Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s award-winning movie, has been produced by Mammootty and Lijo. It was featured in the New York Times list of top five international movies to watch.
Thankam, streaming on Netflix, has been produced by scenarist and scriptwriter Syam Pushkaran, director-actor Dileesh Pothan and actor Fahadh Faasil under their, Bhavana Studios banner. Iratta, trending on Netflix, has actor Joju George and director Martin Prakkat as co-producers.
The list of Malayalam movies produced by actors and reputed technicians is long and impressive. With thespians and technicians, including the youth brigade, producing Malayalam movies, many of which have gone on to do well at the box office or been experimental movies, there is no dearth of creativity in the Malayalam film industry.
Director-cinematographer Rajeev Ravi says that it is a healthy trend since these professionals are aware of the ups and downs of the film industry and are not fly-by-night operators who make a movie or two to bask in reflected glory or see movies as a means to make a quick buck. “I would call the people behind Bhavana Studios — Syam-Dileesh-Fahadh — creative producers. Creative producers, a Hollywood by-product, has found some space in the Hindi film industry, especially among those who follow or believe in studio systems,” says Rajeev.
Broadly agreeing with Rajeev is editor-director Mahesh Narayanan, whose latest film Ariyippupremiered in the competition section of the Locarno Film Festival. Incidentally, the film’s co-producers include its lead actor Kunchacko Boban and Mahesh.
Mahesh feels it helps the film if the producer also helps in mounting the film. “Aamir Khan is the best creative producer I can think of. Lagaan would not have been produced this way but for him. It required a producer like him to market the film and convince people that it was a film to support. It helps the director to have a producer like that,” says Mahesh.
In Malayalam cinema, veteran Madhu was perhaps one of the first among actors to begin his own production house and studio, Uma Studio, and direct 12 films, most of which were produced by him. He also produced about 15 films and also acted in many of them. A pioneer, Madhu took the path less travelled and proved that actor-director could be able producers too.
In the past, entrepreneurs such as K Ravindran Nair had supported avant-garde directors who went on to become international names — Adoor Gopalakrishnan and G Aravindan. But such producers are rare at present; many indie directors depend on crowdfunding or on actors keen on stepping out of their comfort zones.
Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Kayattam, a surrealistic film, was produced by Manju Warrier who played the protagonist.
Pushing the envelope
Syam points out that actors who want to experiment and avoid being stereotyped are happy to put their money into movies that give them a chance to prove their acting chops. He says that being part of a production house has its advantages and disadvantages. “Since we are spending from our pocket, we can narrate the stories that appeal to us and not be driven by market compulsions. I have heard that in the past, producers would be annoyed at directors pursuing experimental themes and narratives as they were worried that they would lose their money; that was a burden on the director,” he explains.
Film lore has it that even a director like Padmarajan was under pressure to change the denouement of the cult classic, Mohanlal-Shari-starrer Namukku Paarkkan Munthirithoppukal (1986), which depicted the lead characters remaining firm in their relationship even after the woman is raped.
It might have been to get past this financial nit-picking that during the eighties, Mammootty, Mohanlal, director IV Sasi, his wife and actor, Seema, and MC Philip, aka Century Kochumon, formed a production house, Casino. Evergreen hits such as Nadodikkattu, Gandhi Nagar 2nd Street,Adiyozhukkukal and Karimbinpoovinakkare were produced under the banner of Casino.
For the love of cinema
Mohanlal, Maniyanpillai Raju, Manju Warrier, Prithviraj Sukumaran, Kunchacko Boban, Vineeth Sreenivasan, Nivin Pauly, Nazriya Nazim, Dulquer Salmaan, Amala Paul and Jayasurya are some of the actors and Amal Neerad, Anwar Rasheed, Lal, Ranjith Sankar and Martin Prakkat are directors who have also stepped into film production.
Santosh Sivan and Rajeev Ravi are also producers or part of collectives that make movies.
In the last decade, several such creative collaborations have taken Malayalam cinema to new heights.
Nevertheless, editor-curator Bina Paul says a creative producer certainly helps in opening up new avenues for a movie. “A creative producer is not Mr Moneybags but he helps raise funds for a movie and to shape it well. At present, I don’t know anyone who goes by the title of ‘creative producer’ in Malayalam cinema. But from what I have seen, many of our producers are creative producers themselves.”
Mahesh feels that if greenlighting a script and moving to the shooting stage gets delayed because of bureaucratic hassles, then such titles are best avoided. He elaborates: “One of the advantages of Malayalam cinema is the speed with which we progress from a script to the shooting stage. The director, scenarist or writer and producer might sit together and quickly take decisions. It is financially sound and helps in completing a film quickly.”
Nevertheless, Syam admits Bhavana Studios faced teething problems in marketing and garnering publicity for their first film, Kumbalangi Nights. “We are on a learning curve and now there is a system in place to market our movies. A creative producer might make the burden less for the director and writer. However, our aim is to not make films with an eye on the market alone. We have stories to narrate and share with viewers.”
Mahesh also says that a creative producer who is familiar with filmmaking can help ease the stress of the director who can the concentrate on the making of a film.
Rajeev asserts that some might see such creative producers as helping a film but “on my sets, I will be the only creative producer!”
Meanwhile, some of the most-awaited films of 2023 are bankrolled by actors and technicians themselves. Lijo’s Mohanlal-starrer Malaikottai Valiban is funded by the actor and Lijo; director Aashiq Abu is putting in the money for his Neelavelicham; Mammootty-starrer Bilal has director Amal Neerad as producer; Blessy’s magnum opus Aadujeevitham, starring Prithviraj, has the director as one of the producers; Dulquer Salmaan’s King of Kotha is bankrolled by his production house, while the Mammootty-Jyothika film, Kaathal - The Core, directed by Jeo Baby, is produced by the thespian’s Mammootty Kampany, which earlier produced his Rorschach.