‘Udalaazham’ is a plea for better understanding of the third gender, says director Unnikrishnan Avala

Mani and Anumol in a still from ‘Udalaazham’

Mani and Anumol in a still from ‘Udalaazham’   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement


The film zooms in on the life of a tribal transgender and his search for identity

It’s been two years since Unnikrishnan Avala made his debut film, Udalaazham. So far it has travelled to film festivals in London, Melbourne, Madrid, Bangalore and Mumbai and was screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) last year. As another edition of the IFFK begins on December 6, Unnikrishnan is elated that the film is finally reaching theatres the same day.

“It has been a long wait and the number of theatres might be few. But what matters is that my film is releasing in theatres. Call it a filmmaker’s greed. I believe that a film becomes a complete visual experience only when it is watched in a theatre. The film festivals have been the tools to take it to a larger audience,” says Unnikrishnan.

Unnikrishnan Avala

Unnikrishnan Avala   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

He says the release got delayed as the film was scheduled to be screened at international festivals. “We started thinking about a theatre release only a few months ago. We weren’t sure how to go about it and that’s when Aashiq Abu stepped in to distribute it,” he adds.

Gender identity lies at the core of Udalaazham. Gulikan, the protagonist, grows up in a tribal community, trying to come to terms with his sexual orientation. His marriage to Mathi puts him in a dilemma because she understands his predicament and lets him be even as she falls in love with him. Conflicts within and with society force him to flee the forest, only to land in situations that are worse.

Quest for love

However, Unnikrishan says, the film is not only about a tribal transperson. “The narrative is about two people who crave for love. For them, love is a refuge and a quest. Gulikan is in constant search for an identity and stability, during the course of which he has emotional and sexual encounters,” he points out. He adds that the film is an appeal to the society to understand and accommodate people like Gulikan. Unnikrishnan asserts that the film is not entirely based on his book, Vipareetham, the biography of Raju, a tribal transperson although he has taken a few incidents from Raju’s life.

A lower primary school teacher from Perambra in Kozhikode district, Unnikrishnan has been closely following the life of the tribal population for many years now. “Writing was my comfort zone. But my friends often asked whether I was exaggerating the ground situation. That was when I thought about switching to a visual medium and made my first work, The Last Page, a documentary on three tribes,” he says. A chance encounter with Raju in Nilambur shook his conscience and that resulted in a book.

Mani and Anumol in a still from ‘Udalaazham’

Mani and Anumol in a still from ‘Udalaazham’   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Udalaazham wouldn’t have seen the light of the day but for Doctors’ Dilemma, a production house launched by three medical practitioners — Dr Manoj KT, Dr Rajesh MP, Dr Sajish M. “A consultation session eventually turned out to be a collaboration (laughs). They want to promote good cinema and were ready to support my project,” Unnikrishnan says.

Finding Gulikan wasn’t easy. “I wanted an artiste who could emote love and pain through his eyes. My search ended when I came across a photograph of Mani in a newspaper. He was engaged in road work in Kozhikode,” the director recalls.

The toughest part was getting Mani on board. The actor, who had won the State film award for the best child artist in his first film, Photographer (2006), refused to work in the film. “He was working in a ginger plantation then. The very word cinema enraged him and he told me never to call him again,” he recounts.

Mani’s wife, Pavizham, told him that after getting accolades for Photographer, Mani was looking forward to acting in more films. But that didn’t happen. “Money was not coming and his father gave up on him. Just when he got work in a Tamil film, his father was arrested in a case and Mani was unable to take it up. When another good offer from Malayalam came his way, his sister’s death prevented him from joining the sets. By then, he had married and had two children,” Unnikrishnan explains. Nevertheless, they managed to meet Mani with the help of Pavizham. After spending some time with the team, Mani relented. “I took him home and, eventually, he became a part of my family. He even translated the dialogues of the film into Paniya language, the language of his tribe,” Unnikrishnan says.

It took some time for Mani to become Gulikan because he had no idea about transpeople. So he was taken to the Koovagam Transgender Festival, where he met such individuals for the first time. After spending a few days among them, he became Gulikan. “In fact he got so involved in the character that it took a month for him to come out of it,” Unnikrishnan adds. Anumol, Indrans, Sajitha Madathil and Joy Mathew are also in the cast.

Music is a mainstay of the film, Unnikrishnan points out. “I wanted a woman composer in the project to be in tune with the theme,” he says. Singer Sithara Krishnakumar and Mithun Jayaraj have scored the songs. Among others in the crew are Bijibal (background score), Appu Bhattathiri (editor) and Renganaath Ravee (sound design). “I couldn’t have asked for a better crew. They are so experienced and accomplished that the project was in good hands,” he says.

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2019 11:21:17 PM |

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