IT professional Ajayan Venugopalan, writer and co-director of online sitcom Akkarakazchakal, talks about making his entry into Mollywood as scriptwriter of Shyamaprasad’s English, which releases today.
Unlike some of the characters in his Akkarakazchakal, an online comedy series that brings out the quirky side of Malayalis living in the United States (U.S.), Ajayan Venugopalan does not come across as your typical yuppie expatriate. Despite having lived in the U.S. for well over a decade now, there’s no trace of that tell-tale accent, flashy gizmos or broad hints of a fancy car in the driveway.
Instead, it’s all about down-to-earth, self-deprecating Malayali humour, an enduring passion for the movies and “a mini-van stuffed with filmmaking equipment” for the New Jersey-based IT professional, scenarist and filmmaker. This Friday (May 25), it’s “dream come true” time for Ajayan as he makes his debut in Mollywood as the scenarist of director Shyamaprasad’s new film, English, a dark tale of the complexities of Malayalis living in London.
“It’s an awesome feeling!” says Ajayan, his eyes twinkling behind his wayfarers, his pearly whites flashing into easy smiles. Ajayan is on a two-week trip to Kerala to “catch the excitement” prior to the release of the movie.
“Being a part of filmdom is something that I have been working towards since my school and college days. I used to write a lot. The only problem was I had no focus. If one year, I was interested in poetry, the next it was short stories. In college I turned to writing lyrics and composing music,” adds the 37-year-old who hails from Palakkad.
It was one such music album, Spandanangal, composed just after he moved to New Jersey, which ultimately led to the phenomenon that is Akkarakazhchakal.
The weekly sitcom that revolves around a Malayali insurance agent named George Thekkinmootil and his family and friends, ran for 50 episodes and was watched online by thousands of Malayalis from across the world. It was also picked up for telecast by Kairali TV.
“Truthfully, I am yet to get over the hangover of Akkarakazhchakal. It was so much fun. It was all for fun, really – just a small bunch of like-minded film buffs from various walks of life, having a ball every weekend, eating biriyani, filming the series and learning about the process of filmmaking. In retrospective, we made a lot of mistakes during the shoot. For example, in one scene that featured two male nurses lounging around in what is their bachelor pad, and filmed in my home, you can actually make out my wife, Nisha, standing in the kitchen! In another you can see a part of my shirt. Yet, it was all overlooked and accepted by the audience. That’s when I realised the value of content,” says Ajayan.
The cast and crew also went on to make Akkarakazhachakal: The Movie and some of them such as Josekutty Valiyakallumkal, who plays angst-ridden George, and Jacob Gregory, who plays his loveable sidekick Girigiri, have now found their footing in Mollywood. Ajayan too has been keeping himself busy directing short films (his Penumbra was screened at Cannes in 2012) and, of course, scripting English.
“English has a lot of comedy but it’s the satirical kind. Shyam sir and I have been planning the film for quite a while now. Originally it was titled New York and was actually set in the city. Then one fine day, I had to shift the milieu to London. I found that Malayali life in both the cities has a lot of parallels, the same as you would find with any Western metro. But in New York, while a Malayali or any Indian, for that matter, is rather alienated among the multitude of races, in London, they are actually a part of an ethnic majority and have sort of a support network,” says Ajayan.
The film unfolds through the stories of four individuals who engage with the city on different levels. If one character finds it a comfortable space, for another, life is a struggle. To another it’s an alien culture. Yet another character has roots that run deep in the city.
“We’ve taken care to ensure that the characters themselves represent a cross section of Malayalis. Saraswathy (Nadia Moidu) is a well-heeled Palakkad Iyer, while Joy (Mukesh), a corner store owner, hails from Thiruvalla. Sebin (Nivin Pauly), brought up in Abu Dubai, is a global citizen. Sankaran (Jayasurya) is a Kathakali artiste from Sreekrishnapuram, near Cherpulassery,” explains Ajayan, agreeing that the characters are in a way inspired by real life people and stories of his time in the U.S.
“English was a challenging shoot, not least because we shot in sync sound in London and with a limited crew. But it was a great experience that has given me enough subjects to make at least five more movies!” adds Ajayan.
Meanwhile, next up is writing the screenplay of Mohanlal-Sreenivasan-Mukesh starrer Peruchazhi, to be directed by Arun Vaidyanathan.