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Geetu Mohandas: ‘I like to discover where my story is going’

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on October 04, 2019 Published on October 04, 2019

The quest: Geetu Mohandas says, “Search is somewhat of a pattern, and that’s how the story unfolds in Moothon.”

Spaces become characters in her cinema, says award-winning director Geetu Mohandas, whose new film Moothon will open the prestigious Mumbai film festival later this month

Who would watch a film about a man, a woman and a goat atop a mountain, the actor-turned-filmmaker asked herself. As it turned out, not only was Geetu Mohandas’s Liar’s Dice screened across the country, it won two national awards in 2014 and was India’s official entry to the Oscars in 2015. Mohandas — who has been acting in Malayalam films since she was five years old -- is in the news again: This time because her new film Moothon will open the 2019 JIO MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival with Star, on October 17.

Moothon poster

 

 The film, which premiered at the Toronto film festival last month, stars popular Malayalam actor Nivin Pauly and Shobhita Dhulipala, who was recently seen in Bard of Blood and Made in Heaven. Mohandas, who was honoured with the Kerala government’s best actress award for her role in the film Akale (2004), is clearly not new to the festival circuit. Her directorial debut, Kelkkunnundo — Are You Listening? won a national award in 2009 and was screened at several festivals.

First cut: Actor Nivin Pauly in a still from Moothon, which will open the JIO MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival

 

Her new film travels from the mountaintops of Chitkul in Himachal Pradesh to the islands of Lakshadweep and the dingy alleys of Mumbai’s red-light district Kamathipura, as a young boy searches for his brother. The film’s script — which has the protagonist speaking in both Malayalam and Hindi — won the Sundance Global Filmmaking Award in 2016.

Three years later, it is ready — and winning acclaim. Mohandas spoke to BLink over the phone. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about Moothon’s script winning the Global Filmmaking Award at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in the US, and how it helped shape the film.

Sundance holds labs all over the world for scripts and chooses the five best from among them. Moothon was the only Indian film to be chosen that year. I was the only woman among all those men who had won in 2016, so it was pretty cool. Subsequently, at the Sundance Lab, we were taught that you have to write a screenplay like a writer, not as a filmmaker. I wrote the film as the characters unfolded before me, not thinking of what my audience was going to be at that point. If you put on the director’s cap while writing, you have a tendency to edit while writing.

A small subset of people can watch Moothon in its entirety without subtitles. Were you concerned about subtitles taking away from the experience of watching the film?

No, not at all. We watch so many international films with subtitles, and I don’t feel that it takes away from a film. I just wrote the script freely, and when I realised that it required two languages I wasn’t nervous at all, because I feel cinema is such a universal experience. It all began for me with a picture in my head of this little island in Lakshadweep. Far removed from the rest of civilisation, the place had its own inherent beauty. While writing, this space became a character. From there, when my protagonist travels and reaches the decadent Kamathipura in Mumbai, that setting and space become another character. These are not things that I can plan keeping an audience in mind. I’m still in search of an audience.

Journeys have been a central part of your three films...

I like the idea of search. Search is somewhat of a pattern, and that’s how the story unfolds in Moothon, as well as in Liar’s Dice [about a young mother in search of her missing husband]. I like to discover where my story is going — beginning, middle and end — while I am writing it. I also believe that a script is not the Bible and that magic also happens on the sets. It’s great to have a script, but after writing it, you keep it aside and film something more organic. The film has to continuously evolve. I have several versions of Moothon. The first draft is pure but it has to keep evolving as long as the soul of the story doesn’t change.

Have awards and recognition made it easier to get producers?

Can you believe it — it hasn’t! I think I will struggle to finance every film that I make! When Liar’s Dice was selected for the Oscars, and won other awards, I thought: Wow, I have made it. But no, that was a misconception. So, for my next film, I made sure I had a star in it, and even then the producers were not confident. It always boils down to the box office and your image in the industry. If your image is that of a film-maker whose films go to international platforms, it’s believed that it won’t cater to the masses. MAMI changed the game for Moothon. When (festival director) Smriti Kiran called and said she wanted it to be the opening film of MAMI, she took my film and made it pan-Indian. I’m so grateful to them for giving me such a wonderful platform. I’m hoping all this will lead to my next producer — my next solid producer!

Why is it so difficult for non-commercial films to get financed and recover costs, considering that digital platforms have picked up such films in the past?

When Moothon was going on the floor, these platforms were just emerging. I’ll definitely look into that with my next film, but we’ll always be an independent film-makers’ tribe. If you want a certain budget and cast for your film, they [producers] will invariably ask you to compromise on some things. That is when you go back to looking for another producer, because you don’t want that to happen. I don’t want to be told you can’t cast this person, you can’t tell this story. I want to go with certain production costs to make a film, which may be questionable to some because they feel the film won’t recover the costs. So if Moothon makes it big, or when independent films work at the box office, there’ll be a rush to finance such projects because of a herd mentality. With all the platforms emerging it looks like a smoother ride for us.

Tell us about the cinematography of the film.

Rajeev Ravi has been the cinematographer for all my films, and we’re hand in glove, right from the script stage. He’s so good with shooting in low-lit spaces. He’s also my husband, but it’s comfortable working with him because we are people who do take their work back home and the workspace is sacrosanct. Even when we were dating, no one got to know about it because we were so professional on the set. (laughs).

What do you think of the new wave of Malayalam cinema?

Malayalam movies have broken new ground in the past few years. We are making pathbreaking cinema because of the influx of new film-makers who are making content-driven films and not star-driven ones. I feel that the industry has seen this narrative shift where even stars want to be a part of content-driven cinema. We have beautiful films coming out in Malayalam. I loved Kumbalangi Nights, Sudani from Nigeria and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum.

What after MAMI?

We will wait for the film’s commercial release. It’s slated for November.

Payel Majumdar Upreti

Published on October 04, 2019
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