Mammootty+ Amal Neerad = Bheeshma Parvam. An irresistible formula that was enough to bring the crowd back into the theatres following the pandemic. When Mammootty stunned as the long-haired and bearded Michael appan, Amal Neerad, the man who created him is calmly watching the euphoria from a distance without making tall claims about the numbers it collected at the box office or about the brilliance of his film. This is his first long interview after the release of the film, where he is wholeheartedly thanking the people who stood by him during the journey. More from Amal Neerad about 'Bheeshma Parvam', the inspiration called Mammootty, and the people who helped in making it a reality in this interview to Manorama online.
'Bheeshma Parvam' is turning out to be a humongous hit. Not even Covid, exams, or other releases could stop its box office rampage. Did you expect this?
Though you can of course wish for the success of a commercial film, you can’t really expect a guaranteed success. No one can give that guarantee about any film. Along with the genre, a lot of factors have to be taken into consideration for the success of a film. One thing I was sure of was that everyone involved in this film gave their 100%. We started this film during the first Covid wave and could finish it only after the Omicron wave. Till the release, we had to go through a lot of uncertainties and challenges. This success is for all those people who worked hard to make 'Bheeshma Parvam'.
Everyone was waiting for ‘Bilal’. So how did it make way for ‘Bheeshma Parvam’?
We were supposed to start the shoot on March 15th, 2020. For that film, we had given advance to Kochi’s Vasco house and other locations. ‘Bilal’ was meant to be shot in India and abroad. And we had even made a deal with a Poland production studio for the film. But that’s when the Covid wave hit our shores. When Bilal was getting indefinitely postponed, me and Mammukka were planning to do a smaller film.
It would be a small film with 2 or 3 characters. But we were skeptical about how the audience who expected a big-budget film like ‘Bilal’ would take to it. Then I put forward two more ideas to Mammukka. The first one would have some portions that had to be shot in Dubai and the second one could be contained entirely in Kochi. Mammukka liked that idea, and that story was 'Bheeshma Parvam'.
Mammootty shut himself from cinema during the covid. What exactly excited him about the film that made him say yes to it?
Not that Mammukka had kept himself completely away from cinema. There were the usual cinema discussions and visits from friends at his home. I had already told him the one-liner of this film two years ago. He already liked my concept borrowed from ‘Godfather’ and ‘Mahabharata’. We went forward with the story and finished the script and were planning to shoot the film when Covid cases decreased. When I asked him if we should start 'Bilal' under these circumstances, he told me— “Edo, this excites me now. Let’s do this now.”
He started growing his hair and beard during Covid. And Micheal Appan had the same look. Was this look you had in mind when you envisaged Micheal Appan?
Mammukka’s look wasn’t something one cannot expect during ordinary circumstances. From the beginning itself, we decided to go with this look for Micheal appan. I wanted stubbles for ‘Big B’ and Mammukka had just finished ‘Mayavi’. He took a few days' break to reappear with a stubbled face. He will do anything for cinema. We restyled the long-haired and bearded Mammootty as Micheal appan. He was styled by the famous Bollywood stylist Rohit Bhatkar who has styled the likes of Hrithik Roshan. He came here thrice to finalize Mammukka’s look for the film.
You might have faced a lot of technical difficulties while placing this film in the 80s. Why did you not set the film in the current period?
1988 can be counted as my teenage years and those images are ingrained in my mind. Most films show the 90s as 80s. Most of the events narrated in this story sound more believable as it is set during that time. We had to struggle a lot during the shooting and postproduction. And art design had to be detailed and faultless. Mobile towers, cables were erased through VFX. We looked out for the details. During the top-angle shots of Mattanchery and Fort Kochi, we camouflaged the rooftops (into clay) of houses using graphics.
Mammootty is a great actor as well as a superstar. Did these factors play in your mind during the scripting?
I don’t think many actors in India have Mammukka’s talent for dialogue rendering. From the experience of working with him in ‘Bheeshma Parvam’ and ‘Big B’, I can say one thing with surety. When you write something for him, you don’t need to add anything on paper, you just need to write down those dialogues, rest assured he will transform them on screen. He knows how to precisely edit and modulate them. His experience is a huge factor. Be it ‘Kochi pazhaya kochi alla’ or ‘Jao ennu parayanam’ those were not written expecting cheers in theatres. But the way he intones them makes all the difference. This is just one of his many talents. In ‘Big B’, he speaks Kochi slang but then Bilal’s Kochi slang is different from Michael’s Kochi slang. He knows each region in Kochi, and Mattanchery, Kannammali, Vipin, Ezhupunna, Kumbalangi, Kaloor, and Palarivattom have different slangs. And he exactly knows how they should be done. Mammukka can easily pull off slang from Kasaragod to Thiruvanthapuram.
You have dedicated this film to Kevin and Neenu, and you have even added their story to the narrative. Why did you think of adding a current issue in a period film?
When we dedicated it to Kevin and Neenu, we meant all those who have gone through the same fate. Personally, also that incident has pained me. As a state, we pride ourselves on our education and better perspective. If this incident had happened in UP or Bihar, we could have said it was because of their illiteracy and backward social structure. But we never thought Kerala was and would ever be like that. It was when Kevin and Neenu’s story came out that we realised our situation is even more toxic than theirs. And that incident was added to create a connection with the younger generation. As a norm when you watch a period film, we don’t usually link it with the current era in any way. I thought let this incident be a bridge linking the 80s and the current era.
Tell us about the first action scene shot in Bolt camera and how Mammootty fared there?
There are two action scenes featuring Mammukka and you can easily notice how effectively he has performed them. In that scene where he is saying ‘Bombaykkarana jaonnu parayanam’, he is sitting cross-legged on a rocking chair. Though it looked easy, let me assure you that it wasn’t as simple as it looked. I can’t even sit in that chair. Only a person with an agile body can pull it off with that dexterity. In the second fight scene, you can see him falling on his knees and then getting up. Again, looks easy but when you do it you know it isn’t easy at all.
During every era, there will be new technology and equipment. At one point, the steady cam was in vogue. So was Akela cram and jimmy jib. Since bolt camera was the best equipment for this scene at this time, we used it. Having said all that, it was Mammukka’s performance that aced these action scenes.
Shine Tom Chacko’s performance is getting wide appreciation. About his performance and the reading that his character is gay?
There is a standard joke I tell everyone on the sets about Shine and it's that when everyone else had to be transported to the 80s, Shine lives in that time. People who know him will testify this. I knew that Peter will be brilliant in his hands. From the beginning to the end, he approached the role with undiluted passion. Once he is in the costume, then there is no stopping him. He wouldn’t even sit down, worried that his clothes will be wrinkled. He even wore a few pairs of underwear to get the silhouette of his pants correctly. And these are details he did himself without asking. He doesn’t leave once his shot is over. He would hang around so that he will give the correct reactions to other actors' close-up shots. Shine gave his 100% to this film. That viral dance step is his own choreography. It was during the first action shoot that Sushin send across this song. Since the bolt camera took a while to set up we would play it on the sets. That’s when Shine casually did this step. The minute I saw it I told him I want it for the song. I read many discussions which hint that he could be gay. There are more chances that he could be a bisexual. That’s how we structured that character.
He was an assistant director in Anwar and in 'Bheeshma Parvam' he played one of the most important characters, Ajas. How would you rate his performance?
Soubin is family. He is my brother. I only have a sister in real life, but then I have had people who have stood by me like brothers. Soubin is one such brother. And Soubin has given his all for this film. I keep narrating his tales to those Ads who come and work with me. He would do everything from mopping floors to spraying water. That’s the kind of dedication he has for cinema. During a Pollachi location, I have seen Soubin mopping floors when there wasn’t anyone available from the art department. I remember Soubin telling a gathering of friends that included Anwar Rasheed that I wasn’t the fiend he had heard people say about me. I would always be servile to someone who does his work with so much dedication. That is my respect for the love he has for cinema.
I don’t know if it happens all the time. But this is a new experience for me. Pauly Wilson is one of my favourite actors. It is her performance that elevates Michael’s reactionary shot. The same goes for all the other actors like Nadia ma’am, Nizarikka, Salimikka, Kottayam Rameshettan, Parvathy chechi, Jinu, Dileesh, Lena, Sreenath Bhasi, Farhan, Anagha, Veena, or Sudev Nair.
Do you consider yourself fortunate to have got the opportunity to frame the last film of Nedumudi Venu and KPAC Lalitha?
I am having mixed feelings here. I like to think that if there were still with us, the last scene would have been even more memorable. Perhaps that is a sentiment echoed by the viewers too. The scene where Mammukka says he isn’t staying for tea was meant to evoke laughter. It is rare to see actors like that with such a versatile and extensive filmography in world cinema itself. They would look out for costume and property detailing as well.
Applying ashes on his body and reaching for a stick when Mammukka arrives are all Nedumudi Venu’s contributions. Lalitha chechi was keeping really unwell when she did those scenes. She wasn’t able to memorize those dialogues. We had to prompt her dialogues. But then she didn’t go wrong with the rendering or modulation. That’s what makes them stand out.
I am not a very experienced director. From ‘Big B’ to ‘Bheeshma Parvam’, it is when you work with a lot of new and experienced people that you learn a lot. I remember Siddu (Sidharth Bharathan) telling me that I was lucky to frame her. More than luck, I consider myself blessed here. There is a scene where the camera is touching their feet and they in turn are blessing the camera. I would like to take that as a blessing personally accorded to me.
Let’s talk about the technicians behind the film. Sushin Shyam, Vivek Harshan, Anand C Chandran.
I collaborated with Sushin for the first time in ‘Varathan’. He was one of the programmers of ‘Iyobinte Pustakam.’ From that time onwards I knew what he was capable of. We are all friends and most of what you see have come out of such friendly collaborations and discussions. We do have discussions with several people about a film. It’s when their work reflects what we discussed that it all comes out well. Along with Sushin, Vivek Harshan, and Anand, there were others like Sameera Saneesh, Suresh Babu, Joseph Nellickal, Ronex Xavier, Tapas Nayak, Asif, co-writers Devadath Shaji, RJ Murugan, Ravishankar who all worked super hard for this film.
Sushin will come to the studio at 7 am, start working, call me in between and make me listen to his tunes. Though some might not work, I would find it difficult to tell him. How can you tell that to someone who has put so much effort and time into his work? I am not an overly sensitive soul, but I teared up when I heard the last reel of the film. Its beauty was what made my eyes well up.
Those who watched the film knew exactly how Sushin’s music elevated the frames. Anand C Chandran and colourist Sreeku Warrier would reach the studio at 4 am to start their work. These are things they are doing at their own will, for the love of cinema.
We are able to see the cinematography and hear the music, but editing isn’t something that we are able to see or hear. And editing plays a key role in a film. I know Vivek Harshan right from our 'Big B' days. Back then due to some Organisation issues we couldn’t even put his name on the credits. We gave him credits as 'undercuts'. After Bheeshma cuts, we did three drafts before the final draft. Then we did another cut after adding the music. Even after mixing, he wondered if we should sit one more time to tweak the final product. That’s the dedication and love he has for cinema. Money can’t buy that.
Your last association with Mammootty was 15 years ago in 'Big B'. Do you see a difference in him?
I don’t see any difference in him. During the dubbing of ‘Big B’, I told him I need the sound of G Krishnamoorthy in ‘New Delhi’. He said that’s already done and can’t be recaptured. At that time he was shooting for ‘Ore Kadal’ in Chennai. He told me not to come for dubbing and send one of my associates. “First, we will do some portions and you come and check it. If you didn’t like it I will do it all over again,” he told me. When I heard it for the first time, I was astonished. Because he had given me more than I ever expected or imagined. When Mammukka asked me if I was ok with it, I said I couldn’t have asked for more. Though Mammookka claims there is a change in him, I don’t think so. He is the same.
When you look back at the ‘Big B’ days?
As I said earlier, Mammukka was our guardian angel. He stood by us through and through. If not for him, ‘Big B’ wouldn’t have been a reality. The production company was reluctant to accept a new writer back then. And we couldn’t even think of changing the scriptwriter. When I told all this to Mammukka, he was the one who gave us the courage to go ahead. His only stipulation was that I should do handle the camera. My only issue was in trying to convince him that Samir Tahir does the job better than me.
'Bheeshma Parvam' is turning out to be the biggest hit in Mammootty’s career. Are you satisfied as a director?
I don’t really believe in such records or hits. You cant measure a film’s worth based on its budget or how much it grossed at the box office. You can only measure a film’s success based on the amount of hard work, sleepless nights, trials, and tribulations, anxieties, humiliations, depression, and sadness invested in the film. And these aren’t things money can buy. In that regard, ‘Bheeshma Parvam’ is an expensive film. It survived three covid seasons.
I was admitted to the hospital two or three times. The Parudeesa song took three days to shoot. Usually, I don’t use the caravan while shooting. But on the third day, I sat inside the caravan and directed the Parudeesa song. I had a fever of 104 degrees and got admitted that evening itself. The doctor gave me an earful. Not just me, a lot of us fell sick. But we worked braving the illness. That way this is an expensive film and that’s the only record we want.
As for Mammootty’s career, that’s greater than you can even imagine. I am not even qualified to comment on it. Am just fortunate to be a part of it. People love him. Even after all these years, if people are flocking into the theatres to watch him, it shows his longevity and greatness. I think we need to bow in reverence in front of his career graph.
Records are meant to be broken. You can’t really predict the future. I remember walking out from the Shenoy’s theatre in awe after watching Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ and Jack Nicolson’s ‘Joker’ and telling my friends that there won't be another Joker like this. That came from my ignorance. Then someone amazed us as Joker in ‘Dark Knight’ through his life and death. So there is no surety about anything in life. It keeps changing.
Were you apprehensive when Covid cases started rising before the release? Are you satisfied or happy now?
Omicron appeared just when the film was nearing its release. We heard the theatres might be shut down and we also heard that even if they keep it open, they will only retain 50% seating capacity. We even discussed releasing it on OTT. A lot of people told me to look at it practically and not emotionally. We got a lot of great offers from various OTT platforms but all that time we felt this film should be released in theatres.
Mammukka was also keen on a theatre release as this was a film made for the 70mm experience. Because of my lack of confidence, except for ‘Big B’ I haven’t seen any film in theatres. I was plain scared. On the day 'Bheeshma...' was released when everyone went to the theatres I sat at home. When Anwar called me after watching the first half and said not only was it superb but was also receiving a rousing welcome from the audience, I wept. Those were happy tears!
Usually, we see filmmakers promoting their films before the release. But Amal Neerad kept away from all promotions. Why?
I am someone who looks at my films very critically. I don’t have the confidence to say— “Hey I have made a great film. Do watch it.” There is also the fact that I am seeing a lot of brilliant films being made. If I ever had a chance to sit alongside ten of my favourite filmmakers, I don’t think I would have the courage to call myself a filmmaker in front of them. Honestly, am not trying to be frightfully modest here. It’s because of my lack of confidence that I am keeping a low profile. Also, I would like to repeat what Mammukka said in the press conference, our cinema speaks for all of us. My cinema speaks for me. And I don’t have anything more to say than that. This film is a result of the hard work of a lot of people. Through this interview, I want to thank each one of them.
But Amal, there are a lot of people who want to hear you, your thoughts on cinema. How do you see cinema?
Honestly, I have absolute reverence for cinema. I will probably sit up all night, worrying over how to light up a set the next day. If someone asks me how I am planning to direct a scene for the next day, that’s enough to keep me awake at night. That fear and anxiety make me do a lot of homework. Though a lot of people call me to shoot their films, I am reluctant to go as not many people need to understand these characteristics of mine. There isn’t a shot I haven’t tried for ‘Trance.’ I don’t like to clash with anyone for my cinema. Anwar understands this. There are a lot of technicians who will tell you that I am a pain to work with. Because I call them at irregular hours due to my own tension and anxiety about the film. Though they do tell me to go back to sleep and that they only work during the day, I still work that way.
I approach each film with the same fear of a child who goes to school. I do a lot of homework out of fear. I have also done a lot of films without any research or homework as well. We can show our arrogance to anyone but not to cinema. It’s with a lot of insecurity that we work in each film. During such circumstances, to have someone like Mammukka by our side is a huge relief and confidence. During the promotions of ‘Bheeshma Parvam’ he hasn’t seen the film, but he had confidence in the film. That’s also the confidence he is giving us. When someone like that trusts us, we are able to improve more than our expectations. You need encouragement in any job.
When can we expect ‘Bilal’?
As I mentioned earlier, since ‘Bheeshma Parvam’ was an ‘expensive film’ to work on, I need a long break before I start my next project. Recently while talking to Dulquer I remember telling him that I want to do a lot more films with Mammootty. A lot of people were mentioning about his ‘psycho grin’ during that second fight scene after he says that dialogue. That wasn’t something I told him to do. It was his contribution. Similarly, I feel there are a lot of expressions and facets to him that need to be unravelled. So like any other director, I am also keen on showcasing his never-before-seen side as an actor. ‘Bilal’s’ script was finished two years ago and now I think it requires a lot more corrections. Popular cinema needs to be served hot. I need to do ‘Bilal’ along with other films.
Which is the film closest to your heart?
More than close to my heart, there are some films that have broken my heart. There are films I wish were done better. One such film was ‘Iyobinte Pustakam.’ I couldn’t do it the way I conceptualized it. That time it was made on a budget of 7.5 crores. The film along with financial constraints had a lot of issues. We couldn’t do a lot of things we wanted. I have the same regret when it comes to ‘CIA’. ‘Trance’ is another personal regret. I am not sure the film got the audience it deserved. Often parents have more affection for those children whom they feel had the talent but couldn’t make it than those who are doing well in life, that’s the way I feel about these films.