MATHILUKAL was the first film that was based on a story written by someone else. Why did you choose Basheer?
I read the story again and still found it stimulating. There was a real challenge in filming it, basically that of creating a character without showing her. Secondly it is about the working of a writer's mind, it is a journey through his mindscape. So it was an opportunity to recreate Basheer the writer and the man proper. I read all his works, and then sat down to write the script. When I met Basheer to acquire the rights etc., he readily agreed and asked at the end, ''You will show me the final script, won't you?" I didn't say yes or no; but on the way back I told Dr. M M Basheer (well known literary critic and a friend of the writer) that it would be difficult, and asked him to convey it to Basheer gently. Because every writer has certain favourite things which he wouldn't want to forego; but as far as a film is concerned, the story is only a starting point. We bring a lot many new things to it and that is how a script is developed.
After completing the film, I was particular that Basheer should be the first to see it. I screened the film at Kozhikode for Basheer. After seeing the film, everyone got up, but Basheer was still sitting. I went near him and he said, "not a dull moment". At the press meeting after the screening, Basheer was the one who answered most of the questions about the film. It was a good experience, associating with a great writer. He wanted me to make films based on some of his other stories also like Entuppappakkoranendarnnu and Pathummayude Aadu. But I told him it was difficult to do justice to them, to make a film that is as good as or better than the story.
While on the way to watch the movie, he was eager to know whether the film had retained the same ending as the book. The story ends with the protagonist standing outside the jail gate, a rose in his hand. But the film has a different ending. It ends with a dry twig being thrown up on the other side of the wall. I thought the shot of the dry branch rising and falling against the vast blue sky summed up the spirit of the film. After seeing the film, Basheer liked the way I ended the film.
Why did you choose MATHILUKAL of all his stories?
I found MATHILUKAL, at least initially quite a challenging subject to make a film on. To have an unseen woman as the heroine of a romantic tale was fine as reading material. But how would one translate it into a visual narrative? And when I delved deeper into it, I could read more complexities into it.
In MATHILUKAL, one could look at the space that the protagonist is occupying in the film as that imagined by him, from the way it is cut off from the rest of the world, the way an array of characters present themselves before him.
In the film, Basheer treats all the characters, right from the Jail Superintendent to the murder convicts, with equal concern and camaraderie.
Basheer has confided that there really was a woman on the other side of the wall. But she was convicted of murdering her husband with a 'chiravatthadi' (the kitchen utensil used for scraping coconut). These details have been held back in the story, as it would go against the romance that was to be built around the character.
Many critics felt that the jail life depicted in the film was too cosy.
To start with, he was imprisoned along with other politicians. There are indications in the film itself that the struggle was about to end. Everyone is expecting independence. The British will leave, and these very political prisoners will be the rulers of tomorrow. So the jail administration is not very harsh on them. They actually help them in exchanging letters etc. Moreover, Travancore had never been under direct British rule. Naturally the Travancore prisons were not very harsh with such prisoners. Basheer was imprisoned for being critical about the Maharaja. He was not imprisoned for theft or murder. And he enjoyed all the liberties of a political prisoner.
It was also made at a time when 'wall' was a predominant image with the fall of the Berlin wall. How was it received outside India?
What were the other challenges in translating Basheer into film?
When you adapt a story, it is very important that the filmmaker sifts out of the original and extract a text which is all his own to follow. For instance, in the story there is a sentence: "I have kept watch over death". This single sentence has become a long sequence quite central to the film beginning with the head warder waking up Basheer in the early morning. The convict to be hanged before daybreak had asked for tea. The viewer is made to be with Basheer until the last bell rings for the convict. The whole sequence is built up through little movements, exchanges of looks, dialogues in monosyllables etc. to get the viewer involved.
I think the use of KPAC Lalitha's voice for the woman on the other side of the wall to some extent takes the magic out of it, for Malayalees are very familiar with her voice, and will identify it immediately with her image. Don't you think so?
Not that I did not anticipate this problem. I had made every effort to use a new voice. But I could not find one that was as sensuous and expressive as Lalita's. I had auditioned a bout sixty people from different parts of Kerala. And then finally I decided that a familiar, yet good voice was better than an unfamiliar bad voice.
How do you decide upon the casting of actors?
I have always felt that non-stars have done splendidly in your films when compared to the stars. For example Gopi in KODIYETTAM and Karamana in ELIPPATHAYAM appear as made for the role. Whereas I don't feel the same about Mammootty in MATHILUKAL.
In the beginning we find Thommi squatting in front of the toddy shop; in the end, we find Patelar in the same position near the waterfalls. He is squatting meekly watching over the rice boiling in the pot while Thommi is bathing in the river naked and in pure abandon. He has grown dependent on Thommi. He has found a comrade in him and manages with him a certain degree of exchange as well. Patelar is also a victim here.
It is Thommi who makes him possible, for you need a slave to create a master. So you needed an imposing figure in the role of Patelar. And Mammootty perfectly suited it. Body and appearance are very important physiognomy in general. Here the propensity to violence is also a major factor.
It was the case with MATHILUKAL also. My effort was to cast someone who suits the self-image of Basheer during that period of his life. In his writings, Basheer always talks about his appearance as handsome, well built and strong. But the popular image we have of him is that of an old man. In the film, he is in his youth, so I thought Mammootty suited it eminently. I couldn't be happy with a lesser actor in that role. It was my intention to capture the image Basheer had of himself.
When he saw the film, Basheer joked to his wife, "Mammootty is not as handsome as I was but he approximates!"
And the two characters Mammootty did in MATHILUKAL and VIDHEYAN are opposites. While one is a self reflective, creative person, the other is a ruffian, devoid of any sense of sophistication or finer feelings.