“Filmmakers must adapt to changing times”

Director Harikumar got busy. Following the critically acclaimed Clint in 2017, the veteran behind titles such as Sukrutham, Ezhunnallathu and Swayamvara Panthal has directed two Jwalamukhi films, starring Surabhi Lakshmi; and Autorickshawkarante Bharya, headlined by Suraj Venjaramoodu and Ann Augustine. The latter, which will hit theaters soon, sees Ann Augustine return to the big screen after a brief hiatus. In a chat with Cinema Express, Harikumar talked about the adaptation of M Mukundan’s short story on which the film’s script is based, and the selection of Suraj and Ann to play the story’s married couple.

Interestingly, the initial name considered for the titular role was Nimisha Sajayan. But since Suraj and Nimisha had been through similar territory before, Ann was cast instead. When Harikumar first thought of Suraj for the husband character, he wasn’t a “big star”. Harikumar wanted an actor who didn’t have a celebrity attached to him. He then witnessed the smash hit of The Great Indian Kitchen and some of Suraj’s subsequent releases, elevating the actor’s status overnight. “While filming, I told Suraj that if I had to do the movie now, maybe I would have thought of someone else,” the director explains, adding that Suraj’s subtle acting touches worked in favor of the character.

Mr Mukundan’s news caught Harikumar’s attention when he came across it in a weekly newspaper. He felt it was ripe for a film adaptation. But he also felt that the original story was only short enough for a short film or TV series. He asked Mukundan to expand the material to make it more suitable for a feature film, which meant incorporating additional characters and subplots (Swasika Vijay features in one of them). “Mukundan initially suggested that I write it myself, but since I was keen to shoot the film in Mahé (the main location of the film) and have the characters converse in the local dialect, I thought it prudent to let the original author develop it instead,” Harikumar says. The dialect proved to be a challenge for Ann, however, and Kerala State Award-winning dubbing artist Sneha – who lent her voice for Nimisha Sajayan to Eeda – was brought in to dub for her.

Harikumar was drawn to the short story because, aside from its heavily female-centric narrative, he was amused by the characters and situations it contained. “It’s a very light story about a lazy, irresponsible rickshaw driver who deals with life in a nonchalant way. He happens to be his mother’s only son, and his nature has been the main reason for his delayed marital happiness. Then one day he is married to the character of Ann. The character of Suraj is interesting because he is the kind of man who does not assert himself. In one case, he does not can’t even muster enough courage to demand the money owed to him. In another, he stops his ride to listen to a singer, worry about his rushing passenger. Suraj didn’t make a character like this in his phase post-hero.

The female empowerment aspect, says Harikumar, comes from Ann’s character taking the reins after a turning point in the story. “She must take her husband’s autorickshaw and do what he did. She came into his life with many expectations but eventually realizes that things are going on a different tangent. She takes on her husband’s responsibilities and faces life head-on.

Harikumar filmed Autorickshawkkarante Bharya after Surabhi LakshmiQ star Jwalamukhi which won her the Kerala State Film Award for Best Actress last year. Harikumar calls it a “very personal film” with an experimental approach, something he hadn’t done before. “In terms of tone, it’s poles apart from Autorickshawkkarante Bharya,” the director reveals. “It’s about a woman’s helplessness, while the latter is about a woman’s perseverance. I shot Jwalamukhi during the pandemic and sent it to festivals here and abroad. It’s based on a story that my daughter, Geethanjali Harikumar, told me: that of a gravedigger. She initially thought of making a documentary about Selina, a gravedigger from Ernakulam, but felt it had the potential for a cinematic treatment. There are only a few female gravediggers in India, and I thought this topic was unique.

On Harikumar’s daughter, Geethanjali, who has completed her film studies and is also a subtitler, plans to follow in her father’s footsteps. “She has already assisted a few directors, including me,” he says. “A lot of people discouraged her from getting into acting, but I wouldn’t because I had been through it myself. Also, there are a lot of female filmmakers now, so I say, why not?

It’s been four decades since Harikumar made his debut with Aambal Poovu, along with Sukumari and Jagathy Sreekumar. How does he view the changes the industry and moviegoers have undergone over the years? “Well, the most important thing is that filmmakers have to adapt to changing times,” he replies. “They have to update constantly. When I made Aambal Poovu, some considered it a “new generation” film, but it didn’t work. The theater’s response has been dismal, but the feedback from certain corners has been very encouraging. So I had to make my next films based on that strength. You know, I often think about this: of all the people who entered the industry at the same time as me, only a few managed to hold on.

Being a big fan of Sukrutham, the star of Harikumar’s Mammootty (scripted by MT Vasudevan Nair), I couldn’t help but ask him about the film that haunted me when I first saw it at the ‘school. Would audiences go to theaters to watch such a dark movie today, especially after the rise of OTT platforms where such movies are generally preferred? “No, I don’t think they would. People have become wary of watching dark movies in the cinema. Take Jwalamukhi, for example. I know perfectly well that they wouldn’t watch it on the big screen because, other than death as the main theme, there are no major stars. But Autorickshawkkarante Bharya doesn’t have that problem,” he laughs. “People can enjoy it anywhere, whether it’s theaters or OTT.”

Shot by cinematographer Alakappan and edited by Ayub Khan, Autorickshawkkarante Bharya is produced by KV Abdul Nazar under the Benzy Productions banner.

About Monty S. Maynard

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