Mahesh Vettiyar has written the story and screenplay and also co-directed Toonz’ new fantasy film Swami Ayyappan

Mahesh Vettiyar, a 34-year-old animator and avid cartoonist, who works at Toonz Animation India in Technopark, has trekked up the holy hill to Sabarimala “countless” times since he was six years old. Having been born and raised in the village of Vettiyar, a few miles down the road from Pandalam Palace, Mahesh “grew up on the legend” and is “well-versed” with the tale of how Manikandan, a prince of the royal family of Pandalam, came to be Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala. Now Toonz is retelling the legend of Lord Ayyappa as an animated action-adventure, fantasy flick titled Swami Ayyappan, based on Mahesh’s story and screenplay. Mahesh has also co-directed the film (along with Mumbai-based Chetan Sharma, chief executive officer of Animagic), which is all set to hit screens this coming Sabarimala season.

“You’d think that being familiar with the legend would make the job easier. The irony is that because the legend was so familiar it was all the more complicated to whittle it down; to blend myth and legend with history, fact and fiction all into 75 minutes. There’s plenty of mystery and suspense too,” says Mahesh, who has been in the animation industry for the past 11 years, after completing a computer graphics course at the Amrita Institute of Technology, Vallikkavu. “I worked my way up from being an ink and paint artist to being an animator,” he says. Over the years, he has worked on many of Toonz’ in-house and external productions and was working on Jil Jil Genie, a popular 3D/2D cartoon series that was aired on Cartoon Network – he wrote and directed 26 episodes and four movies of Jil Jil Genie – before beginning work on Swami Ayyappan. “P. Jayakumar, CEO of Toonz, came up with the idea for the film,” says Mahesh, who doesn’t seem surprised about the interest that the film has already garnered.

To write the story and script for Swami Ayyappan, Mahesh, who has always been a keen reader, read and referenced from texts such as Sreebhoothanada Sarvasam and Sreemathbhoothanada upakyanam Kilippattu, S.K. Nair’s Ayyappan and C. Prasad’s Pouranika Hindu Encyclopaedia. “I’m a stickler for details,” he says. “There are more than 20 books that tell various tales related to Lord Ayyappa. The more you read, though, the more you realise that there are many blanks to be filled! For example, we know that Manikandan’s adoptive father’s name was King Rajashekara of Pandalam. But his adoptive mother is always known just as the Queen. Nor are the names of the Mantri or the Vaidyar mentioned anywhere...,” says Mahesh. Apart from that, Mahesh and his team visited various places associated with the legend from where they got more clues. “Vavar, the warrior from Arabia who later became a devotee of Lord Ayyappa, is said to have landed in Kerala at a place called Kadakkara Halli. We think it’s today’s Kadakkarapally, a coastal village in Alappuzha, where archaeologists discovered an ancient shipwreck. So we’ve modelled Vavar’s ship on that ship. We’ve tried to stay true to the legend, yet have not compromised on historical authenticity,” says the animator.

If Mahesh is a skilled animator, he seems to be an even more skilled cartoonist. “That’s more of a hobby,” he says. Nevertheless, he has been a published cartoonist since he was in class 10 and his cartoon strips and features have been featured in many Malayalam magazines such as Kanyaka, Cinema Varika and Pakkanar, to name a few; his comic strip ‘Undappy’ that ran in Kanyaka for a number of years, is particularly popular. “I’ve always been fascinated by the fun and the details that can be zipped into the strip of space that is a cartoon. You need to have a sense of humour to be cartoonist, which I believe I have loads of! Cartooning is a painstaking job that involves a lot of research, but the best part of it is that the results are instantaneous,” says Mahesh.

His “hobbies” don’t stop there. Mahesh is also a writer (he wrote the film Kanchepurathe Kalyanam), an illustrator (he’s designed the covers for books by O.V. Vijayan, Madhavikutty, M. Mukundan, Punathil Kunjabdulla, and the likes), and is an aspiring filmmaker (he developed Toonz’ signature film for the International Film Festival of Kerala in 2010)... “My only issue is I don’t have time to do all that I want to do…”