K.R. Manoj, award-winning film director of Kanyaka Talkies, talks about his eventful journey through cinema and the film society movement in Kerala

A devout priest’s tryst with a B-grade cinema theatre is a quirky subject for a film. But not only did K.R. Manoj turn it into a movie, he is also garnering accolades for the film. Kanyaka Talkies, the film concerned, was premiered at the Mumbai International Film Festival a few days ago. The flick will open the Indian panorama section of the International Film Festival of India in Goa.

Speaking to MetroPlus, soon after the premiere of Kanyaka Talkies, his first feature film, Manoj says he was happy with the response of viewers but he was somehow not too pleased with the sound projection in the theatre. “Technical perfection is a must for me and I had spent a great deal of time and attention to detail to get the right sound designer and soundscape for the film in spite of budgetary constraints. So, I was a little concerned about the low sound projection in the theatre which affected the film’s soundscape,” he says, explaining in great detail why it happened and how it could have happened in the multiplex that also screens commercial potboilers.

It has been an interesting ride for the film buff and filmmaker who spends a lot of time planning his films and developing its theme before beginning the shooting. Beginning with a television series on Kathakali music for Doordarshan in 1997, the former public relations officer of the Kerala State Electricity Board quietly honed his skills as a director and script writer. Agni, a short film made in 2003, was an adaption of a short story in Malayalam. “We adapted it for the screen and that was an enjoyable experience,” says Manoj.

Four years later, 16mm- Memories Movement and a Machine was a sort of tribute to the film society movement.

16mm zooms in on the film society movement in Kerala and its relationship with a machine – the 16mm film projector. Although, the 16 mm has become history, this projector made the movement widespread and possible. My film traces the journey through frames that highlight the cultural changes brought about by the medium and the movement,” says Manoj.

In fact, Manoj himself is a product of the film society movement of Kerala. Glimpses of the best of world cinema followed by lively discussions on the politics and aesthetics of films and film directors have shaped cineastes who have not been afraid to experiment with narratives and themes in a star-driven industry. Manoj is one those film buffs who travelled with the film societies’ movement before stepping behind the camera to helm his own cinematic adventures.

“From watching films to becoming a delegate and curator of film festivals has been an educative experience. I always knew I wanted to make films but was waiting for the right moment,” says Manoj.

In the meantime, he became curator of Signs, a festival of short films that attracted leading alternative filmmakers in India. “Although we are exposed to the greatest of filmmakers, many of us don’t have the same level of exposure to documentaries and short films. Filmmaking has been democratised as never before and we have to take that into account,” says Manoj. So Signs includes long documentaries, short films of all kinds, animated films and so on.

It was his activities for the film society movement that took him to Kasaragod and brought him face to face with the tragedy that was unfolding there on account of indiscriminate use of the pesticide Endosulphan.

The anger and sorrow that he experienced is still present as he talks about it. That is when he was persuaded by his friends to make a documentary on the damage wrought by the pesticide. “My friend and cinematographer Shehnad Jalal and I felt that it had to be documented but then we wondered if turning the camera on these victimised people would be another form of violence,” he recalls. Several hurdles and doubts later, he coupled the plight of the people of Kasaragod to the ‘cancer trains of Punjab’ and completed the documentary A Pestering Journey in 2010.

“It is a voyage through two pesticide tragedies in post Independent India. We begin with asking the question who or what is a pest. What legitimises the killing of a species? From 1978 onwards people in 11 panchayats in Kasaragod have been subjected to aerial spraying of Endosulphan three times a year. A political and economic decision had completely overlooked the people living there. In Punjab, again the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides had affected their health,” fumes Manoj.

In addition to winning many regional and national awards, the film has been seen by scientists and legal luminaries. “It was screened in an international film festival last month and continues to move people with the questions it raises,” says Manoj.

By 2012 Manoj wanted to move on to a feature film and that was when he came across a story by Shajikumar, which he felt had tremendous cinematic possibilities. Shaji, Ranjani Krishna and Manoj himself worked on the script and began shooting by 2011.

His search for a sound designer ended when he was put in touch with Rajeevan Ayyappan, who happened to be in India for Mira Nair’s The Relucatant Fundamentalist. And then the film went on the floor. Within three months, the film got canned with live sound.

And now Manoj has a story with him but work will start only after he finishes the script. And when will Kerala get to see Kanyaka Talkies? “As part of the International Festival of Kerala,” says Manoj.

Kanyaka Talkies

Seventeen of Manoj’s friends chipped in to make the movie. Shehnad Jalal is the cinematographer and Rajeevan Ayyappan is the sound designer. Murali Gopy, Alencier Ley, Maniyan Pillai Raju, Lena and Indrans play important roles in the film.

Murali, a classmate of Manoj’s during his days as a student of journalism, plays the lead. “I was happy when Murali agreed to do the role of Father Michael Plathottathil. I did wonder if Murali would be able to play the priest in my mind. He is a script writer himself. But Murali became a director’s actor on my sets. This role will be a milestone in his career,” says Manoj.

Short Takes

Manoj says the film society movement has to change to adapt to the new situation and a new generation of movie goers. “I call it the post-Torrent era when we have to look at many people watching films after downloading it. They are aware and up to date about new filmmakers, trends, technical innovations and so on. The challenge is to make the Movement include such movie buffs and make it matter to them as well,” he explains.