In the 2021 Netflix movie Nayattu — an Indian film in the Malayalam language — the lives of three city police officers take a drastic turn when an individual from a minority community gets killed. The thrilling storyline explores the political consciousness of citizens who are urged to believe in the sanctity of the government, and to accept its actions and policies without question. Written by Shahi Kabir and directed by Martin Prakkat, Nayattu makes an unequivocal and uncompromised statement in its criticism of how the state misuses its power for electoral politics. Within India’s present sociopolitical situation, the film stands out for its unflinching representation of how media narratives affect the reputations of innocent people. I recently spoke with Nayattu’s screenwriter, Kabir, about the film’s intricate layers.
Dipankar Sarkar: Why did you decide to enter the world of filmmaking?
Shahi Kabir: I started my professional journey as a constable in the Kerala armed police battalion. The first stage of my police years was in the Reserve police camp for the reserve support for the law enforcement in the districts by maintaining law and order duties, where I was not directly involved with any incidents happening with the local people. Later, when I was posted to the local stations as a civil police officer, a new crime world was exposed to me. I was shocked at first and later realized that the conditions of the people affected by crime and such incidents took an emotional toll on me. I could not withstand these situations because they were confusing my compassionate mind. I also started getting stressed with such tiring duties. So, I thought of switching to another profession, where I rediscovered my childhood passion for cinema.
DS: Why cinema?
SK: I was an avid reader during my student life in school and college. I felt that I could narrate stories through a medium. So, I started narrating my stories to my colleagues in the police department during my free time, and gradually I started to scribble down these stories.
DS: So, are you a self-trained screenwriter?
SK: Yes. I gained most of the knowledge through YouTube videos on screenplay writing, direction and other aspects of cinema. The passion for scriptwriting was within me, so I was reading and watching movies to cultivate the same in my off-duty times.
DS: How did the journey begin?
SK: While I was making short films with a handy camera, with the help from my friends from the police department, there was a chance of meeting Malayalam actor Vinayakan. I took a chance [narrating] a story to him, which didn’t work out. He asked me to write a one-liner/synopsis with some scenes. Later, he could introduce me to his filmmaker friends.
So, I finished my first script but that was not made into a movie. Then I started writing for my second script, Joseph, and that is how my professional journey as a screenplay writer started.
DS: Joseph deals with an ex-police officer who unofficially investigates a medical racket after his ex-wife’s unexpected demise. And Nayattu follows three civil police officers who are on the run after they become involved in an accident. So, how did the genesis of both films take place?
SK: When I was discussing my first screenplay with directors working in the Malayalam film industry, one of them suggested that I should write a story based on an investigation because I had a background and experience in Police service. And that is how I wrote the screenplay for Joseph, whereas Nayattu was inspired by a real-life incident that took place in Mulanthuruthy, a south-eastern suburb of the city of Kochi in Kerala.
DS: In both films, before the inciting incidents, the principal characters are shown to be involved with the routine activities of their lives. Could you talk about it?
SK: I wanted to introduce the audiences to the world of the characters before going directly to the core dramatic events of the film. In this way, I wanted the audiences to connect to the emotional world of the character first and form a bond with them. How do the characters live their lives? What are their thought processes etc? All these factors also add depth to the characters and engage the audience when the story progresses.
DS: As the title of the film appears, in Nayattu, we are introduced to a “tug of war” sports event. What is the significance of the opening scene?
SK: In the opening of the movie. the “Tug of War” is portrayed as a metaphor to show the power struggle between the state and anti-state systems. CPO ( Civil Police Officer) Praveen, even though he belongs to the system, competes against the police team for his village club and wins the match. But eventually, [he] gets punished by higher officials and transferred to another police station, which sets the plot for the entire chain of reactions. Secondly, through that opening scene, it sets the whole premise of the film in a way, where the viewers can find various communities of the system — such as the politicians, who are interested in election campaigning irrespective of the situation, [and the] police team [who] is fighting for their pride, and the common people cheerleading for the team against the police team. So, it’s like a forecast of the upcoming events, too.
DS: A few minutes into the film, one of the protagonists, Maniyan (Joju George), fabricates evidence against a young boy. But midway through Nayattu, he gets embroiled in an accident case with no fault of his own. So, is it a result of his bad karma?
SK: Nowadays, everything is interpreted by individuals of our society based on their religious or blinds faith. In this scene, Maniyan is not intended to do that heinous act for his benefit. So, it cannot be interpreted as he got punished for his karma in the end. The evidence fabricating scene is done by Maniyan because of the strings pulled by politicians and his superiors. The function of the scene is to inform the audience that on the other side of the system, evidence becomes not only a tool to prove your innocence but at times can be used as a tool to entrap you, within the system. And during the latter part of the film, Maniyan — being a seasoned police officer — is aware that the police could fabricate his case. And this situation pushes him to prove his innocence through his suicide when he has no other alternative left.
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DS: How would you define the roles of Praveen Michael (Kunchacko Boban) and CPO Sunitha (Nimisha Sajayan) within the narrative of the film?
SK: I give my soft sides to both Praveen and Sunitha, as they are representatives of a practical thinking young generation with their struggles of existence when compared to a seasoned policeman like Maniyan. Meanwhile, Maniyan — being from a lower caste — loses his cool whenever it comes to safeguarding his family and identity in society, which are the two prized possessions of his life. Both Praveen and Sunitha had recently joined the lower ranks of the police department, and they are have hope about their future while going through the stress of duty and family matters. But after a point, they completely rely on Maniyan’s plans to overcome the crisis. But Maniyan eventually succumbs to self-immolation at the fear of losing the battle. And then Sunitha and Praveen are finally in a situation to either choose their fate over admitting the false crime charged on them or by compromising with the department to regain their jobs and lives with a bad conscience.
DS: Biju (Dineesh P) is a local political goon and a constant troublemaker. What was the purpose of him belonging to the “Dalit” community?
SK: Not only Biju — both Maniyan and Sunitha also belong to the same caste. All three have different characteristics based on their motives in life and well-being in society. Biju is neither a goon nor a constant troublemaker. His situation demands him to act extremely. He is a relative of Sunitha, with whom he is having family issues. He has been called to the police station for a casual interrogation upon Sunitha’s oral complaint.
In reality, most of the unprivileged sections of our society do not get good attention in such government organizations compared to the privileged classes. Mostly, they are treated based on their looks and appearance. So, the purpose of portraying Biju in the Dalit community is a tool to take the narrative forward. Otherwise, the issue would have got a silent burial even before it was brought to the police station itself.
DS: Maniyan’s daughter plays a very key role, not only within the story of the film but also in his life. The drastic step taken by him towards the climax speaks to his guilt. Could you share your comments?
SK: Maniyan’s father had dreamed of him becoming a singer and earning status in society. Being from an underprivileged caste, and due to the economic and socio-political fabric in those days, he ended up as a police officer in Kerala police through his hard work and struggle. Now, Maniyan was trying to fulfill his father’s unfulfilled dream, through his daughter. But he feared that the unfavorable situation will tag him as a murderer. And this will affect his hard-earned family reputation, and his daughter will be labeled as a murderer’s daughter if he fails to prove his innocence. As a seasoned officer with a long track record, he is very much aware of the fabrication level of the system that he belongs to. On the other hand, he fears that his family also will be under constant surveillance and torture until the system fulfills its needs. Finally, by committing suicide, he proclaims his innocence to society so that he can save the future and happiness of his daughter.
DS: A punch is delivered in the election scene at the end. Could you talk about the scene?
SK: The election scene at the end is used to portray the changed mindset of the masses in a democratic system. These days, the voters are voting blindly for their leaders according to the general opinion created by the politicians. It is done effectively with the help of a system and corrupted media that distract the masses from reality. Thus, elections are won by setting strategies planted by a political entity that diverts the real issues from the masses, rather than an unbiased assessment of the system.
DS: What was the particular reason behind the open-ended climax of the film?
SK: The ending of Nayattu was written in such a way that not only would the audience would get carried away with the emotions of the characters, but also open up their perspective on the current political tug of war scenarios. Thus, the open-ended climax of Nayattu acts as a narrative tool to haunt the conscience of the viewers and make them think about the society they are living in, using their perception and interpretation, rather than any forced resolutions or conclusions by the makers of the film.
DS: Do you have any plans to direct a feature film?
SK: Yes, I am going to direct a film soon and talks are going on with prospective individuals. Due to the second wave of the pandemic, the process has been delayed. But it will get announced soon, hopefully.
Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.