The human predicament is at the heart of Aashiq Abu’s cinema. He drives deeper into the fault lines of society and human beings at large. It’s reflected in his movies he’s directed- be it 22 Female Kottayam, Mayanadhi— or the movies he’s produced— Mahesinde Prathikaram, Ee Maa Yau.— he delves into social foibles with ease and felicity. Tovino Thomas is an actor who’s comfortable in his skin and not afraid to reveal his vulnerabilities. Be it as a winged gangster or an invincible superhero. So when Abu and Thomas merge their creative chaos, their oeuvre includes the genre-breaking Mayanadhi and the scissor sharp Virus. The two together have joined hands to give us Naradan, an incisive edgy take on the media in today’s times. Excerpts from an exclusive conversation.
What should we expect from Naradan and why should the audience go to the theatre to watch the film?
Aashiq: After the pandemic, we have made a movie which we think should be experienced in the theatre. Since it was made specifically for the theatre, we can guarantee you a good experience and the fun and joy of viewing cinema on the big screen.
The word Naradan is generally used for a mischief-maker. Is that the film all about?
Aashiq: There are layers to Naradan from the Puranas. Firstly that he was the first messenger and secondly he was some kind of a troublemaker who cooked something between the news he carried. Yes, some negative and some positive connotations are there for this Naradan.
Tovino: As Aashiq said when we hear the word Naradan we get two pictures, one of a troublemaker and one of a messenger who delivers news. Definitely a messenger, but one who doesn’t follow ethics, so yes a troublemaker!
Have you modelled yourself on any newsperson?
Tovino: The first thing we decided was not to take direct inspiration or imitate anyone because our character is fictional, our premise is fictional and the media channel we are showing in this movie is also fictional. We have taken references to be in that template so that when people watch him they feel that they are watching a newsreader. It’s a story and a fictional character but you can find relatable incidents. Besides talking about what’s happening behind the newsroom, the pressures a media person has and how they deal with competition from the other channels, there is a lot more in the film. But I am not allowed to speak about it right now.
Is there a news item or story which really changed your life after hearing it or made a significant impact on your life or the way you look at society?
Tovino: News channels like movies can influence people a lot. When I was a kid I used to watch the 7 o’clock news on Doordarshan and I was told that we could blindly believe whatever we heard because we had just one channel for news. But as more news channels came up we had different versions of the same news. Now when I watch any news I don’t believe it immediately. I watch it on a few different channels so that I can find out what is correct. So I have a filter now and I don’t let any news affect me immediately. I listen to it, I analyse it and once I find what the real news is then maybe it can affect me!
But has there been any news which has affected you personally?
Tovino: Every day we hear news that affects us. We didn’t believe it when there was a talk about World War 3 a few days back. But right now like other people, I am scared that we could be on the verge of a Third World War.
Aashiq: The pandemic declaration by WHO had a big impact on me. And as Tovino said, we are on the verge of World War 3 because everything is going out of hand and so many things are happening.
Aashiq when you set out to write Naradan a story against a media backdrop and how people manage their TRPs and pump up the volume, was there anything else you wanted to say through this movie?
Aashiq: Initially I was just curious about the life of a television journalist who conducted a prime time debate and was actually a performer. I wanted to know after performing for one hour what his life was like when he got back home. I started getting curious about this character. I spoke to Unni who was one of the leading journalists when Kerala started the Malayalam news telecast. He had left his job and joined cinema. So I thought he was the man to know exactly what was happening behind the camera and in newsrooms. That was actually the trigger point. Then I started following the stories which were with Unni R. It was a very fast process to model this character Chandraprakash.
Tovino, did you at any time think that your life is like Chandraprakash, as you are always performing for the camera. That guy runs after TRP and you are probably running after success, money and fame. Did you find some similarities?
Tovino: In that aspect, yes. But in cinema, we have the liberty to include fiction in every scene or every character but in news, we don’t have that. I respect all the newsreaders. It's not an easy job. I think anchoring is performance. My respect for them has gone up after playing this character. My character in this movie is also a performer and his show demands that kind of performance. In real life, I haven’t found any similarities between my character and Chandraprakash. It was an alien character for me.
Tovino, Aashiq gave you one of your most remarkable roles with Mayaanadhi. How different is the Aashiq of Mayaanadhi and the Aashiq of Naradan?
Tovino: He was always a gentleman, is still a gentleman and he will always be a gentleman. For an artist working under a director like him is a great experience. He never keeps the actors under pressure, he always keeps them very comfortable so they can concentrate on their work. Even though he was a very good actor in college and still is, he never enacts the scene or suggests any expressions. He talks about the character and the scene, the reason behind the scene and its after-effects. That’s his way of bringing an actor to that situation. That’s the best way to do it because he gives space and proper understanding about the character so that one can perform better. Even in Mayaanadhi, his working style was similar. Technically and in other ways he may have improved a lot but I think as a human being he was perfect back then and he still is. I never hesitate to try something new with him. There was a particular scene in Naradan that I wanted to do unconventionally and he agreed. That’s why all the actors in his movies look good and perform so well.
Aashiq seizes moments and creates magic in his movies whether it’s 22 Female Kottayam or Mayaanadhi. Is an actor able to retain that magic scene after scene or do you feel that you need a break?
Tovino: That magic happens very easily. He's a very good coordinator with technicians. It’s one of his qualities as a director. Without us knowing we become part of that particular magic. He extracts whatever he wants from us.
Tovino really bloomed in Mayaanadhi. You channelled his pain and anxiety in that gangster role and took it to a magical level. What is his USP as an actor?
Aashiq: Tovino is an unpredictable actor. He can do anything. He is not restricted to doing any kind of roles. And he’s very curious. Curiosity is a very important thing when it comes to cinema. He’s also studious because he wants to pick up things very fast and perfectly. He knows his strengths and weaknesses. He will work on his weaknesses and will give you 100 per cent quality whatever his strength is. He is blooming as a better human being and a better actor.
Often an actor reveals his vulnerability to the director. Is it easier for you, Tovino, to reveal your vulnerability to Aashiq than to other directors?
Tovino: We have worked together and I know his working style so it's easy for me to reveal my vulnerability to him. Also, I am someone who is not ashamed that I am vulnerable. I am not perfect and I have a lot of imperfections I am working on. Initially, when one line of Naradan was narrated to me the concern I had was that being from Thrissur I speak very fast and so can omit a few words. But I could not take that liberty when I was doing this particular character. I could do that when doing Mayaanadhi because I could talk casually and still be in character. But my character in Naradan was that of a performer. I was concerned because I hadn’t done a character like that before and I knew I had to work a lot on my diction and other things. But when I mentioned it to Aashiq sir, he told me not to worry. From then on him and his writer Udiya kept on sending me references and giving me inputs on minor details about the character. Like I had to grow my nails a bit. I am a left-hander but in the movie, I am a right-hander. In real life, I move my right hand a lot and in this movie, I use my left hand a lot more. They knew this vulnerability and they knew I would try hard and work on it. By the time we started shooting it was no longer a concern. Then I kept on reading books loudly with proper diction. And Udiya always kept correcting. So with their help, I pushed my limits and I succeeded.
Aashiq, what are your collaborations with Dileesh Pothan and Syam like? How much have your writers contributed to Naradan? The first thing that comes to your mind when watching your films is that they are well written.
Aashiq: The writers and collaborators of the three movies are not the same but whoever he may be, writing is a painful job. And I respect them for that. Every writer goes through a lot of pain and I have seen Syam losing his sleep over his writing. Unni is a fast writer. He writes on a daily basis and it’s a routine. So usually he finishes the screenplay in a month. For this movie, he was working till the final output as he was constantly changing and correcting things. Also, this is the biggest dialogue movie I have ever directed. Everyone is talking to each other. It was a huge responsibility of the writer to be accurate with facts because we were talking on a subject related to the truth so the writing department had to be very careful. And I am giving Unni full credit for the screenplay. It’s my idea but the writers have done a huge amount of work.
You have the knack of picking the right directors like Mahesh Prathikaaram. How do you choose and pick talent which is actually an underrated quality?
Aashiq: I just follow my intuitions. I don’t do any kind of homework to choose people. When Syam and I became friends I could easily connect with him within a day or so. We follow similar politics, similar missions in life and we had a similar childhood. It happens organically.
Whether it's Kumbalangi Nights or whether it's Minnal Murali, is there a pressure that they can get you into the cliche of stylised movies?
Tovino: I think we have to make time and decide how to impress others. I have seen filmmakers following someone else so that they can be part of that success. Most of the directors that I have worked with create their own style which can impress an audience. Minnal Murali was seen by a lot of non-Malayalees because of its superhero concept. Similarly, Naradan will be very relatable for everyone. And a lot more people are watching Malayalam movies than before. I think we have to be more responsible and take more time so that we can satisfy our audience.
Aashiq: Hard work is the only answer.
From superhero to super newscaster. What was the journey like?
Tovino: Naradan was shot between two different schedules of Minnal Murali. Before Naradan I had a very small schedule of Minnal Murali in which I played the father character of the protagonist. After a marathon shoot for Naradan, I finished the climax shots of Minnal Murali. I did both the films simultaneously but my character in Minnal Murali is directly opposite to what I play in Naradan. The looks are different. Even when my beard is trimmed I look very different in Minnal Murali and Naradan. The teams of both films helped me to shift from one character to the other. And the credit goes to my costume designers, make-up artists, cinematographers. I was very happy that I got a lot of appreciation for Minnal Murali. It was a new thing for me and now I am waiting for Naradan to release. I hope we get appreciation because we all are very happy about this movie. I haven’t watched the final version of the movie but I have watched a lot of the scenes. Those who have watched the completed version are very happy and excited. For the last day of Naradan I was shooting in Hubli from morning 7.30 to 2.30 and from 6 pm in the evening to 6 am in the morning I was with Minnal Murali.
Pandemic has taught us uncertainty. Has that changed you as a filmmaker and you as an actor?
Aashiq: Yes of course! We spent so much time on ourselves during that time. That makes a lot of difference to an individual. I have become more patient and slow. Before the pandemic I was a little anxious about everything.
Tovino: For me, it was a much-needed break. From April 2016 when I started shooting for Guppy to 2019 June 30th, I was working continuously without a break. I did around 25 movies in those three years. So I got time to spend with my family. My wife was pregnant and I could sit with her for three months before the delivery and three months after the delivery and even change my kid’s diapers. I also got some ‘me’ time. When we are working we are part of the rat race and don’t get time to think when we don’t think or ask ourselves questions. During the lockdown, I could ask myself a lot of questions. I also got time to read. I like to read when I am the only person in the room! So I would be up till 4 in the morning and had the liberty to wake up around 1.30 or so. I relaxed because I knew everyone else in the world was sitting doing nothing. All this helped me evolve as a better human being and also as an actor because the experiences I had during the lockdown and after lockdown were reflected in my future movies. I consider that time as the turning point in my career and life. Workwise I wanted to do movies which gave me satisfaction and not just make money. The movies which I did after the lockdown like Kala and Kaanekkaane are very different from each other.