While pandemic brought life to a standstill, people made sure to make use of their time at home and binge watch on OTT platforms. And thus, web series found popularity among Malayali audiences as well. Even before all this, director Mridual Nair had started working on his web series titled ‘Instagrammam’. Though it was officially launched by superstar Mammootty a couple of years back, it's only now that the show has started premiering on the OTT platform NeeStream.
Mridul Nair, in a candid conversation with Onmanorama, opens up about conceiving the web series and finally getting a platform for release. Excerpts from the interview:
What took you so long for the release and why the delay?
Actually the idea of Instagrammam came to us back in 2018 right after my first movie BTech. It was a time when OTT was not so popular among Malayali audiences or even South Indians. Series like Breathe and Sacred Games were yet to create a buzz.
Me and my co-writers Ram and Ranjith got an idea of a story revolving around a bunch of people at a village. So that idea, we realized, was beyond a regular cinema when it comes to duration as it involved a certain set of incidents. And that's how we zeroed it on to be a web series. Then what we did was to approach a few producers. Like we do for a movie, we met a few producers but none were very keen to produce a web series for an OTT.
Firstly, the producers were concerned as there's no satellite or theater value for this. What we invest we can never get back, said a few producers.
Then, whatever savings we had with a few friends of mine, we made a pilot episode. We shot 2 episodes. When we shot the first two episodes, we were really kicked in. We got a result that was higher than our expectations.
Then, I thought like any other producer, we will directly approach an OTT platform.
In between, through a common friend, I happened to meet Leena. She and her husband were very supportive. This is a very pioneer idea and if you want, let's do it, she had told us back then. That's how we started shooting.
Meanwhile, we had a few issues with the production and thus it got a bit delayed. Later, when things were getting in shape, we tried approaching all the major OTT in India like Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hotstar and others.
Disappointingly, there was a hundred percent ignorance. Nobody was even willing to give a watch and check if it was worth it. That's why it took time and finally I am glad that a platform like NeeStream could favour Malayalam content like Instagrammam.
What do you think could be the reason for the ignorance? Is it because of the genre?
No, different people have different explanations.
Someone told me that Amazon is not looking at original Malayalam content. But they were taking Tamil. Somebody then said Netflix doesn't want to take any regional content. Then, when I asked Hotstar, it already had so much regional content. Maybe if I had done a few films and probably my series had a bigger star cast, they might have picked I am not sure. I already have a huge star cast starting from Deepak Parambol to Arjun Ashoan, Balu Varghese and others.
But I still did not diagnose what the real problem is. Different people have different versions and opinions for OTT.
For almost 2-3 months we were behind this and we really had a tough time bringing this out. But I am really happy because that was the vision we had.
I had the worst 2 years in my life. The series was shot in Payyanur, my place and people started asking me why the series wasn't released even after 2 years.
Do you think Malayalam filmmakers are hesitant to make a web series though there are enough subjects? Is there a risk factor?
The word OTT and web series are more familiar to people with lockdown. Yes, like said we approached many producers and we had this vision 2 years back and not many supported us. So finally, just because NeeStream supported this, we could go ahead else this would have been still in the hard disk.
The subtitle of the series is done by Vivek Ranjith and he made sure that even while translating, the flavour should not go.
Maybe with big star names and big production houses, may be in the future, we can see such series coming from Malayalam.
There are so many Malayalam projects that are stuck due to the pandemic. If Netflix and Amazon take up 5-6 Malayalam movies a year, there are still more movies that are waiting to release. Who is ready to back you up, that's the question here. If you have something good, there are people to watch it.
How was it managing multiple casts?
It was all through friendship. Actor Deepak Parambol was already in my mind when I first thought of making this series. Later, Ganapathy, Shani and others joined in.
Sunny Wayne, Saniya Iyappan, Aditi Ravi joined as guests for one episode. In fact, the best part in Instagrammam is the actors in the series. Actors were that confident about the project. If you look at the duration, it's about 5-6 hours of content. So ideally like 2-3 movies.
So all technicians had the same level of effort as how much they put for a movie. And actors to this very day, never asked how we can earn profit for this. I am yet to clear dues of a few actors and technicians.
For certain scenes we just had one liners and improvised on sets. Like in movies, we even had a thousand people crowd. We never wanted to compromise on quality and the entire 13 episodes of the series were shot in 50 days.
How was it going behind the camera and simultaneously coming in front of it?
That was a big problem. Another actor was supposed to do it. But he couldn't make it due to date issues and finally I took it.
I played the role of a lady and make up artist Lalu needed 2-3 hours to finish the make up. Though my assistants worked really hard, the shooting had to be stopped while I was away for make up. So that was kind of a problem.
You keep on experimenting. You did a short film and a music video during the lockdown time.
The desire to experiment comes from my guru VK Prakash. I started my career as his last assistant director and was with him for about 10 years.
I started producing for VKP, I even directed with his support. He put me in feature film and I did that as well.
Sitting ideal is something that I don't want to do. While sitting at home during the lockdown, I started feeling insecure.
That's when while talking to cinematographer Jomon T John, the short film Ghar Se was born. We went ahead with the short film as Nimisha too showed interest.
Then immediately after that, we did the music video Kaliyanne.
Your first film BTech dealt with a much more serious subject but Instagrammam is made on a lighter note. Was the change of theme and genre intentional?
After Btech, me and my writers were talking about the fun side that happens at ceremonies like weddings, funerals, festivals and others. As a maker and a viewer, I prefer comedies.
I believe drama and thriller are easy to make but humor is more challenging for a maker and writer. I wanted to explore that. Instgrammam got a few serious topics too but many jokes as well.
At the same time, humor also needs to be politically correct. How well can Instagrammam stand with that?
Well, yes there are sexist jokes but it's the characters that matters for me. If a character is not politically correct, he will talk the way he likes. I have done as my characters demanded in the situations.
Political correctness is a matured and big word to talk about. Of course, we have tried to bring in politics. At the time while we shot, we never thought about such an aspect but today I guess it's more relevant.
That time, we were not mature enough, I would say. When you are doing a film, every project has a purpose. Also sometimes, it affects the freedom of a writer and a director. As the series is for an OTT and will not have a censor, we have taken liberty to use certain words and jokes.
However, we never tried to exploit it. We have made sure that if one watches with family, it doesn't give a bad feeling.
So, Instagrammam will make you relaxed?
Instagrammam is not a message oriented or serious stuff. Logic less comedies or instant counter is what it's all about.
The series is not to show the skill of a maker. It has many flaws but I hope people will enjoy it. It is a light-hearted series.
You announced your next movie recently. What's the update?
Yes, Thattum Vellattam with Asif Ali and Soubin is my next. It's a very serious film and not at all like Instagrammam. As a maker, there are a lot of possibilities. The subject itself is unique. I have a very serious approach and senior technicians are part of it. The stronger the foundation, the more stronger will be the rest.
I take maximum time on script. Your script is your hero and maximum time is needed for that. It's the same team. Ram and Ranjith are also working with me. There is a lot to do even with regard to budget.
(Instagrammam started streaming on NeeStream from February 22 with two episodes a week.)