Filmmaker and writer B. Unnikrishnan on why he chose to give movies a shot and his multiple roles in tinsel town
It was the realisation that he was not cut out to be an academician that made filmmaker and scenarist B. Unnikrishnan rethink his career options after working as a teacher in various capacities in different colleges. With a failed business behind him, he did not want to venture on that path either. That is when he decided to rewrite his career plans, and wrote his first award-winning screenplay Jalamarmaram (1999) on the politics of water and environmentalism. Scripting, especially thrillers and suspense-filled stories, he discovered, was his forte.
“Alfred Hitchcock and Freud have highlighted the element of suspense in all good stories. And I am a great admirer of Hitchcock. Look at K.G. George’s films. When I see his films, I feel I should stop writing and directing. I believe that all good storytellers retain that suspense in their narrative to hold the attention of the listener. Even a movie like Padmarajan’s Thoovanathumbikal, I feel, had suspense. Till the last minute, the viewer was on tenterhooks to discover the choice that Mohanlal’s character makes in the film,” says Unnikrishnan, an unabashed fan of Agatha Christie’s, who, he emphasises, remains a life-long inspiration.
The big screen beckoned and he found himself writing for Suresh Gopi’s hugely popular cop stories prior to occupying the director’s chair in 2006 for Smart City. His second film, Madambi, a Mohanlal-starrer, conquered the box-office.
“But Cover Story, my first screenplay for a feature film that was directed by G.S. Vijayan, was a major flop. Through trial and error, I learnt how to write a successful screenplay,” he says, encapsulating in a few words his efforts to succeed in the film industry without a godfather or a mentor.
Cut to the present. Phone calls constantly interrupt the conversation at the coffee shop of Hotel South Park in the capital city, as he get calls from various quarters regarding his new film I Love Me, which was censored on that day. The air of confidence is unmistakable as he explains why he makes his kind of films although his inclination is towards a different genre of movies. It was financial necessity that made him a screenplay writer but it was his passion for cinema that made him a filmmaker. The only son of Bhaskaran Pillai, a former college Principal, and Ponnamma, a homemaker, Unnikrishnan did not take the path much travelled. “I was a good student with a head for numbers. So my father thought I would be an engineer; when I chose to study literature, he thought I was headed for the civil services. My parents were quite puzzled as I kept changing my profession. I become bored very easily. Serendipity landed me in cinema and I found that to be my calling,” he says.
His introduction to world cinema was through a cousin, G. Balachandran Menon. In the early eighties, college campuses were hubs of cultural and political activities and Unnikrishnan, an undergraduate student of literature in University College, Thiruvananthapuram, blossomed in that environment. “The film society movement was at its peak. It was a decade after the Emergency and it was a period when many students came under the influence of Marxism and Left philosophers. We read extensively and intellectual discussions centred on literary criticism, post structuralism, deconstruction, philosophers, poets and authors. It was also a period of intellectual ferment,” recalls Unnikrishnan. He went on to do his post-graduation from CMS college in Kottayam and M.Phil from the School of Letters but “never bothered to complete my doctorate”.
Derrida, Gramsci, Brecht, Latin American and Russian authors, and, closer home, O.V. Vijayan, Satchidanandan, Kadammanitta, Zachariah and others were pushing the envelope with their writing and thoughts and they greatly influenced the youth in Kerala who were willing to spend hours reading their works. “It is not easy to understand some of their works and theories but we were willing to take the effort to do that. It is easy to pretend to be an intellectual and pontificate on the ills of the world but it takes work and time to make sense of different literary and philosophical theories,” says Unnikrishnan.
Before you get the opportunity to ask him if his present films reflect his reading and leanings, he says: “You might wonder if my filmography reflects my beliefs. My explanation is very simple. I make films to earn a living. Moreover, despite my beliefs, I don’t despise popular culture and don’t look at entertainment with disdain. It is not easy to entertain.” Nevertheless, the filmmaker says he does not understand the euphoria about the ‘new gen’ films creating waves at the box-office. “Every 10 years or so, there is a churning in the movie industry that throws up different trends. This is one of those cyclic changes and nothing that we have not seen before,” feels Unnikrishnan.
Once the promotional work for I Love Me is done, he plans to begin work on his film that he plans to write himself.
“Come January 1, I will shut myself in my house to work on the script of Mr. Fraud, with Mohanlal in the lead. I have a thread of the story in my mind and it will develop only when I begin working on it – in the old fashioned way of putting pen to paper,” says Unni before winding up the interview.
I want to make money to start my production house and make the kind of films I want to make and also produce films made by young aspiring filmmakers.
I enjoy both writing and direction. Writing is a lonely job while direction is all about team work and coordination.
One of my favourite films in the recent past is TD Dasan, Std VI B. Sreenivasan’s Chinthavishtayaya Shyamala is another favourite of mine.
My dream is to make N.S. Madhavan’s Thiruttu from the perspective of Suhara, character in the book.
Awards hold no charm for me. I continue to believe that awards are the handouts of the authority.
My wife is Rajeswari Menon, an assistant professor of English at SCMS Business School.
My daughter, Durga, is a student of economics of St. Teresa’s College.
‘Not an armchair thinker’
“I don’t want to be an armchair thinker who only talks. That is why I work as an office-bearer of FEFKA, an organisation of 17 trade unions in cinema. I found that the daily wage workers in cinema were the ones who worked the longest. They had no insurance, no timings regarding their work, no fixed wages, and were left to the mercy of fate if something untoward happened to them during the course of their work. We worked hard to change that and now all of them have a contract for three years that decides their wages and terms of work. I am proud that we could change things for the better for this group of workers.”