Shyamaprasad Rajagopal

Pushing Boundaries with Timeless Theatrical Masteries

A discerning artistic flair that leaves an indelible impression on the minds of the spectators and realistic creations from the slice of life; Malayalam Film Director Shyamaprasad Rajagopal has always exhibited the love for cinema in its pristine form. The tone and texture of his movies exposes the emotions and experience of his characters to the audience.

Smitha Kamal sits for a chat with Shyamaprasad at the Taj Vivanta, Thiruvananthapuram, to discover his craft and the passion in giving life to stories.

It was the movie Agnisakshi that brought you into the limelight. That movie was released twenty years ago. So how do you view the transformation of the Malayalam cinema industry? It is not just cinema but everything that has changed over the last twenty years. The progression had been intensely rapid the last decade. And as far as cinema industry is concerned everything has changed, the technology, the business, the nature of the audience, sensibilities, and even the players. I find it exciting to work in this time as there is a new culture that is more accommodating. Many stories that were once conceived as unacceptable or unworkable can be created now. Plus the market has opened up in an extensive way with multiplexes, satellite channels, and the digital space. I consider myself fortunate to be working in this era. 

You had female actors playing strong characters in your movie, like Shobana in Agnisakshi and Ann Augustine in Artist. Is it something you create deliberately? It isn’t deliberate. It comes as a reaction to what I see in the society, especially this industry, which is a maledominated field. So subconsciously, some of the stories I pick are centred on women. I deem this process to be natural, as, in a fair world, this question would not have arisen. Women share an equal space as men in the society but most of us still feel surprised when a woman plays a leading role in a movie. 

Another reason would be my usage of literary works as the foundation of my movies. There are very strong woman characters in literature, some of them even surpassing the male ones. For instance, the female characters created by writer Madhavi Kutty. Therefore it is only natural that I place my focus onto these characters.

I find the life of an Indian woman, precisely a Malayali woman full of interesting contradictions. She is open to the changing world, yet she is being subtly restricted in many ways. The characters reflect the women I have met at different points of life, from my mother, wife, to my daughter to friends and colleagues. In fact, every artist should be observant about these contradictions that exist in the society

Most of your movies have been a reinterpretation of literary works. Yet some movies like Ritu and Ivide are based on original screenplays. How was it different to make movies which were based on original screenplays? I do not see a difference because in both ways the director is a participant in the authorship of the film. When you say reinterpretation, there an element of originality, which comes from your life, the observation of your surroundings, and the values you wish to speak about. Agnisakshi could be procreated in a totally different way, yet show complete faith and justice to the original literary text.

I attempt to create my world in Agnisakshi rather than being faithful to the novel. It is not important to be so, as the same novel is seen and experienced by different readers in unique ways. The perception is subjective. 

 

“I find the life of an Indian woman, precisely a Malayali woman full of interesting contradictions. She is open to the changing world, yet she is being subtly restricted in many ways.”

 

I use the same logic in recreating the novel. Regardless of whether the movie is created out of a novel or original screenplay, the process of execution is the same. I start from the genesis of the story, integrate into the characters, learn the progress, and understand the conflicts and the evolution of the plot.

Sometimes you read something that you strongly desire to be reinterpreted differently, something that can be beautifully adapted into a movie. Yet other times you want to talk about a theme, for instance, the changing scenario and the human conflicts in the backdrop of an IT world in Kerala, in Ritu. There is no literary work on to support that story. 

You have chosen an exotic location like Goa for your latest venture Hey Jude. How does the place contribute to the soul of the movie? I did not go in search of an exotic location, instead, I  went along with the characters to a place that changed their lives. I travel with the characters of all my movies. In Agnisakshi it was to an old Namboothiri household in Kerala in the 1950s. For Akale I searched for the vintage Anglo-Indian neighbourhoods. You would relate the location to certain parts of Kochi, but it was shot in Kannur and West Bengal. It is not the exoticism of the location, but the ambience and how it contributes to the evolution of the character.

 

“I believe that the act of experimenting in art is immoral or rather a devious and artificial way of presenting the concept. The artist or the director has no right to play with the pure relationship with him and the audience.”

 

Does the location play a character in your movie? Certainly. It helps in imparting an ambience to the movie as well as to the audience. The challenge is not to use the location a postcard, a practice seen in mainstream commercial movies. I do not believe in choosing Switzerland or South America for a song. I want the life of the place to be absorbed into the movie.

The movie English was shot in London, not to highlight the place, but to portray the Malayali life in London. And this includes the shabby, squalid, and crowded places, not just the typical London we have in our minds. I did Ivide in Atlanta, not in New York or Los Angeles as I feel it has a cold, lonely and grave character relevant to the theme of the movie. I search for a place that has a soul, instead of mainstream tourist spots. 

Have you experienced serendipity in your work? Absolutely. I have been quite serendipitous while finding actors and location, and even getting investors. The location in Akale is one such instance. After many journeys in Kochi, Kollam and other areas where the Anglo-Indian communities have settled, I was travelling to Bangalore via Kannur. Incidentally, I had to pass through Buranaserry in Kannur and there it is, the location that seemed to be laid out for me. Some of the castings had been serendipitous as well. 

 

“Many stories that were once conceived as unacceptable or unworkable can be created now. Plus the market has opened up in an extensive way with multiplexes, satellite channels, and the digital space. I consider myself fortunate to be working in this era.” 

 

Your movies have been enriched with visual entities like the grey hues in Ore Kadal and the glass figurines and the frosted glass frames in Akale. How do explain this affinity towards artistic elements? This is a visual media where you speak through images and sounds. In fact sounds of the movie affect you on an unconscious level. I love visual and graphic arts, I study painting and art. I am fond of sculptures, architecture, the design of everyday objects, their colour combination, and their shapes. These excite me and it should excite every filmmaker.

How would you define today’s audience? Today’s audience is definitely different from yesterday. There are multiple modes through which you can watch a movie. Twenty years ago you had to go to the theatre to watch movies, fifteen years ago you could watch it on your television, now you can view a movie right through your mobile device. The initial audience of a movie is youngsters. If a film can create a curiosity to attract them, the film survives for the coming few weeks. That is how the market works and every filmmaker has to accept this reality. A film has to touch the youth first, create a buzz, and then you can have the crowds flocking in. Otherwise, it will end up as a movie watched on TV or internet. Now there are several video-on-demand streaming media services and we can expect viewership through that streams as well. 

 

“The challenge is not to use the location a postcard, a practice seen in mainstream commercial movies. I do not believe in choosing Switzerland or South America for a song. I want the life of the place to be absorbed into the movie.”

 

You will agree that our young filmmakers are raring to experiment with themes and techniques now. What advice will you give to them as someone who has ventured into many uncharted territories? Actually, I never experiment with cinema or art. Experimentation means there is constant attempt to narrate a story in a particular way. I believe, here the director is interested in the mode of the narration rather than what he wants to convey. Each of my films has become as such because it can only be narrated that way; the theme, the ideas, and the emotions can only be spoken in that specific line. I believe that the act of experimenting in art is immoral or rather a devious and artificial way of presenting the concept. The artist or the director has no right to play with the pure relationship with him and the audience.

Movies should come from ones inner self as an unbearable expression that you have been keeping within yourself. It should be original, interesting and relevant, and then the result would also be something fantastic. My advice would, therefore, be to be true to yourself and be open to everything. Learn to watch, observe, take in life as much as you can and travel. Read, read and read as much as possible and experience the different books. Read and experience travel magazines, observe the pictures, and learn new concepts.

Unfortunately, this generation does not read that much and that is my biggest grouse. Reading involves mental activity and enhances your imagination unlike watching a visual. 

The background music and the songs of the movie Ore Kadal belonged to single raga, Shubhapanthuvarali. Can you tell us more about the choice of a single scale for the entire movie and the reason for that certain raga? Every good director will have a crisp idea of the visual and audio elements that are going to be present in the movie. Ore Kadal is not a typical movie with a number of song and dance items, instead, it carries a single core emotion and you explore its multiple facets. The cinema is about love, attachment, commitment, loneliness, the urge to find some connection in this world, and the hardship behind it. The movie revolves around this single theme and I felt the music should also reflect this oneness, so the music was created on a single scale.

The selection of the raga Shubhapanthuvarali was again serendipitous. This raga is always present in my mind and it is deeply sorrowful and meditative in its nature. I suggested it to the music director who knew the different levels of this raga and created the music around it. You will be intensely moved into a trance as everything is in a single mood of Shubhapanthuvarali for two hours. 

Can you share some of your travel experiences and let your readers know some of your favourite destinations, both abroad and in Kerala. Having a presence in the juries of several film festivals has taken me to almost all places in the world. The remarkable ones would be the trips to Japan, especially to Tokyo and Fukuoka. Fukuoka is a small, industrial yet beautiful place with rich traditions. Tokyo is an intricate city filled with shopping malls and marketplaces. There are several storeys of shopping mall underground and connected to the main town through tunnels and underground railway. You get dazed by the networks of shopping places of this city. I also enjoyed travelling to Tehran in Iran, Cairo, and Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic. Karlovy Vary is a picture perfect place where is everything is beautiful. Travelling has given me an opportunity to mingle with an international population.

Within Kerala, I love travelling to places that have a cold climate and a high altitude, like hill stations, my favourites being Ponmudi, Kodaikanal, Vagamon, Munnar, and the Himalayas. I travel to write and as a part of making movies. Electra was written in a remote town in New York during winter. The coldness and loneliness are reflected in the film.