When costume designer Stephy Zaviour told friends that she was set to direct a film she was warned that there would be frustration and a lot of tears. “There were no tears, if there was a problem I would just deal with it. What is the point of tears?” says the award-winning costume designer who makes her directorial debut with Madhura Manohara Moham.
Starring Bindu Panicker, Rajisha Vijayan, Saiju Kurup, Sharafudheen, and Vijayaraghavan among others, Madhura Manohara Moham is a ‘family, comedy drama’. “It is peopled by characters that we may or may not know. I am not claiming that this is a ‘different’ film, but there are parts in it that might resonate with some of us.” It is the story of a mother, Bindu Panicker, and her three children essayed by Sharafudheen, Rajisha Vijayan and Arsha Chandini Baiju.
What she does not say is that it would take more to make her cry.
Stephy chose fashion design with an eye on the film industry, determined to make a career as a costume designer. She made her debut designing costumes for Lukka Chuppi and Lord Livingston 7000 Kandi in 2015. Guppy landed her first State Award in 2018.
Getting to where she is right now, making the journey, literally and metaphorically, from Wayanad to establishing herself in the Malayalam film industry without connections, designing for films such as Aadujeevitham, Angamaly Diaries, Ishq, Joseph, Guppy, and Jana Gana Mana among others was no cakewalk.
She was ‘advised’ to ‘stick’ to doing what she knew best and ‘warned’ that the move would jeopardise her costume designer career. “The privilege extended to a cinematographer or an editor when they turn director is denied to an art director, a make-up artist or a costume designer. We may all be in the spectrum of ‘creative’, but some of us are not enough. I have learnt from experience that it is very difficult to prove that you can be creative as a director,” she says.
She was also cautioned that she could lose work as a costume designer. “I had no such fears, in fact, I had to turn down a couple of films because Madhura... was in post-production. That said, I don’t take this chance (to direct a film) lightly.” The eight years spent in the industry have been a period of learning, some lessons in what to do and others in how not to be.
Ezra (2017) a supernatural horror film directed by Jayakrishnan, for which she was costume designer, is the film that got her curious about making a film. “I don’t watch horror films, and being on the set of one I was curious about how the subject would be treated. I would bombard Sujith Vaassudev, the DoP, and producer CV Sarathi, of E4 Entertainment, with questions. Amused by my love of storytelling and curiosity, Sarathi sir told me to direct films. That way I could tell as many stories as I wanted.”
To have that idea, which she had not told her closest friends, articulated was a turning point. It would be another two years till she told her friends about it.
By then, as the idea marinated in her mind, she found the confidence and the conviction to make the dream a reality.
The first person she narrated a story she wanted to make a film on was actor and friend Rajisha Vijayan in 2018. Just as everything fell into place the pandemic struck. It would be another two years when she would finally commit to a project as director. “Two of my friends, Mahesh Gopal and Jai Vishnu approached me with a script to read. They knew I was looking to direct a film, but this was not for that. When they asked who could be the lead, I suggested Rajisha. Unexpectedly I came on board as director… long story short, here we are!” she says. After a couple of false starts, the film finally started rolling in September 2022.
Contrary to the perception that her years in the industry would have made things easy for her, getting dates was not easy. “They see me as a costume designer; one of the first questions asked was ‘Has she worked as an AD (assistant director)? How good is she technically? How aware is she?’ Access, yes. But beyond that, it is not easy. That said, all the artists who are part of the project are here because they trust me.”
The Aadujeevitham experience
She carefully picked technicians and actors and meticulously planned the film, unwilling to leave anything to chance. The costume designer kicked in, “We can’t go on set and improvise… same rules as a director for me.” However, sometimes even the best-laid plans don’t pan out.
“Since filming was delayed, the original DoP had to move to his next project. That is how Chandru Selvaraj came on board, I was meeting him for the first time. He does not speak Malayalam and my Tamil is below par. I was worried about how we would communicate…but it was one of the best things to happen!” says Stephy.
One of the things Chandru told her was to not get involved with the film’s costumes because that would distract her from the job at hand, and she calls it the best advice she could have got. It was not easy, she confesses, but she worked hard to not get involved. Though the costume designer is one of her former assistants, Sanooj, she stuck to her job as director.
Although a horror film inspired her, she says she prefers to be ‘genre-free’. “Women are expected to make templated films — ‘inspirational’ stories of empowerment — but I want to tell other kinds of stories too. If given a chance, I want to make an action film or even a horror flick. I don’t want to make a movie to ‘change the world’ because I have a producer’s money. Cinema should also entertain. And if I feel so strongly about something, there is always my social media.”
She says inspiration has come from everyone she has worked with irrespective of their gender. The problems she faced along the way while making the film, had nothing to do with her gender. “I have only faced the same problems that my male filmmaker peers have.”