Anil Radhakrishnan Menon says that his maiden film, North 24 Kaatham, forced him out of his comfort zone.
Anil Radhakrishnan Menon is quite dismissive about his past. He says he has changed eight schools, studied in five colleges, worked in advertising and animation, and lived across the country. “All you really need to know is that I had jobs where I did the same thing daily; so every five years or so, I’d jump into something completely new.” His current adventure is as writer and director of one of the most confident debuts in recent Malayalam cinema — North 24 Kaatham (N24K). As we speak, congratulatory calls and messages pour in while rave reviews rise on the Internet. One can’t blame Anil for revelling in such a successful present.
N24K tells the story of Harikrishnan, a programmer who has obsessive compulsive traits, although the term is never mentioned in the film. Essayed brilliantly by Fahadh Faasil, Hari has several quaint mannerisms; he overachieves at work, has little to say to anyone and is appalled by dirt, constantly washing and cleaning his hands, plates, chairs and tables. “Hari is a lot like me,” says Anil, “Not his egocentrism, but many of his habits are mine too, although not that extreme,” he laughs. “Every one of us has our little quirks; and the character is built from many of the habits I’ve seen of people around me as well,” says Anil.
Like Anil, Hari too loathes travel but the plot takes Hari through 380-odd km across Kerala, on a hartal day, by trains and tempos, buses, bikes and boats, and on foot. He travels with a young social worker named Narayani, played by Swati Reddy, and with teacher and communist Gopalettan, played by Nedumudi Venu.
Just as Hari’s journey urges open his rigid world, Anil says making N24K forced him out of his comfort zone too. The story had panned out in his mind three years ago, and he had discussed it then with friend from his advertising days, Anwar Rasheed, hoping that he would direct it. But Anwar suggested he take up the project himself since he knew the lead character so thoroughly. “So I began writing the script. But, since I’ve shifted so many schools with my father's bank job, my Malayalam isn’t very good. So it was my mother who helped me write the exact words,” says Anil.
Shooting the film was not easy either. “I am afraid of water; I cannot step into any pond or river. But we had to shoot in the backwaters, on a fishing boat, and across a makeshift bridge tied at four coconut trees! The bridge was later washed away even.” The rains played havoc too. N24K was shot in early July during the heaviest monsoon Kerala has seen. “That too eighty per cent of the film was shot outdoors. But only one scene features rain.”
Alongside its sensitive exploration of a character with OCD, N24K also provides a subtle commentary on the state of Kerala and its hartals. The film’s trajectory is spurred by the struggle caused by absolute shutdown of all amenities. “Hartals are such a frequent event in our lives. From school children onwards, everyone is happy about the ‘holiday’. But I wanted to take a sarcastic, comic look at hartals. I’ve tried travelling just 10 km on a hartal day by hitchhiking and it’s tough. Imagine crossing the State!” Their journey is thus peppered by people the travellers meet along the way, each with their own life histories. From a couple in love who don’t share the same language, to NRI returnees, the characters play out scenes he had fantasised of over the years, says Anil.
Besides its story, N24K’s credit is also its strong cast and crew. “Working with Fahadh, Swati and Nedumudi Venu was a tremendous experience. During the entire shoot, we had, at most, two retakes caused by their errors. The rest were mine. They were that good,” says Anil. From cinematographer Jayesh Nair to music director Govind Menon, Anil says his crew is drawn from a creative community he has been friends with for several years now. “Govind is an amazing musician. He created six songs for this film of which we’ve used four. The other two are for the future,” says Anil.
What the future holds, Anil is unsure of just yet, but he is certain that films and filmmaking will feature strongly. His influences range from the Hollywood classics to European alternative cinema. But Anil says he has deliberately not watched more than three films in the last three years to avoid any tangible influence on his own work. For now, he has five of his own scripts brewing, but he says he would like to direct someone else’s writing. “N24K was my vision, so it was easy to execute. To understand and film someone else’s vision can’t be easy. Now that’s a new challenge.”