Unpredictable is what director Hariharan wants to be

At the old bungalow, on a hill’s edge, there aren’t many signs of life. The courtyard is empty, the windows open. The red polished floor in the long verandah is edged by dust. When work is on top of his mind, director Hariharan retreats to this quaint guest house in Kozhikode, where silence and a man servant are his closest aides. “Working in Chennai is almost impossible. People troop in all the time; then the phone calls,” he says. “When I want to read, write or discuss films, I come here.”

It is 50 years since he boarded the train to Chennai to know films. Forty one years since his first film as director. In his repertoire are films that charmed the international audience and reaped national awards. But, cinema, he says, is still a meticulous exercise — a vision worked down to the last detail in his head before he steps out to shoot each day. “It is like going for an examination every day,” he says.

That is how he learnt filmmaking — meticulously. “From 1964 -72, I lived day and night in studios — AVM, Vahini, Gemini, Golden. There isn’t a studio where I have not worked as a technician,” says Hariharan. His days were neatly packaged for different aspects of filmmaking which at the end worked better than any classes. “I joined the industry working as an apprentice to director P.B. Unni. In the meanwhile, I would learn photography from U. Rajagopal and editing from M.S. Mani. In effect, no time went waste. I worked in 30 films as assistant director,” Hariharan recollects.

Dreaming films

Cinema appeared a natural choice for a boy who was convinced he had “an artistic outlook.” Growing up in Thamarassery, in a nook of Kozhikode, the avenues were few. “But my father was a musician and a teacher. He taught me music and I also took part in small-time theatre centered around the library,” says Hariharan. But his most pronounced brush with art was through painting. He studied painting at Universal Arts and even taught art at a couple of government schools, till actor Bahadur met him in Kozhikode. “It was through him that I met people in the film world.”

Hariharan says his skills as an artist has added hues to his film shots. “Cinema is a painting done on screen. The touch of an artist is pronounced in the frame composition; in how naturally beautiful he makes a frame,” explains Hariharan who appears to be an effective blend of the artistic and the adventurous. His career is testimony.

When mainstream Malayalam cinema thrived on melodrama, as a debutant director he was different with Ladies Hostel. The comedy with Prem Nazir in the lead began a trend and Hariharan himself followed it up with about 20 other films mostly with the same hero. “Most of these films were huge commercial hits. They created space for comedies.” The list is long. College Girl, Love Marriage. And there were blockbusters — Sharapanjaram, Babumon.

But success made him restless. “I was sure I did not want to be predictable. The thrill is in taking risks without bothering about success or failure.” That marked the second phase in Hariharan’s career where he moved towards cinema that plunged into mindscapes. “For me, there are two kinds of films — those that conquer the mind and those that conquer the eye. I realised it is films that stay in the mind that matter.”

It was also the time one of the most enduring partnerships in the Malayalam film industry was born - that between him and M.T. Vasudevan Nair. Hariharan admits the blend of M.T.’s scripts and his direction raised many eyebrows. “People wondered what was cooking. On one hand, I was this utterly commercial director. On the other was M.T., known for his rich, art-house work. It was script writer T. Damodaran who suggested we work together. M.T. had confidence in me and on my part I was familiar with all his works. Finally, we picked up his short story to make Idavazhiyille Poocha Minda Poocha,” says Hariharan.

Long collaboration

From this confident engagement was born films that defined Malayalam cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. They travelled into the mysteries of the mind and relationships and were also artistic. Amrutham Gamaya, Aaranyakam, Panchagni, Nakhakshathagal, Parinayam are still instant recall. “We have a good understanding. Even when M.T. tells a story in one sentence I can fathom its cinematic possibilities,” he says.

From the director and the script writer’s desire to broaden their horizon were born two gigantic period productions – Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha and Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja. The former is now part of lore and the latter garnered both awards and box-office success. Hariharan’s films have been few in the past decade, with Pazhassi Raja (2009) taking much of his time. However, it does not appear the director is interested in numbers. His basics are still glued to tradition. “I am clear in my mind about how the visual media should be used. People will accept clean films. But now the stress is only on entertainment.”

Art and technique

Though the accent on mere entertainment bothers him, he is excited about the leaps in technology. He has melded technique and art intelligently in his films. His latest release Ezhamathe Varavu may not be a commercial hit, but it exquisitely brings together the two. “It is a film I like a lot. Probably, we did not market it well. The climax where the actor and a tiger are in confrontation was done in CG (computer generated). The tiger sequences were done in Australia while Vineeth’s scenes were shot in Thalassery. But the impact was such that people asked me if Vineeth was okay after the shoot. In fact, the actor and the tiger have never come face to face.”

Hariharan, meanwhile, is plunging deeper into scripts and ideas. A film on the story of Payyamvelli Chandu is on his mind. Another project with actor Mammooty is on the cards. However, attention never veers away from a magnum opus with M.T. on his masterpiece Randaam Oozham. “The text is complex and cannot be confined to a single film. We are considering making it in two parts and have left it to the producers to decide. If it is going on floor, Mohanlal will play the protagonist.”