Interview with ‘Malik’ Filmmaker Mahesh Narayanan

Malik Interview with Mahesh Narayanan - 2021 Amazon Prime Movie

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, the Malayalam-language film Malik depicts different stages in the life of an immigrant named Ahammadali Sulaiman a.k.a Alikka (Fahadh Faasil). The narrative deals with contemporary power structures while confronting violence, corruption and human connections with ease. I recently spoke to filmmaker Mahesh Narayanan about his forms of cinematic expression in Malik.

Dipankar Sarkar: How did you get interested in film editing?

Mahesh Narayanan: I live in Trivandrum, and I was born and brought up there. I got associated with the Kerala Film Festival and later I was inclined to go and study at a film school. So, I took admission to Adyar Film Institute in Chennai and studied editing. After graduating from there, I entered into the zone of editing documentaries and that was more complicated and also a very satisfying experience to get a film out of documentary than fiction. From documentary editing, I moved towards editing fiction and slowly I ventured into feature films.

DS: Did editing help you to hone your skills as a filmmaker?

MN:. Definitely. I consider editing as a craft that is very close to writing. I became a writer first and then moved into film direction. So, in that manner, I always consider [how] editing has helped me. In the last 16 years, I have been editing and whichever director I was associated with, whether they were first-timers or veterans, I would get encouragement from them. Also, in the way of telling a story, editing is a craft that has to be known and it helped me to evolve as a better filmmaker.

DS; What inspired you to write the Malik screenplay?

MN: Malik is a story that has to be told in terms of coastal politics, which always happens in Kerala. And wherever there is a coastal region in India, the person residing there is vulnerable. They have been utilized by the corporates and the politicians to move into a new home and create their propaganda. Then they get hold of the land and create events that they treat as communalism. And finally, the settlers get frustrated and it moves to exodus or genocide. This has been happening for a long time. I have been witnessing all this because I live in a coastal region and have seen lots of such events. Such kind of events [are] not meant for the region of Kerala alone. The global audiences can perceive how India uses the minority as a playing card. It can also be termed as a vote bank and how they are utilized. So then I felt that this [story] has to be told, and that is how Malik happened. 

DS: Ahammadali Sulaiman a.k.a Alikka is a strong and complex individual who works for the welfare of his townfolks. But most of his activities involve unlawful measures. So, as a writer, while developing such a tragic hero, what are the traits required to establish the viewer’s empathy for the character?

MN: I never felt that one should have empathy for the character of Sulaiman because he is a character with grey shades. I have never written black or white-shaded characters. I believe that in life, we see grey people and not black or white people. So, in that sense, if you take Sulaiman, he is a collective voice and not a singular voice. I consider this as resistance, like how a particular area started resisting the system, which is continuously utilizing them, exploiting them in different ways and sidelining them. So, I choose this particular character. Take for example Francis Ford’s Godfather Trilogy or Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan — it is all about resistance. Those films have dealt with the underworld and gangster themes, but Malik is about people protecting their land. How the politicians interfere with their things and the voice of common man needs to be heard. That is the basic idea behind writing this character. 

Malik Interview with Mahesh Narayanan - 2021 Amazon Prime Movie

DS: What was your motive behind the long take shot in the opening sequence of Malik?

MN: The film’s real timeline is 14 days. Sulaiman moves out of his house for a pilgrimage, he gets arrested at the airport and then he is put on 14 days of judicial remand. So, the story of the film is written for those 14 days. The film begins in the present day, which is 2018, whereas the rest of the story is happening with the conventional flashback tool. After a stage in the film, we see that — at present — Sulaiman is locked in a confined environment that is very claustrophobic. It is a jail cell. So, I wanted this person to have a free flow movement like he is moving freely within his house, which is quite large. But still, it is inside a ghetto and you see people coming and going in the house and how he is dealing with them. The freedom that Sulaiman enjoys is within these people. But when he is going out, he is not getting that freedom. So, the long take shot describes his way of freedom, and that was the idea. 

DS: Malik spans several decades in the life of the protagonist. So, what sort of detailing did you work on to depict the authenticity in each of the decades?

MN: First of all, this is not a biopic of Sulaiman. It is a narrative built from three perspectives. One is from the perspective of Sulaiman’s mother’s point of view, one is from his friend’s point of view and one is from Sulaiman himself. So, all these incidents are connected. If you look at the film, there are lots of moments and that is what people are saying about the periods. So, to depict those areas, we did certain kinds of detailing, like what kind of costumes the people are going to wear. Even writing-wise, you will notice that in the present generation of people who are living in that coastal town, none of them are religious at all. Only the people belonging to the old generation are religious. And the present generation wants to move out of the town because they do not have a future there. The research was also done for the film with references from the past. Regarding the geography of the film, there were no harbours at the beginning of the film but slowly harbours are getting built — coastal highways are getting built. So, things are getting built and certain kinds of agendas are getting raised from the government department and other corporate sectors. So considering all these things, we tried to establish a fictional land to tell a story with open space and an open mind to convey lots of things to the common people.

DS; As a viewer, I find Malik to be an open-ended film. Are you planning for a sequel? 

MN: No, there is no plan for a sequel. As the film ends, Roselyn is seeing a new kind of resistance. We all know that there is no hope when the corporate system rules all our governments. They aim to sabotage [these] kind of minorities and then they want to rule a certain sect with a kind of propaganda. So, some sort of resistance needs to been seen in there, and one resistance is there. That resistance is a singular voice now, but that will become a collective voice in the future. The smile on Roselyn’s face emphasizes that society is still not willing to believe in all these conspiracy theories and all the propaganda that the state is preaching. And that is why she is happy. This was the idea that I tried to convey through the film.

DS: Did the COVID-related restrictions obstruct the shooting of Malik?

MN: We finished the film before the pandemic, got it censored and [it] was ready for release in April 2020. But we could not release the film on time due to the COVID situation. Later, we could not find a proper date for the release of the film, and finding no other choice, we had to release it on the streaming platform. The stakes with films were high and the producer was also losing money. The momentum of the film was also losing, so we were left with no other choice. 

Malik Interview with Mahesh Narayanan - 2021 Amazon Prime Movie

DS: Take Off (2017) and Malik involve several characters, locations and set designs. In comparison to the two films, C U Soon (2020) appears to be a minimalist approach. So, how did the idea to make the film germinate?

MN: CU Soon was made like a home experiment from our side. It was shot after Malik. During the pandemic, we were stuck with the idea of how to make a film. Every other department had a work-from-home function. We wanted to explore [how we could] make a film out of our house. So, that was the basic idea behind the making of the film. And then we took the template of a screen-based movie. Since my film school days, I was interested in such kinds of film. There are very few films based on this concept. Such kind of film is more than a filmmaker’s film, it is an editor’s film — and in that manner, I wanted to execute this. We shot this entire exercise in 17 days. The film was not made for theatrical release. It was made for home viewing and digital streaming. It was the first film from Kerala that was produced specifically for digital streaming purposes. After that, lots of other films [were] getting produced for digital streaming. So, CU Soon was the breaking point.

DS: Both CU Soon and Malik were directly released on the OTT platform. What are your views on this current trend?

MN: It is not about the trend but the health situation which the country is going through. We need a safe environment for the public to watch a film. We do not know anything about when the situation will get normal. So, for the time being, it is good that the digital streaming platform is allowing us to recover money and stream our film in such a manner that we are reaching out to a global audience. For example, Malik has streamed in 240 countries. In that way, I am happy. But also, I have a differentiation about content that is specifically meant for a streaming platform and theatrical release. I believe that these two platforms are going to co-exist altogether in the future. If something else is going to come up, we don’t know yet. I am sure films will be released once again in the theatres. But the audience will themself decide if a particular film has to be viewed in a theatre because they have multiple choices now. The biggest challenge after the pandemic is to make content that is inviting for the people to come back to the theatre and watch it. Otherwise, they will feel that after two or three weeks, the film is getting streamed on the OTT platform and it is better to watch it there. So, that has to be overcome with good content so that people do not lose their experience from the theatres. Moreover, satisfying people in the OTT platform is more challenging than fulfilling the expectations of the audience inside a theatre. Watching a film in a theatre is a collective experience, whereas watching a film on an OTT platform is a personalized experience. People have lots of options and choices in an OTT platform. They have their remote, and they can switch, pause, rewind and [fast]-forward. A film like Malik, with a running time of two hours and forty minutes, is a minus point in terms of digital streaming. Instead of watching such a lengthy film, people might opt to binge-watch a film that finishes within one hour and 90 minutes.

DS: The three films that you have directed are also written and edited by you. So, as a filmmaker, how do you balance each of the departments?

MN: I like the craft of writing more because it is the most difficult part of the film. If the writing is done, then almost everything is sorted. Unless and until you get the budget that is required, including the other infrastructure like the cast and crew, you are settled to make a film. Production of a film is much easier than the writing process. Writing is the toughest part. All these days, I write my scripts, but I don’t know [if] I will collaborate with other writers when I am doing a film in a different language. Nowadays, my writing and editing are very parallel because I write always for my edit. So, I consider this timeline in my mind and think [about] where [the] scene is going to end, what is the purpose of this scene, where is the mid-point of this particular episode, and then [think about] how it is going to get conveyed to the audience or whether something is lacking. All these questions keep on buzzing in my ears while I am writing. Unless I am complete with my writing, I do not get into production because I am very insecure about going to the production without a screenplay.

DS: At present, are you busy with any projects?

MN: At present, I am part of a film titled Malayankunju, directed by Sajimon Prabhakar, who is my associate director. I am the writer and cinematographer of the film.

Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) 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.