering some of the recent hits were such films, it will serve as a voice for more filmmakers making such films.

When you ventured to make your first film, what’s the one piece of advice that helped you?

Never assist anyone. You want to make a film, do your own short films and learn. This was what my husband told me. I was told to make mistakes and learn. I have been stuck with that advice to this day. Today you can make films easily, even on mobiles people. When you assist someone, it’s not like you are going to be amidst these technicians or the director will give you tips. At the most you might be lucky to be a clap boy and end up being frustrated with the system. So just pick a camera, write your stories and shoot.

Updated Date: Sep 10, 2019 08:16:21 IST